The last day. Gregor stood before the door from his private office behind the dais in the council chamber, and wished he could be anywhere else on the planet. In the galaxy. Last night, in some small childish part of his mind, he'd hoped that he might just go to sleep and wake up to discover the past month had been one long nightmare. Or, deeper and darker, that he would not wake up at all. That he could somehow avoid facing today. But the nightmare was continuing, and today the Council of Counts would pass judgement on Miles Vorkosigan.
Countess Vorkosigan had come to see him last night. Countess Vorkosigan, even in his head now, not Lady Cordelia who had told him stories and helped him with his physics and mathematics homework. That woman was gone, changed forever. He didn't think the past had been a lie, but she had always been one with her husband, whatever he did, and Gregor had known that she was visiting on her husband's behalf. What he hadn't know was how she had got in. She wasn't under house arrest, but she should have been denied entry to the Residence. She shouldn't have been able to make it as far as the door of Gregor's study. His Armsmen had wanted to arrest her for that alone, and Gregor had considered it, but told them to let her go. There was no need to make war on her. Besides, if he'd ordered her arrest he would have had to say what level of force his Armsmen should use, and that thought still brought a sick churning to his stomach.
But he hadn't let her in. She'd called his name, once, that heart-familiar Betan accent penetrating through the wood of his door, and he'd left the office quickly by the other door in case she said anything else. Then he'd called Stefan from his bedchamber. But even that had not entirely comforted him. It was very selfish of her to put pressure on him when he had such difficult decisions to face, Stefan had said, it was typical of the Vorkosigans, and yes, of course it was hard to deny one's foster-mother, but an Emperor must have courage to face these hard decisions. Gregor had cut that call short too. Stefan tried very hard to understand, but some things he really didn't grasp. And Countess Vorkosigan had gone away in the end, and Gregor had gone to bed. Though not, save for a few short hours, to sleep.
Stefan said he had courage, but he wasn't convinced. But he had to go out anyway. His Armsmen weren't giving him odd looks--they never did--but he could feel their presence behind him like a pressure on his back as he stood dithering. He opened the door and went out onto the dais.
The room fell silent as he entered, even before the Lord Guardian rapped for attention. They hadn't always done that, before. But now he had their respect. The Counts all rose and stood waiting for him to seat himself on the campstool, and it was begun.
He sat as still as he could as the Lord Guardian opened up the final debate. He already knew how every man in the room would vote, courtesy of Stefan's friendly explanations. When Stefan explained how people would vote, Gregor didn't feel like an idiot the way he did when Aral or Aunt Alys explained it. So he knew that Miles would be convicted. Stefan had said it with sadness, respecting the fact that Miles had been Gregor's friend. He had no grudge against Lord Vorkosigan, Stefan had said. The boy was merely a tool in his father's hand. And if they could just trace the rest of the financial records, they would find out how those missing thousands of marks had gone to fund Miles's fleet, and that would be real proof that Aral was behind all of this. He nearly had all the evidence, Stefan had said. And then Aral would be arrested too.
Stefan hadn't said anything about what would happen after that, but Gregor had a grim suspicion that he knew. At the last meeting of the General Staff he'd attended, the only man who'd showed him any real respect had been Admiral Hessman. The others had fixed him with flat-lipped stares and barely shown him the necessary courtesies, contempt and anger in their eyes. He didn't think all of them would run to Aral, and at least with Illyan gone ImpSec served him faithfully now, but there were too many he knew had no loyalty to him. The military would revolt, would prove their disloyalty, and there would be civil war.
It was not his fault. He stared across the chamber at the origin of all his problems: Aral Vorkosigan in his parade uniform, his face as furious and dangerous and contemptuous as the General Staff had been. He'd given Aral chance after chance to stop this disaster, to avoid this war. But Aral had refused them all. If war came, it would not be Gregor's fault.
Stefan rose to question Hessman, all the damning evidence repeated yet again. Gregor listened to it with a heavy heart. A few more minutes, and he would call the vote. He just wanted it all to be over now.
Then Stefan suddenly faltered, and Gregor looked around sharply. There was a silhouette in the archway, one Gregor could not fail to recognise, that too-large head on a small crooked body. Miles. Here, now, in the council chamber. And a step behind him stood Ivan.
Gregor blinked and swallowed and stared. Miles marched into the centre of the chamber as if he owned it, and Gregor reared back on his stool, struck by the familiarity of the movement. He hadn't seen Miles take over a room like that in years, since they'd grown too old to play make-believe games together, but Miles hadn't lost his touch.
Miles knelt to him with a flourish, then rose and began to speak, and that too was desperately familiar. He spoke too quickly for anyone else to get a word in edgewise, his arguments moving and turning faster than most people could think. He was accusing Hessman, accusing Stefan, speaking of terrible crimes, and all the while Ivan was standing a little way behind him, silently backing him up.
Had Stefan tried to kill Ivan? Surely, surely it was impossible. He waited for Stefan to laugh, to tell Miles it was all nonsense, or else to be angry at the insult to his honour and loyalty. But instead Stefan seemed almost frightened, lashing out in all directions, twisting under Miles's attack like a fish on a hook. Gregor stared and stared and tried to understand.
Stefan glared at Miles, and Gregor recognised the murderous hate in his eyes and the menacing curl of his fists. He hadn't known Stefan could show that kind of hatred. He'd never sounded like that talking to Gregor, never shown Gregor anything but a kindly and friendly face. It couldn't be true. Could it? Hessman was speaking...
Then Stefan drew a needler. His lips were drawn back in a snarl and Gregor knew all at once that Miles was telling the truth about him. Betrayal clawed at his heart. Stefan, disloyal, a traitor, manipulating him.... It was too much to take in and he had no time to think, for chaos was breaking out all over the chamber as everyone saw the weapon, guards and counts and officers rushing forwards. In the mêlée, Gregor saw Stefan swing around to point the needler at Miles.
Then someone seized him by both shoulders and shoved him down and back behind the security screen. Landing on the floor with a thud, Gregor blinked dizzily up to recognise the broad back of Aral Vorkosigan between him and the room. He hadn't even seen Aral move, hadn't thought Aral could still move that fast. There were shouts and crashes from the chamber. Aral held his ground, his back rigid with tension. Gregor's heart was thumping.
Me, he thought wildly as he put together what was happening. He went to me. Aral had seen Stefan pull a weapon on his son--and had rushed to protect his Emperor.
A moment later it was all over. Aral stepped forwards, looked around, then turned back to Gregor. Craning his neck, Gregor could see Stefan flat on the floor, disarmed, restrained and with three guards all holding weapons on him. And Miles standing nearby unhurt. Gregor closed his eyes for a moment, succumbing to relief more profound than he'd ever felt before.
"It's over," Aral said. He extended a hand to help Gregor to his feet. Gregor sat still for a moment, but saw only concern and relief in Aral's face, and his familiar square hand, palm open, inviting. Forgiving.
"Yes," he whispered. "It is." And he reached up and took Aral's hand.