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Hostage Negotiation Is the Family Business

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After the tropical paradise of Ylla, Jackson’s Whole seemed like a frozen wasteland; but by the third day of his visit, Ivan was beginning to think it had its points. There was something to be said for being the guest and son-in-law of powerful warlords; servants were always offering you hot toddies, and you got one of the most comfortable places by the fire. And the winter sports, as Tej had promised, were very good. Even Byerly seemed to have developed a previously unsuspected passion for cross-country float-skiing, and if you left out the fact that he spent half the day picking out the right ski jacket and scarf for the occasion, he was surprisingly good at it.

“It looks so ... pure,” Ivan mused, leaning on a ski pole and looking out over the valley of freshly-fallen snow. “You’d never think it was the most corrupt place in the galaxy.”

“Technically speaking,” said By, gliding to a stop beside him, “for something to be corrupt, I think it has to have fallen from a state of original innocence. I’m not sure this planet ever had one.”

“It’s ... beautiful, anyway. I wouldn’t have expected that.”

“Yes. I like this spot.”

“It’s getting dark,” said Ivan after a moment. “Race you back?”

“Not just yet. I brought you here because I have something very particular to say to you, and I didn’t care to say it within the walls of House Cordonah's compound, as the Arquas are no doubt listening in on all of the conversations that occur there. Or even in the very primeval-looking conifer forest we just came through, because given the local level of genetic expertise, it’s entirely possible that the trees have ears...”

Just as long as they don’t have kittens, Ivan thought with a shudder.

“... So this place seemed about right. Nicely remote.”

“How do you know they haven’t bugged our ski poles?” asked Ivan. “Did you think of that?”

“I did think of that, which is why I borrowed Shiv’s instead of using mine. I don’t think he would bug his own ski poles – I suppose Erik might have done so at one time, but Erik isn’t in any condition to overhear anything at the moment. And you, because you’re such an impossibly tall person, are using the haut Moira’s.”

Ivan gulped. “Next time you decide to steal something on my behalf, do you think you could make it something that doesn’t belong to a person who holds grudges for one hundred years?

“No, because there aren’t any people like that around here. Anyway, she won’t notice, because she hasn’t been skiing in years, but if she does, you may blame it all on me. I’ve found it useful to cultivate a reputation as a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles – all quite harmless, of course, the sort of absent-minded kleptomania that occurs sometimes among relatives – I borrow things without asking, but then I remember they aren’t mine and give them back. Usually. Eventually.”

“You weren’t very successful at borrowing the haut Moira’s brooch.”

Byerly, already flushed from cold air and exertion, went even ruddier. “There were guards around it. With ordinary objects, it’s much simpler.”

“Was any of that what you brought me out here to say? Because I'm getting cold.”

“In a sense. Preamble to it, anyway. I wanted to tell you, first of all, that I’ve borrowed something just for you, in a general spirit of affinal helpfulness –”

“Why do you always talk as if you’d swallowed a dictionary?

“You’ve never complained about that before, from which I infer that I’ve never stumped you before. Allow me to savor the moment. Affinal; pertaining to kinship by marriage; in other words, brother-in-lawish. I realize that you and I are not brothers-in-law in the legal sense, but in practical terms I think we are. Now, where was I?”

“If you can’t keep track of where you were, I don’t see why you’re expecting me to.”

“Ah, but at least I know where I was going. Right. I gathered from some of the dinner-table conversation last night that you and Tej are thinking of jumping into the treacherous waters of parenthood, so I thought I’d better nick this from Pidge’s study. She’ll have read it, which means that you ought to.”

Byerly produced a book from under his ski jacket: A Short Guide to Barrayaran Laws Governing Birth, Adoption, Custody, and Inheritance. “Short,” Ivan noted, was obviously a relative term. “Is this some sort of puzzle? I don’t like puzzles.”

“I know. I have heard you, on several occasions, wax eloquent about your preference for flow charts. Think of this as a four-hundred-and-thirty-seven-page flow chart. Hours of binary and linear fun.”

“Won’t you at least tell me what the important parts are?”

“It’s all important. Or potentially important, anyway. And, Ivan?”

“What?”

“Don’t forget that the family business is hostage negotiation. It’s what these people do.”

* * *

Ivan dutifully began reading A Short Guide to Barrayaran Laws Governing Birth, Adoption, Custody, and Inheritance that evening, as the rest of the family gathered for a friendly (and only moderately cutthroat) game of Great House. He continued to read it on the following day, making careful notes.

He skipped the section on adoption, as it didn’t seem likely to apply, as well as the one about the status and rights of acknowledged bastards, which seemed curiously well-thumbed.

By the time the Baron and Baronne called him and Tej into their private study, he was prepared.

* * *

“I’ve always been very fond of little girls,” said the Baron. “That’s why we had eight of them. We’ve got lots of dollhouses and dresses and things left over – I’ve been saving them, just in case we ever had a granddaughter. One of my great regrets is that we’ve had to wait much longer than I would have expected, but I still dare to hope that one day...”

“I was set on having a boy, so I could name him after my father,” said Ivan – mindful of the Barrayaran laws about gender and child custody. He’d already been familiar with the general principle, but the book had included a useful chart showing exactly which male relatives could claim custody in the event of the father’s death, which was enough to reassure him that he was doing the right thing.

“Ivan Xav’s father died very tragically just before he was born,” Tej added. “His mother told me all about it. It’s very important to them both that they honor him properly.”

The Baron opened his copy of Ten Thousand Authentic Ethnic Baby Names from Old Earth, Their Meanings and Geographical Origins. “Padma. P-A-D-M-A. Origin, Sanskrit for ‘lotus.’ Commonly used in India for infants of either sex.”

“On Barrayar, it’s always a boy’s name,” said Ivan.

“Perhaps,” the Baronne mused, “a girl with that name would be more comfortable being raised somewhere other than Barrayar.”

Oh shit, thought Ivan. I walked right into that one.

Tej came to his rescue. “Ivan Xav’s very determined to raise his children on Barrayar. He’s patriotic, you know.”

“A commendable sentiment,” said the Baronne. “Does Barrayar return your husband’s devotion, I wonder? It is my understanding that your Cetagandan ancestry would disqualify any of your descendants from the Imperial throne, in perpetuity.” She looked across the table at Pidge, who had not yet spoken.

Pidge was looking as if she were at a distinct disadvantage without her copy of A Short Guide to Barrayaran Laws Governing Birth, Adoption, Custody, and Inheritance, but she said, “That appears to be correct.” Ivan, who knew that it was correct, did not demur.

“On Jackson’s Whole,” the Baron remarked, “there are no laws disqualifying anyone from any position by an accident of birth. Merit, not bloodlines.”

“From all I’ve heard, it’s more like bloodthirstiness, not bloodlines,” said Ivan.

The Baron nodded, unoffended. “That, too.”

“One does, however, like to know one’s grandchildren,” said the Baronne. “Our chief mistake with Erik was designating him as our heir in his infancy, before we had a chance to find out what sort of person he was. It seemed, at the time, important to establish a clear line of succession ... but we are not likely to make the same mistake again.”

“I don’t think either the Imperial camp stool or a Jacksonian baronage would suit my son,” said Ivan quickly. “Not if he takes after me. Nice, quiet life, ordinary desk job, that would be much more his style.”

“But he doesn’t have to take after you,” said Udine. “We would be more than happy to make ... modifications.” Her tone suggested that she regarded modifications as highly advisable, in this particular case.

“Also,” Shiv added, “the word ‘son’ seems to beg a question that has not yet been decided.”

“Actually,” said Ivan, “this whole conversation is begging a question that has not yet been decided, since we hadn’t absolutely made up our minds about children yet.”

The temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees as he and his in-laws looked steadily at each other. Ivan didn’t blink. For people with eleven children, the Arquas had a surprising lack of other grandchildren, so he thought he held most of the bargaining chips. But they didn’t seem to be blinking either.

“Besides, Dada, I want a little boy,” said Tej.

“Well, why didn’t you say so before, darling? All right, a boy first.”

“Deal,” said Ivan. “I’m glad we understand each other so well.”

“Deal,” said Shiv. “Then a girl after that.”

Only boys,” said Ivan. “Little girls are too complicated. You have to know about – about dresses and coming-out parties and ... dance lessons and things.” (Little girls are hostages. And pawns in the marriage-brokering games your family likes to play.)

We can supply the dance lessons,” said the Baronne. “In-House, so to speak.”

“I want lots of little boys,” said Tej, in an exceptionally blithe, burbling sort of voice. “And I want them to have horses, and go camping in the mountains, and go to Ivan Xav’s old school.”

“Yes, I’ve always hoped to give my sons the kind of childhood I had,” said Ivan. This was as perfect an opening as he could hope for, so he knew he would have to seize it, but ... dammit, he didn’t like playing this kind of game. “I never had a brother, of course, but I had a couple of what you might call foster brothers. I’m sure Pidge can tell you all about foster-brother relationships on Barrayar, since they have a sort of quasi-legal status – I think they come up a lot in case law, isn’t that right, Pidge?”

“Yes,” said Pidge. She did not elaborate.

“Yeah, I remember learning at school about Emperor Whatsit – a couple of hundred years ago – I could never keep track of all the names in history class, but at any rate, when he was on his deathbed he designated his foster brother as Regent for his son – emperors’ foster-brothers pretty much always end up as regents and ministers and things – but in this particular case, there was some question about whether he was legally the boy’s uncle or not ... d’you remember how that one turned out, Pidge?”

“Decided in the affirmative. Legally his uncle.”

“Yeah, that’s right. Determined to be a closer relative than his biological uncles, funnily enough – but of course, he’d been raised in the same household with Emperor Whatsit when he was crown prince, and the emperor’s brothers were all fostered out ... We learned a mnemonic for it in school, Proximity before propinquity. Funny how these things stick in your head. What were we talking about, again?”

“Whether your sons should be raised on Barrayar,” said the Baron. “There might be some advantages to it, at that. It would, of course, be ... pleasant for any son of yours to spend his school vacations here with us. A chance for him to get to know all of his aunts and uncles and cousins on that side.”

What cousins? Ivan wondered. “By all means,” he said aloud, “as long as at least one of us travels here with him.”

“That seems fair,” said Shiv. “I’m always happy to see more of Tej. And you, of course,” he added as an afterthought.

“And as long as we’re all allowed to leave at the end of the summer,” Tej added quickly.

"Oh, all right. I guess that's fair, too."

“And now,” said the Baronne, “we come to the issue of design.”

“Design?” said Ivan, confused. There hadn’t been anything about that in the book.

“Coloring, height, intelligence, personality, artistic talents, physical abilities, sensory enhancements, any special features you may prefer.”

“Special features?”

“Oh, you know ... underwater breathing apparatus ... retractable fingernails ... wings? I’d be happy to custom-design anything you’d like, within reason, of course. Consider it a belated wedding gift.”

“I was thinking we might just ... go natural,” said Tej. “I mean, I’ve got all those Cetagandan genes, so we know they’ll be beautiful and healthy and long-lived anyway, and ... I like Ivan Xav’s design. I don’t see any need for anything fancier.”

“There seems,” said the Baronne rather sniffily, “to be a positive fad for that sort of thing among the younger generation. I trust that it will pass.”

The Baron, conversely, looked pleased.

“Have we got a deal, Dada?”

“Deal.”

* * *

“You look,” said Byerly, “as if you needed a drink. Is champagne called-for, I wonder?”

“Damned if I know. Yes, I think it is. But – bloody hell, that was harrowing. Thank God Tej had my back. And – thank you for lending me that book.”

“Did you find it useful?”

“Yes, very. Did you know, I almost skipped the section on custody law, thinking it didn’t matter because we weren’t going to split up, and luckily I realized just in time that it would also apply if ... anything happened to either one of us. You should have warned me to read that part carefully.”

“I did warn you. I told you it was all potentially important, didn’t I? Besides, I have faith in your ability to figure these things out for yourself.”

“Well, don’t. I’m the dumb one, remember? On both sides of the family.”

“Given the families in question, that is a very relative status,” said By, popping the champagne open and filling their glasses. “Well – cheers. What sort of terms did you get, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“All boys, for a start. And we’re going to raise them on Barrayar.”

Those are both very impressive concessions, under the circumstances. How’d you manage it?”

“I threatened to walk away from the table at one point, and, like I said, Tej helped – she talked as if she was very keen on having boys and very keen on raising them in particularly Barrayaran ways, and of course she’s the Baron’s favorite, so he caved in the end. I don’t know if she knew what she was agreeing to, but she could see it was important to me, so she played along ... I’d feel like kind of a heel, except I don’t think Tej wants her children to have a Jacksonian upbringing any more than I do, and besides, I don’t have that many male relatives within the degrees of kinship that matter – it’s really just Uncle Aral, Miles, and Gregor who count, and none of them would dream of taking her kids away from her. Of course, I don’t know that the Baron and Baronne knew that. In fact, I ... might have dropped some hints that my sons stood a good chance of being raised as foster-brothers to the Crown Prince, at which point I think they decided it would be to their advantage if we had as many male children as possible.”

“Well played. And well analyzed. Except that I wouldn’t be placing my bets on Tej’s ignorance. From some of the stories Rish tells about her, I do believe she’s quite good at playing the ingenue.”

“I had to agree to let the kids spend their school holidays here, but one of us gets to come along. Of course that probably means Tej, most of the time, so the Baron agreed to that right away.”

“Did they offer you any interesting modifications?”

Retractable fingernails. The hell? They couldn’t have suggested something useful, like an expandable cock?

“In my experience, most of them are expandable. If your experience has been different, I understand the Betans have pills for that sort of thing.”

“Oh, shut up, you know what I meant. Anyway, Tej made it clear she wasn’t going for anything like that, so we shook hands, and that was a Deal. Here’s Pidge’s book back. And, By...”

“Hmm?”

Ivan topped up their champagne glasses. “... I take it congratulations are in order?”

Byerly accepted the refill with a pleased expression. “Why, thank you. Yes, they are. I thought you’d get there eventually.”

“What kind of terms did you get?” Ivan asked, since By was obviously dying to tell him.

“Well, keep in mind that given my role as the Emperor’s personal agent, Rish and I weren’t quite in the same bargaining position as you were. We did not have the option of walking away from the table; the Arquas started negotiations as soon as we were away from Barrayar, and they made it clear that they insisted on at least one grandchild. Naturally, they also insisted that our firstborn be a girl. We’ve got the option of a boy later on if we choose to take it. We did manage to talk them into giving us two years’ grace before we started, and then I came over all Barrayaran and patriarchal – note that the timing gave me one tactical advantage, which is that they didn’t know me very well yet. Rish let me do the talking, and kept an admirably straight face while I very slowly got talked out of my preference for a body-birth, and then slowly decided that gene-cleaning would also be acceptable – of course, they also didn’t know yet that there are some very good reasons why it would be not only acceptable, but strongly advisable in this case, and Rish didn’t give that game away, either. In trade, I got them to agree to keep everything else fairly close to wild-caught type – I think that was when the Baron started to warm up to me, although that was just a fringe benefit.”

You wanted minimal gengineering, too?”

“I let Udine have a little fun playing around with perfect pitch and enhanced alcohol tolerance and such, and I would have been prepared to make quite a few more concessions, had anyone insisted on them. What I really wanted, of course, was for her to be able to blend in on planets that aren’t Jackson’s Whole.”

“But – wouldn’t close to wild-caught type be – um – half-blue?” Ivan wondered how that would even work. A nice, even blend of By’s coloring and Rish’s might not be too bizarre, but what if it came out in patches, like calico cats?

“No, because Rish’s more dramatic physical features are recessive. As Udine said, one must protect one’s intellectual property. Not a good line to deliver in front of said intellectual property, by the way. Rish would never have asked her mother to go light on the gengineering herself – filial ingratitude and all – but afterward, she turned out not to be displeased that I had.”

“That’s a bit of luck. I wouldn’t have expected that.”

“I wasn’t entirely surprised. In my line of work, they teach you to spot defensive reactions, and you may have noticed that Rish has a tendency to protest entirely too much if you ask certain questions.”

Ivan hadn’t noticed that, but when he thought back to his first meeting with Rish, he could see it.

“So then the Baronne tried to tempt me into further modifications by guaranteeing excellent dress sense, but she went quiet after I pointed out her daughter Em’s regrettable predilection for bunny slippers. I don’t believe they can really do as much with personality as they like to pretend.”

“I don’t think so, either. I hope not, anyway. I’ve always thought that sort of thing was creepy.”

“So, pursuant to my point about blending in, we eventually came to an understanding that she could choose her own lifestyle, career, and planet of residence once she turned eighteen, and that she would not be used as a bargaining chip in any alliances-by-marriage. By that point, Shiv and Udine had realized just how much of an act the patriarchal thing was, but we’d been confirming the terms of the Deal as we went, so they couldn’t go back and change them. Pidge, by the way, was not quite as quick on the uptake, and decided about a week later that she’d be doing Rish a favor by having me assassinated.”

Ivan waited a moment, but By seemed inclined to prolong the dramatic pause indefinitely. Ivan finally gave in and asked, “What happened?

“Oh, she succeeded, of course. This is my ghost that’s talking to you.”

“If you don’t stop being so irritating, I’m going to exorcise you.”

“Oh, fine. Well, I think it was inevitable that one of them would make the attempt sooner or later, so it was rather a relief to have it out of the way, and it wasn’t a very good attempt – Pidge either forgot that Rish has the ability to detect poisons, or she just assumed that Rish would be happy to have me cleared out of the way. I’ve had no further trouble since Rish made it clear that she was not – which was also a relief, by the way, because I have no doubt that when she let me handle the negotiations, what she was really doing was watching to make sure I was a keeper.”

“Good God, Byerly. Are you sure you’re all right with bringing a child into – all this?”

“Are you sure you’re all right with bringing one onto our benighted homeworld? May I point out that there’s a reason why every other Barrayaran father insists on having a boy first, even when there’s no title to inherit? It’s so his wife can’t leave him. The Jacksonians, in other words, aren’t the only ones who know how to take hostages.”

“I’d never thought of it that way. Shit. Now I really do feel like a heel.”

“Don’t. As you said, none of your relatives are in the hostage-taking business, and Tej’s are. You did what was right for your situation, I did what was right for mine. By the way, I think our daughter’s going to be an only child – I shan’t be exercising my option to create a hostage of my own, not least because my father is still living, and he absolutely should not have custody of any child, and especially not a male child who ... takes after me at all. Besides, on the rare occasions when the Vorrutyer clan manages to produce something resembling a decent human being, it’s always a girl. Or born a girl, anyway.”

“You know damn well that’s not true, By!” said Ivan, with more heat than he would ever have anticipated.

“Am I detecting a sudden outburst of affinal sentiment? My dear Ivan, that just isn’t your style.”

“... Your cousin Pierre was pretty decent, in his way. Not the most effective Count, but decent.”

“Better. That sounded more like you.”

“But, seriously – are you all right with ... everything? I mean, you and Rish don’t strike me as the sort of people who would ... necessarily have chosen to be parents, given a free choice.” Ivan stopped short, realizing that By did have the sort of proud-delighted-apprehensive expression that he always associated with normal expectant fathers. He’d also noticed since the beginning of his visit that Rish had ... even more dance in her walk than usual. Maybe he was wrong.

“Do you know, I’ve never been sure what I would have chosen, given a free choice. I never felt that I had one on Barrayar, either.”

“Oh, come on, parenthood isn’t required even on Barrayar. I’ve managed to duck it for thirty-seven years, and I’m pretty sure I could have gone on ducking it indefinitely if I’d wanted to.”

“... In the other direction, Ivan.”

What had By said about gene cleaning? There are some very good reasons why it would be not only acceptable, but strongly advisable in this case ... Ivan remembered another voice, some years back: The next Count Vorrutyer won’t have a bad heart. Among other things.

Oh.

Ivan tried to reconcile the mental category Byerly Vorrutyer with the category mutie, and realized that it was ... not so difficult, after all. So very not-difficult that it was like finding the missing piece to a puzzle. Dammit, he’d never liked puzzles.

“Hell, By. I had no idea. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. Since you’re too polite to ask, it’s just the heart thing – which is quite treatable and hasn’t given me any trouble since I got a proper diagnosis and medication for it. Still, it’s the kind of thing that pops up on a gene scan and tends to ... invoke entrenched prejudices back on Barrayar. But there’s ... nothing else. And I’ve had the standard battery of ImpSec psych tests, plus a few more that I think they invented just for me, so I’d know if there were anything else.”

“So you’re officially not crazy? I never would have guessed.”

“Surprised the hell out of me, too. Although not nearly as much as I suspect it surprised some of my superiors.”

“So, er, what are the legal implications of acknowledged bastardry? I skipped that part of the book.”

“It isn’t a bad deal at all. It’ll make her just as much a Barrayaran subject as she would be if Rish and I were married. Also, I think she’ll have quite a bit more freedom than a proper Vor maiden, and my-cousin-the-Count, who’s actually been a proper Vor maiden, agrees.”

Ivan snorted champagne up his nose at the thought of Lady Donna ever having been a proper Vor maiden, and then realized there was only one possible set of circumstances under which any of this would matter. “You’re thinking she’ll choose Barrayar when she’s grown, then?”

“Not necessarily, but ... let’s just say that I intend to cultivate as many tastes as possible that can’t easily be pursued on Jackson’s Whole. I’m sure Rish and her whole family will be trying to cultivate the ones that can, so it seems only fair. Any chance you’d let your niece visit during her holidays?”

Ivan closed his eyes, envisioning the havoc that would be wrought in his quiet life by a small Vorrutyer taking up temporary residence in his household, and then opened them again. “All ... right. Occasionally.”

“Thanks. I’m sure you’ll like her. I think there’s no question that the almost-wild-caught type, in this case, will be exceptionally smart – and exceptionally pretty. Why, Ivan,” said By, as if struck by a sudden and delightful discovery, “if family history is any precedent, I do believe my daughter is going to break your sons’ hearts.”

“Dream on, By. It’s sometimes happened the other way around, hasn’t it?”

Byerly flushed slightly, but pursued the point. “... Or else she’ll break a lot of other boys’ hearts, and your sons will have the fun of consoling them. Or both. There’s a bit of Vorrutyer blood on your side, isn’t there?”

“Oh, dear God,” said Ivan, envisioning a houseful of teenagers falling in love in permutations straight out of a daytime drama vid.

“If you’ve got strong preferences about which of those scenarios you’d like best, I understand Udine can adjust for sexual orientation. It’s not too late to put in a request.”

Are you testing me, you little Imp-weasel? I can never tell when you’re testing me. “... No. I guess not.”

“Or – if you’re set on having the classic-model son who plays sports and comes home covered in mud and wants to go to the service academy – there are probably genes for that, too. You can always ask.”

Voice even lighter than usual, eyes half-closed but definitely watching from behind those lashes – all right, now you’re testing me. “No. I think I’d just as soon let them ... be who they’re going to be.”

“Are you sure? You don’t need to say no if you mean yes. I promise not to listen in on any conversations you may decide to have later with the Baronne.”

“Very sure,” said Ivan.

“Good man. There’s one more thing. For her to have proper legal status as an acknowledged bastard, of course, I need to claim paternity as soon as possible after the birth, in front of a male, Vor-caste witness. Traditionally, a friend of the father. Are you free to take another run off-world, oh, about six months from now?”

“I could probably manage that,” said Ivan, wondering how it was possible that he could emerge victorious from a bargaining session with professional hostage negotiators, yet somehow By Vorrutyer always managed to get him to say yes to the most outrageous requests.

Byerly tipped the last of the champagne into their glasses. “To impending fatherhood. I can’t possibly be worse at it than my father, so there’s that.”

“I can’t possibly be more short-lived than mine. So there’s that.”

“Cheers.”

“Cheers.”