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When you find no shelter from the storm

Chapter Text

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. 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.

Her father 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 –”

“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 got out of bed and 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 his absence of expression 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, who would be tried 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 –”

“Yes.”

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 yourself 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"?

Chapter Text

Olivia spent the next few weeks getting used to her new life in the Residence. She couldn’t honestly call herself a prisoner – she hadn’t been to school since Miles was convicted, but then, she had no wish to go. She could imagine the whispers, the sidelong glances, the final disappearance of all her friends. It was far better to stay in the Residence and pretend to study.

She had the freedom of the East Wing of the Residence, its vast library and the gardens around it, but she hardly used that freedom. This had been her favorite place in the world as a child; she’d spend the whole year looking forward to a peaceful summer in the Residence with Gregor. Now it just drove her mad.

In spare moments, which she had in abundance, she fretted about her father. In her mind she laid out the so-called evidence of his involvement in the so-called treason, the votes that had fallen against Miles, the stupid, pointless, disastrous fast-penta allergy. All this, she thought in one of her fits of anger against ImpSec, could have been avoided if only the famously paranoid Captain Negri hadn’t given her father the allergy before sending him to war at Escobar, all those years ago. But surely, they could not hurt him, allergy or no – that would be more than a match to start the forest fire, that would be a plasma cannon.

Her fear for her father was matched only by terror for Miles. She knew an ImpSec team had been sent to the mercenaries’ last known location. If Miles was brought back to Barrayar, the law demanded that the Counts’ sentence be carried out without delay. Miles, she thought every day, what are you doing out there? How is Mother supposed to find you before ImpSec does? Why didn’t you come home?

She could watch the news on the comconsole – but she knew how useless those crisp, soothing public announcements were. She’d watched Captain Illyan write them in the past. Instead she would sit quietly in corners of the kitchens or the cleaning rooms until she was spotted, or wander within earshot of the women who cleaned the halls in the mornings. Silence became more than a shield; it was her only link to the outside world. If she was quiet and unnoticed she might catch bits of news; the only problem was, news was far outstripped by rumor. Miles was captured; Miles had fled along with his supposed accomplices; the fleet had surrendered and turned its Admiral over to the Imperium; the fleet had disappeared into some dark wormhole to plot more treason…

Through all this, she did not see Gregor. She waited, torn between anger and betrayal and hope that he at least would tell her the truth, even if it was bad news. Yet as the weeks passed, Gregor did not come near her.

Well, it was hardly strange that Gregor had no time for her; he certainly had enough to keep him busy. Every day he seemed to turn his government further inside out, replacing another under-minister or military aide. The outcome was clearly visible. When the Emperor now appeared before the public gaze, the men who surrounded him were those who had fought neither at Escobar nor in the Cetagandan Wars, who owed no life or loyalty to House Vorkosigan.

Equally visible was the reaction. Olivia herself saw Commodore Lord Vorbretten nearly come to blows with Admiral Hessman on the Residence steps, before Gregor’s armsmen separated them. The Fourth Fleet had been ordered to Komarr to guard the shipping lanes, and had not moved an inch; three of Admiral Reid's capital ships had developed an array of problems with their necklin drives.

There had been a time, not so long ago, when the military had ruled Barrayar in all but name. That might no longer be the case in theory, but the tension drawn in the shoulders of every senior officer she glimpsed made Olivia wonder.

Gregor, what are you thinking? The boy she had grown up with had always been quiet, especially beside hyperactive Miles, but that silence had held kindness, and patience, and trust. When did you change so much? And how did I miss it?

And what are all of you doing?

She had to know what was going on. If no one would tell her, she decided, she’d find out on her own. Not that she expected to succeed, but she’d go mad if she didn’t do something, and, she thought angrily, it really wasn’t as though she could make things any worse.

***

At night, Olivia sat by her bedroom door and listened to the steady rhythm of the guard pacing up and down the corridor, until she knew exactly where he was. When he was halfway to the end of the corridor with his back to her door, she opened it and slipped out, soundlessly entering the meeting room three doors down. She stood behind the closed door and shut her eyes, picturing the layout of this wing, remembering the positions of the guards. It had proved more difficult to learn to do this for the Residence than for Vorkosigan House, but in the end it was the same trick on a larger scale.

You don’t need a chip in your head to remember things that ordinary people don’t, Illyan’s calm voice explained in her mind. You just need practice.

She waited until she knew that she would not be seen; then it was the balcony, and the library window, which alone on that floor was not force-shielded, and the passage behind the third bookshelf. ImpSec had taught her and Miles the way into almost every secret passage in the Residence when they had stayed here, and over the years they'd figured out a few more they weren't supposed to know. All the security codes had changed after the Regency, but some of the internal ones were old and unused enough that Olivia could still get into them. She doubted anyone on Barrayar had ever thanked Mad Dono Vorrutyer for his unique approach to architecture as sincerely as she did now.

For the last few nights, she had found a hiding-place behind a small alcove in the green sitting-room, where she knew some of the senior officers held late meetings. She'd heard some military gossip but nothing helpful, and once come very close to being caught – by this point she was fantasizing about getting into the one that opened into the Prime Minister’s office, the one with locks so complicated that even Miles had never figured out how to open them.

But tonight, as she made her way through the passage in silence, she heard a voice. 

“… and that shipment of gravitic mines you asked after is here. Mark 16s from Vervain, with the newest stealth, better than what the Cetas have – that ought to keep the Fleet happy –”

A softer voice, further away. Olivia strained to hear. “…as if anything will. We’d be fools to arm the Fleet further just now. I’d rather keep them in storage…”

Hardly interesting. She was about to move on when the voice spoke again, this time much closer.

"… not as secure as ImpSec headquarters." Olivia shrank back, recognizing the voice at last. Admiral Hessman. "Besides, there's the risk in the transfer."

"We can't keep him in HQ any longer, sir." She recognized the first voice now - that was Colonel Haroche. Illyan's replacement. He sounded too nervous, Olivia thought; a man who was out of his depth, and knew it, but didn’t dare admit it. "He has too many men loyal to him in that building. Who knows what contingencies he planned for? Move him to Yervada quietly and no one need know."

Olivia held her breath. She knew that name; it was a prison on the outskirts of the city. "When?"

"Midnight, in three days. The most secure cell in the building."

Hessman muttered something under his breath. "Very well, then. And what did the surgeons say?"

“Extracting it won’t be a problem, sir. But they’re not sure they can read information off it. It’s part biological - it was built to adapt to his brain, within limits.”

“Try harder, Colonel.” Hessman’s answering voice was sharper. “Try harder. And when it’s time for the sentence to be carried out, make sure you have the proper witnesses. We want no inconvenient questions asked later.”

Haroche’s answered voice was offended. “I do my duty, sir.”

“Indeed.” Steps paced away, and when Hessman next spoke, it was much softer. “You are a man of duty, Colonel, even when it is personally difficult… that is what Emperor Gregor needs in these trying times. I see no reason he would not confirm you …”

She heard their steps as they walked past her hiding place, out of her hearing. Olivia waited until they were gone, then made her way back to her room as quietly as she could. If that meant what she thought it meant…

The next morning, she took out her old, long-forgotten box of needlework and sat with it for several hours. She quickly regretted not keeping up with her lessons – what would have once taken her half an hour ended up taking three, after countless unpicked stitches and pricked fingers. She frowned at the finished product. Well, quality was the last thing that mattered, now. 

There was a formal reception in the Residence that night - which Olivia was not, of course, meant to attend. Instead she went for a walk. She put on her coat, a long brown one that came from the Dendarii mountains - too heavy for the Capital’s weather - and walked along the balcony that ran the length of the second floor, looking down onto Emperor Ezar’s ornamental gardens.

As she completed her circuit, she could see the lit windows of the Red Room, below her in the next wing of the building. She slipped out of the coat and stood, looking down at the huge windows. She could make out the shadows moving back and forth behind them. The appearance of normality seemed to be prominently on display; even in crisis, with everyone preparing for the worst, the Vor would take care to look like they were enjoying a party.

She left the coat hanging over the balcony railing, visible under a light, and made her way down the stairs to the gardens. A couple of ImpSec guards watched her from the shadows, but they didn’t interfere as she sat down to rest on a bench by the pond. 

Olivia always carried food for the fish. She tossed some in the water, where it hit the surface with a loud splash. The Dendarii swordfish, swimming languidly in their paths a moment ago, were suddenly all over each other, tearing and biting. Just like Barrayaran politics, her mother's dry voice said in her mind.

Olivia sat and watched silently. After a time, a woman's silhouette was visible through the windows, holding a glass and speaking to a man - a Vor officer, with two swords at his belt.

After five minutes Olivia got up and went back the way she had come. She did not look over her shoulder.

Glancing down from a higher window later, she saw two figures enter the garden. Lady Alys was talking to - Lord Vorkalloner, yes, he was of Vordrozda's party - they reached the bench, and Aunt Alys sat down where Olivia had been. Vorkalloner stood over her for a while, speaking. After a few minutes they got up again and left. Olivia couldn't see, but she knew that the ribbon she had left on the branch above the bench was no longer there.

When Olivia had turned ten, Lady Alys, who had no daughters of her own, had taken it on herself to teach her niece what she politely described to Olivia’s mother as ‘a lady’s skills’. It was, after all, universally acknowledged that Olivia’s mother was hopeless with anything that involved a needle - not needle-guns, Olivia had thought, but hadn’t said. Lady Vorkosigan had rolled her eyes and predicted that Olivia would run away after a week, but Grandfather Count Piotr had thoroughly approved.

Olivia suspected her mother had never found out exactly what Lady Alys’s teaching methods involved. After the first month Olivia knew how to encode an enemy ghem-lord’s identity in silk ribbon, with patterns for dead, bought, dangerousand a dozen others. By her eleventh birthday, she knew every means that the young Alys Vorlightly’s grandmother had once used to pass information from the Cetagandan-occupied capital to Piotr Vorkosigan’s mountain resistance.

Tonight Olivia could see nothing in Lady Alys’s manner to suggest that she was walking on a rapidly fraying political tightrope. That was just as well; even if the married Countess Vorkosigan could not be charged with treason, the widowed Lady Vorpatril could certainly be.

***

The morning scheduled for Captain Illyan’s sentencing was gray and cloudy. Looking out of her force-shielded window, Olivia counted the extra guards around the Residence. 

She had barely picked at her breakfast that morning, remembering Illyan reading her to sleep with ImpSec versions of fairy tales, Illyan teaching her memory exercises, making believe she was one of his agents. She wondered if he’d been given the chance to defend himself, or if his trial had been as much of a farce as the one the Counts had given Miles.

And Miles… the pillars in the center of the Great Square were still empty, and she didn’t know if any word had come. Rumors, of course, abounded.

She was interrupted by a sharp knock at her door. “Come in,” she said. 

A liveried man entered first, looked around, and held the door open. Expecting the Emperor at last, Olivia stood up. Only then did she register the colors he wore.

Olivia stood absolutely still, and said nothing, as Prime Minister Count Stefan Vordrozda entered the room.

To her continued astonishment, Vordrozda dismissed his bodyguard. The armsman hesitated, but a second, sharper look from Vordrozda sent him out. He closed the door behind him, casting a strange glance at Olivia as he left her alone with her greatest enemy.

“Lady Olivia,” Vordrozda murmured, bowing slightly to her. From his attitude they might just have been presented to each other at the Winterfair Ball. Vordrozda’s brown hair was perfectly arranged, his House uniform crisp and tailored to the millimeter. He stood before Olivia like a man who owned the world, a man born to success; a man for whom everything was falling into place. I hate him.

He went on. “I wish to offer you my sincere apologies.”

Whatever Olivia had been expecting, it wasn’t that. “You - what?”

“My lady,” Vordrozda said. “Believe me, I hold no grudge against your family. It was purely by chance that I happened to discover your brother’s actions at Tau Verde. I have done my duty to the Imperium in reporting the treason of your father and brother, and I do not regret it. But –" his eyes fixed on her with sudden intensity - "you are not a traitor, and it grieves me to know that you too are suffering because of me."

Olivia could only stare at him.

Vordrozda waved a hand to take in the rooms. “You are being held hostage for your family’s good behavior; you are practically a prisoner here through no fault of your own. With your name tainted, your life cannot be, will not be pleasant. I regret this, and I have come to ask if there is anything I can do to help you.”

You can die, she thought silently. And you will. Both my parents have killed such men as you before... Politely, she answered, “You can stand before the Council of Counts, my lord, and take back the false charges that you have laid against my House. That would help me very much.”

Vordrozda bowed his head in acknowledgement. “I expected no less loyalty from a daughter of House Vorkosigan. I believe that you had no knowledge of your father and brother’s plot…”

No, Olivia thought, clamping down on the words she wanted to say. I must find out what he wants.

“It can’t be true,” she said. She let her voice tremble a little. “What - what you said about them in the Council. I don’t believe it. I will not believe it.” 

Vordrozda smiled then, and sat down in the chair opposite her. Gently, he said, “But you do know that your brother commanded a fleet of mercenaries, my lady. That is treason in itself, much though I wish for your sake that it was not.”

He spoke well, with a pleasant voice and a kindly air. Only the smile never reached his eyes. "Vorloupulous's law was not the charge you brought, my lord. My brother never intended to usurp the Imperium. Nor my father."

"Then what other use for a fleet, my lady? What other use for the thousands of marks that remain unaccounted for even now? What other reason not to appear for the trial when summoned? If you know, tell me, and you will see the charges lifted." Olivia looked away.

Vordrozda tilted his head, examining her with a gaze that felt as if she was being picked apart. “You are – worried? Afraid? There’s no need to pretend otherwise. I beg that you will let me help you in this. I could ensure that you see your father before the trial, at least. Or – is it your brother for whom you fear? But his fleet seems to have scattered, and ImpSec does not know where he is.”

Olivia had to hold her hands still, to keep her fists from clenching. Why? Why does he tell me secrets that I should not hear? What does he hope to get?

Vordrozda gentled his voice again. “I know you have no reason to think well of me. I hope I might change that. Perhaps… Lady Olivia, have you given any thought to the future of your district?”

It took a minute for Olivia to understand. "No," she whispered. Father, Miles, even Ivan… she was a fool not to have thought of it. She had feared their deaths – but this was the extinction of the entire legacy of House Vorkosigan.

"Should your father be convicted," Vordrozda continued, "well... I advised the Emperor to show mercy in your brother's case, but he did not listen then. I am not sure he would listen now. You know the penalty... I believe that there are no close male relatives to claim the title, but there are several lords with distant claims. Some are already gathering support among the Counts."

Olivia could feel color rising in her face. The trial hadn’t even started! But knowing the Council of Counts and her Vorrutyer relatives, it wasn’t surprising at all. “And, my lord?”

“In such unsettled times, a conflict over the future of the Vorkosigan countship is the last thing anyone wants,” Vordrozda continued. “I am sure you don’t; it would do no one any good and great harm to your people. So I have spent some time looking up precedents that might be of use. I wondered if you knew the story of the fourth Count Vorpinski?”

Olivia shook her head. “No? Well, let me tell you.” Vordrozda leaned back in his chair with the air of an uncle about to tell a favorite fairy tale. "Around four hundred years ago, the fourth Count Vorpinski died without a son. Well, I say died, he was pushed off the roof – but that is beside the point. He had four daughters and twenty or so male cousins, all of whom started fighting - with armies - for his title. Eventually, simply to stop the bloodshed, the Council executed the surviving cousins and granted the district as a Regency to his eldest daughter. In time, she married and gave the title to her husband, who became the fifth Count."

He leaned forward in his chair, meeting her eyes with what looked like disturbing frankness. “Lady Olivia. At this moment, your House has no heir. Even if your brother and cousin escape ImpSec all their lives, they can never return here to inherit. But you might be able to.”

Olivia couldn’t help it. She stared outright, her mouth falling open. “As if they’d give it to me!”

Vordrozda leaned forward, perhaps sensing that he had a hook at last. “But I would help. Deny association with your family’s plot and you could find support. Some of the Conservatives might not like it, but they will understand how necessary it is for peace. If you wish it, I will speak to them.”

Olivia tried to understand – and failed. It made no sense. "Why would you want that?"

Vordrozda sighed. "I wish you would believe that I truly feel guilty. House Vorkosigan is a great and noble line, and I would not want it to end because of me, especially under these circumstances. You and your children, I believe, will someday restore honor to your family’s name."

I will see your name dragged so far into the mud that five generations will not restore its honor, Olivia promised, but she was shaken. Once I figure out what you're up to.

Vordrozda’s palms were open, inviting. “I know you feel helpless here. Who would not? You have done nothing to deserve it, and Vorkosigans have never been people to enjoy sitting back and doing nothing. We could be allies, even friends, if you would only trust my good intentions.”

He would not leave without an answer. Olivia stared at her hands. You’re Vor. remember that.

She looked up. “You are offering me a great deal, my lord,” she said carefully. “And I am grateful for it. But not one of those things is actually in your power to grant.”

“Not formally, no.” Vordrozda smiled at her. “But Gregor doesn’t come here, does he? Not visited once?”

Do you watch Gregor so closely, to know when he visits another wing in his own Residence? Or do you now tell him who to talk to? “Gregor will do nothing if you don’t ask,” Vordrozda said quietly. “And I can ask on your behalf.”

Olivia watched him, trying to come up with her next step. In the space of five minutes, Vordrozda had managed to offer her everything she wanted. Even things she hadn’t known she wanted. Safety. Friendship. Communication with her parents. The chance to be doing something. The entire District.

All she had to do was trust him.

Is this how he won over Gregor? But why me? What power have I that he could hope to gain by association?

“My lord?” They both looked up. A young man in ImpSec uniform stood in the doorway, wide-eyed and a little pale. He came forward and whispered in Vordrozda’s ear. Vordrozda listened for a moment, and then his whole face changed. “What did you say?” he demanded, rising to face the startled aide.

Olivia reared back herself, shocked. Vordrozda looked deadly, venomous, his lips parted in furious rage, fists clenched by his side. One hand moved to his tunic pocket, a reflex action quickly suppressed. 

“My lord -” stammered the aide. “I don’t know the details - just come in – Colonel Haroche is in the Situation Room, sir –” 

Vordrozda spun around and marched out of the room, pushing the man out of his way.

And then, with horrifying certainty, Olivia knew what he wanted.

The aide swallowed, then moved to follow the Prime Minister, but in doing so he caught Olivia’s eyes. She looked back at him steadily, recognizing him as one who had often stood at the Count her father’s side. He glanced down and hurried out of the room.

She fell into the chair and buried her face in her hands as soon as the door was closed, thinking desperately. Her mind ran back and forth through the family tree her grandfather had drilled into her as a child, tracing confirmed and unconfirmed lines of descent. Vadim Vorbarra’s second son had been killed by Dorca in the war of succession; it was from him that the Dowager Countess Vordrozda claimed descent. If Count Vordrozda sought more than just the Prime Minister’s power – if he had ambitions for the Imperium – then he must trace his ancestry through the female line, and there were others who might do that and come out ahead of him; others such as Aral Vorkosigan. Even if Vordrozda eliminated her father, brother and cousin, that still left Olivia herself, or more to the point, her future sons. The female line.

Who else was in that line? Vortaine – but Lord Vortaine was old and ill, and Olivia had heard of his health decaying in the last few months – since Vordrozda began his rise to power, she thought with a shiver. Was she next, after he was done with her father? Would he find a way for her to die too, before she could have children to threaten him? Or did he plan something else?

Perhaps he even meant to have Aral Vorkosigan’s minor daughter appointed Regent of his district; indeed, why not? What could she do to him? And then eventually, arrange for the Emperor to meet with an accident. Then... marry the last Vorkosigan heir, hold two Districts, and declare his claim to the Imperium through both lines?

Today had been the kind approach, but she had caught a glimpse of the Count's darker nature. And there had been intelligence behind those eyes, too. How many birds had he killed with one stone? If she guessed right, he had somehow removed a rival to the Imperium in Ivan, then used Ivan's disappearance as evidence against Miles, then used Miles’ conviction as evidence to accuse her father, then used her father's supposed treason to replace him as Prime Minister... was she destined to be another link in that ever-expanding chain?

Pity, she thought, horrified. That was pity I saw, in his armsman's eyes. And Lady Alys, of course, had seen it from the first day.

Until now, Olivia had felt nothing for Count Vordrozda but hatred. Now, for the first time, she was truly frightened. She sat alone all that day, tracing Vor law and ancient precedents and the twisted genealogy of House Vorbarra until she was half-sick with tension. 

Lost in her thoughts, she heard a voice from the corridor. “I don’t care where you have to pull the men from, you’ll double the guard on the entire building, and do it now! Do you have the slightest idea what that man knows?”

Olivia sat up, hardly daring to breathe. She’d actually forgotten.

She ran to her comconsole and switched on the news. If that meant what she thought it meant, even the official channels wouldn’t be able to ignore it.

The report was obviously edited for the public, but the meaning was clear. The former Chief of ImpSec, Captain Simon Illyan, had been found guilty of treason – but he had not been executed. His prison cell had been found empty in the morning.

Olivia rested her head on the comconsole, and held back tears.

***

It took ImpSec a full forty-eight hours to realize that Lady Alys Vorpatril had also disappeared. That was when the crisis truly hit.

Olivia no longer crept out of her room at night, nor did she try to go anywhere near the secret passage. She now watched armed men standing guard over the library bookshelf, even sealing up a paving stone on the lawn.

She glimpsed Vordrozda several times, always accompanied by his own armsmen. He spent all his time working in the Prime Minister’s Office on the ground floor of the Residence, having abandoned the larger one in the South Block over the Great Square. His green and gold livery was now as prominent in the Residence as Gregor’s own, a clear sign of trust.

She kept to herself as much as possible, avoiding any chance of meeting him. The words Gregor had spoken, that first day, drummed in her head whenever she caught sight of him. Ward of the Imperium, not of Gregor Vorbarra only. Her safety, sanity, everything hung on one nail. Her existence had never seemed so fragile.

And now, with Lady Alys’s mysterious disappearance, she did not even have the comfort of a friend in the Residence. Gregor seemed to have given up his public Imperial appearances, and remained within the walls of the Residence all day long; but even so he seemed to have no interest in crossing the building to speak to her.

The only thing that reassured her were the words her aunt had whispered that first day. We will get you out of this snake pit as soon as we can.

***

Three weeks before the trial, Olivia put her hand into her dresser drawer, looking for pins, and found silk instead. She drew it out, just far enough to see the blue and gold thread slashed across it.

Vorpatril colors. And Illyan. It had to be Illyan, to have smuggled this into the Residence. She let her fingers run across it, feeling each perfectly placed knot. It told her very little - a location in the Residence, a date, and a time.

The east entrance, midnight, three days hence. Olivia clutched the silk tightly, feeling a smile spread across her lips all by itself. No security system, not even that of the Residence, was Illyan-proof. They meant to bring her out.

***

Olivia could not sleep on the night of her intended escape. She tossed and turned all night, planning, wondering, her half-dreams filled with tension. If all went well – no, it had to go well, this might be their only chance. By dawn, then, she would be out of the Residence. Perhaps out of Vorbarr Sultana, or more likely, off Barrayar altogether. Whatever happened now, she would be safe from Count Vordrozda and his machinations, as her parents had intended.

Late at night she left her room and made her way down to the ground floor. Her thoughts were still turning around the subject of escape, and safety, and her mother, and she forgot to pay attention until she heard a guard’s footsteps coming round the corner. Then she realized that she hadn’t bothered thinking of an excuse, in case anyone asked what she was doing wandering around the Residence in the middle of the night.

She opened the closest door, slipped through it, and shut it softly behind her - before realizing that the room wasn’t empty.

Emperor Gregor turned to look at her from across the room. Olivia froze.

For a moment they only stared at each other across the shadowed study, lit by a single lamp on the desk next to Gregor. Papers were scattered all over the polished surface of the desk; from where she stood, Olivia could barely make out the seal of the Council of Counts.

“Sire,” she said, wondering how she could get away. She glanced around for the Vorbarra armsmen, but there were none in sight. In a moment of discomfiture she realized that Gregor, too, had snuck out of his room. “Excuse me. I didn’t mean to disturb you. I’ll –” 

She was halfway out of the room when Gregor raised his hand. “No,” he said. “Wait.” 

Olivia paused. Now you want to talk?

“Are you…” Gregor seemed at a loss for words, just looking at her. “Are you all right, Olivia?”

“I don’t know how you could even imagine that I would be all right, Gregor,” she returned, and Gregor fell silent.

Olivia waited, glancing up to the antique clock on the wall, counting off the minutes till midnight. Abruptly, Gregor said, “you haven’t once asked me to grant mercy. Not for Miles, or…”

Olivia shook her head.

“Why not?” Gregor asked quietly.

Olivia didn’t know how to answer. She would not ask, because she knew Gregor would not understand - between her understanding and Gregor’s there lay a small space fleet and a large sum of money and who knew what other evidence Vordrozda had put before him since. But even if it had been otherwise, she would not have asked. She wanted to see her father and Miles vindicated, not pardoned.

“Because,” she hesitated, watching Gregor. “Because you can’t grant it, can you?” she said at last. “You’re the Emperor. You have to uphold the law, and follow what the evidence says – and you can’t grant any favors, show any partiality, because it’s not about you, it’s about the safety of the Empire. You’ve got no choice but to go out there and do what looks like your duty, and you’re frightened of what will happen when you do it, and there will be blood when it’s over, and that’s not what you ever wanted…”

She trailed off. Gregor’s face had paled at her words; abruptly, he turned away from her. Olivia saw his shoulders trembling.

He was crying, she realized with a shock. She hadn’t seen Gregor cry since… since, oh, so long ago. He’d been so composed throughout the hunt with Count Piotr, every inch the proper Vor lord, even bringing down a stag by himself. Only afterwards, when everyone except Olivia had praised him and left, had he cried.

Relief flooded through her, almost bringing tears to her eyes as well. He hadn’t changed. He hadn’t. This was the same Gregor who had cried that day, who’d left his studies to help her build snowmen in the garden, who had sat with her by the lake at Vorkosigan Surleau and talked so earnestly about what he wanted for his Empire. 

Impulsively, she crossed the room to Gregor and hugged him as she used to do, back then. Gregor’s eyes flew open, and he rocked back on his feet for an instant, startled. Then he seemed to collapse suddenly, his arms closing around her.

“I don’t want any of this,” Gregor whispered in her ear.

“I believe you.” Gregor had held such hopes for his reign, of all the things he would do after he turned twenty. She saw him clearly now, standing amid his own shattered dreams and trying to protect something from the shards. How many nights had he sat up like this, trying to find some way out of the mess they were all trapped in?

For the first time since she had entered the Residence, Olivia realized that she was not a hostage, and never had been. Gregor meant to shelter her, as the Vorkosigans had sheltered him through the Pretender’s War. Gregor still thought of her as the baby.

Gregor spoke. “I don’t want to do any of this, Olivia, and they all say I must, the law must take its course, and I can’t. I won’t. He knows. Let him only plead guilty in the trial, and I will end it there, all of it, and I don’t care what they say, or if they think I’m weak, or…”

Olivia let Gregor cling to her, and to his desperate hope. It would not happen, she knew. Aral Vorkosigan would not confess to treason, whatever Gregor might promise and Vordrozda might threaten.

Resting her head under Gregor’s chin, Olivia remembered her conversation with the Count, all her suspicions. It was not her Vordrozda plotted against, nor even her father; they were merely obstacles between him and the true target of all his plots. He had not struck Olivia as a patient man. Already he would be spreading his influence among Gregor’s government, his courtiers, even his guards. 

She raised her eyes and found Gregor looking down at her with unguarded relief, blinking away his earlier tears. “You don’t -” he said, almost in wonder. “Olivia, I thought – I didn’t want to - how can you not hate me?”

“I don’t hate you,” Olivia told him, and meant it. “You’re doing what you think is right. I'm sorry you're doing it, and I'd stop you if I could, but I don't hate you for it.”

Gregor blinked at her for a moment, then, to her surprise, laughed out loud. “Thank you for that blunt honesty, at least. It’s been a while since I had any of that.”

Perhaps there is hope, then, if you can still appreciate its worth. “It’s been a while since you spoke to me at all, Gregor.”

“I’m sorry,” he said solemnly, holding her hands between his own once again. “I will now, I promise. And I hope, Olivia, that you will always stay that honest with me.”

“I will, Sire,” she replied, without thinking, because this was Gregor, and only minutes later did she realize what it meant.

She could not leave. Family came before safety, and Gregor was family. He needed protection more than any of them, even if he didn’t know it, and he had no one.

Midnight ticked by.

Chapter Text

Olivia watched from a distant window as the last few groundcars pulled up in front of the Residence. A few Ministers in their formal purple robes waited on the steps to greet the guests. She frowned, looking down at their heads. No Aunt Alys, of course. Nor could she see Deputy Prime Minister Quintillan, to whom this duty normally fell. No, Vordrozda had found a way to place his allies there. Gregor might think he was displaying his own authority; how many of his guests would see Vordrozda’s growing power underneath?

She sensed a movement beside her, quiet and unobtrusive, and she turned to look at Gregor. “Sneaking out of your own party?”

“You caught me.” Gregor sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. “I need a minute to breathe. It’s like a pack of wolves in there.” He waved in the direction he had come. “The most finely controlled, elegantly orchestrated battle I could imagine.”

A roomful of politicians whose hierarchy had been overturned, Olivia thought. All testing each other’s strength, all preparing to stab each other in the back for a place in the new regime. Of course Gregor would hate it.

Gregor was frowning distantly at the paving stones below. “There are men in there with four decades’ service,” he said, his voice tired. “Men of more battles and medals than I have years, and all I have is a year on a ship where I wasn’t allowed to get so much as a scratch. They’ll say the right words, but when my back is turned, they’ll whisper against me. And there’s the last thing I needed,” he added, as a man in flowing blue robes swept up the steps with a confident and serene gait, entirely out of place. “I – I am glad, to get out. Stefan said he could handle things for five minutes.”

Did he, now? It was imperative that she get Gregor back, then. Olivia put a hand through his arm. “I’m sure you can handle them,” she said, encouraging. “That’s Ambassador Ghem Estanis, isn’t it? Remember when he was here after the last war, trying to get us to revoke our wormhole tariffs?”

“Oh, yes.” They both grinned for a moment, remembering that particular incident. Gregor had played his grandfather’s old war exploits to the fullest, and the Cetagandan had been humiliated so thoroughly that he had painted his face in the ghem-colors for contrite apology for the next two weeks. “But Lady Vorpatril always knew everything. What to say, to whom, how they would react. I get those briefings from ImpSec now.”

And Vordrozda will take advantage of that to tell you whatever he wants you to know. “You didn’t always do what she said, though,” Olivia reminded him. “You’re more than the sum of your advisors, Gregor. You always were.” She met his eyes, trying to summon up some confidence. “Just – go in, and put a confident face on it. They all put their hands between yours. Remember that.”

“I suppose so.” They reached the private entrance to the Red Room, and Gregor turned back to her. “Stefan thought it would be better for you if I left you alone,” he whispered. “But I’m so glad I can talk to you now, Olivia. You have no idea how much I need one clean sane person near me.” He put his hands firmly on her shoulders. “They may be a pack of wolves, all of them – but I swear none of their plots will touch you. You'll be safe.”

Olivia closed her eyes. Oh, Gregor. If only I could show you the truth. She was conscious, then, of how horribly fragile this last friendship was. Any day ImpSec finally caught up to Miles, he would be chained in the Great Square to starve to death. That was the law. Could she and Gregor look at each other, with that horror between them?

From the look on Gregor's face, he was asking the same thing, and coming up with no better answer. “Do you want to watch for a while?” he said softly. “I know you always enjoyed this sort of thing much more than me.” He gestured to a side door. “You can go up to the balcony, if you’d like. I don’t think anybody will see you there.”

Olivia nodded, managing to smile. Gregor waved her up.

Olivia slipped onto the empty balcony overlooking the Red Room, and pulled back the curtains just far enough to see the top of everyone’s heads. There were fifty or so people milling around on the magnificent parqueted floor. Drou Koudelka was there, greeting the Cetagandans; to Olivia’s eyes her movements seemed awkward, uneasy. And of course, there was Count Vordrozda. He had taken advantage of Gregor’s absence, as she suspected. The room was arranged in knots and circles around him, forming and reforming as he moved; stopping to speak to a lone guest, insinuating himself into a conversation, laughing at a careless remark.

Aunt Alys wouldn’t have let that happen. She would have been moving steadily from guest to guest, keeping track of every conversation in the room, ruthlessly rearranging them to her will. Drou Koudelka, a prole married to a man in a disgraced party, did not have that power.

She saw Gregor enter the room, apparently more confident than before. Vordrozda moved to him at once; the patterns shifted, except for one. Olivia’s eyes narrowed. Another dark head on the opposite end of the room, a tall figure in undecorated military uniform; that was Gregor’s friend from school, Count Henri Vorvolk – wait, wasn’t he supposed to be at the Academy? Ivan is supposed to be at the Academy...

She pushed that thought away, watching Count Vordrozda. She hated the way Vordrozda spoke to Gregor; leaning close beside him, gesturing with graceful hands, whispering in his ear. Here and now, he is winning. She tried to help Gregor, but how could she interfere, when all that Gregor wanted her to do was stay safe?

A pair of hands grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her back, sweeping the curtain to cover her from sight. A voice hissed in her ear. “Olivia!”

“What the – Delia?” Olivia squirmed out of Delia Koudelka’s grip.

Delia smoothed her golden hair back. “Are you okay? I’m sorry! I wanted to come and see you, I wanted to call Gregor and make him let me come see you, but Mama wouldn’t let me, even though I don’t see what –”

“Delia – slow down! Do your parents know you’re here?”

“Ha!” Delia’s expression was stubborn. “Mama told me to stay out of the way, so that’s what I’m doing. She just didn’t say where.”

Olivia glanced back at the curtains. Drou Koudelka had certainly seemed too busy – and too worried – to be keeping track of her daughter’s whereabouts. “And your father?”

“Da? Do you really think he’d be here? He didn’t even want mama to come. He called Count Vordrozda a...” Delia stopped, her eyes darting around fearfully. “I can’t say it, Tante Alys would kill me.”

“We’re on an empty balcony. Behind a curtain. And she’s not even in the building.”

Delia looked unimpressed. “She’d kill me anyway. Anyway, Mama told Da he mustn’t say that, it could be heard, and he said he bloody well hoped it was, and that didn’t go well.” She leaned closer to Olivia. “But Da’s right. We are getting rid of that creep, aren’t we?”

Olivia almost laughed. This isn't a book, Delia, she wanted to say. This is real. He's the Prime Minister, you and I are teenage girls, and we're helpless before him.

“Yes,” she said, instead, clutching Delia’s hands in hers. “Yes. I just don't know how.”

*** 

A week passed; with each day that went by, Olivia could see Count Vordrozda’s influence spreading, could see Gregor growing more and more distant, his shoulders bowing under the weight of his tension. And Vordrozda was always one step behind him; respectful, sympathetic, offering to shoulder more of Gregor’s burdens.

There were only ten days to the trial now. No session had been held yet, but a trial in the Council of Counts needed preparation, and the Lord Guardian and several of the Counts were now meeting in committee in Vorhartung Castle. Olivia began to see many of those Counts in the Residence - Vorvolk, Vorhalas, Vorfolse... not one of them looked pleased, and most of them looked worse when they left the Residence than when they came. 

Of what went on in those closed meetings, she could only speculate, but Gregor, too, was tense and angry on those days, drawing further into himself. He was true to his word even then, when he seemed to want nothing more than to lock himself away from everyone. He spoke to her every day, he gave her news, listened to what comfort she could offer - but they never spoke of politics. There, he listened only to Vordrozda.

If only he trusted me more, Olivia thought one morning, sitting alone in her rooms. If only he could see me as an ally, not a child.

The door opened at that moment, and Olivia looked up to see Delia standing against it. “Mama’s running errands for Gregor tonight.” 

Olivia leaned forward in her chair. “Tell me what’s going on.”

Delia shut the door quickly, and came to sit opposite her. “There’s been trouble in Hassadar.”

Olivia stilled. “What sort?”

“There was a fight between District civilians at the spaceport and Imperial troops passing through,” Delia spoke quickly. “I didn’t hear much. They closed down the spaceport. Da told Mama that Vordrozda’s people are making it out to be bigger than it was. But he also said they’re worried at Ops, because of the garrison…”

Of course. They should be. The garrison at Hassadar, Olivia knew, was commanded entirely by officers from the District. Count Piotr had made sure of that ever since Vordarian’s War. “What started it?”

“Who knows?" Delia replied. "The stories are on everyone’s lips, Olivia. Miles and his mercenary fleet and his trial – and Ivan and this whole secret message thing – nobody talks about anything else now. The Fleet and the General Staff don’t believe a word of it, but, well –" Delia looked apologetic. "The ordinary soldiers, and people in Vorbarr Sultana – that’s different. Mostly they say they always figured the Lord Regent would find a way to stay in.”

Olivia had heard that before. Miles had heard it too – it was some such remark that had set him off in the first place, had kept him from being safely locked up in a military academy... "Is Gregor doing anything about this?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Delia grimaced. “Last I know, he was in his office with Count Vordrozda.”

“Of course,” Olivia said. That's the last thing we need. Vordrozda can twist this to his own purposes; isolate Gregor even more, persuade him that he needs to protect himself from not just a space fleet but a Vorkosigan insurrection... but what could she do to help, stuck here? 

*** 

Olivia waited patiently until she saw Gregor that evening. She could have tried to walk into his office and make her case – but that would draw attention to her, and the thought of drawing Count Vordrozda’s attention still made her shiver.

“I heard about the spaceport,” she ventured carefully, sitting beside Gregor in the library.

Gregor looked tired. “How did you hear that – no.” He waved it off. “Never mind. You do have a right to know.”

“I’m worried, Gregor. You can’t blame me for that.”

“No, I can’t,” he said softly. “It’s only the biggest incident of several. We’re trying to keep everything quiet - and things are quiet, for now. But tomorrow - I don’t know. And next week? Certainly not.”

“Gregor,” she said. “Suppose I go to Hassadar.”

Gregor’s eyes widened. “No. I’ve said this before, Olivia. You need to be here, safe. I will not let you be dragged down in politics.”

“It’s not politics,” she protested. “Look - it’s spring. All I want to do is go to Hassadar Fair, where I go every year anyway. It’s normal. We want things to be normal.”

Gregor shook his head. “We already closed the spaceport, Olivia. We were planning to cancel that.”

Olivia hesitated. “And do you think that’s a good idea?”

“No one has given me a better one.” Gregor clasped his hands together. “I suppose I always knew it would come to this. Vorkosigan's District is loyal - it has always been loyal. The reaction was inevitable.”

Gregor’s voice was wistful. If only you could see, Gregor, that there's no need for envy; you always had that loyalty. “I don’t think that’s true - yet,” Olivia said slowly. “I think people would be far more willing to trust in your justice, and wait for the verdict of the trial, if you made a gesture of reassurance. You need to be showing people that you still respect House Vorkosigan and the people of our District. Not shutting things down.”

Gregor’s face was still pensive, still filled with doubts. “Look, Gregor, you can’t keep me locked away here forever! If you’re worried about my safety - where would I be safer?” She paused. “And this isn’t some attempt to – to - I give you my word as Vorkosigan that I will come back.”

“That wasn’t what I was thinking.” Gregor smiled, tired and bleak. “I appreciate the thought. But you are not a political tool.”

Olivia had only one card left to play - but it was a risk. I have to try. “All right," she said quietly. "It was Count Vordrozda’s idea, anyway.”

Gregor looked up, astonished. “It was?”

“Well, not this specifically - but he suggested that I should be involved in the District. That it would prevent conflicts.”

Gregor said nothing, but Olivia knew which way the decision would fall. Vordrozda’s name had swayed him. Now he would question Vordrozda, and Vordrozda would have to agree – he can't lie to both of us, can he?

Then Gregor looked at her with an expression that was equal parts worry and gratitude, and a sudden flash of triumph shot through her. And maybe Gregor will listen to me now.

***

The people of Vorkosigan’s District held a fair every year, to celebrate the departure of the occupying Cetagandans and the founding of the city of Hassadar. The Cetagandans had not surrendered their hold on Barrayar until Midsummer, but they had abandoned Vorkosigan’s District in early spring, blowing up their biggest military base before retreating. Count Piotr had come down after the last enemy soldiers had departed, and declared the ruins of the base his new capital.

This year, Hassadar Fair was far smaller than Olivia had ever seen it before. Last year, the lake just north of the city had been surrounded by tents and pavilions as far as Olivia could see; this time, people from the surrounding hills seemed to think it better to remain in their homes. 

It was still mourning year for the District, and so Olivia stood beside the lake early in the morning, to light a ceremonial offering for Count Piotr. A surprising number of people had come out of respect for the Great General; veterans from the Dendarii hills with their families, District officials who had served him for decades, and of course, the military men.

This should have been Miles’ duty, she thought. Her father had had Miles’ future in the District all planned out when Miles didn’t make the Academy. But the District had always been too small, too confining, for Miles. All Olivia's brother ever wanted was a life filled with military accomplishments that would finally please his grandfather; nothing less would do, for the old man had never completely forgiven Olivia's parents for choosing to have a daughter and not a healthy second son.

Now here she was, barely six months after his death, lighting his offering because there was no one else.

“Everyone here is glad to see you well, my lady,” Tsipis, the Vorkosigans’ district deputy, said to her as she stepped back from the small flame. In a lower voice, he added, “it should at least put an end to the rumors that you were being interrogated by ImpSec, or that the Emperor was holding you hostage.”

“Neither of those are true,” Olivia told him. She'd been saying similar words to everyone who'd set eyes on her. There's to be a trial; a real trial, not a sham. “Was that the rumor, then?”

Tsipis's expression grew uncharacteristically angry. “There are many rumors, my lady, and it’s impossible for us to control them all. But the substance of Count Vordrozda’s charges – that is no rumor.” His voice shook a little. “This District bled for the Imperium over and over again, my lady. Neither Emperor Gregor nor his grandfather would have won their thrones without this District. And now, not even a year since my lord Count’s body is laid to rest, and some upstart thinks he can lay accusations such as this, and have us sold off to the highest bidder in the Council of Counts-”

Olivia put a smile on her face and replied in a voice loud enough to carry. “The entire Cetagandan Empire, three full-scale space wars, and Vidal Vordarian, all tried their best to put an end to House Vorkosigan, and we’re still here. I don’t see why anyone should waste their time worrying about Count Vordrozda’s charges.”

There; that, was, word for word, what Count Piotr would have said. Now if only she could believe it herself.  

Olivia bent to light the offering, conscious of every single eye in the crowd on her - angry, worried, proud, relieved. This was nothing like the looks she got in Vorbarr Sultana. This was home.

***

Gregor had known better than to send Armsmen in Imperial livery here, but Olivia was sure there were several plainclothes ImpSec agents placed discreetly in the crowd. Gregor had also insisted that she should have company as well as security, and so Delia had come along. Delia had come with Olivia last year too, when this had been a day of fun, and the two girls had spent a long day eating sweets from every township in the District, cheering Miles in the boat races - and mercilessly laughing at him, when he'd ended up soaking wet. Now they were in no mood to do any such thing, but they still made an effort. 

The next pavilion was one of the boring ones, a display from Hassadar General Hospital. Still, this at least was larger than it had been last year. Countess Vorkosigan had opened a new wing three months ago, staffed by Betan volunteers and Betan-trained doctors who’d won her scholarships.

“Lady Olivia, isn’t it?” said a Betan accent. Olivia looked up to see a man in a senior medtech’s uniform, just like the one her Betan grandmother wore to work. His blue eyes twinkled as he bowed ostentatiously to her, a Galactic trying too hard at Barrayaran customs. “You were with your mother at the opening, weren’t you? I wonder if you’d like to see how it turned out?” He gestured to a display in the corner, where a foot-high metal cylinder with flashing lights and attached support systems was set up on a grav-table. “We’ve got the very newest batch of uterine replicators from the old dustball. Your mother was very keen on it.”

Olivia smiled back. “She was, wasn’t she? I’m sure she’ll want to hear all about it when she gets back.” She went over and peered at the replicator. Her mother had been waxing eloquent about the new models, before the worries of Miles’ trial consumed all their waking moments. “No perishable supplies needed, so you can take it into the mountains without needing to make a trip up every month…”

“Quite right,” The medtech paused for an instant, and dropped the Betan accent. “It’s good to know you’ve been listening to your parents in some things, milady.”

Olivia’s eyes flew up, and her mouth fell open. “Esterhazy?”

The old Armsman smiled in his Betan disguise. Olivia twisted around to stare at Delia, who was still at the entrance. She wasn’t sure what Delia saw in her expression, but she quickly turned away and began to read one of the many health charts on the walls, blocking Olivia from the gaze of ImpSec’s unobtrusive observers in the crowd.

Esterhazy picked up a datapad next to the replicator and began scrolling, as if explaining something. “The Countess is safe on Beta. So are Lord Vorkosigan and Lord Vorpatril, last I heard.”

Olivia gasped. The gut-churning terror had become so much a part of her that she had stopped noticing it. Now she felt like she could sit down in the dirt and cry. “Elena?” she managed. “And Bothari?”

Esterhazy’s fingers tightened around the datapad, but the smile didn’t shift from his face. “Armsman Bothari is dead,” he said, in exactly the same calm tone. “Elena and her husband are leading the mercenaries now. As far as we know, they haven’t been arrested.”

Olivia’s brain had paused at one word. “Husband?

“The deserter - who is now apparently my brother Armsman.”

"What?”

A party of visitors wandered toward the pavilion, and Delia coughed. Esterhazy must have noticed, because he leaned forward and spoke more urgently. “Lord Vorkosigan and Lord Vorpatril were on their way to answer the treason charge, but they were too late. The Betans are protecting them now. Your mother got a message to us through her medical channels.” He hesitated. "She says Lord Vorkosigan is safe, but very upset. Apparently he tried to sneak onto a ship bound for here."

Olivia’s eyes snapped up. “He can’t! They’ll drag him to the Great Square the instant he sets foot on the planet!”

“Yes. But I believe he was prepared to plead guilty to the charge of treason, to say that the plot was all his own…”

Miles, you idiot! “As if anyone would believe that.”

Esterhazy nodded. “We know, milady. Lady Alys and Captain Illyan know, too. Listen…”

Quickly, Esterhazy told her. Olivia was open-mouthed by the end of the story. “So the Dendarii mercenaries were… an accident? Miles picked up an entire mercenary fleet – by accident? How could he not realize? And Hessman sent Ivan on that courier ship - ”

Esterhazy nodded. “Yes. We’re only lucky that Lord Vorpatril left the courier at Beta – he was trapped there for a week, trying to find a ship – but Captain Illyan believes the ship was sabotaged never to reach Tau Verde."

Vordrozda's plot made terrible sense now - make Miles look guilty, eliminate Ivan, and implicate the Prime Minister and the Chief of ImpSec, all at once - except, it didn't make sense. "But Imperial couriers don't just disappear! Vordrozda isn't stupid, he'd have to know that eventually someone would notice the missing ship, someone would ask questions-"

"No, Count Vordrozda isn't stupid," Esterhazy agreed. "He is ambitious, and unafraid to take risks - that is what makes him dangerous. But now he has overreached himself. Captain Illyan can prove the sabotage. He and Lady Alys were using their own sources to trace Lord Vorpatril. They have had some success, infiltrating the criminal underworld to find evidence of how Hessman did it – ”

“Did you just say ‘Lady Alys’ and ‘criminal underworld’ together?”

A smile flickered across Esterhazy’s face, very quickly. “You’d be amazed. But they have gathered more than enough evidence to throw severe doubt upon Hessman, and upon his financial links with Count Vordrozda. Military jump-ship technicians are not easily suborned, nor are they easily made to disappear afterward. And your mother sent us Lord Vorpatril’s recorded testimony that it was Admiral Hessman who ordered him aboard the courier ship.”

She felt a smile spread across her face. “And I can tell Gregor. Just give me -”

Esterhazy’s expression closed instantly. “And you think he will believe you? No, milady, Vordrozda has won that battle. We’ll put the evidence before the entire planet, at the trial.”

Olivia stared at him. “But I could -”

Esterhazy caught hold of her. The action was so out of character for the quiet Armsman-Commander that she stopped at once. “No, miladyYour brother tried to play the hero. Look what happened.”

He won a war, Olivia thought, as Esterhazy released her. “What you did today was good. But now you need to do nothing. We can discredit Hessman so thoroughly that the Counts will not be able to convict. At least not without provoking a far greater outcry.” He extended a hand to Olivia, more gently. “It’ll be difficult, now. But it's still not too late to get you out.”

Olivia shook her head. “I can’t leave, Armsman. I gave my word.

Esterhazy’s face fell. “Milady, we were supposed to have you safely on Beta long ago. Your parents -”

“I gave my word. As Vorkosigan. And Da needs you and Captain Illyan to work for him right now, Armsman, not to draw attention to yourself -”

Another visitor passed by at that moment, watching them curiously, and Esterhazy withdrew his hand. “Very well.” His eyes were shadowed with concern. “Then, please, do not forget the word you gave your father. Stay out of trouble. We will take you to safety when the trial is over, one way or another.”

With that Esterhazy turned from her to the other visitor, returning seamlessly to his cover as the Betan medtech, and Olivia returned to Delia’s side. But when she looked down at her hands, she saw that they were trembling.

On the flyer back to Vorbarr Sultana, Olivia rested her head in her hands and closed her eyes, ignoring Delia’s worried face. She’d just gotten good news – the first good news she’d had in almost two months, far better than she had dared to hope for.

Miles and Ivan were safe. She should be relieved. She was.

Why, then, did she feel even more afraid than before?

*** 

Two days before the trial, Olivia looked up to see Gregor at her door. He looked much the same as ever these days - but something was wrong. He was holding himself rigidly, a sign of tension – or of anger, deeply hidden. “May I talk to you?”

She closed the book she’d been trying to distract herself with. “Of course.”

Gregor came and sat down in the chair beside her, but did not speak for several minutes. She nudged his arm. “What did you want to talk about, Gregor?”

“Anything not related to the trials,” he said promptly. “Or any of it. Anything else at all.”

“All right,” she replied. It was hard, right now, to turn her thoughts away, but she tried. “Just you and me, then,” she said after a minute. “Remember the time we were sent down to Vorkosigan Surleau, and we decided to go off riding alone, without telling Grandda?”

Miles and Ivan were nowhere in that picture; they had been off at some military schoolboy camp that entire summer. Olivia had been ten, young and awkward, and Gregor just returned from the Academy, solemn and studious. Looking back now, it was obvious that he’d been indulging her.

Gregor let out a short laugh. “Perfectly, thank you. I was supposed to be helping you with your homework, and instead we wound up in the village - the Count’s granddaughter and the Emperor, riding in without warning in the night.”

She smiled. “I’m pretty sure nobody minded.”

He snorted at that. “Count Piotr minded. had to write seven letters of apology when I should have been studying. One to Count Piotr himself, one to my Armsman-Commander, one to the stable-master for taking the horses without telling him… you, on the other hand, got away scot-free.”

“Well,” she argued, sitting back, “I don’t think that’s entirely unfair. We would have been back before anyone noticed, if you hadn’t been determined to go down and mingle with people.”

“How strange,” retorted Gregor. “I distinctly remember that being your idea.”

“But I was ten. You were the older, responsible one, Gregor. You were supposed to keep me out of trouble.”

He laughed again, less forced than last time. “As if I could ever do that. But… yes. It was restful, being away from all the security, and the farce that was my time at the Academy. A nice change from holidays with Miles, too. Nothing blew up.”

Their smiles faded in the same instant, the warmth in the room evaporating. Gregor fell silent, looking down.

“I don’t want to talk about the trial,” he repeated.

Then why are you bringing it up? “It’s on your mind.”

“It’s days away. It’s on everyone’s mind. Yours more than mine, I’m certain.”

“I don’t think so,” Olivia replied softly, looking at Gregor’s expression. She hesitated for a moment. “I don’t mind talking about something else, Gregor, if you just want to think about something happy for a while. But it’s more than that, isn’t it?”

“I should have known you’d see it.” He looked down at his hands. “Count Vordrozda has shown me the prosecution he intends to put forward. All of it.”

“And?” Gregor failed to answer her. “The evidence isn’t so conclusive after all? Not what you believed at first?”

“I knew what it was,” Gregor said slowly. “The evidence of treason is undeniable, and incriminating. And yet, it is… not complete.”

“Is that so,” Olivia whispered.

“In Miles’ trial,” Gregor continued, still without looking directly at her, “there was no doubt of the essential facts. We knew he had amassed a fleet. When he failed to offer a defense, there was no question of the verdict.”

“And this time you have – what?”

“Quite a lot, actually.” Gregor looked up, at last. “But that is not something we should discuss, here and now.”

That should have been final, Olivia knew. She and Gregor had kept their peace by staying carefully beyond each other’s boundaries, each avoiding the other’s obvious grief. Stay out of this, Esterhazy had told her. Your brother tried to play the hero and look what happened.

But there was doubt in Gregor’s eyes, and worry. She could see it. She plunged on, reckless. “Circumstantial evidence? Secret meetings with Captain Illyan, missing money, missing records? And of course, the assumption that if the seventeen-year old son could land up in command of a space fleet, the father must be behind it?”

“Olivia.” Gregor’s voice held warning.

“But that’s not proof, not beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

“It is proof,” Gregor answered, “that men who were sworn to serve me, did not in fact serve me first.”

“But not of - usurpation.”

“No,” he said. “It is not.”

“But Vordrozda is telling you that it’s good enough, isn’t he? That you can’t take the risk. That he has means to ensure the votes fall his way, even if the evidence isn’t perfect –”

Gregor stood up, in one swift motion. “Stop.”

She stopped, but did not drop her gaze. Gregor, can you see it now? Is it finally clearing? Your friends are not what you thought they were.

He took a deep breath. “I do not ask you to betray your family, Olivia. In return I expect only that you will not attempt to manipulate me in their favor. You cannot expect me to believe that your father did not possess the means to destroy evidence. If –”

Olivia couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “You can’t believe that ifs and maybes are good enough reasons to take anyone’s life, Gregor.”

“Miles controls a fleet. There are no ifs and maybes in that.”

“Yes, Miles controlled a fleet – and what did he do with it? Stayed far away from Barrayar, fighting an entirely different war on the other side of the Nexus!”

“Do you know what they’re calling it? Miles Vorkosigan’s practice war.”

“No. A mistake. A horrible, horrible mistake. Nothing more. Gregor, please.”

Gregor spun around to face her. “Stop, Olivia. Ivan disappeared with orders from your father and Illyan. Miles didn’t show up for his trial, fled instead of explaining himself. Your mother is joining him, if she isn’t already with him. Do you think I don’t know?”

“Yes, of course she’s with him, Gregor! Someone has to protect him from the verdict of that sham trial! He wasn’t given a chance to defend himself!”

They were standing close, now. Too close. “He was given every chance.” Gregor retorted, suddenly bitter. “You don’t know. I stood by and let your father delay Miles’ trial for weeks upon weeks, only because I hoped-”

“Hoped? You couldn’t even wait for the courier ship to turn around and come back!”

There was silence.

“How did you know about that?” Gregor asked.

She did not answer.

“That that vessel has not returned on schedule is a secret known only to the highest levels of ImpSec. Not gossip you could pick up in the kitchens. Nor from Kou or Drou or Delia, unless I’m much mistaken. Who have you been in contact with? And how?”

Olivia looked away. “Lady Vorpatril?” Gregor concluded. “As to how she got to know -”

Olivia couldn’t believe where this was going. “Gregor, stop it! I would not betray you. None of us would. None of us have.”

He gave a hollow laugh. “You – Olivia, I have thought of all these arguments, long ago. Do you think I haven’t tried to see it that way? Do you think I’m not trying, even now? What sort of man do you think I am?”

“You’re my Emperor,” she said. “Whatever you may do. And you’re my friend. And I think you’re also very, very afraid right now, Gregor.”

“Am I?" his voice was quieter now. "Of what do you think I am afraid?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Vordrozda opposite an empty chamber is one thing; Vordrozda opposite my father isn't going to be the same at all. You’ve grown up watching him in Council. What do you think will happen, if Vordrozda puts up evidence that is anything less than utterly airtight? With an audience in the gallery? The world will see your chosen Prime Minister prosecuting a trial, this trial, on the basis of speculation, possibilities, whispers - Gregor, are you trying to sabotage your own reign?”

Gregor had fallen silent, the Imperial mask back over his face. Olivia hurried on. “You don’t have to let that happen. You can still stop it all, Gregor - it's not too late. You can force Vordrozda to step away. Da will listen -”

“Listen?” Gregor cut her off. “If he had any intention of listening, he would have listened to me long ago, and we wouldn't be in this position. I offered him every way out I could find, and he turned me down each time. I might as well be a child still for all that he listens!”

“And have you listened to any of us in turn?" Olivia returned. "Gregor, I'm trying to help you here! When Miles followed after you as a child, when did he ever take any role but that of the loyal knight? When did he see a threat, real or imagined, and not stand between it and you? Have you forgotten that?”

Gregor’s face was cold. “It is you who seem to have forgotten,” he retorted. “What of the mercenaries? Shall I sit here and wait for them to regroup and attack?”

Olivia opened her mouth, and then stopped, feeling suddenly sick to her stomach. I could tell him all I know. But he wouldn’t believe me. He really wouldn’t believe me. He would take my words to Vordrozda, and I would ruin everything.

“No. I thought you wouldn’t have an answer for that.” Gregor looked at her, and now his eyes were full of anger and hurt.

Olivia remained silent as he left the room.

*** 

Olivia stopped outside the closed door of Gregor’s office. She turned to the armsman standing guard outside. “Is he-”

Davies nodded. “You can go straight in, my lady.”

Olivia relaxed. Gregor hadn’t shut her out, then. There was still a day before the trial. They could still make peace, could still go into it as friends. She pushed open the door to Gregor’s office. “Gregor," she said. "I -”

Gregor looked up from his desk. Count Vordrozda stepped aside from his place on its other side.

Olivia had to struggle to control the tension rising through her entire body. It was the first time she had faced Vordrozda since the day he had tried to insinuate himself into her friendship. She did not see the same kind air he had worn then - if anything, he was now assessing her as carefully as she watched him.

“Gregor,” she began again, when it became clear that Vordrozda wasn’t leaving. “I’m-”

“No.” Gregor stopped her, and she fell silent. “I apologize, Olivia. I said things that I should have kept you far away from, and I know very well what you think of my actions. I have no right to be angry with you.” He paused, and continued more quietly. “But I also think that I asked for your continued honesty, Olivia, and you have not given me that.”

“What do you mean, Gregor?” I always gave you honesty, until I saw for myself that I could not.

“Where is Lady Vorpatril?” Gregor asked.

What? Olivia glanced between Gregor and Vordrozda. Both men were entirely unreadable. She stood straighter. “I don’t know, Gregor. And where is Count Vordrozda insinuating she is?”

Gregor’s expression grew cool, distant. “He doesn’t need to. She’s with Illyan; I’m not so blind. Who did you meet in Hassadar?”

She looked directly at Vordrozda. As if I will give you any such weapon. “Gregor, I promised you –”

“That you don’t hate me. I believe you, too. But I did hear the rest of it as well. I can’t blame you for your loyalties.” Gregor raised a hand, slowly turning it palm upward. “I only beg that you will not give me a reason to have you questioned under fast-penta, Olivia. I would not wish to give that order.”

She recoiled. Her eyes flew up to Vordrozda; the Prime Minister's expression was detached, even sympathetic. But his eyes were bright.

“Very well, Sire,” she replied, matching Gregor’s formality - what else could she do, with Vordrozda standing right there? “I ask only that I be permitted to attend the trial. That is my right.”

Gregor paused. “You don’t have to. Not this time. It may be more painful -”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Sire,” she replied, unable to control herself. “Audience in the gallery, remember? What will they think if I’m not there?”

Gregor looked away, and Olivia instantly regretted her words. “You can attend,” he said. “Is that all?”

Olivia stared at him. He sat still and stern, not looking directly at her even now. She’d failed. She’d tried so hard, and it hadn’t worked, and she might have lost Gregor’s trust, the only power she had. The only protection she had.

She turned her face from Vordrozda’s glittering eyes, swallowing down the bile rising in her throat. “It is, Sire.”

Chapter Text

The absolute silence outside Vorhartung Castle was more frightening to Olivia than any amount of noise. She hadn’t ever seen security so tight. Inside the castle, of course, was a different story. She’d never seen the gallery this tightly packed, either, except on the day of Gregor’s majority. 

There were soldiers on all sides; she saw men from General Staff Headquarters and the space fleets in their glittering uniforms, coiled with tension. That same tension was mirrored by the alert Vorbarra armsmen around the castle, who watched the gallery through narrowed eyes, as if categorizing potential threats.

They'd kept a wide circle of empty seats around her, and a Vorbarra armsman at her back - Armsman-Commander Davies, no less. Does Gregor still care enough to make sure I have someone I know beside me? Olivia wondered. Or does he now trust me so little that he has me watched by men who should be watching him?

Fifty-nine Counts were seated before the doors opened for the last time. The Armsmen around the Chamber watched warily, and Olivia caught her breath.

Aral Vorkosigan strode into the Council Chamber as if it were the bridge of his personal flagship; drawing every gaze to himself like steel to a magnet, as if the room itself changed shape to fit him. His eyes, however, went straight up to the gallery. Olivia gave him a small smile - I’m all right- and saw his face relax, just a little.

It was possibly the only time the Lord Guardian had waited respectfully for the prisoner to be seated and give his permission, before he began to recite the charges. Olivia listened carefully to every word. Conspiracy, treason to usurp the Imperium, aiding and abetting a convicted traitor… the by now old story of the mercenary fleet and the missing money and the secret message was laid out in excruciating detail, each point repeated over and over again. They’re all frightened, she realized, watching the Counts’ wary expressions.They don’t want it to start.

At last the Lord Guardian turned to face the prisoner. “How do you plead to the charge of treason, Count Vorkosigan?”

Aral Vorkosigan's eyes swept across the suddenly silent Chamber, resting for an instant upon each of his brother Counts, even upon the armed men who guarded the only exit. There were not many men who could return that gaze. He looked up to the dais last of all, and Olivia saw the quiet, solemn acknowledgment that was exchanged.

“Not guilty, my lords,” he said, his voice carrying to the back of the gallery.

Olivia could feel the collective exhalation of breath that swept across the Chamber, could sense the thought in every mind. Now there is no turning back.

***

Olivia thought she’d been angry two months ago, when ImpSec had arrested her father and searched her house. She’d been angrier still when she watched Count Vordrozda manipulating Gregor. But that was merely a shadow of the anger she felt now, when she heard Count Vordrozda’s opening speech.

Oh, he stuck to the facts - only the facts, but with every sentence he was twisting, alluding, insinuating – stopping just short of the point where he could be accused of misconduct. Going just far enough to plant doubts in all his listeners' minds, about almost everything in the decades-long military and political career of Count Aral Vorkosigan.

Olivia felt cold with rage. Duels? Murders? How dare he even suggest...

She was not alone. Her father’s face was dark, his eyes fierce and dangerous, fixed solely on Vordrozda, like a predator barely restraining himself from striking out. But he didn’t rise to the bait, if such it was. When the Lord Guardian turned to him, he offered no response, reserving his defence for later. Olivia could hear whispers spreading across the audience, could see surprise on more than a few Counts’ faces.

With no reply given to Count Vordrozda, the proceedings for the day were closed. Admiral Count Vorkosigan bowed to the dais with cool formality, and allowed his ImpSec guards to lead him out. The gallery burst into conversation as soon as the doors of the castle closed behind him.

Olivia sat with her fists clenched, trying and failing to shut out whatever words she could hear. Words were Vordrozda’s greatest weapons; words and shadows of words unspoken. I hate him.

“My lady?” Armsman Davies murmured, touching her shoulder.

I hate him. “I just need a minute, Armsman.”

He drew back. “Of course, my lady.” His voice held sympathy. He had a daughter of around her age, didn’t he? She was sure she’d seen that girl around the Residence grounds sometime, in the days before the Residence became a fear-sealed fortress.

Olivia remained seated in silence as the gallery cleared around her. She did not want to face the pitying looks, but she forced herself to meet and return each gaze that lingered on her. You’re Vor. Remember that.

At last the gallery was empty. Olivia drew in a deep breath, and rose. “Let’s go.”

She emerged into the evening air with Davies hovering watchfully at her shoulder. The public was being kept away from the castle, but there were still people from the gallery milling about near the entrance, whispering in knots scattered from the castle gates to the river. Beyond the river, the Imperial Residence rose, beautiful in the light of the setting sun; today it loomed over all their heads like a threat.

If the whispers inside had been worrying, the atmosphere now was electric. Olivia saw Venne and Vorlakial with three officers of the General Staff, rage and tension in the coil of their hands. Their eyes snapped to her, and she avoided them. There were people spread out in every direction, dividing themselves into smaller clusters, but everywhere she looked, military uniforms stood separately from the colors of the Vor.

The clash was out in the open now. The old guard of the military, furious at the treatment of their most beloved commander; Gregor, bound by duty and by trust in his false friends; Vordrozda, with that confident certainty and skill with words. And her father, who had resolved to fight this out to the bitter end, as his honor demanded.

Something’s going to break, Olivia thought with a shiver.

But no, she thought; her father had done the right thing in letting Vordrozda go unanswered. Let Vordrozda become overconfident, let him think he was winning. It was Hessman who was the weak link in the plot. Count Vorkosigan would ignore Vordrozda, until it was time to target the partnership between the conspirators – wait for Hessman to testify, and then attack him so hard that he would give up Vordrozda to save his own skin.

Vordrozda has overreached himself, Esterhazy had saidand perhaps that was true. Count Vordrozda had done so once before, by allowing her father to goad him into raising the charge against Miles - not that that had worked. But in choosing to bring her father to trial he had bitten off more than he could chew.

If Hessman broke - how would Vordrozda react? Olivia did not know. She breathed deeply, trying to calm herself. I must only wait.

She opened her eyes to a flash of blue light, just as the crack of a nerve disruptor cut across all the voices.

***

The next few seconds went past in a blur, too fast for Olivia to process. She heard a scream, she could not tell from where. Armsman Davies’ hands fell on her shoulders like steel, and he spun her around, putting himself between her and the line of fire. In the very next instant she was stumbling forward, being pushed back into the castle.

A hubbub of panicked voices was rising around the entrance. The Vorbarra Armsmen moved into action, shutting the great reinforced doors of the Chamber on the few Counts who remained. Olivia tried to see what was happening, but Davies didn’t let her stop even for an instant; he put his hand on her elbow and pulled her down the stairs, down more stairs, down all the way to the old dungeons where she’d never been before. She looked up, panting for breath and bewildered, at the Armsman’s frozen face, as he opened a heavy door and pushed her in.

Count Henri Vorvolk looked up from the desk in the center of the room. His eyes widened, and he rose quickly. “What’s this?” he asked, looking between Olivia and her protector.

“Disruptor blast outside the castle, my lord,” Davies said briskly, sealing the door behind himself. “We didn’t stay long enough to hear any more.”

Vorvolk’s face paled, and his hand half-rose. “Gregor?”

Davies straightened. “I don't know, my lord. My orders in such an event were to keep Lady Olivia safe. This room is the most secure in the building.” He gestured in Olivia’s direction. “If you don’t mind…”

“No,” Vorvolk said, sounding shaken, looking at Olivia as if he were noticing her for the first time. “No, of course not. Sit down.”

Olivia went, slowly, to a seat beside the desk. Vorvolk stood watching her for a moment, as if uncertain. Then he bowed formally to her. “In the name of my liege-lord, Gregor Vorbarra," he said, "and upon my own word as Vorvolk, you are welcome to my protection and that of my House.”

Armsman Davies relaxed visibly. Olivia bowed her head in return at the formal words. "Thank you, my lord." She did not know Henri Vorvolk, after all; she did not know whether she could trust him. All she knew was that he was the only friend Gregor had made in five years, at that military boarding school of his.

Gregor had sent her and Miles photographs of his life at school... she remembered several pictures now, of two tall, thin, dark-haired boys riding atop the cliffs, dressed in mock-military uniforms... more importantly, Captain Illyan had found nothing to object to in Vorvolk. An unambitious boy, the Captain had told her mother, not unlike Ivan… perhaps not the best choice of companion for an Emperor, but safe enough. It seemed Gregor's armsmen also thought Vorvolk safe enough, to bring her here.

Davies now took up position beside her, close enough to shield her from anyone who came through the door. “We’ll wait here till we hear news, my lady.” His voice betrayed nothing, Olivia thought. The fear was all in his eyes.

Vorvolk shoved aside the flimsies he’d been reading, opened a drawer in his desk and took out a plain military-issue stunner. He stared down at it for a moment, looking as if he couldn’t believe he might actually have to use it. Olivia watched him fidget, glancing up to the door every few seconds. He stopped abruptly, turning on the Armsman. “What route was he taking? Where was he?”

Davies stirred. “My lord…”

Vorvolk held up a hand. “I know. I’m sorry.” He resumed fidgeting.

She didn’t know how long the three of them waited in that room. Davies, silent but for his slow and steady breathing, his hand poised on the weapon at his belt; Vorvolk, eyes fixed on the door, stunner held loosely in his hand, and Olivia herself, unarmed, staring at the colorful seascape that hung on the wall in a hopeless attempt to brighten up what was, at the end of the day, a dungeon. None of them spoke; none of them had any words for each other, when their thoughts were so far away.

At last the silence was broken by a sharp knock on the door. All their eyes rose at once.

Vorvolk and Davies exchanged an appraising glance. It was Vorvolk who stood up and went to the door. Olivia saw him slide the small window back, looking out to see who had knocked.

Vorvolk’s expression grew grim. He opened the door, but only halfway. “Vordrozda.”

It was indeed the Prime Minister who stood outside. “Vorvolk.” Count Vordrozda looked around the room, his gaze settling on Olivia and the Armsman beside her. “I’m afraid I have bad news.”

Vorvolk’s hand twitched. “Well?”                                                               

Vordrozda lowered his voice. “Admiral Hessman is – I’m sorry to say – he is dead.”

“What?” Olivia said, before she could help herself.

Vorvolk brushed this aside. “The Emperor?”

“It’s quite certain that Admiral Hessman was the intended target of this attack,” Vordrozda answered. “Or rather, this successful assassination. The Emperor was already within the Residence grounds when the shot was fired. He does not require your concern.”

“Really?” Vorvolk’s voice was even, but for a moment he looked as if he was holding back something angrier. “You told us the capital was safe. That you'd taken personal responsibility for the security of this trial. That an assassination could happen right outside the Castle gates, with this level of security - it should concern all of us.”

Vordrozda spread his hands. “No one is more upset - or more worried - by this than me. I have done my best to keep the city secure, but we all know that there are certain men whose influence upon our military, at every level, cannot be underestimated. ”

Olivia’s fingers tightened around each other. If only these hands were strong enough.

Vordrozda continued. “The Admiral was to have testified tomorrow. Now... we must discuss how to handle this. The Emperor wishes -”

“Thank you,” Vorvolk’s tone was calm, polite, even as he cut off the Prime Minister. “I’ll talk to him directly. I have known the Emperor since childhood, Vordrozda, I think I can understand his wishes myself.”

“Of course,” Vordrozda gave way gracefully. “Nevertheless, since you will return to the Academy after this trial -”

“I wouldn’t be so certain of that if I were you.”

Vordrozda’s eyes narrowed. “Surely your desire to enter Emperor Gregor’s service has not changed.”

Vorvolk returned a smile. “Not in the least. Just my thoughts as to where my service is most needed.”

“Very well,” said Vordrozda. “I’m sure he will be glad for your support in the Capital.”

Vorvolk’s smile was unwavering. “And I’m sure I’ll hear that from him myself.”

Vordrozda bowed briefly. “As you wish. But the hour grows late. Please allow me to escort Lady Olivia back to the Residence.”

Olivia’s entire body tensed. Vorvolk’s gaze flickered between her and Vordrozda, uncertain. Davies’ hand touched her shoulder then, reminding her that she had an armsman at her back, one of the best trained soldiers on the planet. Gregor was alive and safe. Vordrozda could not hurt her.

Only with words, and the shadows of words.

But Count Vordrozda and Olivia were perfectly courteous to each other all the way across the river and up the hill to the Imperial Residence. It was only when the car drew up before the foyer of the Residence that Vordrozda reached out and held the door closed.

“I wish you’d trust me,” he told Olivia softly. “I have been your supporter throughout the past two months, you know. You are alone, and now more than ever, you need a protector.”

I am alone only because of you. Olivia found that she was no longer capable of any games. After what he had said today, she could not bring herself to keep up even the pretense of politeness between them.

“I will never trust you,” she said, simply.

“Ah.” Vordrozda sat back, releasing the door, but his eyes lingered on her as one of the guards handed her out. “That’s a great pity.”

***

Olivia stayed awake that entire night, turning in her bed. Every time she closed her eyes she saw the blue flash of the nerve disruptor and had to sit up, shivering. That was just the beginning.

She knew why she was afraid. Hessman’s death had ended their hopes of confronting him directly, and destroying the plot in the witness’s circle. Had Vordrozda known what they were planning? But no, that was impossible - wasn't it? How could he have known? 

Everything wasn't ruined, Olivia knew. They might still win. She didn’t know what exactly Illyan and Lady Alys had, but her father didn’t really need to prove his innocence; she had seen the Counts’ expressions. So many of them were scared.

Vordrozda had no hard proof of treason. Now, the Council of Counts was no Betan court, with rules and standards for evidence; on Barrayar, men had been convicted of treason on mere whispers. But what might have brought down lesser men would not work on the former Lord Regent and Conqueror of Komarr. All her father truly needed to do was cast enough doubt on Vordrozda's supposed evidence that the Council wouldn’t dare vote against him for fear of the backlash.

Olivia, too, had grown up watching Aral Vorkosigan play the Council of Counts. Maybe he could do it; maybe, with everything that Captain Illyan and Lady Alys and mother and Ivan and Miles had gathered between them, he could walk away from the Chamber with his life and title intact. But – suppose he did – what would happen then? With Hessman unable to answer questions, there would be no clear proof of innocence either.

Doubt would always follow them, accompanied by fear and whispers. They had Hessman assassinated, then accused him when he couldn’t defend himself. Could they ever go back from such a precipice?

No. No one could. Every political edifice on Barrayar would be shaken, everyone’s trust in everyone else broken, loyalties divided.

Olivia turned over, staring into the darkness. Oh, what a bitter end it will be.

Even that was better, infinitely better, than certain death in the Great Square.

But was that all they had?