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Shattered At Your Feet

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Count Vorkosigan sat by his father’s grave, one hand resting on the freshly packed earth. The grass was beginning to grow, death to life, life for death. In the center, a bare burned patch exposed black soil and grey ash. Miles had not brought an offering today.

He had sat like this beside his grandfather’s grave. The words had come easily then: shouted defiance or desperate pleas. He knew what he wanted from his grandfather, knew what he would never win from the old man’s silent bones. He wondered now if old Count Piotr might have reconsidered his decision to deny Miles his patronymic, if he could have seen this end for all of them. Keep it, old man. He had done well enough with what he had.

Miles couldn’t decide what it was he needed from his father’s cold remains. Not love, not acceptance. He had those. He did not always earn them, but he had never really doubted them, not in his heart. Did he seek absolution? Understanding? Those would never come from the still ground. What was it, about offering and memory and pain, that kept eyes turned backwards instead of forwards? He should be talking to his children, not his parents.

His fingers dug into the dark earth, stirring the fledgling stalks of grass. You’re stalling. He drew breath. “I found the vids.”

#

ImpSec had tried to claim the former Regent and Sergyaran Viceroy’s private files. Allegre, to his credit, tried to couch it in terms of sparing the new count the chore. Every file would need to be reviewed; every fact considered. Miles had put his foot down, and Gregor had stood quietly behind him. Allegre had retreated. “I hope you will let us know if anything important is in there, my lord,” he said, a bit plaintively.

“Mm,” Miles had answered him, non-committal. Allegre had refrained from scowling openly, probably only out of respect for the dead.

Miles had not touched the collection until after his father’s funeral, and had then closed himself in a dimly lit basement room. Ekaterin had pressed her ear to the door once, but not knocked. When he came out for lunch, he was subdued and quiet, but nothing beyond what she would have expected. She relaxed a bit, and carried the conversation. His mother had watched him more closely, but she was wrapped in her own cloak of grief and pain, and did not try to pull his aside.

He went back down to the basement after eating.

It was not done in a day, or a week. There were decades worth of material, a half-century’s collection of secrets at the highest level. Miles overrode every lock with his auditor’s seal, opening doors that should have remained closed forever. His father had saved with a historian’s eye to posterity.

Four files, when Miles overrode them, threw up a warning: For the Emperor’s eyes only. Miles hesitated, then saved them to a separate disk, unviewed. He would put the disk in Gregor’s hand.

There were hundreds of hours of video. Miles skipped some, watched others. He saved them all. How much of his father’s life was visible through those, he did not know. He could spend a lifetime watching them all; he did not have a lifetime to spend. He did watch the video of Mad Emperor Yuri’s execution, saw his father as a boy of thirteen taking the first cut. He felt oddly dispassionate at the sight.

He skimmed his father’s report on the Komarran invasion, having read it before. He watched the video of the Solstice Massacre, seeing the bodies fall. He read memos and reports and notes. He read the personnel file of Alain Mathurin, the political officer whose disastrous decision to carry out the Massacre had haunted his father for all of his life. He seemed an ordinary man: how peculiar.

When he found the conversation between his father and Mathurin, therefore, he played it, hoping for insight into his character.

#

Alain Mathurin had received his orders over eight hours ago, but Admiral Vorkosigan was resolutely refusing to discuss them with him. He had narrowly missed him three times, and was on the verge of arresting the man’s chief of staff just to lure him into a predictable location. He paced, tapping his data disk against his palm, in Vorkosigan’s office. He would give Vorkosigan two hours, no more. In two more hours, he would arrest Vorkosigan himself, and damn the look of the thing.

Vorkosigan arrived eighteen minutes before Mathurin’s self-imposed deadline. He paused just inside the door, his expression resigned as he took in Mathurin’s presence. He removed his jacket and folded it across a chair, then turned back.

“You’ll be gratified to know they are still more afraid of you than of me, Alain,” he said with faint, wry humor. “No one warned me you were waiting.”

Mathurin scowled. “I don’t want fear, Lord Vorkosigan,” he said, his voice as prim as he could keep it. “I want respect.”

“From military men?” Vorkosigan snorted. “Good luck with that.” He moved behind his desk, spun his chair around, and straddled it, folding his arms across the back. “What do you want, Alain?”

Mathurin threw the datadisk onto the desk in front of Vorkosigan. He thought he saw a small flinch, and tried not to feel smug. “In the Emperor’s own voice,” he said.

Vorkosigan stared down at the disk. “No,” he said after a moment, his voice clear and firm.

“Treason, my lord?” Mathurin asked.

The silence rested a moment in the room. Vorkosigan’s jaw worked. Mathurin waited him out.

“No,” Vorkosigan said at last, his tone different. “But the situation has changed. I pledged my name’s honor and the honor of the Empire on their safety.”

“You may recall,” Mathurin said, “that I strenuously advised against that oath.”

Vorkosigan waved a hand as if to brush away gnats. “It was done.”

“Then eat it,” Mathurin said. At the acid in his voice, Vorkosigan’s eyes snapped up from their contemplation of the disk. “Next time, do not give your word when it is not yours to give. Though you may not like to credit it, Admiral, the Emperor is capable of making his own decisions about what will serve his interests.”

He did not like the trace of pity in Vorkosigan’s answering half-smile, and went on doggedly. “And regardless of what you may think of them, these are my orders. And this is a political matter, not a military one.”

“It is an illegal order,” Vorkosigan said, trying a new tactic.

It was a weak one. “An illegal order? From the Emperor himself?”

“No. From you. I have no order from the Emperor.”

Mathurin’s lip curled at this unexpected bit of barracks-lawyering, but paused before answering. He studied Vorkosigan’s calm features, knowing what must be roiling beneath the surface. “Very well,” he said, opening his hand. Vorkosigan straightened in some surprise, his eyes narrowing. Mathurin held his hand up to forestall him. “Do you want a legal order, Aral?” he asked. “Take a tour of the dome. Bring your senior officers with you. Reassure the citizens that all will be well.” Their eyes locked. Mathurin added, bitterly, “Be careful of where you pledge your word, though. Guard your honor.”

Watching Vorkosigan, Mathurin wondered how much weight a man’s soul could hold before cracking. More than this, he thought. Vorkosigan had a load-bearing soul. He fancied he could see the precise moment where the man’s honor gave way beneath the pressure of inevitability. His shoulders moved; his eyes changed focus, as if looking into himself. He said only, “Understood. When?”

“Now.”

Vorkosigan’s jaw moved, as if he might add something, but he did not speak. He rose from his chair and left, grabbing his coat as he passed through the door.

#

The next day, as Alain Mathurin felt Vorkosigan grab his tunic, felt the strong hands grip his head and wrench, the realization that Vorkosigan had other ways to guard his Emperor’s honor was entirely too late to be of any use.

#

Miles had been thirty-three, too old to still think of as “the boy”, when he’d joined Aral in the garden that day at Vorkosigan Surleau. It was a habit Aral couldn’t seem to shake, no matter how he had disliked it in men of his father’s generation. He had promised himself, then, that he would never do the same to his own children. But he had been a different man then.

After an exchange of greetings, Miles sat silent for a time. Aral recognized a soul in turmoil – he had seen it often enough from the inside – and gave the boy time to unwind himself. The sun was warm, though the air had the early nip of autumn, and Aral closed his eyes, bathing in the heat.

“You asked me once,” Miles said finally, “whether Illyan had ever used me in an assassination.”

Aral slitted his eyes open again, and turned to look at Miles, who was staring up at the rustling leaves. Their shadows made the light across the garden floor dance. “I don’t think I ever had a straight answer to that,” he said after a brief pause.

Miles shook his head, and didn’t volunteer anything else. After a moment, Aral ventured, “Case not going well, then?” Miles had been in a black humor for days about his current case. Aral had not asked questions: if he had, Miles would likely have answered, but the Viceroy of Sergyar was almost certainly not in the need-to-know pool for whatever domestic wasp nest Miles was poking with his Auditorial stick.

“We closed it today.” Miles grimaced. “It was… a mess.”

“Most things are, when you get down deep enough.”

“Something at the end… made me think. I never told you… when I was first taking command of the Dendarii Mercenaries, with Bothari and Elena, we had a situation where we needed –“ Miles cut himself off, and Aral thought he could see the boy decide to do away with the distancing words. “We needed information. I told the sergeant to get it. And the poor pilot officer died of the injuries.”

Aral sat very still, checking responses and reactions before he let anything show. First, and sickeningly, was the quiet pity, almost mocking: Oh, son. Is this your idea of a great sin? Thousands of dead laughed in echoes from the back of his skull, the betrayed, unsung martyrs of the Escobaran war, the dead Komarran oligarchs, the patriots who had been slaughtered in the streets of the Komarran domes, lying cold and still, soaked in blood and righteous anger.

But he looked at Miles, at his son, and asked instead, “What happened today?”

“I found… myself,” Miles said. “Half of a lifetime ago, walking down the same damnably stupid path, reckless and heedless. He’ll die for it, though. By my word.”

They brooded over this together for a moment. “Do you wish yourself dead, then?” Aral asked.

The brief pause that followed this question was, Aral judged, not an attempt to decide, but an attempt to reason. “No,” Miles said at last.

“I can’t give you absolution, boy,” said Aral. “Nor justice. Nor peace.” More’s the pity. There were deep wells of that peace out there – including one in the core of Cordelia – but they were not his for the dispensing, or the world would be an easier place.

“No,” Miles said again, exhaling the word on a sigh. “Harra Csurik told me once that you just go on, and eventually you find your life again. But the same stories play over again, and sometimes, they have different endings. There’s no going on for that stupid child the way there was for me.”

Aral considered these words for a moment. “No,” he said at last. “And perhaps you deserved a chance no more than he did.” He remembered Carl Vorhalas’s face, pale and trying for bravery, as he went to die for his accidental duel. “Perhaps less. For his sake, then, I hope you bought something precious with your extra years.”

It was not enough, but it was all he had to give. They sat in silence in the garden, watching the trees sink down into their winter sleep.

#

“I wish we had a chance to say all of this while you were still here,” Miles told the still earth, his voice low.

The words would not come, but perhaps they did not need to. Too many times, he had been burned down and built up, and seen the fractured patchwork man lumber up from the darkness. He thought he had understood his father, but there were depths he had not known, and never would, now.

“I always thought there would be more time.”

But time had come to its end, as it always must. His drive for recognition and respect had carried him on and away, wasting the minutes and days he had. He had wanted to be acknowledged for himself. He knelt now, the Great Man’s Son, in homage to the man who was seen but not complete and the man who was complete and not seen. He wondered if his mother knew, and knew that he would never tell her.

“It has always,” he said at last, “been an honor and a privilege to be your son.” The words echoed oddly in the still air. History could write itself. They all moved on.