Rulf paced down the flagship's empty corridor, trying to pinpoint the cause of his worry. It was midnight by the fleet’s schedule, yet he was unable to sleep, and he wasn’t even sure why. The invasion of Escobar was going entirely according to plan, yet Rulf only grew more uneasy with each advance.
Partly, he thought, it was Aral. Not Aral’s work, for the latest retreat plans displayed a tactical sense surpassing even Komarr. But Aral was also tense, upset – Rulf knew he’d been on edge ever since they’d entered Escobaran space. He’d only seen Aral this jumpy when anticipating disaster, with the result that he now half-expected the Escobarans to unveil some impossible strategy and counterattack at any moment.
That was hardly likely. No; he knew the real cause of Aral's tension, for he shared it himself. He’d put it aside, burying himself in the administration of the fleet, but here, alone - Rulf stopped, staring at the steel bulkhead. Despite Aral’s pessimism, he still believed the invasion could be made to succeed, and he would do all he could to make it so. But what afterward?
He'd seen Ges Vorrutyer's influence over Aral at close range, and now over his circle of cronies, which disturbingly seemed to include Prince Serg. The thought of Vorrutyer at the head of a triumphant invasion, commanding that influence over all of Barrayar, not to mention Komarr and Escobar, was appalling. And Vorrutyer already behaved as if he was above censure. A brig guard had come to Rulf two days before, complaining that one of the Escobaran prisoners was missing. Interrogation, Ges had told him with an easy smile; Rulf knew perfectly well that if Ges had really wanted to interrogate a prisoner, he would have sent her to sickbay.
It sickened Rulf, but he could do nothing. If Rulf protested now, Vorrutyer would only dismiss him and replace him with one of his cronies, Helski or someone, and that would destroy the delicate balance he had struggled to maintain within the Fleet's command. He wished he could speak to Aral of the matter – but knowing Aral, he would do something disastrous. Yet for all that Rulf was Aral’s superior on this fleet, he had found himself wanting Aral’s opinions more and more often.
Perhaps talking to Aral, even about something else, would calm him. He turned, and five steps took him to Aral’s door, which was standing half-open. Did the man never sleep anymore?
He knocked on the door and pushed it fully open. “Aral –” He stopped in the doorway. Aral was standing over an array of weapons laid out on the table, holding a plasma arc – and, as Rulf watched, releasing the safety. “What are you doing?”
Aral looked up, his face set in an expression of grim determination that Rulf knew only too well. “What does it look like?” He stood fully. “The Prince let it slip that Vorrutyer has a prisoner - an Escobaran woman, imprisoned in his quarters. I don’t need to spell it out for you.”
And Aral, of course, meant to stop it himself. Rulf took another look at the weapon in his hands. “A plasma arc? On board ship?” He took a step into the room. “Think before you rush in, Aral. You can’t do this again.”
“Can I not?” Aral moved toward the door - and stopped, two paces away. “Move aside, Rulf.”
“I’ll do no such thing,” Rulf retorted. “Men like Vorrutyer are the scum of the service, we all know that. But you… we need you to live, get your rank back, command again, not throw yourself away. Can't you see that?” He raised a hand, pleading. “Remember the Emperor’s orders, Aral. You cannot die for this.”
Aral looked at him through narrowed eyes. “These prisoners have a claim upon the Emperor’s honor. You know that.”
“And I know the Emperor personally placed Vorrutyer in command. Make all the complaints you like when we return home; I’ll back you up. But I have my duty on this fleet. As do you.”
He knew instantly that he’d said the wrong thing. “Duty,” Aral snarled, and his voice was suddenly filled with all the anger Rulf had seen him hiding away in the last month. “I have had my fill of duty, more than you will ever know. No. This is ending now, cleanly, as it should. This is how it should have been done from the beginning. First Vorrutyer, then the Prince, then myself.”
Rulf lowered his voice. “Don't be a fool. This – you react like this every time, Aral, and what has it ever achieved? Would Vorrutyer be more powerful than you today, if you had held your temper at Komarr? Would this invasion be happening if you hadn’t insulted the Joint Council? You get nowhere by throwing yourself away, again and again, for one moment of anger!”
Aral’s eyes were furious, hurt. “There’s a woman in there,” he snapped back. “An innocent – a prisoner whose safety was entrusted to our honor. And you would have me – what – go back to sleep?”
“I would have you realize that you can’t correct all the problems of the universe. You can’t fight every battle. One Escobaran ensign is not a cause for you to blow up your career and your life.”
Aral stilled, his eyes suddenly intent on Rulf. “I didn’t say it was an ensign,” he said softly. “You knew of this? Already?”
Rulf cursed himself for letting that slip. “The guard came to me two days ago. But, Aral -”
He stopped at the look that came over Aral’s eyes. This was the Aral who’d been his commander at Komarr, and no one who’d been on the flag bridge over Solstice could ever forget that expression.
“They are indeed the scum of the service,” Aral said, taking a step closer. “But I have no use for those who pretend not to see, either. Get out, Rulf.”
“As you wish,” Rulf managed to hold his ground. “But I’m putting a guard on Vorrutyer’s door tonight.”
Aral’s lips twisted in anger. “Go, then. Go guard him yourself, if your stomach will stand it.”
Rulf left quickly, shutting the door on Aral’s furious gaze. He stood still for a long while, staring down the corridor at Ges Vorrutyer’s closed door.
At last he averted his gaze and turned in the direction of his own cabin. Sometimes there were truly no good choices.
Aral hadn’t looked directly at Rulf all through the conference with the Prince. Rulf sat and listened to Aral’s report of the fighting at the front, the Escobarans’ latest efforts to defend their outer planets, and wished he knew how to make this better.
Almost a month since the incident with the prisoner, and Aral was still as coldly formal as if they had never been friends. But what else could he have done? He’d picked up Aral, so many times - after Yuri's execution, after Ges, after Komarr, after things that no one but the two of them and Negri knew about. But no one could have saved Aral if he’d gone through with what he intended.
Aral, who felt every hurt to the Empire’s honor as if it were his own, every injustice carried out in the Emperor’s name as though it were done to him. Aral was the one who went about declaiming revolution in his cups, and Rulf carried him home afterward; that was how it had always been.
The report came to its end. The Prince, clearly bored with tactical details, rose and left.
“Admiral Vorhalas,” Aral said coolly, holding out a data disk. “I suggest you examine the sections on the Escobarans’ redeployment of their planetary defenses. We may need to revise our occupation plan to take some of their new positions into account.”
Why hadn’t he mentioned it to the Prince, if he had such concern? Rulf took the disk from Aral’s hand. “I’ll look at it.”
Aral hadn’t moved from perfect parade rest, his eyes fixed on the wall above Rulf’s shoulder. “I suggest you do it now, sir.”
Rulf gritted his teeth. But now was not the time for this argument. “Fine. Now.”
Aral saluted crisply and departed. Rulf sat and began working through the report. It wasn’t as clearly written as Aral’s reports always were – he kept having to go back and check minor facts, something he hadn’t done with any of Aral’s reports since Aral had been his first officer twenty years ago. It was a good fifteen minutes before Rulf finished, and he couldn’t find anything to worry about.
Had Aral meant to waste his time? No – if Aral wished to make his life miserable, he knew far better ways. There must be something serious in there. Rulf had just started again when his comconsole buzzed.
“Sir?” Commander Venne’s face appeared on his screen, wearing an unusually cool expression. “The Prince is with the ground force commanders, and Admiral Vorrutyer’s left orders that he’s not to be disturbed, and we wondered...”
Rulf waved impatiently. “Yes, go on.”
“The Betan prisoners are demanding to know where Captain Naismith is, sir.”
Rulf looked up. “Who is Captain Naismith?”
“The commander of the Betan ship, sir,” Venne replied. “The one we captured. A woman. She was signed into the brig with the rest of the Betans, but she’s not there now. What shall I tell them, sir?”
Rulf looked from the useless report to the comconsole, suspicion crystallizing in his mind.
“Where is Corporal Angelov?” Rulf demanded as soon as he marched into the brig.
The corporal was produced within moments, pale and frightened. He looked up at Rulf and stammered, “You didn’t do anything. I told you the last time, sir, and you didn’t do anything, and Commodore Vorkosigan told me if it happened again I was to come to him, not you...”
Rulf left the brig without listening to another word. Damn him for falling into the trap so easily. How stupid he’d been to underestimate Aral’s stubbornness, to think Aral would ever learn when to surrender. He prayed he’d be in time as he rushed to Vorrutyer’s quarters – but he didn’t think so.
The smell of blood assailed him before the sight. Rulf had been expecting burned flesh and the discharge of a plasma arc; he had not imagined this.
Ges Vorrutyer lay sprawled at the foot of his own bed, surrounded by drying blood. His throat was slit open from ear to ear, and his uniform trousers were pooled around his ankles. It was obvious what he’d been doing before his death. Rulf closed his eyes, leaning back against the door, and saw the political officer’s face darkening, heard the snap of his neck and the thud of the body landing on the floor. Oh, Aral.
He went, still half-dazed, to the comconsole in the corner, and switched it on. “Venne, where’s the Prince?”
Venne stared up at Rulf, bewildered; Rulf could only imagine what he looked like at that moment. “Still in conference with General Vorbataille, sir.”
There was still time to salvage this. Aral would not have gone to the third stage of his plan without completing the second. “Sound a ship-wide alert, and tell the Prince’s armsmen to raise his security. And send a security team to Admiral Vorrutyer’s quarters.”
Venne paled. “What’s happened, sir?”
“Vorrutyer’s been assassinated,” said Rulf. He thought quickly, and added: “We’ll have to have a forensic team go through the room, but it looks as though the missing Betan prisoner did it.”
Venne did a decent job of not looking admiring. “I’ll send security at once, sir.”
“I’ll stay here till they come.” Rulf cut the comm. Then he went outside, and looked back and forth until he spotted the nearly concealed vid-camera. He hesitated only for a moment before he crossed the corridor and opened the back of the camera. Then he removed the security recording and crushed it.
After that, it went like a clockwork ride to hell. The Prince raged and wept over the body, and Aral appeared on the bridge moments later with a semi-plausible story of needing to update his retreat plans. Within minutes it became clear that Vorrutyer’s strange, frightening batman was missing too, and Rulf had no idea what to make of that.
There wasn’t the slightest trace of blood on Aral. But he only needed one look at Aral’s eyes. They were calm before Serg’s anger, but Rulf knew that calm came from rock-solid stubbornness, not innocence.
He stayed away as the Prince first arrested Aral and then ordered him confined to quarters. This would require a skillful hand to manage. He let the Prince rage, and quietly directed the search for the missing Betan to the departing shuttles while he was distracted.
“Don’t talk to me about evidence, Commander!” the Prince was shouting at Venne. “Vorkosigan had Ges to himself for years, we all know he was jealous, we know he’s been waiting for his moment!”
The officers looked away, embarrassed. “If it is so, the investigation will turn it up,” Rulf said, soothing. “You have ordered him confined; he can do nothing. We have more pressing concerns now, sir. We need to leave for the front.”
He saw a moment of boyish fear in the Prince’s face. Rulf understood. He didn’t want to leave either; he was suddenly filled with doubts, and once again, he wanted nothing more than Aral’s opinion.
“Ah, sir…” Venne glanced sideways at Prince Serg before addressing Rulf. “Commodore Vorkosigan is still on duty, isn’t he? Shouldn’t you give him the attack plans before you leave?”
Rulf paused. But if the Betan prisoner was hiding where he strongly suspected she was, he couldn’t risk Prince Serg going in. And Aral’s words had been clear enough: I have no use for those who pretend not to see. No, a conversation would do neither of them any good right now.
The best thing he could do was get the Prince off the ship as quickly as possible. “Neither the Prince nor I need to speak to a man who’s under arrest for treason, Venne.” Rulf pulled down the attack plans onto a disk and handed it to the executive officer, avoiding his disappointed eyes. “Send this to Commodore Vorkosigan’s comconsole - after we’ve left.”
“The Escobaran fleet is in full retreat, sir.” Commodore Helski was standing at attention before the Prince, ignoring Rulf entirely. “Your orders?”
“They’re retreating! The cowards are retreating!” The Prince’s eyes were shining. He spun his command chair to face Rulf. “Prepare your ground forces to occupy the planet!”
Of course they’re retreating, Rulf thought. We have superior numbers, superior firepower. But some part of his mind whispered that it was too easy. The Escobarans were defending their homes. They should have been fighting viciously for every volume of space, or rearranging their forces for one final push. Not full retreat.
Helski leaned close to the Prince to offer a tactical pad. “If we follow this path, sir, we could position the flagship in the lead of the attack group…”
Rulf saw Prince Serg hesitate, and restrained a smile. The Prince had spent the entire battle oscillating between demanding to lead the charge and wanting to stay safely behind.
“I recommend caution, sir,” he said, soothing. “Your leadership will be needed to monitor the advance.” He saw Serg’s eyes flicker between him and Helski, and continued. “Also, I must point out that any damage to the ship at this stage could delay your landing on Escobar after the conquest, which is of course essential…”
Serg straightened. “Quite true. I think we will stay here. Yes, stay here.”
And take all the credit later, no doubt. Rulf was perfectly happy to stay away from the front line, where the flagship had no place. He watched the screen as the fleet continued to advance, tracing the formation of the Escobaran ships. It didn’t make sense as a defensive pattern. They were retreating, yes, but…
Rulf took a step back and narrowed his eyes, letting the bright spots on the screen condense into a shifting spiral of light as the Escobarans fell back toward planetary orbit. What would Aral think?
His hands stilled. Aral would have thought the Escobarans were drawing them in – to a trap.
Rulf looked up just as the first explosion lit up the screen.
Rulf opened his eyes to a rush of painfully bright light. He shut his eyes and tried moving his fingers instead. He was greeted with waves of pain spreading through his body, and he quickly stopped.
When he managed to open his eyes again, he could make out the stark walls and medical signs of the Fleet flagship’s sickbay, and Commander Venne standing at the foot of his bed. Rulf blinked at the man, and Venne returned a weary salute.
“Sir,” he began, and then paused, a hesitation uncharacteristic enough to make Rulf open his eyes fully. “Do you remember the battle, sir?”
The memories came back in a rush: Serg, panicking and ordering the flagship to hang back, and then the unstoppable wave of destruction sweeping over all of them, while the Staff were still trying desperately to understand - until the first strike hit them.
“Yes,” Rulf whispered. “I remember.” The General Vorkraft had put herself between their flagship and the incoming plasma burst. It had given them mere moments to get to the lifeboats. He remembered the Vorbarra armsmen pulling Serg out of his chair moments before the gravity collapsed… his chief of staff had done the same for him. Not everyone had such a chance.
“Plasma mirror fields,” he said quietly. He didn’t need to see Venne’s answering nod. They were theoretically possible, of course, but the best of Barrayar’s physicists had always said they were impossible in practice. “How bad is it?”
“Commodore Vorkosigan organized the retreat, sir,” Venne said. “He figured out right away what the Betans had done, and put his contingency plans into action. We managed to save eighty percent of the troop carriers.”
Eighty percent? Against plasma mirrors? “That’s astounding.” Despite the scale of the disaster, Rulf couldn't restrain a smile. Aral would be a hero again when they got home. Grishnov’s charges would collapse; let the War Party call him a traitor now. He raised himself up on his elbows. “Where’s Aral?”
Venne’s face fell. “Sir… Commodore Vorkosigan is in the brig, under arrest. On charges of treason and conspiracy. Also the Betan captain - Naismith. And Sergeant Bothari. And Doctor Lavalle. And Corporal Angelov.”
Rulf stared at the man. Venne rushed on. “Commodore Vorkosigan was hiding the Betan and Sergeant Bothari, sir. He’d been smuggling extra food and meds into his cabin. The Prince found out about it when he returned. Sir…”
Damn him. Rulf was silent. He’d hoped Aral would have gotten the prisoner out in time – he’d done everything he could without risking himself, to give them that time – and it hadn’t been enough. He remembered the Prince’s furious grief at the sight of Vorrutyer’s body, his promises of bloody revenge.
No. There was nothing he could do now.
“We’re approaching the planet now, sir,” Venne said at last, clipped and formal. “You’re in joint command with the Prince. He’ll see you as soon as you’re able to return to duty.”
The base camp on the newly discovered planet was without a doubt the worst place Rulf had ever been. The air was filled with tension and silence, and grief for the thousands who had died their unmarked, pointless deaths. Every time he glanced up, he found men glaring at each other, as if the defeat were their fault. It had taken mere days for the camp to splinter into factions; cruelest of all was the one that had coalesced around Serg. Rulf spent all his time in his office wrestling with the peace negotiations, but he wasn’t blind. He had chosen decent men for his makeshift staff, but Serg’s followers were – that phrase of Aral’s had never been more appropriate. The scum of the service.
And then there was Prince Serg himself. Rulf had hoped that without Ges’s influence, the loss of the war might have sobered him. It seemed to have done the opposite. Serg’s faction had turned inward, scheming and whispering among themselves. And from what little he had glimpsed of their behavior toward the prisoners – he was only glad that as Serg’s high-security political captives, Aral and Captain Naismith were still in orbit, in the flagship’s brig.
He looked up at the alien sky, watching for a spark of light. The courier ship from Barrayar, bringing Ezar’s latest orders, was already late. That was when he heard a cry from the direction of the officers’ quarters. He couldn’t make out the words, but it was a woman’s voice, in Spanish, and the answering laugh was surely Serg’s. Rulf clenched his fists. Did the man not understand how much they’d lost?
He made a sudden decision, and turned toward the voice. He could do this. Not like Aral, barging in with a plasma arc – but he could create a convenient distraction. An administrative headache for which he absolutely needed Serg’s authority.
Yes; that might just do. He marched up to the small building that housed Serg’s rooms and staff. The Vorbarra Armsman outside waved him on with a grin. Rulf knocked on the door, as loudly and urgently as he could, and pushed it open. He walked in, and stopped dead at the scene before him.
They were still for many minutes; him, the Prince, the two Armsmen with him, and the woman. Then Serg’s expression widened into a lazy smile, and he waved at his Armsmen. One of them pushed Rulf back through the door. Another shut it in his face. Rulf stood, stunned, on the step.
His hand reached back to the door, and stilled. He was abruptly aware that the Armsman outside had somehow been joined by two others. They were watching him closely, almost smirking.
Rulf withdrew his hand.
He wasn’t sure how he made it across the camp. He wasn’t looking where he was going; the only image in his head was that of the Escobaran woman’s glazed eyes, and her swollen stomach, clearly visible under the torn prisoner’s uniform.
Somehow he staggered into his office and knelt on the floor. That - what manner of man could do that? What else could he - what else had he not seen until now? What else had he refused to see? Rulf had been there when they killed Karian’s men, he’d watched that horror unfold – but there had been a reason, there had been a mutiny that need to be stopped, this was one man’s monstrosity.
This man was no mere power-hungry aristocrat, no mere hanger-on of Ges Vorrutyer. He was utterly without honor - without any human decency.
He heard the click of the door as if from a great distance. “Lord Rulf,” said a soft voice.
Rulf looked up, unwillingly, to see Prince Serg standing over him. He watched, dazed, as Serg’s fingers rested on his shoulder. Drops of blood spotted his yellow Admiral’s tabs.
“Do you know,” the Prince said softly, “I always thought you were Vorkosigan’s lackey?” He smiled. “I had to find out for sure, tonight. But I can see now that you’re no traitor. You’ll serve me well.”
Rulf could only stare up into Serg’s hazel eyes. They reminded him of glass; sharp, merciless, shattered beyond repair. He’d only seen eyes like that once before, when Ezar’s guards had brought Yuri out of his cell.
Yuri’s eyes stared back at him now, his childhood nightmare come back to haunt him. Rulf’s throat was dry.
“It’s just not the same without Ges,” Serg said lazily. Rulf’s horror must have shown, for Serg smiled. “Politically, I mean. Ges was a good Admiral. Grishnov, now, he just doesn’t get the military. When I am Emperor, and we needn’t worry about the old man and Negri… you’re a sensible man, Lord Rulf, you know when not to ask questions. Ges thought so too, for all you acted like Vorkosigan’s pet.”
Ezar, Rulf thought desperately, even as Serg’s words twisted inside him like knives. Ezar is our only hope. But Ezar let his son fall this far…
The door was flung open. Rulf nearly jumped, but Serg stayed absolutely still, smiling.
Couer and Helski were standing in the doorway. Couer's face was so still and pale that Rulf immediately leaped to the worst conclusion. The Escobarans are attacking. He moved to get up, but Serg’s hand tightened on his shoulder, pushing him back on his knees. Rulf looked up, and in a single beat, both officers dropped to their knees as well.
“Sire,” said Helski, looking at Serg with undisguised glee. “The Emperor is dead.”
Rulf stared down at the file in his hands. The chief of the Judicial commission had put the thing down on his desk yesterday, and walked out without a word. Rulf had stayed up all night, reading - and it was worse than even he had steeled himself for. He had read, disbelievingly, the descriptions of suicides, of unexplained deaths... and all this from just the first batch of prisoners exchanged. How much had he not seen? Well, now he knew.
And yet the men around him walked as if they owned the world. We lost a war. We lost two-thirds of our fleet. Our best men. Every shred of honor. Still they walked like men victorious, for Serg had won. And as for him… all his caution, his careful thought, his determination to do his duty… what good had any of it done?
He’d stopped Aral from going after Vorrutyer and the Prince. He didn’t regret that. But why didn't I do it myself?
There was no answer he could give to that. None that would satisfy his own conscience.
“Sir,” said his aide. “There’s another judiciary worker here to see you. A Betan woman. She said she’d wait in your office.” Rulf could hear the contempt in the young officer’s voice, his displeasure that Imperial soldiers now had to explain themselves to a Betan woman. Well, it was time to endure another session of contempt and anger from the galactics. Well-deserved, he thought bitterly, and pushed open the door to his office.
A white-haired woman dressed in a Betan shirt and sarong was waiting for him, gazing up at the wall. “Madame,” Rulf began wearily, and then stopped, staring in disbelief.
“Rulf,” said the woman who had once been Princess Nandini Vorbarra, turning her gaze from Ezar’s portrait to him. “Sit down and tell me how this happened.”
“So he’s got all that’s left of the fleet, and he’s got Aral,” Nandini’s voice was edged with disbelief. “And now you tell me he’s going to be Emperor?”
Tell me this isn’t happening . Rulf had heard that tone in his own voice enough over the past few days. “He is Emperor. He is Ezar’s sole heir, and Grishnov’s men hold the government. Serg’s control of Barrayar is total.”
“You may as well say it,” she interrupted harshly. “Everything we fought for is lost.”
It is. But he couldn’t say that to her. She’d stood by Prince Xav’s side through the entire disaster. Her skirts had been stained with the blood of her son, but she’d sworn her oath to Ezar without missing a beat.
“And Ezar and Negri never did anything to stop this?” She sounded astonished. “I could say many terrible things about Ezar Vorbarra, but the man did care about Barrayar. I can’t believe he would have let things fall so far.”
Rulf shook his head. “Serg is his son. It could break a man, even Ezar…”
“Of course. It would.” For a moment Rulf was forcibly reminded of the look on Prince Xav’s face that day, as he’d knelt to take his own oath. Broken. She had the same expression now. Anything else had been an excuse; she’d come to try and save Aral. And there was no hope he could give her.
Her voice, when she spoke, was almost a whisper. “And you, Rulf? Has Barrayar succeeded in breaking you, too?”
Now it was Rulf’s turn to look away.
He was spared the need to reply by a commotion outside. “So you say! For all I know they could be bombs. I can’t let you take them in there-“
“He has to sign for them personally,” retorted an Escobaran voice. “Those are my orders, look -”
A man in the dark red uniform of an Escobaran medical technician backed through the door followed by a float-pallet. It was loaded with large canisters, each about half a meter high, studded with control panels and access apertures. Rulf saw Nandini’s expression grow still as the Escobaran turned to them. “I have a receipt for these that requires either Prince Serg Vorbarra or Admiral Rulf Vorhalas’s personal signature. Are they here?”
There was no need to tell him that Serg was Emperor now, and at this very moment preparing his departure on the other side of the camp. Saying it once had been bad enough. Rulf rose from his seat. “I’m Vorhalas. What are these?”
The medtech smiled viciously. “All your bastards.”
Rulf blinked at him.
Nandini looked sickened now. “They’re uterine replicators, Rulf - Admiral Vorhalas.”
“You mean –” Rulf stared, appalled. “Oh, God. You mean to tell me - they’re alive in there? Seventeen of them?”
Nandini crossed the room to the float-pallet. “Alive and healthy.” She touched the green lights blinking over the uppermost canister. “For now. I suppose whether they remain so is up to you.”
“But – but I don’t -” Rulf turned to stare at her. “We normally abort - but these - they're - what am I supposed to do with them? The Prince -” He stopped in his tracks. The scene from Serg’s cabin flashed across his eyes. Opening the stopcocks would be the best thing that could happen if these came into Serg’s hands.
The Escobaran held out a sheet of flimsy and a stylus. He flashed another sharp-edged, vicious smile. “Sign here, Admiral.”
Rulf took them, staring helplessly at the seventeen canisters. He could not compound his failures with this, with the deaths of children, with this grotesque end. But there was no honorable way out of this. Out of any of this.
“Don’t sign anything,” Nandini ordered, looking at the readouts on one of the machines. “These need servicing, don’t they?”
“Every week,” the medtech agreed, and Nandini’s eyes snapped up from the replicator.
Ah, thought Rulf distantly. So that’s where Aral got that look.
Nandini walked forward until she stood almost toe to toe with the Ecobaran. “You do know the distance between here and Komarr? The speed of Barrayaran courier vessels? Did you perhaps imagine the Barrayarans would have uterine substitute chemicals in their military camp?” She looked the float pallet up and down. “Or perhaps you’ve brought the chemicals along? Perhaps they’re waiting outside? No? On your shuttle?”
The medtech’s eyes gave it away. Nandini’s expression only grew colder. “No. You didn’t, did you? You wanted to put the blood guilt on the Barrayarans. To save yourselves the burden of murder.”
The medtech’s face colored. “Like hell. These are our gifts to Prince Serg Vorbarra and his men. They’ve got enough blood on their hands as it is.” He pointed at Rulf. “I doubt seventeen more makes any difference to him.”
Rulf looked at the medtech’s expression. It was startlingly familiar. “Does it make a difference to you?” he asked quietly. “Perhaps you think that not seeing makes it all right. That you can abandon them, and rationalize it to yourself, and distance yourself from death – but it won’t work, you know. Guilt has a way of finding you when you least expect it.”
The medtech flushed. He turned to Nandini, throwing out his arms in appeal. “You’d leave us with their bastards, too? On top of everything else they’ve done?”
“I’ll leave you with seventeen war crimes charges against the Escobaran government!” Nandini retorted. “These children have rights under interstellar conventions, which Escobar signed, even if they didn't!”
She put her hand on the float pallet and pushed it back toward the startled tech. “I hereby claim all these replicators in the name of the Interstellar Judiciary, and requisition from the government of Escobar all materials necessary to preserve them. Including you.”
The medtech stared at her. Nandini smiled fiercely, and that expression, too, was familiar. “I understand there’s a prisoner shuttle leaving for Escobar in a few minutes. Let’s get some new passengers on board, shall we?”
A week later, when Serg was gone and Rulf was preparing for his own departure, she returned. “The courts are going to start laying war crimes charges,” she began, as soon as the door to his office was closed. “Within the year, Serg’s government will not be recognized anywhere in the civilized Nexus.”
Rulf had expected nothing better. Serg dreamed of galactic conquest, but did he understand how much Barrayar depended on the goodwill of its neighbors? Komarr’s economy would take the first hit, and the Imperium survived on Komarran taxes. He doubted Serg and Grishnov cared – but they would see the results soon enough. “The children?”
“In a state of legal flux, at the moment,” she answered. “We’re negotiating to get the Escobarans to keep them – they don’t want to, but I won’t have them sent to Serg. I’ll pay out of my personal funds if I have to.”
He inclined his head. “I thank you.”
She lowered her voice. “Rulf, he must release Captain Naismith. Anything you can do to secure her release, you must do. Once the Betans get hold of these prisoner testimonies, and realize that she’s not with the repatriated group, Barrayar will have hell to pay.”
Rulf shook his head. “He won’t. It doesn’t matter if she assassinated Vorrutyer, or participated in his assassination, or was simply present. There is nothing any of us can do for her.” Or for Aral. It should have been done long before, when there was still a chance; Vorrutyer, then the Prince, then myself…
“You can do nothing?” Aral’s name, once again, hung unspoken in the air between them.
That is all I know how to do. “For what it’s worth,” he said quietly, “Serg’s reign cannot last long. If he applies this treatment to his own liege-people…”
“Of course,” she murmured. “But will the war end, this time?”
Yuri’s eyes stared out of the shadows. “I don’t know. Serg has a son - just four years old. Padma… he is a good man, but he cannot control Barrayar. And a child… it’s impossible. Aral could have done it if anyone could–” He broke off. “I don’t know. I don’t see how.”
She closed her eyes for a moment. “Very well. We need to be prepared for refugees, then. Escobar would not take them, and Beta is cruel at the best of times. Earth is our best chance, I think. I’ll spread the word.”
At a time like this, she thought of refugees. But she did not leave, and when she next spoke, her voice was changed. “I wish your advice, Lord Rulf.”
Rulf noted the clothes she was wearing for the first time. The black garments were cut in Betan style and of Betan cloth, but they were clasped with silver at the collar, and there was not a judicial sigil anywhere in sight. “Princess,” he replied, bowing his head.
“It concerns the children.” She paused. “I have been reading the prisoner testimonies in preparation for preparing charges, and… it is possible, even likely, that one of these children is Serg’s.”
Rulf went still, staring at her. “It’s not –” he said at last. “This child, this hypothetical child, is illegitimate. Serg has an heir. Even if this is another son, he would mean nothing to Barrayar.”
She smiled, but without humor. “That’s what they said about Xav, remember? And I have heard enough about Serg that I cannot - may I assume that neither of us wish him to find out?”
Rulf paused. What would Serg do? If he demanded his child, the Escobarans would be pleased to hand it over. Rulf understood, now, why Princess Kareen and young Gregor had been separated from Serg for so long. No good could come to any child from such a father. And in the middle of a war, with every Vor lord stabbing his brother in the back for some hold on power…
But who could make such a decision? Only a Vorbarra, and this was the only Vorbarra he could trust. After the madness he’d seen in Serg’s eyes, Rulf thought, this was the only Vorbarra he would ever trust.
“There’s documentation,” he said at last. “The Escobarans sent us a report. And the paternal chromosome sequences.”
Nandini sighed. “Of course. And that will get back to Serg eventually. I’d hoped–”
“I will destroy it.”
She blinked. “You’re right,” Rulf continued. “Serg mustn’t find out. No one on Barrayar should. Let this child go back to Escobar, let him or her have a peaceful life. All of them.”
“Well,” Nandini said, sounding surprised for the first time. “It’s good to see you sticking your neck out to protect someone at last.”
Rulf looked away, and she sighed. “I’m sorry. That was harsh. I understand -”
“Why not? At least I’ll have protected someone, at the end of this. Not that it will matter much.”
“It may matter very much to seventeen people, someday.” She paused. “For what it’s worth – Xav and I were the experts at smuggling anything and anyone on and off Barrayar. You need only ask.”
He turned back, startled. “You think – ”
She gave him a firm nod, also heartbreakingly familiar. “Yes. I know you. I know which side you’ll be on.”
Rulf had to smile at that. War would come, yes; but she’d been away from Barrayar for far too long, if she could not see how his part in this must end.
A month had passed since Rulf’s return to Barrayar; a month during which he felt as if Barrayar had changed beyond recognition. The men who’d served at Escobar were either unrestrained rulers or hollow-eyed ghosts, unwilling to meet each other’s eyes.
He’d missed Ezar’s funeral, Serg’s formal succession, and Grishnov’s appointment as Prime Minister. There was still much to see to in the disposition of the remnants of the invasion fleet and the men aboard it. And he’d missed Aral’s execution. He was glad. It was cowardice – but he did not deny his cowardice any longer.
Still, the day came when Rulf decided his obligations were ended, and returned to Vorhalas House.
He’d written his will before leaving for Escobar. It had needed only a little editing. He charged his nerve disruptor, before changing his mind and carefully checking his plasma arc. Rulf had no wish to make it messy, but still less to end up like either of the ensigns Aral had told him about.
Rulf had always been taught that a Vor lord’s honor lay in service to his Emperor. But what did you do when your Emperor was a man who cared nothing for honor? Then there was no recourse, he thought; no matter what path you took, you lost everything. Aral alone had possessed something more than that. First Vorrutyer, then the Prince, then myself; only two of the three had been achieved. Rulf examined the plasma arc one last time. Perhaps this will be some measure of payment, old friend.
There was only one last duty, now. The most painful of all, but he felt nothing but relief as he knocked on the door of his brother’s study.
Count Vorhalas looked up and smiled as Rulf entered. “Rulf -” he began. Then he fell silent as Rulf lowered himself to one knee.
“My lord Count,” he began. “I have something to tell you. And a request.” He had prepared his words, but they failed him then, and he stumbled through the story in bits and pieces, looking at the carpeted floor, his own hands, anywhere other than his brother’s face.
His brother had dedicated himself to the District, not the military, but he was like Aral; he would not have pretended ignorance. It should have been the other way round, Rulf thought. His brother should have gone to the military as their father had wished, and he should have been the one to manage the peaceful district. Things would not have come to this pass.
“With your permission, my lord,” he finished. “I will take my own life, in payment, and for the honor of our House.” He had had no doubt that permission would be forthcoming; he knew his brother. And yet the silence stretched on, until Rulf looked up.
Count Vorhalas’s face was gray and still. “I cannot judge you,” he said, after a long minute had passed, and Rulf blinked. “I swore oath to Serg myself, three weeks ago. I do not intend to keep it.”
You, willingly break your oath? Rulf stared at his brother's face, noting for the first time the shadows that hung there, the deepened lines, and dared not ask his brother what he might have heard or seen. “For whom do you intend the Imperium? Not for yourself, surely?” That would be a nightmare. Every Count for himself, Dorca Vorbarra’s hard-fought unity broken; the planet plunged into chaos with no end in sight. Yet Rulf could see little better.
“That is the question, is it not?” Count Vorhalas held up a hand. “The answer hinges upon one fact. You see, Lord Vorkosigan still lives.”
Rulf stared, wondering if he’d heard wrong. “What?”
“My informants tell me that the executions at the Ministry were a sham. Vorkosigan escaped from the Ministry’s holding cells last week, along with the Betan prisoner. Captain Naismith. Serg suspects Count Piotr’s involvement, but he has not actually arrested the old man yet.”
“Then –” Rulf trailed into silence. Then there was still a chance for them all. For Barrayar.
“Rulf,” said the Count softly. “I know that you and he were childhood friends, but I have heard many stories of the man, and not all of them good. Tell me honestly, now: what manner of man is Aral Vorkosigan?”
Rulf answered without hesitation. “The best of us.”
“Ah.” Count Vorhalas closed his eyes, his decision made. “Then this is my judgment. To what you have told me today, the honor of our house does indeed permit only one end. But not while you are needed. And I need you to find Lord Vorkosigan for me.”
Rulf looked away. “If I found him… I don’t think he’d listen to me. Rightly so.”
“But you still know him best,” the Count returned. “You can find him if anyone can. And then, if he is truly a man such as you say, he will not turn his back on Barrayar when he knows the need.”
“No,” Rulf let out the breath he had been holding. “I don’t believe he could.”
Count Vorhalas nodded sharply, expressionless, and Rulf rose to his feet.
He turned around at the door. “My request has not been answered. What after I find him?”
Count Vorhalas did not turn to look at him. “After that - there will be a war to fight. I see no other way. Commanders will be sorely needed.”
Rulf stood in the doorway, watching his brother. “War does not take away dishonor, my lord.”
“No,” Count Vorhalas said softly. “But it is said that service does.”