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The Offer

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Fedosia Vorkosigan did not often see her son. Or her father. The first she regretted very little, and the second not at all. She was neither cold nor unmaternal, but as he had grown the son had come to have his father’s look, and it was an unwelcome reminder. Ges had been no fit husband for any woman. Their son Vadim had been very carefully raised and there was no taint of sadism in him, but she was much more comfortable speaking with him when that was done via text or voice, with no visuals to remind her. Their (carefully monitored) conversations took place on a regular schedule, now that Vadim was away at school and only allowed on the commconsole at certain times of the week.

Thus Fedosia was surprised when Magdalena interrupted her court session, saying that there was a call waiting. She presided over a court session only twice a month, and only three people on the planet were important enough to interrupt the session for. Vadim was at school (and any emergency calls would have gone to the Count, not her), the Count preferred to contact her via text rather than in person (and knew damn well when her court sessions were, and wouldn’t have interrupted them) and the third … had never communicated with her in any way since the day he dismissed the charges against her and banished her from the capitol.

Fedosia nodded to Magdalena, and turned back to the plaintiffs and lawyers before her. “I am called away. Judge Vordarian will hear the case in my absence." She left without a backwards glance, ignoring the murmur of gossip left in her wake.

When they were in the corridor, with no one to see or hear except Christopoulos, her lone armsman, Magdalena spoke again. "It's the familiar."

"Ah." The familiar would not have shared his reasons for calling, not with Magdalena. And his master would never have deigned to call personally. The Count merited such honor. His only surviving child, disappointment that she was, did not.

When she sat before the secured commconsole, Fedosia made no effort to warm her cool countenance. "Captain," she said coolly.

"Lady Fedosia, you are looking well," Negri said. Fedosia did not react to his words, but it took an effort. Ezar's familiar wasted no words on pleasantries; if he had any will save to do his master's bidding, Fedosia had never seen evidence of it. And the last time she had seen the Emperor, she had not been so high in his good graces as to warrant basic courtesies.

"The last decade has been good to me," Fedosia replied. "Tell me, has the Emperor finally seen the wisdom in my last words to him? I had not thought he would deign to tell me, but perhaps he has learnt humility since last we spoke." The last time she had spoken to the Emperor, her words had been driven by bravado and a kind of fey disregard. Coming out of the hell that her marriage had been, she had almost hoped he would take offense enough to kill her—and so she had dared to say things that nobody else would, not even her father, not to the Emperor's face.

Now, well, now she was secure in her obscurity. She had not left the District in the last decade; most of her ties to her peers had been severed; she was nobody, in herself, outside Vorkosigan lands. Not important enough to make an example of, and—as the only surviving child of Count Piotr Vorkosigan, who had destroyed one Emperor already to put Ezar on the Imperial Camp Stool—too well-connected to dispose of for mere pique. If Ezar had spared her life a decade ago, he would not kill her now for anything short of outright treason. She could say what she liked. That was the greatest freedom she could never have imagined, twelve years ago when she made her vows in the circle of groats.

Negri's smile never wavered. "The Emperor begs you to attend upon him at the Palace at your earliest convenience. He understands that your father only permits you a single armsman—quite shocking, for a lady of your rank—and will send you a proper escort of his own men."

"Thank him for the courtesy, but I must decline the armsmen," Fedosia said. "Christopoulos is more than sufficient to my needs, even in the capitol. Unless you have intelligence that Count Vorrutyer wishes to avenge his son's death at this late date?"

"Count Vorrutyer is satisfied with the current state of affairs," Negri said.

"Then you may tell your master that I will come tomorrow, at whatever time you set," Fedosia said.

"A lunch meeting would be most appropriate," Negri said.

Fedosia raised an eyebrow. Lunch, indeed. A social setting, less formal and more courteous than she had any right to expect. And who would be there, she wondered, for this informal, courteous, social meeting?

"Lunch, then," she said. "Vorkosigan, out."

When the commconsole darkened, she turned to face Magdalena and Christopoulos, who stared at her with matching looks of worry.

"Magdalena, please see to the packing and rearranging my schedule," she said. "I don't know how long I'll be gone, but plan for at least a week. I don't have anything suitable to wear to lunch with the Emperor—call Negri back, ask if I am to be allowed to visit a clothier to procure something suitable, and make an appointment. If not … nobody in the district could make something suitable at such short notice."

"Lady Garielle might have something suitable that you could borrow," Magdalena pointed out. Garielle was one of the few High Vor ladies who had not cut her acquaintance. She was taller than Fedosia, but their figures were similar—hems could be altered quite easily on short notice.

"Good thought," Fedosia said. "Christopoulos, take care of the travel arrangements. Is my father in Vorbarr Sultana?"

"I believe he is," Christopoulos said.

"Then tell him I'll be coming to visit tonight, and why. Given the warning, he may find pressing business in the District."

Those details delegated, Fedosia went back to the courtroom to finish out the day's cases.

To her surprise, Count Vorkosigan was in residence when she set foot in Vorbarr Sultana for the first time since her disgrace. Without Vadim there as a reason to hold their tongues, she held no great hope they could be civil for however long they would be under the same roof. But she, at least, would not start anything.

"Hello, Father," she said courteously as the servants took her wrap. Christopoulos came to attention, which her father acknowledged, and Magdalena curtseyed, which he did not. "You are looking well. I read the fine print on that water rights bill that just passed the Council of Counts; I think parts of it was your handiwork, and it's a good bill. You must have had a hard time getting it past Vordarian and his cronies."

The Count snorted. "Good, honest horse-trading, that's all. Not that you'd know anything about it. Honesty or good government, either one."

It always amazed her, how a man famed for his tactics could be so tactless. Then again, he saved his skills to use on those he respected—or at least valued. "I'm sorry to hear of your low opinion of my work, father. Who'll be taking over for me?"

"What?" Piotr bristled. "Are you abandoning your duties?"

"Not at all, Father," Fedosia said. "But if you're unsatisfied with the way I've run your district, this last decade, you must wish to replace me with someone who'll do a better job. You can stop politicking in the capital and do it yourself, or find another manager. Though I can't think who you'd get; there aren't any other Vorkosigans to choose from. You could hire a manager; perhaps Lord Vortaine would have some advice."

Piotr's face went red—she'd known the reference to Vortaine would set him off; Piotr had nothing good to say about those who neglected their kin in favor of hiring proles and offworlders, even if their results were demonstrably excellent. "We can have an accounting of the job you're doing taking care of my district in the morning, seeing as you're here."

"No, we can't," Fedosia said. "I'll be in emergency fittings for a dress suitable to luncheon with the Emperor, and I'm afraid that will take the whole morning."

"Frills and laces, that's all you think about, and spending more money than you're worth."

"You'd never see the Emperor out of uniform; neither would I," Fedosia shot back. "And since I've run your district for you, the GDP has grown 30% and Vorkosigan revenues by almost as much. You could buy a space yacht out of the money I've made for you, and you're so cheap you balk at one dress? If you'll excuse me, it's been a long day and I must be at my best tomorrow if I'm to meet with the Emperor."

"You'll tell me what he wants with you!"

That made her pause. "You don't know?" For the Emperor to make plans for a Vor lord's daughter without first consulting her father—particularly when that father was one of his closest supporters—that was unusual. "I don't, either, as a matter of fact, and I'm sure the Emperor will tell you what he wants you to know." It was pious enough that he couldn't argue with it, much though he evidently longed to. With that as a parting shot, she swept up the stairs to the family wing, where a servant was waiting to tell her which rooms had been prepared for her.

At least one of her father's servants had some tact—it was neither the room she'd used as a child, nor the suite she and Ges had shared when they stayed in her father's home in the capital.

Vorbarra armsmen in full livery came to collect her from the seamstress' shop. She knew from the whispers behind her that the rumors would be flying fast around the capital, for there were only two reasons for such a public show. Either she was being summoned in disgrace, or she was … not. No doubt many of the rumors would assume some terrible crime had come to light, or the Emperor's favor had run out, and she would now be called to pay for her crimes.

Fedosia knew differently. Negri's courtesies, the lunch meeting, dispensation to appear in public in the capital to procure a suitable dress—it could only be the other reason. She kept the frown from her face, and practiced keeping her breaths deep and even as the aircar parked in front of the Palace and she was escorted to the private areas, far from the public salon she had anticipated.

Emperor Ezar stood to meet her, when she entered the balcony they were to eat at. "Sire," she said, dropping him a deep curtsey. "I am glad that you have at last realized that it would be better for the Empire for Prince Serg to die now, before he can do any further damage, but I assure you there are easier and more discreet ways than ordering me to marry him."

Ezar's eyes glinted. "Lady Fedosia, I am glad to see that neither your wit nor your tongue have dulled since last we met. Please, be seated." He held the chair for her personally, instead of a servant. At age seventeen, perhaps even eighteen, she would have been flattered by the honor. By nineteen, it would have made her suspicious. She was thirty, now.

After the first course had been served—a tomato basil soup, her favorite, the recipe obviously gotten from her own cook—Ezar continued. "It would be a short marriage, of course, just long enough to produce an heir."

"I've already killed one husband," Fedosia countered. "Even if you shot him yourself on Midsummer's Day at noon during the parade, everyone would believe I'd done it. No. I'm not going through that again. Besides, Serg's proved that Yuri's madness breeds true—you don't have it, but perhaps it came through his mother's line. Do you want to take the chance that his heir would be any better? Do as the ancient Romans back on Earth did, and adopt an heir. Count's choice before Count's blood, after all."

"I doubt any heir I'd care to choose would get through the Council of Counts, even after Serg was dead," Ezar said. "The factions are too strong. And they'd all have their own favorite candidates already."

"That is unfortunate," Fedosia said, "but my father is quite adept at navigating those currents, I'm sure he would be quite happy to help." To get rid of Serg, her father would dance naked in the Great Square, if that was what it took. It was one of the few areas—other than Vadim—that they agreed wholeheartedly and vociferously.

"The right candidate, of course, would make things so much easier," Ezar said. "Your son, for instance, should have quite the easy confirmation."

Fedosia swallowed, but forced herself to take her next spoonful with as much composure as ever. "No," she said. "Neither I nor Vadim will be your pawn in this."

"Oh, not Vadim," Ezar said. "Vorkosigan must have an heir, too. No, a future son of yours. They'll overlook your—defects—in favor of your blood."

"I was quite serious when I said I would not marry Serg, Sire," Fedosia said.

"Not Serg," Ezar said. "Me."

That—that she had not predicted. Her spoon clattered to the bowl, splattering tomato soup over the pristine white tablecloth and possibly over her new dress. "You cannot be serious," she said.

"Perfectly," Ezar said. "Left unchecked, Serg would be another Yuri, and would meet Yuri's fate. You were right, a decade ago, when you said that it would be kinder for him to die quietly, now, then to meet that fate. He hasn't grown out of it. He's gotten worse, instead. I love him, monster though he is, but his life serves no one—not even himself, not when it will end in the death of a thousand cuts and his scalp in a museum. But this leaves a problem—there must be a replacement. A replacement of Vorbarra blood, and there are few enough left after the Cetagandans and Mad Yuri. So another Vorbarra must be born—not of Serg, for fear his madness might be passed on—which means that I must marry again." He leaned back so the servant—only one servant, for a meal with the Emperor, and suspiciously clumsy; almost certainly one of Negri's most trusted men—could serve the next course.

"I could name at least five High Vor maidens—and at least that many widows—with Vorbarra blood who have never killed their husbands, which makes them all far more suitable than I," Fedosia pointed out. The salad was a cucumber salad with a light vinaigrette dressing—the same one she'd had served at her eighteenth birthday party, six months before her wedding.

"Yes, to bear an heir, certainly," Ezar agreed. "And what then? My doctors say I'll die in the next decade. Perhaps fifteen years—certainly not twenty. That means a regency, a chancy time for any government. And who's to say my mind'll stay sharp? I need a wife who can serve as Regent, tough enough to take whatever comes and wily enough to run rings around the whole Council of Counts. You survived two years of marriage to the worst Vorrutyer of the last two generations, killed him, and arranged things so well that not only were you pardoned, your husband's father agreed to give up his grandson in favor of letting your own father raise him. By blackmail, true, but I've used worse weapons to achieve my ends. If you were a man, what a general you would have made! Your father would be left in your dust. But you're a woman, and even in a woman, I can find a use for those talents."

"Quite flattering," Fedosia said dryly. "Any other reasons your eye fell upon me? It wasn't for my looks." At eighteen, when she married, she had been as pretty as she was like to get. At thirty, people described her face as 'having character' when they were kind. Yet another way she was not a proper bride for an Emperor.

Ezar shrugged. "I don't care about looks—we may not even have to sleep together, I'm looking into Betan gene-cleaning technology, and if it's discreet enough, they can implant my sperm into your womb without us even being in the same room. Your strategy impressed me—in retrospect—"

"Hah," Fedosia said, because no one had been impressed at the time, even as they'd bowed to her demands; her father had never gotten over it, though it seemed the Emperor had.

"—but equally impressive is what you've done since. You took your father's district, devastated by the Cetagandans and years of neglect on your father's part, and turned it around. It's been modernized in ways I wouldn't have believed possible a decade ago. The economy's booming, even the backcountry is getting connected, schools are improving—the Vorkosigan District is becoming a boon to the Empire, rather than a burden—I want that for my own district, and for the Empire at large. I want it now, while I'm still alive to see the benefits of it, and I want it to continue after I'm dead. And I want my son and heir to know how to do it, too."

"I'd be happy to serve as an advisor to whomever you marry, but I am quite happy in my district and will not be leaving it," Fedosia said firmly. "Thank you for the honor, but no."

"You'll change your mind," Ezar said.

"Why?" Fedosia glanced up at the servant as he served the main course; she hated when men stood just at the edge of her vision, where the servant had been hovering the whole time, and this conversation was not doing her paranoia any favors. "I suppose you could try to force me, but that wouldn't end up well for anyone; even Ges learned that, in the end." It wasn't quite a threat, though the servant stirred unhappily anyway, merely a reminder of her known tendencies. She hadn't meant to kill Ges, after all, the information which she'd used to secure her pardon had been meant to blackmail him to keep away from her and Vadim after a divorce that never came because she'd snapped, first.

"You'll do it for Vadim, of course," Ezar said. "And for yourself. If I die without an heir, chances are very good that someone will try to put Vadim on the throne."

"So I should trade his future for another son's future?" Fedosia snorted. "Why should I value Vadim more than the son I would bear for you?"

"No reason," Ezar said. "Except that you didn't raise Vadim, and everyone knows it. They'll have every reason to keep you away—either your father, because he doesn't like you, or his enemies, because they don’t want Vadim to have a strong ally. It would be much different if you were the Empress—if you'd spent a decade building alliances and guiding the High Vor to accept you.

"Of course, it's possible a contender would ignore Vadim, and force you to marry him at gunpoint to bear him heirs with your Vorbarra blood claim to the throne." Ezar shrugged. "Vadim would be even more of a pawn, and you would be … well, I have no doubt you could handle yourself—I pity the man who tried it, in fact—but still, it would be quite a mess.

"Or you could protect yourself by moving to Beta—you have kin there who would probably take you in, if you asked. I'm sure your story of Ges' mistreatment of you would strike a chord in the ones who want to see us all as barbarians, they'd treat you well. But no one would let you take Vadim with you, not I, not your father, not your father's allies, not your father's enemies. You could save yourself, but only by abandoning him.

"Or you could sit back and let someone else marry me, give me an heir. None of your blood on the throne, but … do you honestly think any of the other girls I might marry could hold things together after my death? Balance the Counts and the Ministries and the prole anarchists and all the other factions just waiting for a chance to tear each others' throats out? You're the best shot, girl, the best chance Barrayar has of getting through this without another civil war. You lived through one—can marrying me be worse than living through another?"

Fedosia sat back, hands folded gracefully in her lap, and considered. She couldn't find a flaw in his logic; that didn't mean there wasn’t one, merely that she hadn't had time to figure it out, yet.

"My father would never support me as Empress," she pointed out. "And Empress Regent Vorkosigan would not be possible without General Count Vorkosigan backing her."

"He'd rather have you married and out of his care than still a widow of his household," Ezar pointed out. "If you're my wife, it's my job to keep you under control, not his. He doesn't have to worry you'll embarrass him again. And if you're Regent, his hands are between yours, and Piotr keeps his promises. You'd get along better as Empress and Count than father and daughter, I think; Piotr's always been able to put aside sentiment in favor of duty. Your problem now is that his sentiment and his duty both point in the same direction, trying to keep you under control and out of sight. Time to shake up the arrangement, make him break old habits."

Ezar might be right about Piotr; she didn't know her father well enough to tell. "And Count Vorrutyer—he'd bow to the woman who murdered his son and got away with it?"

Ezar shrugged. "He's old and getting senile—his son does most of his work these days, and he counts it as a service to his House."

Ges had always been careful to conceal his … tastes … from his father; his brothers hadn't merited the same care. "When do you need my answer?"

Ezar shrugged. "I have no firm date. But soon." He eyed her. "You'd never have to share my bed; my word on that as Vorbarra. The fertilization can take place in a test-tube whether I can smuggle Betan gene-cleaners here or not. And you can keep your bit on the side, what's her name, Magdalena; I really don't care, as long as she's discreet and doesn't disrupt things."

"Of course," Fedosia said. "What man ever cares about what women do to amuse themselves when he's not around?"

"Just so," Ezar said, nodding.

Magdalena sat on the couch demurely, the very picture of Vor Maidenhood, as always. If there was something that could get her to break propriety, Fedosia had never found it. "You haven't asked the most important question," she observed. "Could you stand it if you didn't? Sitting back down in the District, watching the chaos from afar, knowing you could handle it better than whoever he married? It's all well and good to say you'd help her out, but your father wouldn't allow it, not unless you were married and out of his hands. Or he might allow it, but only for you to be a cog in his plans rather than implement your own. And if you're going to marry again—"

Fedosia made a face.

"Exactly so," Magdalena said. "If you're going to marry again, the Emperor's offer is the best you will ever get—not from the prestige of it, but from the level of independence you will have. And if you're not going to marry again, you'll stay that deranged Vorkosigan woman who killed Ges Vorrutyer all your life, at least outside the District."

"It's been a good life," Fedosia pointed out.

"Yes, as long as Vorbarr Sultana left us alone," Magdalena said. "With Ezar dying, and no clear heir, well. If there's a civil war, nobody will be left alone and your father will see that Vorkosigan is a prime target. All our work undone as armies go marching through."

"I know," Fedosia said. "I've seen one civil war, already; I've no desire to see two." She bit her lip. "The question is, will you be with me? I couldn't do it without you. I'll need someone I can trust with me, or I'll go mad, and there's no one in the capital."

"Of course," Magdalena said. "That goes without saying. I'll always be with you."

They clasped hands. Fedosia sighed. "I suppose you are right," she said. "I'll give him my answer in the morning."