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"But--" Alys began.

"No." Aral cut off her words with a curt gesture. "I cannot believe you are even thinking such things. Do not speak of this again."

Aral had never spoken to her like that before, and for a moment Alys quailed. But she'd faced Serg and Ezar and Count Piotr as a girl. "Don't question my loyalty," she snapped back. "You know there is nothing more I want in the entire galaxy than for Gregor to be found safe and well. But at some point, we have to face the question of what happens if he isn't. What happens if he's dead. And if that happens, then you must declare for the throne, and you must do it quickly and decisively. If you don't, there will be war."

"They'll say I killed him."

"Let them. You know the truth. And there is nobody else who could do it." She gazed challengingly into Aral's eyes. "Name me one man who could take the throne and keep the empire peaceful and stable. Name one."

Aral looked away, staring at the green wallpaper, but Alys didn't think the wall was what he was seeing. Then he looked back at Alys. "I won't do it," he said. "I will not claim the throne. I've given my honour and my blood and my peace and every hour in my days for twenty years and more to Barrayar. This is where it ends."

It was Alys' turn to look away, because it was true. "Then what will you do?" she demanded at last, turning back to Aral in frustration. "Go down to Vorkosigan Surleau with your family and drink whilst war rages?"

His lips whitened, and she knew she'd struck too hard, but it was too late to call her words back. "Better than sitting here in your golden chains, waiting for someone to kill me. Or Cordelia. They got Miles, before--this time it would be Cordelia."

Alys winced as he laid his fears bare before her. "And you think they would be safer in the middle of a civil war?" she said finally. "With everyone and his brother either trying to hide behind you or kill you before you could threaten their claim to power?"

They stared at each other like duellists both mortally wounded and both refusing to surrender.

"I swore to Ezar to guard and teach his grandson," Aral whispered. "Not to govern in my own right. If Gregor is dead, my oath is void and I am free."

"I swore," Alys responded, matching her tone to his, "on Padma's funeral pyre that his son would not die in another civil war. If you refuse this, you must leave Barrayar. Take Cordelia and Miles and go to Beta Colony, and let me find someone to rule. Vorhalas has the best hope, if Simon and I throw our weight behind him and you are out of the picture. You cannot remain here as if you were just some bystander."

At that, Aral flinched. "You would send me into exile?" he breathed.

"If you will not rule? Yes. You said you want safety and peace. You'll find that on Beta Colony, I'm sure." She paused. "Or you could make it here."

Aral looked down. "You fight viciously," he said finally.

Alys straightened her back. "I fight to survive," she said. "I know as well as you do how quickly and how hideously this system can collapse. There is nothing I would not do to prevent that."

He raised a hand, palm out. "I understand." He met her gaze, and his eyes were raw with pain. "You're right, of course." The words were flat and emotionless, and Alys had to force herself to continue to face him, seeing what she asked of him.

She said nothing more. There was no need, yet. Instead, she reached out and took his hand, her cool slim fingers closing around his thick warm ones. She raised it to her lips. She'd placed her hands between his when he'd become Regent, sworn loyalty to him after Padma. Now she kissed his hand and prayed that for his sake, she would never place her hands between his again.