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Lessons in Interrogation

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"Just look at it!" Lady Alys said in exasperation. "Cracked right through. I don't know what you were thinking."

The Emperor of three worlds, who had one of the most feared armies in the galaxy sworn to his name and breath, cringed. "Um--" he began.

"And don't think you can shelter Miles from me," Alys continued. "Ivan's already confessed the whole thing." She folded her arms and stared at Gregor.

It was Simon's job to defend the Emperor, with his life if necessary, but there were some lines of fire he didn't have to jump into, and he stood a few steps back with a deliberately blank face. Lady Cordelia had lectured him just last week on the importance of making sure the Emperor had a normal childhood, and getting into trouble, getting caught and getting told off was undoubtedly part of that. Which meant he could stand here and admire. As far as he knew, Alys had had no training as an interrogator, but her instincts were flawless. She had separated the three miscreants, broken the easiest with a single look and was now attacking the most important. Miles, she was leaving for last. It was exactly what he would have done.

"We were rescuing hostages," Gregor said finally. "From Count Vlad the Terrible. Miles said--I mean, we decided to put a rope around the front there so that they could climb down, and then it ... didn't work." He looked up at the broken statue. "It's only Emperor Pierre," he added, his lowered voice not quite softening the defiant words. "He wasn't even a proper emperor."

Simon caught the faint flicker of amusement in Alys's face, but he was sure Gregor had not. At least the Emperor was paying attention to his history lessons. Emperor Pierre had ruled over Vorbarra's District and had counted some of the neighbouring counts as his vassals, but he'd only lasted two years before being overthrown by Emperor Serg, now carved beside him and also, Simon noticed, slightly cracked from the recent adventure.

"Those statues were carved by Rolin himself," Lady Alys stated. "The stone was given to to your House by the people of Vorsmythe's District. It took two years to complete the work. And now three little boys destroy it playing silly games."

That seemed something of an exaggeration to Simon. Yes, they'd managed to break an arm off the statue of Emperor Pierre and do some minor damage to two other statues, but he was fairly sure it could be repaired. His definition of destruction was rather more comprehensive.

Gregor stared at his feet for a minute, then straightened manfully. "It was my fault," he said. "I'm the oldest, and--and I'm Emperor. It's my fault."

Alys's eyes gleamed. Simon had already witnessed Ivan claiming all responsibility for the accident, and was fairly sure he was about to witness Miles doing the same. He let himself smile a little, just as he had when Ivan had owned up to being the one who'd actually broken the statue.

"I see," she said coolly. "Very well. Your punishment will be to write a letter of apology to the sculptor Rolin and request his help in repairing the damage. Show it to me before you send it, please."

The Emperor stood straight. "Yes, Aunt Alys."

At her nod, he went back towards the entrance, where he was joined by his tutor and an Armsman. Simon turned to Lady Alys. "They are good boys," he said, since it was, after all, his job to defend the Emperor. "Loyal to each other."

"I know. It's good to see." She looked up at the facade and shook her head. "Loyal, but full of mischief."

"Making the Emperor write to Rolin seems a little harsh," Simon said, picturing himself trying to do something like that at that age. "He's only eleven."

Lady Alys's face changed suddenly, turning sere and distant. "When Aral was eleven," she observed in a voice that chilled him, "he was writing letters on behalf of his father to rally support against Yuri. And on behalf of his mother. I think Gregor can apologise for breaking a statue."

Vor, Simon thought. He was never going to understand the Vor. He'd understood Lady Alys as an auntishly severe interrogator; as a stern Vor lady she was beyond his reach. But he took the point. And learning diplomacy was undoubtedly part of Gregor's upbringing; better that it should be on relatively unimportant matters for now.

"Besides," Alys said, her tone lightening, "Rolin would never come out of retirement to repair it if I asked him." A flickering smile touched her lips, making her look almost girlish. "Before I was married, my mother took me to an exhibition of his work. I didn't like it, and said so, a little too loudly. Rolin heard me, and that was the end of my father's attempt to commission a statue for Vorlightly House."

Simon laughed outright, and she looked at him as intently as if she'd never seen him before, suddenly silent. Then she seemed to shake herself. "And now it's Miles's turn," she said, becoming the severe aunt again.

"What's his punishment going to be?" Simon asked.

"He," Alys stated flatly, "will have to explain all this to Aral."

Simon winced. "You know," he said, "if you ever feel like a different life, I could use someone with your talents at HQ."

"Oh," Alys said with another smile, "I think I'm more useful right where I am."