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"Everyone is saying it will be Lord Vorkosigan." Drou spoke quietly, almost unemotionally, but her eyes were fixed on Kareen. "It's going around the Household very fast."

"Yes. I've heard. Lord Regent Vorkosigan." Kareen cast a half-involuntary glance at the closed door of the nursery. Gregor had fallen asleep quickly after the funeral ordeal, though he hadn't cried at all. Kareen wasn't at all sure how much he understood: that his father was dead, that he would never see him again, what 'war hero' even meant. That he would be Emperor soon. He'd had no visible reaction to any of the news, nor to the long and tiring day. This escape to put her son to bed was the first quiet moment they'd had together all day, but by then Gregor had been too worn out to talk or ask questions.

"I suppose he's a good soldier, at least." An appraising nod from Drou, though her eyes were still on Kareen.

"So they say. He's also been permanently in a drunken stupor since he got back from Escobar. I expect he'll make a scene tonight as well. I have no idea what Ezar is thinking."

Even now, Drou flinched very slightly at this criticism of the Emperor. "I'm sure he will choose someone who will protect his grandson," she offered.

Kareen said nothing. She didn't think Ezar would intentionally leave a poisoned legacy for Gregor, but Ezar could not predict everything, and one thing he could not predict was what Vorbarr Sultana would look like without him. A drunken soldier with Ezar at his back was one thing; the same soldier on his own as Regent with no political experience was quite another. Perhaps Ezar was gambling on Count Piotr stepping in, but Piotr had barely shown his face in Vorbarr Sultana for months, and he was not much younger than Ezar himself.

She smoothed the black silk of her dress where Gregor had crumpled it, and said, "And he's not married."

Drou's eyes widened as she followed that step. "But surely you wouldn't have to--after all you've been through..."

"There may not be any other choices." The thought of marrying Aral Vorkosigan was like being pushed back into a dark dungeon just after seeing the sun. She'd shared her bed with one man who'd been schooled by Ges Vorrutyer: never again. Serg had once said that Vorkosigan had made Ges what he was, and though these days if Vorkosigan had any such vices he kept them quieter, there had to be a reason he was drinking so much now that Ges was dead.

"We should go back down," she said after a silence. "Go play the grieving widow at the funeral party. I mean reception." She gave a small, brittle laugh, and Drou moved towards her.

"Perhaps you should rest a little longer," she said.

Kareen took a slow breath. "Don't worry," she said. "Of all the roles I've played over the past five years, this is the easiest. My favourite." Serg's widow, what wonderful words. "I won't make a spectacle of myself downstairs." Though she could probably get away with it, under the circumstances: grief could be used to excuse almost any behaviour at a pinch. But it was important to be serene, to be calm, to be alert. They were all safe from Serg now, but that didn't mean all danger was past. All danger would never be past when she was the mother of the next Emperor.

When she went into the reception hall, she saw that Vorkosigan was still there, and not too visibly drunk yet. Padma and Alys were with him, a little too obviously babysitting, and there was an ImpSec officer in civvies shadowing him as well. Negri had evidently decided to make sure of Vorkosigan's behaviour tonight, and Kareen was grateful. Though the fact that it was needed at all, in a man they wanted to be Lord Regent... well, if it was going to be her job to turn this sow's ear into a silk purse, she had better make an opening move. She glided in his direction, pausing to speak to her guests along the way, and after a few minutes came up alongside Vorkosigan.

She gave a faint smile of greeting, suitable for a funeral, and said, "Lord Vorkosigan. You spoke very movingly earlier."

Ezar had given the eulogy for his son; Vorkosigan's speech had been about Escobar and of a more general tone, praising the military and Serg by implication as Admiral of the fleet. Cementing his support, Kareen supposed, though she thought he would do better to woo the Counts and Ministers. He didn't need to flatter the military to win them over even if he had resigned his commission.

Something flashed in Vorkosigan's eyes, but all he said was, "Thank you, my lady." He did not offer her his condolences, she noticed. In fact, as far as she recalled he had never offered her condolences, though she'd become very good at accepting them with sincerity. "I'm glad it pleased you." He sipped from his glass and added, "I didn't write it."

Padma, still hovering, gave a deep frown. Kareen caught his eye and he subsided.

"Many of the addresses I've given were composed by speechwriters," she said, wondering where Vorkosigan was going with this. "I don't think it makes them any less meaningful."

"I did edit out some bits that were particularly idiotic, but if I'd been writing it I'd have said something completely different. Perhaps you would have preferred that version. Don't you mind, having everyone talking about what a great man that bastard was? It makes me want to drink." He suited actions to words.

Kareen did not permit herself to recoil, though Padma shifted his weight from one foot to the other and muttered, "Aral..."

"Oh, give up, Padma. She was married to him. My lady, you have my most profound congratulations today." He bowed to her, then added under his breath, "Someone may as well benefit from all this." This time it was the ImpSec agent who twitched first.

Kareen held herself still. This was what everyone had always said about Vorkosigan: drunk, bluntly outspoken, a political risk-taker. She was going to have to find a way to deal with it. And it was also true that he was shrewd and honest; that was something.

"Indeed, my life has changed now," she said blandly, letting the double meaning be evident. "And I think at the end of a funeral it's natural to start thinking about the future."

Vorkosigan looked her full in the face for the first time. "Oh. So that's what this is about. My lady, I don't know what Ezar or anyone else is saying to you, but I will never accept the position of Regent." His voice was low and intent. "Never. I have finished my service to the Imperium now, and there is nothing more that I can do."

Kareen had heard men demur and feign indifference to things they desperately wanted. This was no such negotiating move; this was true, strong feeling. She looked back at him, pondering this. "I see. Yet your name is on all men's lips."

"They want a hero to save them. They may as well take Serg; he's as much a hero as I am."

This time, Kareen swallowed, closing her mouth tightly, and Vorkosigan took a step back from her.

"All I want is a peaceful retirement. After tonight, I can have it. So don't waste any time thinking about me, my lady. I won't be plaguing you here any longer." He passed his empty glass to Padma pointedly; equally pointedly Padma held it without moving.

"Very well, Lord Vorkosigan," she said at last with a shallow bob of her head. "I understand your position." She held his eye. "And I thank you for your candour."

"Ah," he said softly. "Yes. That's not something you hear much more of than Ezar does, I suppose. Good luck to you, my lady. I'm done with fighting now, but I hope you may find a worthy champion."

It was odd, Kareen thought as she turned away and Vorkosigan went back to his drinking, that his blunt refusal should make him seem like a more attractive prospect as Gregor's Regent. But she believed his denial. It was time to look elsewhere for a champion for Gregor, and for herself. She began to make her way across the room again, tacking steadily towards Count Vordarian.