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Family in a Box (Some Assembly Required)

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The third time Nikki met the Emperor was also the first time he met his soon-to-be-stepfather's foster brother. The Emperor's wedding had been a few weeks before--Nikki's Mama had gotten engaged to Lord Vorkosigan just a couple of weeks before that--and now Nikki had to put on his best new suit of clothes and go along to a dinner at the Imperial Residence.

"A family dinner," Nikki's (almost) Step-da had said. "A private family dinner--the sort of thing we could have here if Gregor were willing to put ImpSec through that set of headaches on short notice right after they did such a good job of keeping him and Laisa hidden away through the honeymoon. And they want to show off the baby, of course."

The baby (of course) wasn't really a baby yet. It was just a little blob of cells in a replicator. But it was going to grow up to be the Crown Prince, so it--he--already had his own bedroom in the Imperial Residence, though there wasn't much in it except the big machine with its blinking green lights and readout screens, and a couple of men in Vorbarra livery.

The Emperor and Empress--Gregor and Laisa, to Nikki's (promised) Step-da, because he had grown up as the Emperor's foster brother--showed off the baby, such as it was, before dinner. Nikki would have liked to look more closely at the big machine and all its readouts, but his Mama had a funny look on her face, staring at it, and Nikki didn't want to think about why. He hung back until the adults got tired of staring at it--which took a long time, and they weren't even trying the different buttons or anything--and then they all went out to a little terrace in the garden to eat.

Dinner wasn't too weird, at least. It was a lot like eating at Vorkosigan House with the Count and Countess, who insisted that they were already Nikki's Grandda and Grandma Vorkosigan. They didn't have any grandkids, and Nikki had always been a little short of grandparents--only one grandmother and one grandfather since he could remember--so that seemed all right. And the names he used were already different for Grandmere Vorsoisson and Grandfather Vorvayne, so having a Grandda and Grandma Vorkosigan didn't mess things up.

Just like them, the Emperor and Empress asked Nikki and his Mama getting-to-know-you questions, the kind you got from a new teacher or a new school-friend's parents. Nikki had been through that routine every year since he started school, and it wasn't so bad as long as he didn't think too much about who he was talking to--it was easier with the Empress, who he'd never met before. She made his Mama laugh, talking about Komarr. But when he looked at the Emperor he couldn't forget the first two times they'd met, and it made it hard to swallow his food.

He asked, using his best manners as his Mama had drilled him, if he could go inside for a moment, while the grownups were still fiddling with their desserts instead of cleaning their plates. His Mama told him he could go--she glanced over at the Emperor before she said it, but the Emperor didn't nod or shake his head, only said, "You remember where everything is, don't you, Nikki?"

Nikki nodded and then made a little bow to the table before turning away and walking to the door. He went to the bathroom first, just because he was sure where it was, and that he could go there. When he was done he hesitated. There wasn't anything to play with in the Emperor and Empress's private apartment in the Imperial Residence, and he was sure he shouldn't go beyond these rooms without specific permission. There was a library here, but he didn't think the Emperor would have any Captain Vortalon comics.

Nikki hesitated in the hallway just outside the nursery. He could go in and look at the machine, maybe, but then there were those guards....

One of them--the one who looked a bit like Armsman Roic, except black-haired--stuck his head out the door while Nikki was still trying to decide whether to venture inside.

"It's all right," the Armsman said with a little smile, beckoning him inside. "You're family, you're allowed to visit whenever you like."

Nikki stepped inside, frowning. "Family?"

"Sure," the Armsman said. "Your mother proposed to Lord Vorkosigan in front of hundreds of witnesses including the Emperor, and he said yes and hasn't shown any sign of taking it back since. Back in the Time of Isolation that would be as binding as a marriage, and Vorbarras and Vorkosigans are traditional enough to hold to that. Lord Vorkosigan's as good as your Step-da, and one way or another that makes you the little prince's cousin."

Nikki frowned harder. "I've never had a little cousin before."

It was easier to say that than to say he didn't know how to be a cousin to a prince. Nikki followed the Armsman over to the machine, where the second Armsman was waiting. They had a couple of chairs, now that the grownups weren't all here, set up between the replicator and the door, but they were both standing, as if Nikki were important enough to stand for. As if he were a prince's cousin, and not a boy who might play with their sons after school.

"You'll get the hang of it," the second Armsman volunteered. He was older, even older than Arthur's Da. "He's too young to notice if you're not an expert yet--you've got a good head start on him."

"And good practice for you, too, hey?" said the black-haired Armsman. "In a year or two you'll have one of these at your house, with your little brother cooking in it."

The older Armsman glared at the black-haired one, like that was a secret, or something Nikki couldn't have figured out by himself. Lord Vorkosigan--his Step-da--had sat down and talked to him about it a week ago, about all the things it would mean for Nikki's Mama to become Lady Vorkosigan, but Nikki had worked it out even before that. Still, it was different, seeing the machine and knowing there would be one just like it in some room at Vorkosigan House--maybe the room next to the one Nikki had picked out to be his. And after that there'd be a baby, a baby brother. Half-brother, Vorkosigan brother, but still. Maybe he did need some practice, at that.

Nikki clasped his hands behind his back and read the labels on the blinking lights. He cautiously touched the readout screen he'd seen the Empress touch before. The same blob of cells from appeared. Nikki squinted at it, trying to imagine it becoming a baby--a prince, his cousin. He tried to imagine having a baby brother, but he could hardly even imagine really living at Vorkosigan House.

The nursery door opened again and Nikki jumped guiltily, even though they'd said he could come in--his Mama probably wanted him to come back outside and be polite--but it wasn't his Mama at the door. It was Emperor Gregor.

"Ah," he said. "I thought I might find you here."

Nikki glanced at the Armsmen. They'd both straightened up tall--the same way Arthur's Da did when Nikki's Step-da or Grandda or Grandma came into the room--but the older one winked at Nikki. Nikki smiled.

Emperor Gregor smiled too, and came all the way in. He didn't say anything, but both Armsmen went straight to the hall door and out, shutting it behind them, leaving Nikki alone with the Emperor. And his cousin-to-be.

The Emperor came over to stand by Nikki. He reached out and touched the readout screen--even on magnification he could cover up the whole little blob with two fingers.

"Before your Step-da was born," the Emperor said, "he was in a replicator. I went with his parents to visit him a few times at ImpMil--he had to be near the doctors, instead of at home. It was an older model and it didn't have a picture readout like this, so I was always imagining that there was a little baby shut up in that box. I thought only babies who were sick, or hurt, came from replicators."

Nikki looked up at the Emperor, and then over at the replicator, trying to think of something to say to that. "Lots of my friends on Komarr were born from replicators," he offered. "But I wasn't. Mama said if I had been, they would have been able to fix my bad genes sooner. The Vorzohn's Dystrophy," he added, giving it its full name. He wasn't afraid to say it right out loud.

The Emperor nodded, tapping his fingers gently against the readout screen. "That's one reason for this. We could make sure the baby's genes were all the best, with nothing dangerous."

Nikki bit his lip. It was one thing for him to say Vorzohn's Dystrophy right out loud and defy anyone to call him a mutie. It was another to ask the Emperor whether he had mutie genes he didn't want the Crown Prince to get. But Empress Laisa came from Komarr, and practically everyone on Komarr came from a replicator--and the Empress had been a Toscane. Even at Nikki's Barrayaran school they knew who the Toscanes were. They didn't have bad genes.

Nikki looked up at the Emperor to find him looking down at Nikki with a smile. He said, "Mad Emperor Yuri was my great uncle, Nikki. There were some things I didn't want to pass on. Not as easy to screen for as Vorzohn's Dystrophy, but we did what we could."

Nikki looked up at the Emperor, wide-eyed. It was strange to think that Mad Emperor Yuri had been someone's great-uncle--the great-uncle of someone Nikki knew. Nikki wondered what it would be like if all sorts of people knew his Uncle Vorthys because he'd done something terrible, instead of because he was a professor and Auditor.

The Emperor looked back over at the replicator. "Not the only reason, though. This is more fair for the lady, too. When my mother was pregnant with me she had to spend nearly three months in bed, at the end. That won't happen to Laisa."

Nikki had seen pictures of Princess Kareen in his history books. They had never mentioned her staying in bed for three months, or anything else about her other than that she'd gotten married, had a baby, and then died. But in between she'd been somebody's Mama.

"It won't happen to my Mama either," Nikki said, after another pause while he tried to think of what to say.

The Emperor looked down at Nikki and nodded seriously. "No, it won't."

Nikki looked at the machine again. The Emperor had taken his hand away from the readout screen, and Nikki reached out cautiously to set his own fingers down on the same spot, touching the image of the little blob of cells.

The Emperor said, "I bet your Mama and Step-da have already asked you how you feel about that. About having a little brother, after they get married."

Nikki shrugged, nodded, and didn't look up. He hadn't known what to say to his Mama or Step-da, and he didn't know what to say to the Emperor, either.

"I never had any brothers or sisters except for Miles," the Emperor said. "Count and Countess Vorkosigan--they were Lord and Lady, then--became my guardians a few months before he was born, so I got these new parents and then a new brother not long after. Cordelia kept asking me how I felt about things, and I never knew what to say to her, especially about having a new baby brother. How could I feel anything about it? He wasn't there yet, even if we did go visit him in his replicator a couple of times."

Nikki looked up at the Emperor, then. "She didn't ask me," Nikki said. "But she said if I want to complain about him later on, I could always complain to her and she wouldn't mind. She said I'm already her grandson so I get to complain first and my little brother can say his side later."

The Emperor smiled. "Well, there, you see? She learned that from me."

Nikki smiled back.

"Miles mentioned that, that Cordelia and Aral are already your Grandma and Grandda Vorkosigan."

Nikki looked away again and nodded. "Did you--when they were your guardians, did you call them Mama and Da?"

The Emperor didn't say anything for so long that Nikki had to look up again. He had a funny kind of frown on his face, and he was staring at one of the little gauges on the machine like it was even more interesting than the picture-readout.

"No," he said finally, looking down at Nikki. "It was... there was a political situation, always, that intruded into our private life. Because I was the Emperor, because of who my Da had been, I couldn't put your Grandda into his place, or your Grandma into my mother's place. I called them Lord and Lady Vorkosigan, and then when I was grown up I started calling them by their first names, because they were people I worked with--for a long time while Count Vorkosigan was Prime Minister, we worked together every day, just like two men in the same workshop or laboratory."

Nikki knew, from his history books and from some of the things his Step-da and the Emperor had said over dinner, that the Emperor had been only five years old when Princess Kareen--when his Mama--died. Ever since then he'd had no one to call Mama or Da. Nikki's throat got tight at that thought. He tried never to think about what would have happened to him if his Mama had had an accident too, right after his Da.

After his Da was killed, he corrected his thought, and looked up at the Emperor again, remembering the first time he'd met him. He'd asked then if he'd have to fight a duel against Lord Vorkosigan, and now Lord Vorkosigan was (practically) his Step-da. And because of that, this baby was going to be his cousin, and that made the Emperor....

"What should I call you?" Nikki said.

The Emperor didn't look offended, or say something obvious like Sire. "Who do you suppose I am, to you? You know that I'm going to be a part of your family, once your Mama marries Miles, but what do you think that makes us?"

Nikki shrugged stiffly, even though he did know. It was still too strange a thing to say about the Emperor, the man who'd told him about his Da, the man who'd sent ImpSec to rescue him from his father's kidnapping cousin.

"I'm to call Lord Ivan Uncle Ivan," Nikki said. "Even though he's my Step-da's cousin, because he says there aren't enough brothers around in their family and he won't get nephews any other way. Except there's Lord Mark, he's to be my Uncle Mark, he said so. And then Miss Kareen said I was to call her Tante Kareen, not just on account of her going with my Uncle Mark but because my Grandma Vorkosigan is her Tante Cordelia because their mothers are friends," Nikki raised one hand and traced the crooked diagonal kinship lines in air, "and that makes her and all her sisters my tantes, too. But then that means maybe Count Vorrutyer is to be my uncle? And Commodore Galeni? I haven't even met them, really."

The Emperor smiled. "I have been finding out that once you start this business of making family by adding just one person, it grows very rapidly. And often in unexpected directions. Some of Laisa's more distant cousins are quite fascinating people."

Nikki immediately decided that he could safely say Count Vorrutyer--whether he was Nikki's uncle or not--was a quite fascinating person, if anyone ever asked.

He raised his eyes to meet the Emperor's gaze. "So you're my uncle, too?"

The Emperor nodded slowly. "I would like to be, yes."

Nikki's mouth moved around Uncle Gregor, but he couldn't quite say it. "Uncle... Emperor?"

The Emperor grinned, and Nikki smiled back despite his uncertainty.

Nikki's new Uncle put his hand on Nikki's shoulder and squeezed. "We can start there and see what happens."