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Walking Away From Omelas

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On an ordinary day, shadowed by the coming of winter, Cordelia figures it out. She could scream, she thinks. She could knock heads together – how could you not notice, how could you let this happen – and she could rail against the history and horrors of this thrice-damned planet, but it's all too late and besides, it was her responsibility, too. She picks Gregor up and balances him on her hip – the movement is natural, for all Gregor is nearly six and lost beyond babyhood, and for all that Miles's bones would break into shards if she handled him like this – and gets him bundled up, hat, scarf and gloves. Miles is asleep, and Bothari will send for her if he wakes up. She steps out of the house, still with Gregor balanced and held close, and heads towards the lake.

There is no snow yet. When it comes, the roads up to Vorkosigan Surleau will be impassable, the house inaccessible except by lightflyer, and then only when the blizzard slackens. It was the fear of being stranded that kept the Lord Regent in the capital; Cordelia had nevertheless wanted, in some obscure way, to see the glitter of the waves before they were lost under the ice. Her Betan upbringing, she thinks, with a certain wryness. She has never known winter.

By the edge of the water, still in sight of the house, she puts Gregor down and sits beside him, keeping one small hand in hers. ImpSec are undoubtedly moving at some discreet distance, keeping her and her emperor at the centre of their sights. Cordelia ignores them, breathing in the harsh, cold air, sharp with the storm to come.

"Gregor," she says, after a while, and he turns to look at her. There is something of the lake's stillness in his gaze, she thinks bleakly; something deep, impenetrable. "When, love" – the slightest of falters – "when did you stop talking?"

Of course, he doesn't speak. There is just the flicker of some different expression, and he looks back at the lake, watching the layers of cloud building over the mountains. It's been more than a day, Cordelia is thinking, and maybe more than a few, and maybe more than few weeks while no one has been listening enough to hear what hasn't been said. She sighs, deeply, and fights the brief urge to wrap up her babies in coats and scarves and an orbital shuttle, and take them to a world with sun. It's a silly little dream, and even as she turns to Gregor she notes the pallor of his skin, the white that matches the oncoming clouds, the water reflected into wide, dark eyes, and realises the impossibility of it. Barrayar is a part of him.

"I'm sorry," she says, after a while. "You don't have to talk, sweetheart, if you don't want to." They would do this better on Beta, she thinks a little desperately, but at least she's heard of therapy, and mutism, and the sorts of things that happen in the heads of children whose parents are murdered before they turn five. "You really don't have to say anything if you don't want to."

He's still looking at her. She keeps on talking. "It'll be dinnertime soon. Would you like something special for dessert today, to keep us warm now the winter's come? Maybe a fruit pie, with honey and cream?"

Gregor smiles, and squeezes her hand. The snow has started.

*

"Have you noticed, my Captain," says Aral, softly, "that Gregor is your flashpoint?"

Cordelia is standing up by herself in the middle of the library, surrounded by bookcases. The rows of volumes loom silently, the armsmen stand motionless outside the door. She's been shouting, and there are tears in her eyes. She sniffs and hates it.

"Sit down," Aral says, and she does, coming over to sit on the arm of the big leather wing-chair, and he strokes her hair. "You can manage everything," he says, reflectively. "You amaze me every day. You can face down Alys Vorpatril on the warpath. You sort it out when the children fight. Miles breaks bones like other children graze their knees, and you take it in your stride. You handle me and my tantrums. You even deal with the Council of Counts being a collective ass far, far better than I do. But where Gregor is concerned..."

"He's just a child," Cordelia says, for what feels the fifth time in as many minutes. "He's just a child. He's starting a horrible cold, and it's going to be a long day for him tomorrow and it's late and I think he should get to bed and you think I'm totally overreacting, don't you?"

"Not exactly," says Aral, amiably. "I merely think there's something behind this that goes beyond Count Voralleyne monopolising Gregor's time to talk about military outposts in the Southern Continent. Not that I don't freely admit that the man is a sycophantic little toad hoping to get to me through Gregor, but granting him the time seemed opportune when there's unrest in his District."

"It's not that," Cordelia says, frustrated. "I want more for him than this. He's my boy, Aral, as much as Miles is. And he's not the Imperium. We make the Imperium out of ceremony and history, and honour, and we set it down on his little head, and it's all about us and nothing at all about him."

Aral nods. "You go further than anyone else to remind us all of that."

"Don't be kind to me, Aral," Cordelia says, sharply. "I used to imagine taking Gregor and Miles away to Beta Colony with me. Dye their hair, give them different names. I never did it. I'm part of this."

"And if you had, Barrayar would be in a bloody civil war."

"That doesn't make hurting a child right, you know," Cordelia tells him gently. "It's never right. I feel like I'm forgetting it."

He goes on stroking her hair, and for a long while neither of them says anything.

"Well, then," she says at last, and goes downstairs. Everyone in the dining room turns at the sight of her. "I do apologise, Count Vorthalas, for the intrusion," she says smoothly, "but I'm afraid I must insist on taking Gregor with me now. His schedule for tomorrow has undergone some alteration and my Lord Regent needs to brief him."

The magic words "Lord Regent" shut Vorthalas up. Gregor doesn't resist when she takes his hand to climb up the stairs. He's wrinkling his nose slightly, thinking. "Schedule alteration?" he says, sounding a little snuffly and very tired.

"We're going to the zoo," Cordelia says, shortly.

"Oh." He thinks about that. "Why?"

"Because," Cordelia says, and kisses him goodnight.

*

The first time Gregor wakes up, it's to sunlight. A woman with her back to him is drifting around the room, red hair glowing bright; she turns and gives him a soft smile. "My beautiful boy," she murmurs, "what have we done to you?"

Gregor thinks, through the swirl of sunshine and sheets, that he's an adult now, and can do adult things, and says instead, "Where...?"

Cordelia is still smiling, softly, softly. "Vorkosigan Surleau, idiot beautiful boy." After a pause, she adds, "And you don't know yet how many strings I had to pull and how many favours I had to call in for that. So if you're good, and grateful, you'll lie back and rest."

That part, at least, is not hard.

The second time, the sun's gone. Grey clouds have come in over the lake; Gregor remembers, as a part of his childhood, the shape of the shadows that mean oncoming rain. Cordelia is still there, looking older and more tired without the sunlight flaming through her hair, but still there, still looking at him with that soft tenderness.

"Have you been here all the time?" Gregor asks, suddenly, surprised at the relative strength of his voice, surprised that he can speak at all.

She jumps at the sound, turns around quickly and sits herself firmly down on the edge of the bed. "Gregor."

He says, "Vorkosigan Surleau?" as if their earlier conversation was never interrupted.

"Yes." Her voice is even. "It was a struggle, believe me. If Simon Illyan had had his way, you would be in a bed at ImpMil with your hands handcuffed to the headboard. And under heavy sedation. And a ball and chain attached to your foot. Only one of those things is a lie."

Gregor sighs. "I believe you."

"As it was, you were sedated almost immediately and brought here as fast as I could make them bring you, and you've been asleep in that bed for the last couple of days. ImpSec are outside the door, by the way. There are more of them all around the house. I'm sorry, it was the best I could do."

Gregor nods. "Is Simon... is he very angry with me?"

Cordelia gives him another smile. "Yes, Gregor. He is very angry with you. He is also very angry with me for bringing you here, and very angry with Aral for not stopping me, and very angry with Miles for, I don't know, existing, and very angry with the good Lord for creating Barrayar out of the firmament in the first place. He is currently a very angry man."

"I should..." Gregor pauses for a moment. "Promise never to do it again, I suppose."

"Oh, heart." Cordelia looks at him, sadly. "I think that to do that, you would have to mean it."

Gregor slumps back across his pillows. "Yes," he says, quietly, and looks out of the window again. The rain is being driven by the wind in random spatters across the window, running horizontally across the pane.

Cordelia shifts, and to his surprise, swings her feet up onto the covers so she's sitting entirely on the bed. "Dear," she said, after a while, "we can lie to the population all we like. In fact, Aral is doing it with aplomb just as we speak." Off his questioning look, she shrugs. "Something about a sudden illness, they'll be kept informed of any change, et cetera. But… Gregor. Don't lie to me, and especially not to yourself."

Gregor says thickly, "They forgot… they forgot to leave a guard. I think they thought I was asleep. It was a hard night. I had a bottle of... something. There were open windows – a balcony."

He's being incoherent, he knows, but it isn't for lack of memory. It was vivid, the feeling of freedom in that room, the fresh air coming in through the fluttering curtains, the comforting scent of night-blooming flowers. The sensation of momentary flight, the feeling like the bottom was falling out of the world. A flash of pain; then nothingness. It's the memory, he realises suddenly. It was another night and another balcony that did it.

Cordelia is staring at him again, and this time there's nothing unclear in her gaze. "Someone told me," she says quietly, "or tried to tell me, that they had registered the alcohol in your bloodstream, that it was probably a drunken mistake, that there should have been a guard or at least no balcony... but Miles told me you'd done this once before."

Gregor nods, feeling suddenly very, very tired. She notices the change, and with expert, deft fingers, pulls the covers up and around him, straightening his pillows without touching his head. "I'm going to let you sleep," she says, standing up. "Stay with us, Gregor."

She kisses his forehead before she goes away.

*

As usual, the room is decorated to perfection. Cordelia and Miles have their coats and wraps taken from them by armsmen and footmen, and are at once absorbed into the buzzing chatter of the room. "Lady Alys, you've outdone yourself," Cordelia says softly, waving a hand at the glittering milieu of people, sparkling champagne in glasses, the dancing beginning at the centre of the floor. "As always."

"Thank you, Cordelia." Alys is all formality, but there's a gratified quirk to her smile. From behind her, Simon Illyan smiles at Cordelia, a constant in his memory. "It's a pleasure to see you back in the capital," Alys is saying. "You too, my Lord Auditor."

Miles is still a little surprised by the title, Cordelia can tell. He drifts off in search of Ivan and Cordelia stands back for the moment. She'll wait for Aral to finish politicking with the Counts – he'd said something, wryly, of getting the tricky bits over before they all hit the wine – before doing any dancing herself. Her feet are already aching and she doesn't want them stepped on by over-eager young Vor. "Alys," she says, suddenly, "who's that with the Emperor?"

She inclines her head in the direction of Gregor and the strange woman; as is traditional, Gregor opened the dancing, but he doesn't look happy about it.

"Zoe Vorlotta," says Alys, wearily. "From a country Vor family, up for the season from her family's District. Beautiful, accomplished, speaks four languages, plays the dulcimer. Like all of them do. I despair, sometimes. He's always very polite in his refusals, but." She sighs, sounding uncharacteristically frustrated. "Barrayar needs an heir. Surely I shouldn't have to convince him of that."

The band strikes up a jaunty, familiar tune. Stripping the willow, Cordelia thinks, and decides that perhaps she'll dance after all. Ivan partners her for the first round, and then the dancers switch partners with the change in the rhythm. Cordelia finds herself dancing with Gregor, and as they twirl around each other, rests her head on his shoulder for a moment. "Five minutes of your time, love," she says, as quietly as she can. "I'll be in the garden."

He holds her gaze long enough for her to know he heard, and she dances off in the direction of a young count with a dazed expression.

She doesn't have to wait in the garden for too long. It's a beautiful night, with the dew coming down on the grass, and Gregor is as silent as a cat when he comes to stand next to her. "Your wish is my command, my lady," he says, and she smiles and turns.

"Where's your lovely dance partner?" she asks, and pats the space beside her on the wooden bench.

He sits down. "Inside, being charmed rotten by Miles and Ivan," he says, mildly. "All three of them seemed to be enjoying themselves, so I left them to it."

"She's very pretty," Cordelia says, and then curses herself for this sudden, very Barrayaran reticence. "Gregor... you know Lady Alys has been arranging for you to escort these Vor women for a reason, don't you?"

"It had crossed my mind, yes." He grins at her.

"And you haven't really liked any of them, have you?"

He shrugs, an unusual gesture for him. "I suppose not."

Cordelia groans inwardly and says, "Gregor. You know it's all right to tell me, if you don't like them? You know it's all right to like – well, others?"

"Given our general shortage of Betan hermaphrodites, I suppose you mean men?" He doesn't sound angry, which is a start, Cordelia thinks.

"Yes, men," she says, "and also... none. It's okay not to feel sexual desire. Some people never do, or very rarely, and that's..."

"Cordelia." Gregor takes her hand in his and smiles at her. "I'm thirty-four years old and I was raised in your household. I am aware of these things of which you speak."

"Oh," she says, feeling herself blush a little.

"It's just" – he hesitates – "Lady Alys means well, but these girls. They're pretty, but most of all, they're young. I don't think I was ever that young. I'd rather, well, I'd rather have someone I can talk to. Marriage is for the Barrayaran Imperium but it's also for me."

She nods. "I can understand that. "

"But thank you for thinking to ask." He squeezes her hand. "Shall we go back to the party?"

Before they can, Miles appears, shouting, "Zoe! He didn't mean anything by it! Ivan, you idiot... wait." He stops and squints. "You're not Ivan. You're Gregor. Hell, you're the Emperor, Gregor, that's pretty damn idiotic. Who'd be the emperor. That'll do."

He disappears again.

"My liege, Imperial Lord Auditor Vorkosigan," Gregor murmurs.

"He doesn't have the body mass for wine," his mother agrees, and they go inside.

*

Some months after the funeral, Cordelia burns no offerings. She assures her sons she'll be fine, that she needs a little time alone. Her voice is firm and doesn't shake, and they obey. She takes a lightflyer out to Vorkosigan Surleau and gathers a few things from old boxes. She finds a grotesque printed shirt at the bottom of one of them, and tries to smile at it. When night's falling and she's overawed by the silence in the house, she returns to the capital and requests an audience with the Emperor.

He receives her in the morning. It's a sunlit, cold day and they're on the upper level of the Imperial Residence, the dust motes stirring in whirls as they're disturbed by the curtains. He smiles at the sight of her, getting up to pour her some tea as she enters the room. "Cordelia," he says, warmly. "Have something to eat. Miles's cook keeps sending me pastries as a token of Ekaterin's regard. I've given up on trying to determine whom to thank."

Cordelia sits and doesn't say anything. She eats a tiny cake, perfectly finished with a sugared cherry, and then sits back. There's a concerned expression on Gregor's face, but he's giving her space, he's giving her time. Through the blur of thought, Cordelia feels a familiar rush of love for him.

"Gregor," she says carefully, "I need you to do something for me."

He smiles a little. "How can I help?"

"I need you to speak in your Voice." There it is, after decades; she's learned how to speak the Barrayaran way, in titles and honours and initial capitals.

The smile disappears, but he doesn't falter. "How may I be of service, Countess Vorkosigan?"

"I've served you a long time, sire," Cordelia says, and feels a little proud, inwardly, that she doesn't falter either. "I've served you through a pretendership, through a regency, through crisis and near-war. I've served you through times of deep, profound, political and social turmoil. I've served you through times of change. I hope I've served you well. Now I ask you only this in return: let me go home."

Gregor looks at her a long moment. With his hair ruffled and the table covered with unwashed breakfast things, he's every inch the absolute ruler of three worlds. When he speaks his voice is even. "It is my honour to thank you for your service, Dowager Countess Vorkosigan, Vicereine of Sergyar, and for your oaths to the Imperium. I hereby grant, with regret and reluctance, your freedom from those oaths, and thank you once more for the honour you have brought to Barrayar. Go well, my lady."

There's another one of those long silences, the two of them sitting with each other in the light from the window. Cordelia lets out a breath. "Well. That's that, then."

Gregor reaches for the pastry tray and puts another one on her plate. "You're really going to leave us?" he says, a little plaintively. "I suspected… but I suppose I allowed myself to hope you'd stay."

She shakes her head. "It's time, I think. We're at the point where Barrayar is making me feel old. And I'm really not, you know," she adds. "By Betan standards I'm halfway through my expected lifespan."

Gregor raises his eyebrows. "You'll outlive me."

"I hope not, sweetheart." She leans back in her chair and starts on the pastry. "Although" – she breathes a sigh, dislodging some of the whipped cream – "now I have to admit, I don't even know who I am, any more. Cordelia Naismith, Betan citizen?"

Gregor grins. "You're Miles's mother. You're Mark's mother. You're mother-in-law to Ekaterin and Kareen. You're a grandma and step-grandma. According to certain members of the Count of Counts, you were the beginning of the end for Barrayar. You're the only person in the universe Alys Vorpatril is scared of and that only sometimes. You're high Vor."

"I am not," she huffs.

"You've borne the name almost as long as I've been alive," he reminds her. "And you're my mother."

"Oh, no, dear heart," Cordelia says, softly. "Kareen's your ma."

Gregor nods his head, smiling. "Of course. But… I don't remember her. I remember you."

Impulsively, Cordelia kisses the top of his head. "I don't have to tell you how to be Emperor. But be good to yourself. Be good to Laisa. The rest will take care of itself."

As she leaves the room, she knows he's standing there, still with that small smile on his lips and a mess with pastry crumbs. She doesn't have to look back.