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The Politician’s Apprentice

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A spear bearing a brown pennant bordered in silver thudded against the floor, silencing the room as effectively as any weapon. Aral allowed the silence to stretch out for a moment before he reached out and pushed away the documents piled before him.

“Guilty,” he said, without hesitation.

He saw the prisoner’s mouth fall open, hazel eyes wide and shocked as if he truly had not believed until now that this could happen. Then the young man lunged forward, the expression in his eyes turning to rage. Aral sat still, knowing that his armsmen would move faster. Across the room he saw Ezar start forward in reaction, his hands reaching out instinctively before he saw Aral’s gaze and stopped. Only his eyes remained fixed on his son as two armsmen – and it took two, for he was struggling – held Serg back and bound his hands before pushing him out of the room.

Aral’s eyes returned to his desk as the door closed, but the image of Serg’s angry, betrayed face lingered in his mind. Still, if he knew Serg at all, the boy would be back to his usual swaggering self in a few minutes. Already he would be convincing himself that he would get out of this as easily as he had so much before; that his father would do what was necessary, would pay, bribe, threaten and drive his honor one step further into the dust, for Serg himself had none to lose.

He picked up the already familiar warrant and unfolded it, the stiff paper crackling under his fingers. His eyes ran down the formal phrases he had almost learned by heart. Lord Serg Vorbarra. Vorloupulous’ Law; conspiracy to commit murder; treason by intent to usurp the Imperium. Aral lowered the paper and picked up his pen.

“Sire,” said Ezar Vorbarra softly, and for a moment that voice struck close to Aral’s heart, and to memories of childhood lessons, of long and loyal service. But Ges’s hand brushed lightly against the back of his neck; nothing indecorous, not here, but reminding Aral of all they had agreed he must do, anchoring him to duty that could not be cast aside for sentiment. Aral’s pen scratched across the paper before he allowed himself to look up.

“However,” he said, forcing himself to look directly at the Prime Minister’s face, worn with lines that had emerged and deepened over the week-long trial. “This case is not yet closed. This court will now move on to other matters arising from it.”

Ges’s voice smoothly took over the pause that followed. “Indeed. And the first matter must be, sire, that of identifying the accomplices to this plot. It is ludicrous to believe that we are dealing with only one traitor.”

Ezar’s face had been a picture of rising and falling hope, but Ges’s words seemed to raise some of his old fire. “If you’re going to make accusations, Vorrutyer, at least have the courage to do it openly.”

“Very well,” Ges replied, stepping forward to stand beside Aral. He turned and bowed, and Aral gestured to him to speak. “Sire, I submit to you that Lord Serg could not possibly have hoped to usurp the Imperium by his own power. Even if he intended to base his claim on his mother’s blood rather than his father’s name, he could not have done so without, at the very least, his father’s support.”

“I have yet to see any proof that he did intend to usurp the Imperium,” Ezar said, wearily but defiantly.

“My lord, do you take me for a fool?” Aral said sharply. “You do not assemble a troop of Komarran mercenaries merely to prove that you can. You do not arm them for an assault, you do not promise rewards far beyond your means - and you most especially do not ask their commanders to swear their obedience.” He let his anger show, and could see Ezar biting back words – not a legal oath, not binding, youthful folly – Ezar knew him well enough to see that now was not a time for such excuses.

Assassination plots no longer frightened Aral, but this plot had spoken clearly of its maker’s cruelty - and the depth of his personal hatred. He’d raged when he had forced the truth out of Negri’s shields and delays, and there had been a time when he had felt that he could have cut off Serg’s head himself. Later, when he’d realized the full depth of the treason that surrounded him, he could have destroyed all who were involved; Yuri’s methods had never seemed so appealing. But somehow he had held himself back. Ezar himself had taught him the importance of restraint, of openness, of legal trials; let this now be spoken openly.

The important thing, Aral reminded himself, was to make sure this never happened again. To tear out treason from all its roots, not one only. And if pain was necessary in the process, so be it.

Everyone was still watching him, waiting. He calmed his voice before going on. “Am I to believe that a boy – hardly seventeen – could have planned and executed this scheme by himself? That he was not the tool of someone greater?”

Ezar stood his ground. “Not mine, sire.”

“Whose, then?” Ges demanded.

The look Ezar directed at Ges would have had most strong men fleeing for their lives. Ezar’s look had frightened armed soldiers into submission before; it had frightened Aral into submission more than once. But Ges, secure in his own confidence and the Emperor’s, didn’t falter.

“That question should rightly have been put to Captain Negri,” Ezar ground out at last. “He was on the verge of finding out, was he not? Perhaps we should be asking who had a motive to prevent him from doing so. Who had my son following at his heels -”

“Captain Negri has already made his position clear,” Ges retorted. “Your familiar would lie without hesitation for you, old man. We all know that.”

“My lords,” said Aral, stepping in before the argument escalated. “An Imperial court is no place for private quarrels, and the charges against Captain Negri must wait for Captain Negri's trial. Prime Minister, the charges that have been made against your son are by implication against you as well. What would you say?”

Ezar fell silent, staring at Aral. Slowly, he came before Aral’s seat and knelt. Aral could see every muscle in his body rebelling against the gesture, but he knelt. “Sire,” he said quietly. “I have ever been your servant, and will be until I die. My son is young and foolish, and I beg that you will show mercy-”

“On what grounds?” Aral’s voice was suddenly sharp, cutting across the room. “There is one law on Barrayar, Prime Minister. One law. That is what you have taught me all my life. One law for the proles and the Vor – and for your son.”

He watched emotions warring with each other across Ezar’s face, as the choice sank in. Ezar Vorbarra could watch his son die, or he could turn his back on the principles he had fought for over twenty years, on all he’d taught Aral. If he did so, the political wolves he had held at bay thus far would turn on him without hesitation; without Aral’s protection he could not survive.

Or, of course, he could turn his back on Aral himself. Ezar could raise his troops, but he would be raising them against Piotr Vorkosigan’s son, and Aral had made sure Serg’s discharge papers from the Academy had made a quick round of the Staff. The real ones, not the ones claiming indefinite sick leave or whatever fiction Ezar had persuaded the commandant to write.

All of us must face harsh choices, Aral thought, watching his old teacher. And this was perhaps the harshest; to choose between those loved and those owed loyalty. Aral had faced that choice, had fought his way through it over the past weeks. For Serg, there had never been a choice; he had never forgotten that he was Vorbarra and the man who sat on the camp stool was not.

But Ezar… Ezar loved his son, of that there was no doubt. Not was there any doubt that he had rendered great service, both to Aral’s grandfather and to Aral himself. It was Ezar who had sheltered them through that long night of murder, Ezar who had opened the gates of his headquarters to the fugitives and come himself to kneel at Xav Vorbarra’s feet. It was Ezar who had stood beside Aral at the bloody end, who had handed him the knife and told him to prove himself. And yet Aral had never been able to remove the nagging suspicion that Ezar Vorbarra served one thing only: his own power.

Ges went on with his attack. “Then where is your secret messenger, my lord? Where is Padma Vorpatril?”

The room was silent. “Sire,” Ezar said at last, addressing Aral, not Ges, refusing to acknowledge Ges but tacitly acknowledging that he spoke for Aral. “I cannot answer that.”

Aral studied the kneeling man, and there it was; defeat. Relief coursed through him at the sight, and he had to hold back a sigh. Ezar would not turn. He would plot and scheme and undermine for the sake of power, but pushed to the greatest extreme, he would not rebel.

He had learned what he needed to; it was enough. There was no need to push any man beyond his limits, no need to break what he had already bent. “You are fortunate that I can.”

Ezar looked up, startled, and Aral raised his hand, conscious of the surprised gazes of everyone in the room save his own armsmen. “Get up, uncle.”

Armsman Esterhazy spoke a word into his comlink, and the door on Aral’s side opened. Padma walked in to stand beside the surprised Ezar.

Ges’s hand abruptly clamped down on Aral’s shoulder, and he bent down to whisper. But Aral shook him off. Esterhazy caught Ges’s arm, and before Ges could turn his anger into words, he found himself dragged to the circle where Serg had stood a minute before.

“What-“ he demanded, his triumphant expression slowly replaced by confusion. Then he fell silent as Aral stood up.

“Lord Vorpatril,” said Aral with icy calm. “You are late. You were called as witness over an hour ago.” He waved a hand in Ges’s direction. “Well, better late than never. Go on, my lord. The witness is yours.” But Ges had been taken completely by surprise. His eyes flicked to the witness benches where the ladies of the court were sitting, and Aral’s anger rose further.

“No? Then I shall take it on myself.” He turned to Padma. “Lord Vorpatril, where have you been?”

Padma blinked at him. “You mean, before your armsmen locked me in the basement?” 

Aral shot him a glare, and he straightened hastily. “Sire. I was at the Academy, until I received orders to proceed to Komarr aboard Captain Vorkalloner’s courier ship.” He paused. “I disobeyed my orders. I boarded the ship, but I abandoned it before it launched.”

“Explain,” Aral said. But his eyes were taking in the room, noting who had fallen abruptly silent, who was suddenly whispering to their neighbors; whose eyes had darted to the armsmen now bolting the doors. Ezar was doing the same, realization dawning in his eyes.

“Sire. I was told that you wished me to go to Komarr and deliver the trial order to Lord Serg. As your personal emissary, to talk sense into him. And I would have done it, except that once I was on the ship – no one on the crew knew I was supposed to join them. And after that mess at the Academy, you’d promised me I wouldn’t ever have to deal with that useless-"  he broke off with a glance at Ezar. “And then I started thinking about who had given me the order, and my own suspicions –"

Aral knew whose faces were turning pale, whose eyes showed fear. ”What suspicions, Padma? Who gave you this order that was supposed to be mine?”

Padma bowed his head. “The Empress, Sire.”

“Liar!” Aral turned his gaze to his wife. She had risen from her seat, her face a picture of offended pride. “My lord, your cousin has been seeking an opportunity to slander me for years. He has been jealous of me ever since our marriage, that I challenge his influence over you-”

“Jealous of what?” Padma retorted. “I don’t think I have much influence over anybody, but then I’m not the one who flirts with every Ambassador to the Imperial Court -”

Her eyes flashed dangerously and she took a step forward. “I would duel you for that - if I could!” She spun to face Aral. “Will you stand here and allow me to be insulted so?”

“No, indeed,” Aral said coolly. “There are far simpler ways to determine the truth of the matter.”

Her confidence faltered for an instant. “You wouldn’t. Not to your own wife.”

“Not to you, cousin.” Padma touched his arm briefly. “To me.”

She paled and stepped back. Her eyes flicked back and forth from Aral to Ges, searching for some cue that did not come. Aral watched her impassively. Ges averted his eyes from her, and somehow it was that which sealed his fate in Aral’s mind. 

The anger he had suppressed over the past week flooded through him, but he held himself back again. There were better demonstrations of power than an angry outburst. “My lord and lady Vorrutyer. Know that charges of treason have been laid against both of you in this court. If you have anything to say in your defence, say it now.”

She glanced again at Ges. “He told me to do it!" she burst out. "I never thought - I did not know what he meant to do. You must believe me - why would I wish you dead?” She stretched out a hand to Aral, imploring.

Aral smiled humorlessly. “No, you would not wish me dead for as long as your power comes through me. But my death was not the goal of this plot, was it?” Oh, no one wanted him dead, except for idiots like Serg. No one wanted blood and chaos. All they wanted was his undivided trust; in the end, his mind, his soul, his power. Serg’s treason had a bizarre honesty by comparison.

“Then hear my judgment. You, my lady wife, will cease meddling in politics. You will take up residence with your ladies at Vorkosigan Surleau until I say otherwise. Look to your children, and leave me to look to my Empire.” He stepped up to her and spoke softly, but there was no warmth in his voice. “This mercy is for your children, not for you. It will not be granted again.”

She had tears in her eyes, but she would not cry in front of him. She dropped a brief curtsy, then turned and walked from the room without a glance for him or her brother. She had always been proud, he thought wistfully for a moment; then he turned his attention to the last prisoner. 

“For you, my lord Vorrutyer, I have no such mercy.”

“Oh?” Ges’s superior air had returned, along with a familiar sly smile. At least there were no more pretensions of undying friendship. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Are you so sure about that? Let me warn you, you won’t like the things I could say at my trial.”

“I have never said that I meant to give you one.” Aral reached out to place his hands on Ges’s shoulders, on the Captain’s tabs he had placed there himself. He tried to be cold, impersonal, not to think of times they had touched long ago while he unpinned them. “I have taken what is mine. The rest I leave to the justice of your liege-lord and father.”

Aral knew the Vorrutyers, knew the dishonor their son had given them over the years. The Count’s private judgment would be swift and certain. Ges would never come to his father’s court in public, never bring this crowning humiliation on his family. He shook his head. “What we had as boys is over, Ges. It was over the day my grandfather died. I know you never liked to lose anything. But I - I lost you long ago. You never understood that, did you?”

Ges’s fists clenched. “Coward,” he hissed at Aral. But if he expected that to wound Aral, he was wrong. Yes, it was a coward’s way out, not an Emperor’s. It was the one weakness Aral had allowed himself in this long day. He wondered if everyone could read it on his face, and found, at the end, that he didn’t care.

He turned to Esterhazy, and the armsman must have read the weariness in his eyes, for he brought the spear down on the ground with a sharp crack. Aral remained where he was, with his back on Ges’s furious face, on the court and the witnesses. “My lords, I thank you for your attendance. This Court is closed.”

He heard shuffling feet and an angry oath from behind him, but no whispers from the crowd. Only stunned silence as what had happened sank in. The whispers would start, he knew, once they were well away from him.

The silence was broken by the sound of a throat clearing. “Um,” said Padma.

Aral turned. “Um,” Padma continued nervously, standing beside the door in a cadet’s version of parade rest. “You do realize, I had no actual evidence that the orders were false. So… I did commit treason too. Technically.”

For all that Padma was the sanest person in the family, sometimes he didn’t show it. “Do you think I haven’t tried enough men today?” Aral demanded. “Esterhazy will escort you to your commandant. Tell him you’ll get an Imperial dispensation for deserting the Academy. Go.”

The armsman went to the door and Padma followed him out, glancing over his shoulder at Aral. Had he frightened Padma, too? That had not been part of the plan, but it would serve. Better for Padma that he should learn to be wary now, than land himself in trouble with his carelessness later.

The room was now empty but for Aral and his Prime Minister. Aral went to the corner where his armsman had left the brown and silver spear. He sat down slowly on his chair, resting the spear across his knees, and waited for Ezar to speak.

Ezar was standing silently before him, studying Aral as carefully as Aral studied him. He had ruled through Xav in the last years, and had grown used to it; he would have ruled through Aral too, if Aral had given him a shadow of a chance. But now the balance of power had changed in one short hour. Ezar had humbled himself before Aral, before witnesses. It would not be forgotten.

At last it was Aral who broke the silence. “I have always valued your plain speaking,” he said. “More so now, since I have received so little of it in these last months.”

Ezar’s mouth worked silently, discarding possible responses. “You knew all along. You –“

“Yes,” Aral agreed. “I knew, uncle. Everything.”

There was no need to say more. Ezar could see the reasons – and more importantly, the results – as clearly as Aral himself. Ges given rope to hang himself, Negri’s divided loyalties brought out into the light, the intrigues of the Imperial household ended, and, not least, Ezar himself brought to humility. And Aral’s power consolidated, all the threads of treason that had slowly been winding around his throne broken – as Ezar had taught him to do, by word and example.

“What will become of Serg?”

Aral picked up the death warrant and folded it carefully. “Let your son work in the mines on the South Continent for a while. Perhaps that will clear his brain.” He put the warrant in his pocket.

Ezar’s eyes followed it as they would a charged weapon. “And Negri?”

“Your old familiar?” Aral smiled. “I believe Captain Negri has been adequately reprimanded. He and I will speak of loyalties and of service, and if he has learned his lesson as I believe he has, he will return to his duties.”

“Very well, sire.” Ezar paused. “Then the only question left is – what of us? Or more precisely, what purpose was this demonstration meant to serve?”

His Prime Minister did have a way of cutting to the center of things. “You and my grandfather rebuilt this world after Yuri, uncle. And I honor what you built. It was a good system to hold power; Counts and Ministries and politicians all squabbling with each other, and you holding all their strings, dispensing and taking away power when and where it pleased you. It served you well.”

He stood up slowly, laying the spear on the desk before him. “But now this world is mine. And what served your purposes does not serve mine. The old power balance has to shift, and I mean that shift to begin today.”

Ezar looked as if Aral had shoved something bitter down his throat, but he said nothing. Aral came around the desk to stand in front of him. Ezar was the taller man, the greater warrior, and it had always shown until today.

“I mean to rebuild this world,” he said softly. “As you did. Stand with me, and we will rebuild it together.”

If not was left unspoken. Aral stretched out a hand, bridging the gulf between them. “You taught me well, uncle.”

“So I did,” said Ezar at last, accepting the offered hand with grudging respect. “Perhaps too well.”

But Aral could see that something had changed in the old man’s eyes. For all their conflicts over power, there had always been some trust between them, and he had failed to account for that trust in his cold calculations; it had been sacrificed without a thought. For a moment he felt the same chill he had felt at Xav’s deathbed all those months ago, the loneliness of an old man dying alone in a crowded room, all those who might have comforted him held back by the barriers of fear that Xav himself had spent a decade constructing.

The isolation of power, Aral thought; but what was the alternative? Only chaos and blood, and loneliness was a small price to escape Yuri’s screams in the night.

“Sire,” said Ezar. “If you permit?”

 Aral released his hand and gestured in dismissal. “Yes. Go to your son.”

 Ezar bowed and left the room, silk curtains fluttering lightly in the breeze before he shut the door behind him. Aral remained, alone.