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Black Ice

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"Count Vorkosigan is here to see you, my lord." His armsman's voice was carefully level and neutral, which in itself betrayed his shock and confusion. "He is alone. No escort. He appears to have walked here."

"Indeed?" Vorhalas said mildly. He'd seen a great many strange things in over forty years of playing politics in Vorbarr Sultana, but for his oldest and closest enemy to deliver himself, apparently helpless, into his hands in the middle of the night, was something new. "Well, don't keep him standing around. Show him in."

"Yes, my lord."

"And alert the guard," he added. "I may have need of you."

"Already done, my lord."

Vorhalas nodded approval. It could only be disaster that could bring Vorkosigan to him thus. Twenty armed men would not be of use in many kinds of disaster, but better to have them ready and not need them than the opposite.

A moment later, Vorkosigan came into his study. Vorhalas could not wholly stop the surge of emotion that accompanied his entrance, the anger and pain and grief he had felt on seeing that face every day for twenty years, emotion familiar and unwanted as a bad habit. But he could control it. He studied his foe. Vorkosigan looked ... like an aging man with an exhausting job who had just walked two miles in the middle of a bitter winter's night to place himself defenceless before his enemy. Whatever he was doing, it ran deep; this was no tricky political ploy. Well, he hadn't thought it was. Vorkosigan wore his military uniform, an old grizzled wolf in his pelt: he was acting as Prime Minister tonight, not Count Vorkosigan.

"Good evening, Prime Minister," Vorhalas said courteously. "You call very late tonight."

Vorkosigan was studying him just as intently. "My lord Count," he said in his familiar low rumbling voice. "I wish to confer with you."

"Then my time is yours."

The formal courtesies were as careful and as meaningful as the salutes before a duel. But then Vorkosigan broke the pattern, stepped forwards, hands loose at his sides. "I'm afraid it can't be here," he said. "I have come to invite you to return to Vorkosigan House with me. What I have to say can only be said there."

Vorhalas was silent. The last time he had crossed the threshold of Vorkosigan House, it had been upon his knees to plead for his son's life, and to be spurned. He had sworn never to enter again. This, then, was why Vorkosigan had done this, made this gesture--and it was no small gesture, he knew. "And so you have come to me."

"Yes. What I have to say to you is of the utmost importance. I have come without guard and unarmed, and I entrust myself to your mercy and protection. And if you come with me, it will not be for the last time, tonight."

Vorhalas' mind was on fire with thought. Something so secret it could only be discussed in Vorkosigan House, something of weight to the Imperium, for Vorkosigan would not have done this for a small matter. Something for which Vorkosigan needed him. Something dishonourable? That was an easy word to say and a hard word to define, but he did not think Vorkosigan would have come to him had he judged it to be dishonourable. But Vorkosigan could be wrong about that. He had been so many times before, and if Vorkosigan was a wolf, Vorhalas was the guard dog, whose duty it was to protect the flock from his predations.

Put like that, there was no choice about the matter.

"Sit down," he said abruptly, and Vorkosigan did so, not attempting to conceal an exhausted sigh. If the man was masked, it was not a mask Vorhalas could see, and he had studied Vorkosigan for twenty years. This was as close as he was going to get to the true man, and that too was a sign of the importance of this.

"Very well," he said. "I will come with you, and as you have done, so shall I: I will walk back with you to Vorkosigan House, and we will go alone and unarmed."

Vorkosigan blinked, then gave a slow nod. "I thank you," he said quietly.

There was a brief delay while he appraised his Armsmen of his intentions, gathered together coat and boots, while Vorkosigan sat silently in his study, apparently content. Vorhalas knew he would get no further information from him here, and quieted his curiosity. He had learned patient endurance long ago.

It had been a long time since he'd walked alone through the city at night. Vorkosigan did seem to have eluded his security, and Vorhalas wondered how, and whether they knew of this plan. Either they must have obeyed an order at best unwise, to permit the Prime Minister to go about unguarded, or they were sufficiently incompetent that he could escape their notice. An unkind position for Vorkosigan to place them in, though Vorhalas thought he would have larger concerns than pursuing that, tonight. But there did seem to be slightly more municipal guard patrols on the streets, as if someone had tipped them off that they should keep a close eye on this part of town, though none of them took any visible notice of two old men walking through the night.

"A fine night," Vorhalas remarked after they had walked for ten minutes, feeling some courtesy was called for.

"It is, but they tell me it will snow again tomorrow," Vorkosigan replied. "There's a change coming."

That seemed all there was to say about the weather, though Vorhalas rather thought the change had already come. He waited until they were crossing a wide deserted road, well away from any potential listeners, to say, "And how is the Emperor? Any better for his little vacation?"

Vorkosigan's foot slipped on a patch of ice; by reflex Vorhalas caught his arm before he could fall. Vorkosigan shook free of him, his whole body tense. "I can give you the details later," he said at length. "They should clear these streets better."

"It is quite slippery. Black ice, very treacherous and hard to see until you're right on top of it."

Vorkosigan grunted, and they continued to walk in silence. Perhaps the groundcar would have been a sufficient gesture, Vorhalas considered as they toiled up the hill towards Vorkosigan House. Neither of them were as young as they'd once been, and it was only through considerable self-control that he was not puffing for breath. Vorkosigan was making no such strategies of concealment, though he still set a brisk pace. Driven, Vorhalas thought, and then wondered, driven by what?

They arrived at Vorkosigan House, where the bland gate guard admitted them to the precinct and an even blander armsman to the house itself. Vorhalas did not permit himself to hesitate on the threshold. He had resolved to come here, and he would make no unnecessary fuss about the matter now. Such theatrics were Vorkosigan's domain, not his.

Vorkosigan led him directly into the library, taking Vorhalas's coat himself, not a servant in sight after the armsman on the door. The door swung shut behind him.

This was Vorkosigan's inner sanctum, he knew, where he schemed with his allies, where only his closest confidants were invited. Very secure, very private. Vorkosigan waved him to a comfortable leather armchair and sat himself opposite, leaning forward a little, hands on his knees.

"I cannot--I will not--ask for your discretion about anything I am about to tell you. If you wish to announce it tomorrow morning to the Joint Councils, to the people of your District, to the news media, I cannot and will not stop you. You are here because above all else, I know I can rely on your good judgement and integrity, and your unceasing commitment to the good of Barrayar."

Typical Centrist soft-soap, Vorhalas thought, but for the statement it followed. He nodded slowly. "Then I will make you no promises."

"Gregor is not sick."

It had to be Gregor, really, Vorhalas knew. Had known from the outset. Dead? Gone mad? Truly, the Vorbarra blood was tainted, and that would be a nightmare worthy of the anguish and exhaustion on Vorkosigan's face.

"He disappeared during his state visit to Komarr. We have been able to find no trace of him. So far, from our investigation, it appears the most likely possibility is that he left. Voluntarily. And he is actively evading our search."

Vorkosigan's face was pale and earnest. There was no way to know whether this was the truth, but it was not a possibility to be discarded. Vorhalas closed his eyes. The Emperor, gone. Perhaps he really had just walked away. Perhaps he had been killed, by Vorkosigan or some other enemy Vorkosigan had failed to protect him from. Perhaps he was a hostage or a prisoner. Perhaps he had gone mad. All the possibilities led to the same place: they had no Emperor to sit on the throne. That was the most important point, here. No way to know whether he could be found and restored. But without an Emperor, Barrayar was lost.

"Yours is the best right, by blood," Vorhalas said at length, and Vorkosigan sat up sharply. Vorhalas gave a thin smile.

"I see I have no need to lay it all out for you," Vorkosigan managed at last. "It took me ... a great deal longer, to reach that conclusion. We have not yet given up hope of finding Gregor again."

"You've found a double for him." Vorhalas spread his hands, marking the points off. "You are lying to the government and to the people about the situation. You have been continuing business as usual. Those things all point to you hoping to find him and get him back before anyone knows he's missing. But now you speak to me. Either someone's found out and the story is about to break and you're trying to get in under it, or you are truly despairing of finding him. I think I would know if something that big was stirring, so you are despairing. And so you have reached the logical conclusion: there must be a new Emperor. And you want my support for your own bid."

Vorkosigan finally smiled, very faintly. "And not least among the reasons I want your support is that you have one of the shrewdest and clearest minds in Vorbarr Sultana. Yes. The story is not about to break; as far as I know, our cover is holding. But ... the time is rapidly approaching when cover and hope will no longer be enough."

"It is frankly disturbing that you have managed to hold your lie together for so long. What else are you concealing from us all, I wonder?"

"I propose," Vorkosigan replied, "to open every door here to you. I am not asking for you to support me blindly. I will tell you how we kept this secret. I will give you access to every detail of our investigation and our search for Gregor. Satisfy yourself that we have left no avenue unexplored, that we have done all that can be done to find Gregor and to keep Barrayar functioning in the meantime. And then--then I ask for your support in what will follow."

"I truly believed, once, that you did not wish to be Emperor," Vorhalas said finally. "And now here we are."

"I do not wish it. Name me someone who could do this job and stand a better chance than I of keeping the empire whole and stable, and I will throw all my own support behind him." He paused. "I do not think you could sustain a claim in your own right, but if this does come to pass, I will be asking you to take the position of my Prime Minister."

The Prime Minister. A bribe, to purchase his support? Or Vorkosigan's realisation that he would need Conservative support as well as the Centrists and Progressives, if he were to take the throne? Both at once, most likely; it was practical politics to serve as many ends as possible with one gesture. He could not deny he wanted it; he knew himself and did not lie to himself.

"I will hold you to that," he said finally. If Vorkosigan was sincere, if Gregor had truly vanished without trace and fled, then he would be ... not happy, but willing, to serve in Emperor Aral's government. And if Vorkosigan was lying, if this was some trick or coup, it would be his duty to stay close to him and do his best to limit the damage.

Vorkosigan nodded slowly, recognising the calculations behind the decision. "I can't say that I will look forward to it," he said, "for I want nothing so much as for Gregor to be found tomorrow. But there is no man in Vorbarr Sultana I would rather have in such a position."

Vorhalas did not say that he thought there was no better man than Vorkosigan to succeed the throne, even though he feared it was true. There were very few good men in Vorbarr Sultana, and fewer still who were contenders for the throne. Vorkosigan was not a good man, but he was a strong and intelligent one, and Vorhalas knew all his flaws and failings, from both sides. An old echo of memory rang through his head, of Rulf saying, in his restrained way, that there was no better commander in all the Service than Vorkosigan. He had often thought it was a mercy Rulf had died before Carl, before Vorkosigan took all their friendship and trust and burned it down to bitter ash. But ash was still serviceable in its own way, as any backcountry farmer knew.

"Very well," he said. "I will examine your work, your account of what happened to Gregor and your search for him, and if I am satisfied, I will work with you in this matter. And I will support your bid for the Imperium."

Vorkosigan looked at him for a long time, then gave a deep nod of his head, almost a seated bow. "Thank you." He drew breath as if to say more, and Vorhalas frowned and stiffened. He had no wish to hear some Betan sentimentality about putting the past behind them or starting afresh or any such foolishness. There was blood between them; there would always be blood between them; he would ally himself with Vorkosigan for the good of Barrayar and for no other reason.

But all Vorkosigan said was, "Then we'd best get started." He reached for a reader and a stack of files on a side table, passing them over to Vorhalas. Their fingers brushed as he took them, and Vorhalas realised with a jolt that if this all did come to pass, he would have to place his hands between Vorkosigan's in earnest, not as a proxy for a child Emperor but in his own right. He would have to kneel before Vorkosigan again.

For a moment he hesitated, searching his thoughts. If he could not face this, he should turn back now, and leave this problem to other men. But there were no other men, nobody else he would wish to trust to watch Vorkosigan and test his honour and truthfulness, and if necessary guard Barrayar from him. He had swallowed Carl's death at this man's hands to keep Barrayar safe, and after that, there was nothing he could not do.