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In the Bleak Midwinter

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    He was cold. And wet. He didn’t much mind being cold, but he hated being cold and wet. It had been raining - closer to sleet, actually - when they arrived at the safe house earlier, but it was going to snow soon. Very soon - he could smell it. They had been forced to leave so suddenly, practically as soon as they arrived, that in the confusion and rush, the armsman who had scooped up two year old toddler Galina from her cot, wrapped in a thin, old down comforter, had neglected to take her fleece-lined outerwear. No coat, no hat, not even her mittens, poor little thing! So what choice did he have, really, but to offer her his own cap and mittens (a Winterfair gift, hand-knitted by his grandmother, in a shockingly unmilitary multi-colored pattern, but wonderfully warm). The Princess, though grateful, objected at first, but little Galina was sick, it was getting colder, and the badly-worn comforter just was not enough protection from the rapidly worsening weather conditions. Turning up the collar of his own sheepskin jacket, he shoved his hands in his pockets, assuring her he’d be fine - it would only be for a short while, and their fast pace would surely keep him plenty warm enough until they reached safety.
    It was that fast pace that had him worried. To avoid the road with its possible Ceta search parties, Sergeant Kuprianov had decided to lead their little group downslope quickly, to the shore of Long Lake, and put as much distance between themselves and the cabin as possible before deciding what to do about contacting the General’s forces. It was easier walking along the shoreline than in the mountainside forest - he certainly had no argument with that, especially with Armsman Hrysczenko carrying Galina - but they were so exposed out in the open like this, in his opinion. Not that anyone would ask. He was keenly aware of his place and knew enough not to offer it. He’d heard that the Cetas had recently implemented aerial surveillance drones in the District, and that left their little group even more vulnerable, in his opinion, not that anyone asked. Only when it started to snow in earnest did the sergeant direct them back upslope, away from their open position at the water’s edge. It had become increasingly slow going, the rocky shore becoming icy and slick as the temperature continued to drop. The recent warm spell had broken up the lake ice, but the floes, driven by the northerly winds, had accumulated on the southern end of Long Lake, or their progress would have been considerably slower, dangerously so. Their tracks were becoming alarmingly visible, to his dismay. Heading up into the trees was a good tactical move now. He approved, not that anyone would ask. The thick pine forest created a natural canopy that would provide cover from the drones and some needed shelter from the snow. Breathing a sigh of relief, for that much at least, he rammed his icy hands deeper into his jacket pockets.
     The General and his oldest son were at one of his highly mobile camps while he planned a raid on a newly discovered Ceta supply cache. The Princess was not at all happy that Selig, at ten years old, was staying with his father. Unsafe, she had insisted vehemently, much too risky. In spite of her extreme and quite vocal disapproval, the General prevailed. Selig, of course, was thrilled. Huh! What boy his age wouldn’t be? That was pretty much to be expected. In his opinion, not that anyone ever would ask, there was very likely to be some major Vorkosigan family fireworks about that in the near future, seeing how upset the Princess was. She didn't want either of her boys involved in any of this! There would be plenty of time for that when they were older, she had told the General in no uncertain terms, if the Cetas were still on Barrayar - implying they had better NOT be! The Princess was Vorbarra, after all, and did not take kindly to having her wishes ignored, especially when her children were concerned.
    The safe house had turned out to be not much safer, for any of them. Their usual entourage - the Princess and the children (minus Selig this time), plus assorted armsmen and several of the General’s most trusted men, led by the twice-twenty year veteran Sergeant Kuprianov - had arrived at the tiny, deserted cabin on the mountainside shortly after a dim, midwinter sun had risen, having traveled under cover of darkness as they often did. It was a place they had used several times before. Primitive, yes - but warm, dry, and above all, very isolated. Armsman Maksymiw had quickly gotten the old fireplace going and the family started getting their belongings squared away for what had been planned to be a five-day stay. The very fussy Galina had been put to bed immediately. Everyone was bone-tired, as the sergeant had pushed their pace relentlessly, wanting to get them to the cabin before the anticipated heavy snowfall in the forecast began. A kettle he had filled with water from the well and put on the hearth for their tea had begun steaming as the Princess put some brillberry jam and honey on the table after slicing a loaf of bread. Sleep, though, that was what everyone wanted. They were all too tired to eat much more than what would be a very meager breakfast.
     A sharp whistle sounded suddenly from outside - a warning alert! The sergeant rushed out, he followed hard on his heels. One of the corporals on guard was holding the reins of a very agitated horse, while the ragged Dendarii youth riding it told the sergeant they had to leave - ASAP! One of the General’s undercover agents had gotten word from a reliable source that the cabin had been compromised. Sergeant Kuprianov swore vehemently and colorfully. Some people really have a talent for it, he thought admiringly, and the sergeant was a true artist! The sergeant was of the opinion that the General had a traitor in his midst, willing to deliver his wife and children to the Cetas for a price. He swore again, even more colorfully than before, declaring that it had damn well better be an astronomical price - the Cetas could bloody well afford it! If anyone had asked him, not that anyone would, he figured it was more likely just some poor Vorkosigan District hillman in dire circumstances, maybe with a sick child or two and too many hungry mouths to feed, forced by this unusually harsh winter to betray his liege lord. There were, he knew, far too many in that category these days.
    While those inside grabbed their coats and began to collect their belongings, the young Dendarii, nearly hysterical, yelled that there was no time to pack. They had to drop everything and leave. Immediately! No telling how soon the Cetas might be there and capture them all! Corporal Luchkowsky and some of the armsmen would stay behind to try and hold the Cetas off as long as possible while the sergeant led the rest of them as far away as they could get, with Armsman Hrysczenko carrying Galina. The young Dendarii on horseback would try to get word to the General that his family had been forced to flee. The problem was, he didn’t know where the General was currently encamped. The camp was constantly relocating, sometimes staying for only a day in any given location - hard to hit a moving target, as the General was fond of saying. At the moment, none of their group knew exactly where the camp was. It was widely acknowledged to be safer that way. If captured, none of them could give the General away. They were also under the standard electronic communications blackout while on the road, communicating by trusted couriers on foot or horseback, and sometimes even carrier pigeons.
    Within five minutes of getting the alarm, their party was rapidly scurrying downhill toward the lake. Once there, the pebbly shore made quick progress difficult, especially with Galina being carried, slowing them up even further. No one complained. In a little less than fifteen minutes, they heard distant weapons fire from the direction they had fled. It was a good sign, he told himself, that it lasted as long as it did. Their people were putting up a good fight, delaying the Cetas’ search for them. In his opinion, with this much lead time, even under such poor conditions, they had a fighting chance of getting out of this alive. Not that anyone would ask...

    The sergeant halted them in the forest after their upward trek from the shore. Snowfall was scant under the trees, almost non-existent, at least for now. In his opinion, it was not the best strategic choice under the circumstances - not quite far back enough from the road. He would have kept them further away to increase their chances of not being seen or heard by possible passing Cetas, even though it would make it more difficult to keep a lookout for help if and when it arrived. Not that anyone would ask, of course, and he had to struggle with himself not to offer it. The sergeant decided that he and Armsman Hrysczenko would have to try to find the camp, or at least some of their forces on patrol, to get word to the General of where the rest of their party was holed up so he could send help, with horses, hopefully. The lake precluded a location to the west, and the steepness of the slope to east on the other side of the road made that direction highly unlikely, although the caves above the treeline couldn’t be ruled out. Not likely, he knew, but not impossible, either. The General had used the caves before, but rarely in winter, as getting to them in icy, snowy conditions was extremely difficult and dangerous. Sergeant Kuprianov, after putting him in charge, headed north; the armsman south, both at an urgent run.
    The day continued cold and gloomy, seeming longer than it was without food or shelter. The first thing he did was move the family further back into the forest, away from the road, out of sight and out of earshot. He kept busy making the trek back and forth to the road, which was hardly more than a single lane muddy path at best, to watch for the help he fervently hoped would be coming soon.
    A few hours before sundown, the snow was beginning to accumulate a little even this far back under the trees, on the already soggy ground. The Princess was distraught, not for herself so much, but for her daughter, who was feverish again. He offered her his heavy jacket as something dry for them to sit on. She protested, reminding him he’d already sacrificed his cap and gloves to the cause. He laughed it off, trying to ease her distress and convince her he was plenty warm enough - Everyone knew he was always too hot, he told her jokingly, hoping she’d buy it. They didn’t call him the human hot water bottle for nothing! To convince her further, he added that he was following his grandmother’s sound advice and wearing his best winterweight thermal underwear, pulling up his tunic to show her. (If there was one thing all Barrayarans knew in their bones, it was the value of proper, heavy-duty winter underwear!) And he’d stay warm... well, warm enough, anyway, from being on the move, alternating between keeping tabs on them and watching the road for their anticipated rescuers. He didn’t know if he managed to convince her or not, but the Princess finally accepted the use of his jacket with heartfelt thanks and a tear in her eye. He tried not to think too much about that...
    He had to do something, and quickly, while they still had daylight, such as it was - to make some kind of shelter, or a windbreak at the very least. Without a saw or hatchet, he was forced to rely on fallen pine branches. His exertions warmed him as he knew they would. A bit too much - he worked up a sweat despite the cold, which was exacerbated by the wind. Fortunately, not that much wind - that could be lethal as sweaty as he was getting. It did however, force him to slow down and cool himself off gradually from time to time, delaying his progress nearly as much as the back-and-forth to the road was. He finally managed to construct a very crude windbreak before it got completely dark, the best he could do under the circumstances. Not really all that much good as a windbreak, he knew - not tightly woven enough for that - but not half bad as a lean-to. It could be angled in any direction to fend off the incoming snow. It would have to do.
    It gave him a brief moment of pride as he returned from one of his periodic trips back to the road. In the darkness, the shelter and the Vorkosigans behind it were only visible, and quite dimly at that, if you knew just where to look. Being the natural worry-wart he was, that moment passed quickly. He mentally groused that if he’d had more to work with, he could have done a much better job. The thought of how soundly his grandmother would berate him if she knew what he was thinking just then made him resolve to stop fretting over things he couldn’t change and concentrate his efforts on those he could. A lot easier said than done, unfortunately...
    That night seemed endless. Despite his earlier assurances to the Princess, he was cold. He’d never been this cold for this long before, and discovered he did mind. Too late to do anything about that now… Keeping moving helped, but not nearly enough. It was worse while watching in the relative open out from under the trees near the road. The snow began blowing and drifting a bit, slowing his progress. That worried him. A lot. He hated being away from the road for any length of time, not wanting to miss the signal if help arrived. Not if, he harshly scolded himself, but when. He had to believe that. He had to keep the family believing that. For a brief panicky moment, he began to second-guess his decision to hide out of sight of the road, but forced himself to stay calm and carry on - to just focus on the job at hand and do the best he could with what he had, which was precious little. Anyone could see that, he tried to convince himself...
    The second day dawned, as cold and grey as the previous one had been. His stomach growled. They’d been forced to flee yesterday before breakfast, and he wasn’t sure when it was he’d eaten last. Too long ago, that much was certain! He was sleepy, having kept watch over the family behind the shelter throughout the  night, and the repeated jogs back and forth to the road were exhausting, but he couldn’t complain - they were all cold, hungry and tired. If a sick little girl could deal with it, no one was going to hear a word of complaint out of him! He was sorely tempted, though, to sit down and close his eyes just for a minute, but he was keenly aware of his great responsibility. Someone as young as he would usually never get such a chance, and he intended to make the most of it.


     Late that morning, Galina was having a prolonged coughing bout, just as his worst fear was realized. A Ceta convoy was passing, heading north! He kept telling himself they couldn’t possibly hear her from the road. Their vehicles, while much less noisy than Barrayarans’ would be, still made some noise - it ought to be enough to drown out her coughing, if indeed it could be heard from the road at all. No time to check it out now... He mentally smacked himself on the forehead for missing that and not checking it out sooner. Were the Cetas looking for them, or was it just coincidence? Coincidence, he decided - it looked like a supply convoy. But was it, or was it just cover? Would they go through so much trouble, getting repeatedly bogged down on the road the way they were just for cover? His mind raced in too many directions... he had to do something, and fast. Get a grip! he scolded himself. Focus! Breathe!
    A distraction, he decided, was what was needed, just in case the Cetas were looking for them. He had to lead them away from the Princess and her hiding place. Almost without conscious thought, a plan of sorts emerged. Well, bits of one, anyway.… it was all happening too fast! He stood up openly by the side of the road, letting himself be seen for a brief instant, and as he expected, one of the Cetas in a open groundcar noticed him, or the movement, at any rate - pointing him out to his companion. An open groundcar! he scoffed. Who does that, in winter? In his opinion, Cetas could be such idiots at times! Not that anyone would ever ask...
    Taking off at a full sprint, he quickly crossed the road into the trees on the other side, turning back for a split second to see if they were taking the bait. They were. YES!!! It was common knowledge Cetas were disinclined to do anything quite so - well, primitive, he’d have to call it - as actually run, on their own two feet. He hoped they would, but it surprised him nevertheless. He fairly flew into the forest.  They continued to follow. In his opinion, not that anyone would ask, they were comically inept in the wild. Out here in these forests, even the dullest witted Dendarii child could run rings around them, blindfolded and with one hand tied behind his or her back! That thought gave him a tiny spark of hope...
    He stopped, pausing behind a tree, listening to them, as they made no effort to be as silent as possible in pursuit of their prey - him! With his keen hearing, he heard one of them trying to convince the other to turn back - “It’s probably just some local moonshiner trying to lead us away from his illegal still,” he said, his voice fairly dripping with disdain. “They’re thick on the ground in these parts. That rotgut they make will peel the paint off the hull of a battlecruiser.” The other, a mid-rank, painted-faced ghem-lord, wasn’t so easily convinced or deterred, and continued his clumsy, noisy advance. His reluctant partner followed, grumbling under his breath, cursing nearly as colorfully as Sergeant Kuprianov had yesterday.
    He ran further into the deepening darkness, hearing the Ceta pair in pursuit behind him. He drew up abruptly at the edge of a steep drop. Oh, oh, he told himself, maybe this isn’t one of your better ideas. He didn’t allow himself to panic - no time for that... Nearly 100% sure they’d never follow him (it was the ‘nearly’ that really bothered him), he jumped, fingers crossed, hoping for the best. It was a really stupid plan, running blindly into unfamiliar territory - he knew that, and knew someone would ask this time - but what choice did he have? He couldn’t allow himself be captured. When he reached the end of the sheer drop, he bounced a few times, painfully, before sliding head first the rest of the way down on the remaining slope, hitting his head on something at the bottom and passing out.
    When he came to, he fought off a wave of panic, mostly because he couldn’t tell how long he’d been unconscious. He was stiff and cold from the lack of movement, sore all over, mud-covered from stem to stern, and had a galloping headache. Worry almost paralyzed him: Were the Cetas still there? Was the Princess safe? Had he missed the signal? How was he ever going to get back up? Looking up at the climb facing him, he wondered glumly why he had ever been so hell-bent on being given real responsibility. He could hear his grandmother’s no-nonsense voice in his head: You’ve always wanted responsibility, kiddo. You’ve got it now, big time. Pull up your big boy pants and deal with it!
    Right, then. Deal with it... The first thing he had to do was get back up there. There’d be plenty of time to worry later once he knew exactly what the situation was. He had so desperately wanted to be noticed. Well, this was going to be seriously attention-getting if they ever got out of here, and he was determined to make sure it was the right kind of attention. Fear of the General’s wrath was proving to be an excellent motivator!
    He managed, eventually, with very little recollection of exactly how and with the accumulation of a great deal of mud, to make his way up and back to the rude little shelter to find the family still safely hidden. Practically giddy with relief, he mentally congratulated himself, then attempted to steady his shaking knees. After calming himself down, he resolutely resumed his weary treks back and forth to and from the road, anxiously watching and waiting.
    Late in the afternoon, on his way back to the road after checking on the family, the thought of spending yet another cold, hungry night outdoors filled him with dread. The deep woods in winter were no place for children, and certainly not for a princess. Little Galina was getting sicker, her coughing now much worse. What was taking so long? Why hadn’t anyone come for them yet? Had something happened to the General? While imagining far too many horrific reasons, each more dire than the previous one, he was startled out of his grim daydream by the call of a bird.
    The signal! He ran even faster than he’d run from the Cetas the rest of the way to his lookout point, and after pausing a few seconds to catch his breath, gave the proper reply. His heart thudded wildly as he listened for the correct response to his own whistle, which would indicate the rescue party had not been compromised. He waited… breathless…
     There it was! Finally!!! Saved! Ecstatic, he nearly ran back to the shelter right then and there to give the Princess the wonderful news, but settled himself down with an effort. To his great surprise, there was only a single horseman, with a second horse in tow. Even more surprising, the rider was none other than Colonel Ezar Vorbarra. Why would the General’s second-in-command be out looking for them? he puzzled, but put the question aside. No doubt he’d learn the answer soon enough. He made himself known to the officer, warned him of the recent Ceta sighting, and led him and the horses into the forest, toward the shelter and the Princess. Colonel Vorbarra was dressed in rather shabby civilian clothes, obviously in an attempt to pass as a Dendarii if he ran into the Cetas, but his horses, two of the General’s finest, would have given him away in a heartbeat. Or maybe not - in his opinion, the Cetas could be awfully dense when it came to obvious things like that. Not that anyone would ask.
    To his very great astonishment, the Colonel actually did ask for his opinion. And even more amazingly, agreed with him! Huh! He didn’t quite know what to make of that. Not wanting to push his luck, he silently led the officer and the horses deeper into the forest, until they came to the rough pine wall. He pulled it back to reveal the Princess Olivia and little Galina, huddled close together in a cold, miserable-looking clump.
    “Look, Mama,” he said, “Colonel Vorbarra’s come to take us to Father.”    
    “What a surprise to see you here, Ezar,” the Princess said, as they shared a long heartfelt embrace. “A very pleasant surprise, indeed. It’s been such a long time.”
    “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, Livy. Happy to be of service,” the Colonel replied.
    He was astonished yet again - stunned, really - when Colonel Vorbarra told his mother that he wasn’t a bad little soldier! Even though he had only vague memories of the last time Mama’s cousin had spent time with their family, he definitely remembered liking the man very much. At the moment, he couldn’t remember ever being so happy to see someone in his life! It was such a relief, knowing that somebody else was now in charge. With that huge weight off his shoulders, it was hard to keep his frozen feet firmly on the ground, feeling like he was about to float away like a balloon! In his opinion, after the experience of the past two days, command and responsibility were highly overrated. He’d be more than happy to wait a few more years for another go at it. Not that anyone would ask...

Chapter Text

    “That’s the one thing I hate the Cetas the most for - not the destruction of Vorkosigan Vashnoi, not our life on the run, not even the absence of anything remotely resembling a ‘normal’ family life - but for changing Aral from my precious, sweet baby boy, with the most infectious, bubbling laughter you’ve ever heard, into this grim-faced, hyper-alert, perfect little soldier.” The Princess Olivia Vorbarra Vorkosigan’s iron-grey eyes were icy, her voice whisper-soft - her quiet, implacable rage nearly more terrifying than Piotr at his very worst. “Far too soon. His childhood was over even before it began. You know what the worst part is, Ezar - the absolute worst part? The poor thing doesn’t know it can and should be any different.” She looked down at the child, now sound asleep cradled against her as they rode, and snuggled him closer. “I will never forgive them. Ever.”
    When Ezar arrived late that morning, General Piotr Vorkosigan had been in the thick of it, planning an assault on a new Ceta supply cache they had just uncovered when he and the news came in. The damn Cetas had been surprisingly active the past few weeks - an unusual tactic. Normally, they would lie low through the worst of winter - hibernating, Barrayarans joked - but apparently, they had finally cottoned on to the fact (after only eighteen years! Hah!) that the General and his Resistance forces were more of a threat to them in the winter than the rest of the year, up here in the Dendarii mountains and hills. A Vorkosigan armsmen had come rushing into camp on foot, collapsing in exhaustion, with word that the safe house where Olivia and the two younger children were supposed to be staying - young Selig, the general’s heir, was with him in the camp - had been compromised, their betrayers yet unknown. They had been forced to evacuate immediately, on foot, unfortunately - and too perilously close to the oncoming Ceta patrol for comfort. The predicted heavy snowfall was just beginning, and two year old Galina, very ill, possibly with pneumonia, had to be carried. Sergeant Kuprianov, heading the troops and armsman accompanying them, had decided the best thing to do under the circumstances, the only thing, really - was to leave Olivia and the children under cover of the thick forest while they attempted to find Piotr’s army and come back for them with horses, as soon as possible. Though he had just gotten in to the camp, Ezar volunteered to go fetch them, arguing he was the best man for the job because his cousin Olivia knew him and would know it wasn’t a Ceta trick to lure them out of hiding in spite of their pre-arranged signals, and seeing as how he had just arrived, he really didn’t have anything specific to do at the moment anyway.
    He had quickly changed into some rustic (and authentically smelly) civilian garb they kept on hand for just such purposes. If he should happen to cross a Ceta patrol, why, he was just a simple Dendarii, certainly not Ezar Vorbarra, General Vorkosigan’s second-in-command. Trust the Cetas not to know from his accent that he was most emphatically not Dendarii. For all their advanced technology, he just had to laugh sometimes at their sheer ignorance and monumental stupidity, born of a highly inflated belief in their own superiority and their supremely haughty arrogance.
    It had been slow going, horrendously slow. The Ceta convoy - he made sure he stayed at least half a kilometer behind - had repeatedly gotten bogged down in the deep, slushy snow, making an unholy mess out of the narrow dirt road carved into the mountainside. The Cetas regarded the Barrayarans’ horses and sleighs as über-primitive. They were, of course, especially compared to anything the Cetas had, but they were ideal for getting around in exactly this kind of weather, as the high-tech Cetas didn’t seem to realize. Fortunately, for the Barrayarans. There was no way around the convoy, so he had no choice but to plod along slowly behind them, staying well out of their sight range. He hoped he’d reach Olivia before dark, but knew he probably wouldn’t if the Cetas kept up this maddeningly sluggish crawl.
    The Cetas’ pace finally picked up. Thank God for small favors! They had come to a dead stop for more than half an hour at one point, and all he could do was fret and wait, emphasis on the fret. He devoutly hoped the long delay was nothing more ominous than them having to dig out again, or a lunch break (he could use one himself), and nothing to do with Piotr’s hopefully well-hidden family. Once they finally resumed, the convoy moved along at a decent clip for a change. Maybe the snow wasn’t as deep up ahead. Whatever...
    When he finally reached the coordinates he’d been given by the armsman, he stopped in the middle of the recently churned up muck that passed for a road, looking around cautiously. It was late afternoon on a dark, dismal day, and the deep greens of the forest on both sides of the road made everything look darker still. He gave their standard alert whistle, supposedly the call of some Old Earth bird he could never remember the name of, and waited for a reply. And waited some more. He was beginning to think he might be in the wrong place, or God forbid, something had happened to the hiding family, but there it was - the correct return call, indicating they knew someone had come and were waiting for his own response, to let them know he hadn’t been compromised and it was safe to show themselves. If he had been compromised, he would have given a much different second signal than the one he gave, to alert them to stay hidden while he rode on.  
    His hazel eyes slowly scanned both sides of the road, straining to see along the treeline for signs of Olivia and the children. The darkness of the forest backdrop wasn’t helping, and it had started snowing again. Growing uneasier by the second, he nearly fell off the horse in startled surprise when a voice - a young child’s voice! - said, “If you’ll come with me, Colonel Vorbarra, sir, I’ll take you to the Princess.” He looked around frantically trying to locate the speaker, when the small voice spoke again, with a hint of annoyance. “Down here, Colonel, sir.”
    Good God!!! It was Piotr and Olivia’s younger boy, so small he could probably walk directly under the horse! With clearance! Shit, what was his name again? He’d had very little recent contact with the family as a whole, other than Piotr, of course, and it had been nearly two years since he’d seen his cousin and her children. They had the war to thank for that. The boy looked too young to be speaking in such perfect military terms. Too young for much of anything, really. Outrageously thick mop of extremely disheveled black hair on him, and the same vividly striking grey eyes as Olivia and her mother. He wore a tiny little set of undress greens - ungodly muddy - and a stern, intense expression. No hat, gloves, or coat, he noticed with some alarm.
    “Colonel Vorbarra, sir, I’d suggest we get off the road quickly.” He, too, was warily scanning their surroundings. “A Ceta convoy came through earlier. There’s no telling if another is on the way. There’s been unusual activity in the area for the past few days.”
    Aral... Yes!!! That was his name! Aral, after Olivia’s father, Prince Xav Aral Vorbarra. “An excellent suggestion, Lord Aral. I’ve been stuck behind that same bloody convoy for hours. I’m pretty sure we’re in the clear from the south, though, just having come that way from your father’s camp. But, better safe than sorry, I always say.” He turned his mount to follow the child, with the second horse in tow behind him. When they reached the edge of road, he dismounted, handing the youngster the reins to both horses as they walked into the trees. “Lead on.”
    Little Lord Aral took the reins and expertly guided the skittish horses, possibly spooked by the deepening shadows, into the forest. He certainly was comfortable handling the animals, Ezar noticed, but that was no big surprise, considering he was Piotr’s son. He found it highly amusing to see the huge creatures meekly following the very small boy, whose face bore an expression he found equally amusing - exasperation, with a touch of what was very likely thinly disguised disgust. Keeping the amusement out of his voice with some difficulty, he asked, “Something troubling you, Lord Aral?”
    Aral hesitated, but only for a moment. “Sir, yes, sir. Since you’re wearing civilian clothes, and awfully shabby ones at that, I’m thinking you’re probably trying to pass as a local.” He glanced up at Ezar, with a startlingly professional expression very much out of place on a child’s face, looking for confirmation.
    Clever kid, he thought, picking up on that. How old was he anyway? Didn’t look to be much older than four, if that, judging by his size, but that couldn’t possibly be right, could it? Despite his short stature and young age, he had the bearing and manner of a proper, highly competent young Vor officer. Ezar had to restrain himself from chuckling aloud - the boy was obviously taking his soldierly role quite seriously. “Quite so,” he replied. “And that troubles you... why?”
    “Colonel Vorbarra, sir,” Aral replied, and surprisingly confidently at that - the confidence of someone who had a damn good point to make - “if you’re supposed to be an ordinary Dendarii hillman, your horses are much too fine. They’d probably give you away right off.” Seeming to think better of it, he added, “Sir.”
    Ezar was taken aback. The kid was 100% on the money. Very sharp! Even the absurdly dense Cetas probably would have picked up on that... eventually. But a child? Even if he was Piotr’s son? As a military man and confirmed bachelor, he didn’t have much experience with children, but he was pretty damn sure young Lord Aral’s reasoning was not what one would normally expect from anyone that age. Well, he’d been hearing the boy was unusually bright...
    “You’re absolutely right, Lord Aral.  If we’d had time enough to go for authenticity, I would have rounded up a couple of old sway-backed nags to use. But time was of the essence.”
     The boy solemnly nodded his shaggy head, seemingly satisfied at having his concerns addressed promptly and not being talked down to. “Thank you, sir. It’s just that it was so obviously wrong. I felt it was something that ought to be pointed out.”
    After walking silently behind the boy and the horses for almost five minutes, Ezar reached into an inside pocket of his ‘awfully shabby’ jacket and took out a handful of hard, wrapped sweets - sesame brittle, a favorite of his - and handed them to Aral, who took them, thanking him with exquisite politeness. He carefully unwrapped one of the candies, popped it in his mouth, and shuddered a little as the sugar rush hit him. Ezar wondered, How long has it been since this kid has eaten anything? The armsman had reported the family had been about to sit down to a breakfast when forced to flee, without time to gather up provisions of any kind. That was late yesterday morning. Poor kid’s probably ravenous by now, he reckoned.
    They had been walking deeper into the ever darker forest with still no sign of Olivia and Galina. “How much further now to your mother and sister, Lord Aral?”
     “Almost there, sir. Sergeant Kuprianov left us a lot closer to the road, the better to keep a lookout for whoever came for us, but I felt I ought to move us far back enough that we couldn’t be seen from the road at all. Lina’s sick, you see. She has a really bad cough, and she cries a lot when she doesn’t feel well. I didn’t want to take the chance she might be heard.” He anxiously shifted his weight nervously from foot to foot, as if expecting a rebuke. “Um, I thought it was a good time to use my initiative, sir. I hope the General-my-father will approve.”
    Wondering why the boy might think Piotr wouldn’t, he told him, “Excellent defensive move, son. Very smart. But how were you able to keep a lookout from all the way back here?”
    “Well, sir, that was a problem. The only thing for it was to spend a few minutes checking on them back here every so often, then run back to the road to keep watch there for a longer while. I didn’t want to be away from the road too long lest I miss the signal.”
    Ezar looked at the boy with a growing respect. Young Lord Aral wasn’t just playing soldier, he was damn near the real thing. Pint-sized, to be sure, but the real deal. He seemed to have kept a cool head under difficult conditions, was keenly observant, and had made rational, intelligent decisions, even taking the initiative when the situation warranted it. Too bad all the General’s men weren’t like that. Heh, the war would be over in no time! He was amusing himself with that thought for a moment when the boy stopped, tethering the horses to a low-hanging branch. All Ezar could make out was what appeared on first glance to be a waist high pile of pine branches, which revealed itself to be a rough sort of pine wall propped against a tree.
    Aral pulled back the wall of branches to reveal Olivia and her toddler daughter, huddled close together, in a cold, miserable looking clump. “Look, Mama,” he said. “Colonel Vorbarra’s come to take us to Father.” Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew one of the sweets and unwrapped it, giving it to his sister. “Sesame brittle, Lina.” he told her. “Your favorite.”
    The girl took it eagerly, and smiled up at her brother. He reached into his pocket again, withdrawing what Ezar had given him, and gave the lot to his mother.
    “Those were for you, Lord Aral,” Ezar said. “I have more than enough for all.”
    “The Princess-my-mother taught me to always share, sir.”
    “Yes, I’m sure she did. It does her proud to have such an obedient and generous son,” he replied, grinning broadly and bowing slightly to his cousin, who had risen to greet him.
    “What a surprise to see you here, Ezar,” Olivia said. They shared a long, heartfelt embrace. “A very pleasant surprise, indeed. It’s been such a long time.”
    “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, Livy. Happy to be of service.”
    As his mother rose, Aral hunkered down beside his sister, drew a very dirty down comforter up around the girl where it had fallen away when Olivia stood up, and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “We’re safe, now, Lina. The Colonel will take us to Da’s camp. You’ll be nice and warm soon, with real food,” he assured her, encouragingly. “And see,” pointing, “he brought horses. We won’t have to walk!”
    Galina looked doubtfully at Ezar, holding her arms out to the boy. He helped her up, revealing a small, very dirty, nearly sodden sheepskin jacket that she and her mother had been sitting on. Aral straightened the too large knitted cap on her head, adjusted the too large mittens, and rewrapped the comforter which had fallen off again, then stooped to pick her up. The girl, nearly half his size, clung to him tightly, and coughed raggedly. Not that he was an expert, but Ezar thought she looked rather big for a two year old. Or maybe it just seemed that way because the boy was so obviously undersized. Most likely a combination of both, he decided.
    Olivia glanced sadly at the garment on the forest floor, drew the boy close to her, and hugged him fiercely. “I should never have allowed you to give us your coat to sit on, especially after giving Galina your hat and gloves. Even if you are the human hot water bottle like your brother always says, you’ve got to be half frozen by now.”
    Aral looked acutely embarrassed. Olivia, Ezar noticed, was holding back tears. She told him, “Our Aral has always been a very generous, compassionate child.” At that, the boy looked even more embarrassed, if possible, squirming uncomfortably, looking away, avoiding everyone’s eyes on him.
    “Not a bad little soldier, either,” Ezar told her. “Lord Aral has done a commendable job, from what I’ve seen so far.” She looked both proud and pained. Aral looked stunned, mouth open, eyes wide. Under his breath, so only Olivia could hear, he asked,“How old is he, anyway?”
    “Only five, poor dear. Much too young for any of this.”
    God! Only five, Ezar thought, shaking his head. But when you got down to it, really, all of them were too young for this. Such was life in wartime. He had to admit, though, the boy seemed to be handling it well. More than well. Hah! Right little general, he was, young Lord Aral! He chuckled at that, then told them they’d best get going if they were going to take advantage of the remaining afternoon daylight, such as it was. He took three clean, heavy blankets out of the saddlebags on the spare horse, along with a large, insulated flask of hot tea. Passing it around, they drank eagerly, gratefully - the children waiting politely as Olivia had her fill. Aral patiently held the flask for Galina while she drank before taking his own turn, as Ezar inspected what he now could see was a clever combination of camouflage windscreen and lean-to shelter that Olivia and Galina had been hidden behind.
    “You make this, son?” he directed toward Aral, who had just folded one of the blankets in half before wrapping it around his sister in addition to the comforter. She too, had no coat. With the extra bulk from the blanket, she was hard for him to handle when he picked her up again.
    The boy snapped to attention as much as was possible holding the girl. “Sir, yes, sir. Not much good as a windscreen, but it did keep a good bit of snow off them during the night.”
    Two long and two short pine branches had been tied together in such a way to make a rectangular framework. Another short branch attached to the long arms formed a crossbar in the middle, while even more long branches had been woven between the end pieces and the crossbar, making for a crude but effective wall. Where in God’s name had a five year old learned to make something like this? And even more puzzling, what the hell had he used to lash the frame together? Some sort of long, thin strips of an odd kind of fuzzy, greenish-grey cloth, from what little he could see, but the dim lighting made it near impossible to make out for sure.
    “I only had my knife, you see, sir,” Aral said, showing him a small but sharply honed, child-sized blade, “so I could only use fallen branches. I couldn’t find any really big long ones. That’s why it’s so small. If I’d had more branches, I could’ve woven it tighter to keep more wind out.” He hesitated before adding, sounding both proud and defiant, “Even if it is small, at least those nasty old Cetas wouldn’t see Mama and Lina if they had come into the forest.” His natural modesty kicked in and he added, “Um, it being so dark in here helps a lot, too.”
    “I’m impressed. Outstanding work, son. First rate,” he told the boy, who looked beside himself at the compliment, blushing deeply. Aral kept glancing at his mother, as if to confirm what he’d just heard and to assure himself that she had heard it, too. She smiled proudly at him.
    Ezar hoisted Olivia up onto the spare horse, took the girl from the boy, and handed her up to her mother. He and Aral walked alongside them with his own horse, heading out of the trees. As they neared the road, he looked down at the boy walking quickly beside him, his little legs moving furiously to keep with his own long-legged pace. He had no idea a child so young could do what this one had. Impressive. Very impressive, indeed, even with all the mud. An impressive amount of mud - seemingly every square inch of his tiny uniform was covered with it, front and back. He was sure there must be an interesting story connected with that.   
    He kept his tone light and neutral. “So, Lord Aral, tell me, how is it you came to get so splendidly muddy?”
    Clearing his throat, the boy hesitated. “Well... sir. When that Ceta convoy showed up, I didn’t know if they were looking for us or just passing through. Lina was having one of her really really bad coughing spells. I was afraid they might hear and find us, even back here.” Whispering, Aral pleaded, “Sir, please don’t tell my mother. She’d only be upset if she knew.”
    “Knew what, son?”
    “I let the Cetas see me by the roadside, and then I ran across into the trees. I know they usually don’t like to go off-road much, but I hoped they’d chase me at least a little, to draw ‘em away, like. A couple of ‘em - one of those really creepy painted ones, too - actually did get out of a groundcar and chase after me. So I had to run, for real. I like to run. I run a lot, but it’s awfully scary when you don’t know where you’re running to, y’know?”
    Ezar, who hadn’t done much running since his academy days, and then only when required to, nodded in assent, as if he did know. He could imagine the boy - scared, but running hard, desperately trying to lead the Cetas as far away from his mother and sister as he could. “So, then what happened, Lord Aral?” he prodded gently.
     “Sir, please? Promise you won’t tell Mama? ”
    “My word as Vorbarra, Lord Aral.”
    “I knew it was stupid - really really stupid - running like that, not knowing where I was going. And then I came to, um... I guess you’d call it a cliff, maybe? Or a ravine? I’m not sure... There was nowhere else to go. Well, I just couldn’t stand there and let ‘em catch me, could I? They’d use those drugs they have to make me tell where Mama and Lina were, and they’d use us to get to Da. So I had to jump, sir. I had to! Stupid, stupid, stupid…” Deeply distraught, nearly in tears, he blurted, “If I’d got hurt, who would have taken care of Mama and Lina then?”
    How did the devil did the boy know about the Ceta’s new truth drug, fast-penta? That was  something they’d only recently discovered and supposed to be classified. He’d have to check it out later, but probably just a case of little pitchers having big ears... Ezar decided young Lord Aral didn’t much look like an amusingly proper, miniature soldier anymore - rather, just a little boy. A tired, hungry, half-frozen, very muddy, still badly shaken little boy. He shuddered at the thought of anyone, let alone a young child, jumping off a cliff to escape hot pursuit by the Cetagandans, and felt oddly compelled to see it for himself. “Do you think you could show me this cliff or ravine, Lord Aral? I’d like to have a look.” Adding, so he wouldn’t take it as some kind of criticism, “It just might be something useful for our side to know about some day.”
    “Oh. Yes, of course, sir. It’s not too far back on the other side of the road.”
    Ezar hoisted the boy up on the horse. Hmmph, the kid weighs about as much as a half-grown tomcat! he thought as he mounted behind him, telling Olivia to stay back under the trees and away from the road - he’d be right back in a few minutes. They crossed the road into the thick pines, and as Aral said, it wasn’t too far. There was barely enough daylight left through the pine canopy to see the ravine, between ten and fifteen meters deep - distances were so deceiving in the dimness - with a half-frozen, quick-moving stream at the bottom. The first three or four meters appeared to be a straight drop, the rest a moderately steep slope.
    He whistled sharply in astonishment. “Damn, boy! You jumped?!?!? How the bloody hell did you not break your bloody little neck?”
    “It’s not all straight down, sir. See? I slid quite a lot. Um, most of the way, actually. That’s how I got so muddy in back. The front mud came from climbing back up.”
    Ezar had never liked heights. Even from here, and on horseback, the view was making him nauseous. To think that this little shit had not only jumped in but somehow clawed his way back out was mind-boggling. Out of curiosity, he asked, “How long did that take, son?”
    “I’m not really sure. My pants snagged on something on the slopey bit - a branch or a tree root, maybe? I got spun around. I slid down the rest of the way head first and hit my head on a rock or something at the bottom. I think I maybe might have passed out for a while. I was so scared about leaving Mama and Lina alone. I just kept thinking I had to make it back up to take care of them. I don’t really remember how I got out... only that I kept sliding back down. A lot.”
    He doubted he'd have the nerve to make a jump like that, not even after some seriously heavy drinking. Taking a quick, nervous, sidelong glance down into the ravine, he shook his head in sheer amazement. Hell, he mentally rebuked himself, what’s wrong with you, Vorbarra? He lifted the boy from the saddle just enough to spin him around so they were face to face. Aral was startled by the sudden maneuver - his grey eyes big as saucers. “You all right, son?” It seemed impossible that he could be after a fall like that. “No broken bones or anything like that?”
    “I’m pretty sure no broken bones, sir. But... I’m too cold to feel much of anything else. Except really really tired. Um… that’s a good thing, I reckon.”
    Ezar gently sat the boy back down in front of him, holding him close as he headed the horse back to where Olivia was waiting. Galina had fallen asleep, dead weight in her mother’s arms. “Liv, why don’t you take Aral? You won’t have to carry him. I’ll take the girl.”
    Swinging Aral around behind him for a moment, he took Galina from Olivia, who fashioned a kind of sling from the blanket for him to carry the girl on his back, keeping his hands free. He then handed the boy over to his mother, who sat him in front of her and wrapped him in one of the blankets, having draped one over her own shoulders as well. They headed off in the direction he’d come, back to the camp and Piotr.
    They rode in silence for quite some time, an hour at least, at a good pace, with Ezar watching and listening intently. He noticed the boy was doing the same for some time before finally falling asleep. The snow had stopped and the sky had cleared dramatically. Both moons had risen already - the larger one was full, together giving off enough light to read by. He watched his cousin tenderly picking pine needles and clumps of dried mud from the boy’s hair.
    Odd little thing, young Lord Aral, he mused. Sure as hell didn’t look anything like the other two. They had the exceptional Vorrutyer good looks, in spades, from Piotr’s side of the family. You could see it in little Galina already, even at her age. Lord Aral, well... not so much. Smart as a whip, though, he could tell. And what a small thing he was, now looking limp as an overcooked noodle, cradled against Olivia, more like he had passed out instead of having fallen asleep. He was surprised the kid managed to stay awake as long as he had - he’d been struggling mightily after they started out - nodding off repeatedly and looking disgusted with himself for it when he snapped awake. Galina, wrapped snugly in her blanket cocoon behind him, was asleep, too, but restless, feverish. He could feel her heat through his greatcoat.
    Deciding it was probably safe to converse quietly, he drew his mount up close to the other horse and asked, nodding toward Aral, “Is he always so intense, Liv?”
    She laughed softly. “Oh, God, yes! I swear, he was intense right out of the womb. But somehow, a happy baby, too.” She laughed again. “It sounds like a contradiction in terms, I know. I guess you could say he was intensely happy, if that makes any sense. Nearly everything delighted him.” Sighing deeply, her voice went cold and bitter. “He’s been having the ‘happy’ rather rudely knocked out of him, bit by bit these days. I’m sure he’s aware of it. He’s certainly aware of being seen as different - of being quite small, plain, and freakishly intelligent.”   
    Ezar grunted. “Heh! I noticed that ‘freakishly intelligent’ bit right off. Hard not to.”
    “You don’t know the half of it! He can read, Ezar. For more than a year now. Not just children’s books... everything! If you give him a choice between a new book and just about anything else, he’ll take the book every time. He’s been speaking Russian and English from the beginning, better than decent French for a few years, and has a working knowledge of that odd patois the Greekies in the camps speak. He can even read and write in Russian and English. Don’t get me wrong. If I’m making him sound like he spends every waking moment with his nose buried in a book - quite the opposite. He’s very... well, active would be putting it mildly. Aside from a new book, roughhousing with his brother is his next favorite thing. He’s never been at all intimidated by the fact that Selig is more than five years older and big for his age. My mother says Aral’s so energetic he wears his clothes out from the inside! As far as he’s concerned, especially if it involves getting incredibly dirty, there’s always something new and exciting to see, do, or learn how to do, and never enough time to do it all. Speaking of learning, on the rare occasions we get to spend time with my parents anymore, my father’s been teaching him to play chess. He says he can see Aral beating him in five years or so.”
    Ezar’s eyebrow shot up in amazement. “Refresh my memory, Livy - but wasn’t the Prince-your-Father a Barrayaran grand master before the Cetas came?”
    “Exactly.” Olivia own eyebrows quirked up sharply. “Almost frightening, isn’t it?” She looked down at the boy, smoothed the thick, dark hair, then wrapped him tighter in the blanket. “It breaks my heart to think he may never get the chance to reach his full potential. The same goes for Selig and Galina, too, of course, but I can tell you as his teacher, not as his mother, that Aral - given even half a chance - has the ability to do truly great things, in whatever field he chooses. The two others are merely average at best - not that there’s anything at all wrong with that. I’d just hate to see Aral waste his life as nothing more than a soldier, even a good one, or a great one for that matter.” Noticing Ezar’s shocked expression, she laughed. “Oh, don’t give me that look! You know I have nothing against military men. They don’t come much more military than the one I married, after all.” Her mouth twisted in a wry grin as Ezar spluttered.
    “Aral will always be my baby, no matter how many more children I might have someday. Maybe because he didn’t come easy. It took a little over five years, three miscarriages, and a very difficult pregnancy before he was born. I know mothers aren’t supposed to have favorites... but my baby boy - he’s special. I’m quite prejudiced, I know that, too, but I believe with all my heart he’s destined for greatness. If my mother heard me now, she’d chastise me ‘up one side and down the other’ - that’s one of her favorite Betan expressions - for indulging too much in what she calls damned Barrayaran mysticism, but secretly, I know she’d agree.”
    The moons were diamond bright in the cold, clear air. The deep snow muffled most of the sound of the horses’ hooves. Ezar sensed Olivia gathering formidable thoughts. They rode in silence several minutes more before she spoke again.           “That’s the one thing I hate the Cetas the most for - not the destruction of Vorkosigan Vashnoi, not our life on the run, not even the absence of anything remotely resembling a ‘normal’ family life, but for changing Aral from my precious, sweet baby boy, with the most infectious, bubbling laughter you’ve ever heard, into this grim-faced, hyper-alert, perfect little soldier.” The Princess Olivia Vorbarra Vorkosigan’s iron-grey eyes were icy, her voice whisper-soft - her quiet, implacable rage nearly more terrifying than Piotr at his very worst. “Far too soon. His childhood was over even before it began. You know what the worst part is, Ezar - the absolute worst part? The poor thing doesn’t know it can and should be any different.” She looked down at the soundly sleeping child, cradled against her as they rode, and snuggled him closer. “I will never forgive them. Ever.”
    Ezar didn’t quite know how to respond to his cousin’s intense emotional distress. He couldn’t begin to imagine what it must be like to be to raise children under such difficult circumstances. From what little he’d seen and heard today, little Lord Aral certainly seemed to be an exceptional child, understandably her favorite. Hell, even after only knowing him for little more than an afternoon, he was awfully fond of the boy himself, which surprised him, very much. He usually didn’t take well at all to children, nor they to him. Hoping to lighten her black mood a little, he chuckled and asked, “Army mad little bugger, isn’t he? More so than most?”
    She snorted. “I take it you haven’t seen what Petya likes to call his ‘parlor trick’ yet? My father taught Aral the names of all the ships in our fleet - and not just the names. Classifications, commanding officers, weapons... Petya thinks it’s the height of hilarity to stand Aral up on the table at the occasional staff meeting and have him recite it all from memory. He says he does it for comic relief.” Adding, somewhat harshly, “Personally, I think he does it specifically to embarrass those poor unfortunate officers who aren’t quite as up on it as Aral is.”   
    They both laughed a little loudly at that, causing the girl to stir, her cough harsh and painful sounding. “Quite the little strategist, too, I noticed,” he said. “Rather alarmingly detail oriented... Y’know, he actually called me out on my choice of horses,” snorting at the memory.
    “Did he? Oh, dear!” she said, laughing more easily now. “That’s rare, I assure you. Aral’s usually much more well-mannered than that; painfully so, sometimes. He’s generally not that forward with people he doesn’t know, either. He knows who you are, of course, but I doubt he remembers you much from when he was a toddler. Then again, knowing Aral, I wouldn’t bet against it, either.” She kissed the top of the child’s head, smiling lovingly down at him.
    “If it’s any consolation, he didn’t exactly volunteer the dressing down. He was looking distinctly peeved, so I asked him what the problem was, and he told me, without mincing words. Very proper, very polite, and very, very right.”
    “Now that’s my Aral.” They both laughed softly. “I know Sergeant Kuprianov was just joking when he told him he was in charge until help arrived, but Aral took it seriously. He takes everything so seriously these days. He stayed awake all night keeping watch. I know - I was up off and on all night with Lina myself, and every time I woke, he was standing over us, watchful and wary, when he wasn’t running back and forth to the road. He spent hours making that windscreen, which turned out to be a godsend once the snow started coming down in earnest, especially for Lina. I have no idea where or when he learned to make something like that.”
    Olivia arranged the blanket more closely around her softly snoring son. “Oh, and thank you so much. In case you hadn’t noticed, he was absolutely thrilled when you told me he wasn’t a bad little soldier.” She paused, then added, “He tries so very hard. It’s good for him to hear that kind of affirmation. You know how Petya is - always so unrelentingly stingy with his praise. Especially so when it comes to poor Aral, who’d do just about anything to hear it from him.”
    Hmmph... including jumping off cliffs? Ezar asked himself. Piotr could be a such a hard-hearted, cold-blooded, bull-headed bastard at times. Hell, make that most of the time! He couldn’t see what the man’s problem with the boy could possibly be. Then again, he wasn’t a father, and had little intention of becoming one if he could help it. The Vorbarra clan had more than enough potential claimants to the imperial campstool as it was. He decided he quite liked little Lord Aral. Seemed like he’d be good company. Maybe he could sort of take him under his wing, so to speak. Encourage him and the like, on the occasions when their paths crossed.
    He’d have to run it by Olivia, though, as he sure as hell didn’t want to put his foot in the middle of it and make things worse for the boy... And he did still have to work with Piotr, although he didn’t see how they could possibly argue any more than they typically did. They had a rather unique working relationship, to put it mildly. Not exactly your typical military chain of command style, but not exactly your typical family sort of relationship, either. No doubt onlookers thought them both quite mad at times. Hah! They probably were! Whatever... it had worked well for them since he’d graduated from the Academy and promptly followed the Emperor-his-Uncle’s less than subtle suggestion, opting out of the so-called ‘occupation army’ condescendingly allowed by the Cetas and joining the brilliant young terror of a general leading the Resistance, already well on his way to legendary status.
    Ezar’s horse had pulled ahead of Olivia’s a bit, and riding in the bright, moonlit landscape, surrounded by the dark silhouettes of the mountains and trees, he could hear a quiet conversation between her and the boy, now awake. His voice sounded both shy and proud, and more than a little dazzled.
    “Did you hear, Mama? Colonel Vorbarra said I wasn’t a bad little soldier!”
    “I did, baby, I did. The Colonel is absolutely right. I’m so very proud of you.”
    There was silence for a minute or so, then the shy little voice again, hesitant. “Do you think... maybe... the General-my-father will be proud of me, too, Mama? Even just a little?”
    He cringed at the hope and hurt in that absurdly young voice. He had a suspicion that no matter how much he or Olivia told the boy he’d done well, it would mean next to nothing to him if he didn’t hear it from his father.
    “You know how your father is, Aral,” Olivia said, sounding grimly resigned. “Don’t get your hopes up too much. You did the best you could. I know you did. The Colonel knows you did. The important thing is that you know you did a good job. A very good job. Believe it, baby. No matter what your father says. Or doesn’t say.”
    “I know, Mama. I know... but... it’s just so hard, sometimes...” he sighed.
    “Hush, baby... go back to sleep now.” She rewrapped the blanket around him, kissed his forehead and snuggled him close, then began to croon. Her voice was crystalline, ringing out in the crisp stillness of the night.
    The tune was a lullaby from the sound of it. Very unusual sounding - Ezar didn’t quite understand all the words. Something very old, perhaps, from her mother’s people on Beta?

                                                 Baloo baleerie, baloo baleerie.
                                                 Baloo baleerie, baloo balee.

                                                 Gang awa’ peerie fairies,
                                                 Gang awa’ peerie fairies.
                                                 Gang awa’ peerie fairies,
                                                 Frae oor ben noo.

                                                 Baloo baleerie, baloo baleerie.
                                                 Baloo baleerie, baloo balee.

                                                 Doon come the bonny angels,
                                                 Doon come the bonny angels.
                                                 Doon come the bonny angels,
                                                 Tae oor ben noo.

                                                 Baloo baleerie, baloo baleerie.
                                                 Baloo baleerie, baloo balee.

    Olivia had sung the first verse bracketed by the two choruses. Aral took up the second verse alone, nearly startling him as much as he had been when he’d first heard the boy speak on the road - the young voice so sweet and sure. Bonny angels, indeed...
    Finding it difficult to reconcile the image of Olivia’s ‘grim-faced, hyper-alert, perfect little soldier’ with this achingly beautiful child’s voice, Ezar found himself holding his breath until Olivia came back in on the chorus, which mother and child sang together. It was obviously something they’d done many times before - a beloved ritual. He had never heard anything quite like it - exotic, lilting, haunting - sending wave after wave of shivers up and down his spine, setting the hairs on the back of his neck on edge. Not unlike the sensation of being hit by a stunner set on low... he thought.

                                               Sleep saft, my baby,
                                               Sleep saft, my baby.
                                               Sleep saft, my baby,
                                               In oor ben noo.

                                              Baloo baleerie, baloo baleerie.
                                              Baloo baleerie, baloo balee.

    The final verse and chorus was sung by Olivia alone, urging her ‘precious, sweet baby boy’ back to sleep. He had stopped his horse when they began to sing, entranced by the song and the singers. Pondering the obvious, deep, loving bond between the two, Ezar wondered if there wasn’t something to be said after all for reconsidering his own possible future parenthood. Her horse caught up with his and they continued side by side. That final verse had the intended effect - little Lord Aral was asleep again. Not wanting to break the mood, he remained silent, holding the sound of their voices in his head the rest of the way back to the camp.  

    Once in camp, Olivia and Galina were rushed into the med tent. Aral, somehow, had gotten overlooked in the confusion. Ezar knew Galina’s illness was responsible for Olivia’s uncustomary behavior when it came to looking after Aral, who was left standing wide-eyed outside the tent entrance, anxiously looking in. He still could not believe the kid didn’t need medical attention for something after that jump into the ravine, and was about to scoop the boy up himself and into a doctor’s care. Before he could do so, the scene at the tent suddenly turned chaotic.
    The assault on the Ceta supply cache, hastily planned and executed, had gone badly. While the mission had been successful, they had taken many casualties, and the injured were now streaming in. Piotr, barking orders, told him to take charge of the situation while he saw to Olivia and his daughter, when his angry eye fell on Aral.
    Without asking what had happened or even so much as greeting the boy, Piotr erupted - so typical of him - venting his anger on the child, berating him caustically for being such a filthy mess. The boy stood silently at parade rest, eyes downcast, while being called a disgrace to the uniform. Piotr dismissed him curtly with an abrupt wave and a disgusted look, as if he were some drunken soldier straggling in after a wild night carousing, before raging off into the tent. The poor kid looked dejected, resigned, and not at all surprised. Olivia’s remark about ‘having the happy knocked out of him bit by bit’ came to mind. When Ezar looked up a few minutes later after dealing with yet another aspect of the near disaster clamoring for his attention, Aral was nowhere in sight.    
    Inwardly fuming, Ezar decided it was time to play what he liked to think of as his ‘Vorbarra card’ and pull a little imperial rank. Even a ‘poor country cousin’ of the emperor could, and he occasionally did. In his expert opinion, Piotr was once again in serious need of yet another periodic attitude adjustment - and he was pissed enough right now to happily tear him a new one! A dirty job, true, but someone had to do it... Yes, Piotr was overworked, highly upset about the assault results, and frantic about Olivia. Yes, he was outraged over the traitorous betrayal that lead to his family having to flee in the first place and determined to get to the bottom of it. Dealing with a very dirty child was understandably not at the top of his to-do list. Fine, he got that. Still, as parentally-challenged as he was, even he knew there was no way in hell to excuse Piotr’s behavior toward Aral, who had done nothing wrong and so much right.
    As soon as matters calmed down somewhat, with the most necessary details sorted, he stormed into the med tent and confronted Piotr in front of Olivia - who lent her wholehearted, angry support - reading him the riot act, explaining everything his son had done during the ordeal, and why. Making what he felt was a sufficiently dramatic exit (to emphasize his point and blow off even more steam), he stomped out in a cloud of obscenities, scattering hovering medics in his wake to go look for Aral, leaving a gobsmacked Piotr to Olivia’s less-than-tender mercies. Searching in the unfamiliar darkness took some time. He finally found the groggy boy curled up on the ground next to an open fire in the Greekies’ quarter at the far end of camp. A helpful Sergeant Katafias carried Aral to the med tent.
    As Ezar suspected, Aral hadn’t come through his encounter with the ravine as unscathed as he claimed. He had a mild concussion and a deep gash on the back of his head. The cold had kept it from bleeding much, freezing at the site. The boy’s mop of hair covered it enough that neither he nor Olivia noticed it, especially in the forest dimness, but in the relative warmth of the tent, the wound thawed, opened up, and bled freely. The doctor also found a filthy, deep puncture wound on his right thigh where he’d caught on whatever it was on his slide down the slope. The cold had had the same effect as on the head wound. The knuckles on his hands were badly scraped and several nails were torn, along with numerous cuts and blisters. His small feet were also a bloody, blistery mess, revealing just what it was he had used to lash the shelter framework together - he’d taken off his thick, warm socks and sliced them up into dozens of long, thin strips with his knife. Without the socks, and with all the walking and running he’d done, the heavy boots rubbed his feet raw, the cold and wet only making it that much worse. Removal of his tunic and thermal undershirt revealed a small, thin body covered in fresh bruises. There was also a bit of frostbite on his fingers and tips of his ears, fortunately very minor.
    Piotr, speechless, stared incredulously at his son, looking stunned, confused and badly shaken. To his credit, and Olivia’s great surprise (she’d been glaring at him furiously with each new revelation of Aral’s injuries), once the doctor finished patching Aral up, he sat down next to him, put an arm around his scrawny shoulders, and quietly apologized for his behavior earlier, thanking him for his great service keeping his mother and sister safe. It was hard to say whether the boy was more gobsmacked or elated. The same could be said for Olivia. Ezar stashed a mental picture of the repentant Piotr away for safekeeping, knowing what a rarity it was, and unfortunately, given Piotr’s take-no-prisoners temperament, probably always would be.
    Galina had been examined, fed, medicated, and bedded down for the night in the infirmary. Olivia said she wanted to stay with her until she fell asleep. The boy, now wearing only the bottoms of his bloodstained, long thermal underwear and thick bandages on his feet, was bleary-eyed, fighting yet again to stay awake. Piotr pulled the heavy thermal shirt back on over the boy’s head, wrapped him in Galina’s discarded blanket and picked him up gingerly, announcing loudly that they were going to the mess tent to see if those sorry excuses for cooks could rustle up something to feed a couple of starving soldiers. Wide awake now, Aral’s face had a dazed but happy expression, the bright grey eyes shining.
    Piotr looked at Ezar - a sheepish glance for a fleeting second - and grunted, “Well, don’t just stand there, Vorbarra. I’ve got a hungry man here to feed. You coming or not?”
    “I won’t say no,” he grunted back, as they left the tent together heading toward the mess. “First thing a military man learns is never to pass up a chance to eat or sleep. You never know for sure when you’ll get the next one. Isn’t that so, Lord Aral?”
    The boy beamed at him, grinning. Hmmph! Not a bad looking kid at all when he smiles, he thought. First smile he’d seen from him, not that he’d had all that much to smile about...
    One of the junior medics rushed out of the tent after them and addressed Piotr, saying the senior medic, Doctor Paschyn wished to speak with him about some further treatment for Galina. Piotr abruptly handed the bundle of Aral to Ezar and followed the medic back into the tent. Ezar looked at Aral and Aral looked at him, a toss-up as to who was more startled. Ezar couldn’t remember if he’d ever held a child for any length before, aside from that one memorable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons incident as a teen. He’d somehow been shanghaied into holding an older sister’s youngest at its naming ceremony, and it promptly puked prodigiously all over him, wailing piteously, as if it were somehow his fault. He’d never even heard of projectile vomiting before that... He had steered clear ever since.
    This isn’t too unpleasant, he thought. Sort of bony, though. Quite a few knobby bits... we’ll have to fatten him up some. Right, then. Off to the mess tent...
    “Thank you, Colonel Vorbarra, sir.” The small voice was sleepy-quiet.
    “For what, Lord Aral?”
    “You know... for everything. Thank you for Mama and Lina, too.”
    Lord Aral hugged him surprisingly hard, then laid a drowsy head softly on his shoulder. He found himself relaxing as he walked, the weight of the child not uncomfortable at all. I could get used to this, he thought. Definitely. He just might have to rethink his no-offspring rule. Olivia was right, this kid is special. He’d be happy if he could make one even half as good. Well... someday... maybe. He’d just have to wait and see what happened...

Chapter Text

    They rode in silence for quite some time, an hour at least, at a good pace, with Ezar watching and listening intently. Aral, seated in front of her, had been doing much the same before finally dropping off to badly needed sleep. The snow had finally stopped and the sky had cleared dramatically. Both moons had risen already - the larger one full. They gave off enough light to read by. She gently picked pine needles and clumps of dried mud from her baby’s hair. She would always think of him as her baby, even after Galina, or however many more children she might someday have - her sweet, precious baby boy. She’d had serious misgivings for years about bringing another child into their war-torn existence. Petya raged that she was being just like her mother - meaning ‘Betan’ - and so she was, in very many ways. She was fiercely proud of it. But she was also equally Barrayaran, and knew the pressing need for ‘a spare’ if at all possible. Three miscarriages and more than five years after Selig, Aral was born, not long after the destruction of Vorkosigan Vashnoi and an exceptionally difficult pregnancy. He was small at birth, and when he remained so, the medics cautioned her that he might always be undersized, due to the extreme stress of the pregnancy and her nutritional deficiencies throughout it, as well as his own during those first terrible years after his birth, the worst of the long war.
    She had an ancient vid encyclopedia of Old Earth, with all its people, places, history, music, art, animals - so fascinating, she’d always thought - that her father had brought back from his ambassadorial days on Beta Colony. It was already an archaic piece of technology when she had it as a child, but it had been her favorite book. She used it for lessons with Selig, who was only mildly interested in it at best when not downright indifferent. The same seemed to be true for Galina, so far. Not Aral, though! Just one of many surprises, she was soon to learn. She discovered that when he was teething, looking at ‘the book’ was the only thing that would keep the poor little thing from fussing - sadly, she usually had nothing else to give to soothe him. His small body would literally be shivering with excited anticipation before she’d turn each page, his attention riveted on the book’s many treasures, his pain temporarily forgotten.
    One year old Aral loved that encyclopedia - especially the elephants! Why elephants, she couldn’t begin to imagine. Who knew, really, what went on inside a baby’s fuzzy little head? But he’d sit motionless on her lap, completely mesmerized, which was unusual enough in itself for a child that age to make it memorable, listening to the vid narrator, anxiously waiting for her to turn the page screen, waiting for his favorite. The page in question featured a large, migrating herd of pachyderms. His tiny baby finger would very carefully point out each and every one of them, naming them as he went. If he missed one, he’d patiently start over, to the consternation of  Selig, who was in the habit of leaving the area whenever Aral got to that page, moaning dramatically, “Oh, nooooo... not the elephants again!” He was usually quickly followed by anyone else within earshot. She often wished she could leave with them - there were a lot of elephants on that page…
    At eighteen months, to everyone’s great relief, he transferred his fascination from elephants to puffer fish. He’d watch the vid intently, as if expecting it to do something different that time. When the alarmed fish puffed up, as it always did, he’d nearly fall off her lap, overwhelmed and overcome with delighted, endearing baby laughter. He was the only one who could make Petya laugh with sheer delight in those dark days - she thought of it as a minor miracle, so rare was it - as well as anyone else who saw it, with his admittedly hilarious ‘puffish’ imitation, (the best even his precocious toddler’s vocal cords could do with ‘puffer fish’) which always ended with him rolling on the floor convulsed in eye-watering giggles and snorts, having quite enjoyed his own performance. Fortunately, it remained outrageously funny even after repeated viewings, because once he learned the effect it had on his audience, he’d trot it out at the least provocation! Quite the little showman he’d been, at that age...
    At two and three years old, that encyclopedia fueled his unbounded imagination. It was quite like throwing flammable liquids on a fire! Chopsticks, windmills, stilt walkers, kodo drummers, and samurai helmets were among his wildly eclectic passions. At three, his samurai helmet creations - made from discarded, battered cooking pots, with a hodgepodge of glued on feathers, strings, twigs and scrap paper bits had everyone who saw them in stitches. Also in his third summer, he went through what Petya laughingly called his ‘going native’ phase, frequently taking off all his clothes to sit in puddles, of which there never seemed to be a shortage. He would protest loudly when unceremoniously being dragged out of them - usually by the ever dutiful Selig - that he was soooo hot! The armsmen, as well as the officers and troops when they were in camp, seemed to enjoy aiding and abetting his varied enthusiasms. Armsman Dubrow carved a set of tiny chopsticks for him when he noticed the boy trying to manipulate two slender twigs. Sergeant Kuprianov made a set of Aral-sized stilts. Fortunately, he was as freakishly coordinated for his age as he was undersized and was adept on them in no time at all. He dearly loved clomping around on those stilts - they made him feel so tall!
    At four, amazingly, he was reading on his own, at an adult level, everything he could get his little hands on.  She had known early on that he was highly intelligent (‘freakishly’ to hear Petya tell it, when he wasn’t calling it ‘damned scary’), but Aral’s passion for learning was almost frightening in its intensity. So when she discovered him reading A Tale of Two Cities (in English, no less!) to one year old Galina, it didn’t surprise her. It left her stunned a little, but not surprised. Not long after that, she learned that whenever they were in camp, he’d often write letters dictated to him by some of the illiterate troops from the more backwards backwoods districts, for them to send to their families.
    At that time, his most prized possession - it was small enough to be easily carried with him when they had to move on - was a miniature icon featuring Michael the Archangel, given to him by one of the wounded troops who had been sent home for good. There was no religious meaning in it for him - but the image of a mighty warrior angel with that huge sword and those massive, outspread wings that seemed to have a luminous glow of their own was very appealing to his budding Vorish sensibilities. In that same budding Vor spirit, he was mad about Old Earth’s Maori warriors’ haka dances (he imitated their swirling tribal tattoos by painting himself with brillberry juice) and the type of dancing performed by the Scots Highland military regiments, a style originating in dances historically done either before or after battles. He’d use the vid book to provide the music, and with a ragged, plaid-ish sort of towel for a kilt, he made a particularly proud, disdainful stag when dancing the Ghillie Callum. Petya nearly went ballistic when his swords went temporarily astray once too often, and that put an end to his ‘Scottish’ phase, but heralded the beginning of his artistic one, inspired by the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux. Hand silhouettes done by spraying ‘paint’ (the all-purpose brillberry juice again) out of his mouth over his hand the same way the ancient originals had been done began appearing on tents when they were in camp, and marked their other temporary lodgings in those days for posterity. Aral Vorkosigan was here, they proclaimed.
    At five, his artistic phase was in full bloom, not just the sketching she had begun teaching him, but attempting to construct architectural models of famous buildings. He drew - and built, with varying measures of success - the Taj Mahal, the Millennium Eye, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge. Models of Earth’s first Lunar Colony, the Sydney Opera House, Burj Khalifa, and Vorbarra Sultana’s own Star Bridge were painstakingly constructed and had to be abandoned when the family moved on - too large to carry. Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater left him speechless in admiration. It was the only one he ever minded having to leave behind. He used egg shells, pebbles, twigs, scrap wood, paper, glass and plastic shards, shell casings, wire - anything he could scrounge up to build with, plus lots and lots of mud. Selig enthusiastically contributed to his construction materials stockpile - if Aral was preoccupied building something, it meant he got a reprieve from tussling with him!
    On the rare occasions they got to spend time with her parents, the Prince-her-Father and Aral were inseparable, to Selig’s delight. No wrestling at Grand’da’s - Aral was much too busy! She didn’t know if Aral or her father enjoyed their time together more. The Prince taught him the names of every ship in the fleet, and seemingly every weapon known to man, from the various types of Paleolithic stone arrowheads to the latest in Ceta artillery. For a supposedly non-military man (although there were those persistent rumors about arms smuggling activities on his part being carried out right under the Cetas’ haughty painted noses), her father was exceptionally knowledgeable and enthusiastic, sharing his knowledge with the ever-eager Aral, who shared her father’s gift for languages as well, picking them up effortlessly. He had been a precocious talker - and bilingual in Russian and English from the start.
    By the time he was five years old, she and Petya had come to recognize that their younger son was far beyond merely bright. He was disturbed by it for some reason she found maddeningly incomprehensible, but he wouldn’t discuss it, which disturbed her. They had both recently noticed some of the more superstitious, illiterate troops making hex signs when Aral was near. He tearfully noticed it almost as soon as they did, and was upset and worried he was doing something wrong. She tried to assure him he wasn’t, and was frustrated that Petya wasn’t more forthcoming in his own assurances to the boy.
    He’d lately become acutely conscious of his size, or rather, the lack of it, and was becoming more and more aware of the fawning attention given to Selig and Galina by just about everyone they came in contact with because of their striking beauty. More troubling was his growing awareness of his father’s less than subtle favoritism toward them. He kept the disappointment to himself, as if nothing was wrong, quietly going off somewhere alone to hide his hurt when it became too blatant, as it occasionally did, but he could never hide his feelings from her. He couldn’t possibly be more unlike Galina, now well into the Terrible Twos, who never hesitated to let her displeasure over anything go unvoiced, and at top volume! Petya was highly amused by it, calling her ‘a right little princess’, making it difficult for her to discipline her daughter when necessary. She could be petulant and highly demanding, even at such a young age, which was not a good sign, but amazingly, she was as sweet with Aral as he was with her. When she was unusually fussy, he’d sit with her for hours, presenting her with brightly colored feathers or stones he’d found, reading to her or regaling her with stories he’d made up about brave little princesses. He loved being a big brother!
    They’d discovered early on never to tell him he couldn’t do something. She suspected him of being deliberately obtuse when it came to understanding the difference between not being physically able to do a thing because he was too small or too young and not being allowed to do it. They’d learned the hard way to simply to forbid him outright to do whatever it was, rather than tell him he couldn’t. He was always obedient - he would fret and fume silently, but obey. It wasn’t that he was being stubborn or contrary. If told he couldn’t do something, he seemed to interpret it as a challenge, compelled to prove himself - to himself, as much as to anyone else, driven to keep up with his older and much bigger brother. His single-minded determination and ability to focus intently, unusual in one so young, was never more alarming.
    He was able to entertain himself for hours, unlike Selig and Galina, who often seemed to need an audience just to blow their noses, and then applaud them for it afterward! She blamed Petya, for lavishing them with all that attention at every turn whenever the family was able to spend time together, making them more than a bit too full of themselves for her taste. It was something he and she strongly disagreed on from the start, and showed no signs of changing. She wouldn’t have approved of his indulging the children so shamelessly whenever possible even if he had included Aral, which he seldom did. She was very Betan in that respect, and it was becoming a growing source of contention between them.
    Aral was a sweet-natured, thoughtful child - insatiably curious and inquisitive about everybody and everything. His first order of business in any new place they stayed was to get to know - very politely, of course, he had such beautiful, courtly manners - the names and life stories of all his new acquaintances, and they seemed to oblige him happily. Early on, he developed a knack for cajoling those around him into helping with his ‘projects’ - his enthusiasm was as infectious as his baby laughter had been. The ‘projects’ were interesting and nearly always entertaining, so he had no lack of volunteers. Oh-so-serious in his quiet, intense way about his various enthusiasms, he didn't understand what others frequently found so amusing about them.
    Petya absolutely detested seeing either boy doing anything he considered to even remotely be ‘decadent Betan nonsense.’ He would probably come down even harder than he already did on gentle, sensitive Aral except for the fact that he was in his father’s words, ‘a scrappy little bugger’ - endlessly and energetically rough-housing with the patiently obliging Selig, the younger armsmen, or anyone else who would ‘play’ with him when he wasn’t absorbed in a book or whatever project was the flavor of the month. Hardly a week went by that Aral wasn’t proudly sporting the swollen remains of a bloody nose, a split lip, or a black eye, like a badge of honor! It was one of the very few things he did that Petya distinctly approved of, and he went at it with the same level of intensity as the rest of his projects, much to poor Selig’s dismay. While Petya himself never seemed to have time for his youngest son, he constantly reproached the boy for ‘pestering’ the officers, troops and armsmen with his eager, non-stop barrage of military questions. She’d noticed he was the only one who seemed bothered by it - the men indulged Aral affectionately, and he in turn adored them all.

    Ezar rode up beside her. He seemed quite taken with Aral, which was unusual. Anyone who knew him knew how child-adverse he usually was. She’d have to thank him for praising Aral the way he did - the boy soaked it up like a thirsty sponge! He asked if Aral was always so intense, and that got her going, unleashing a torrent of pent-up emotions, fears and frustrations. They’d always gotten on well since childhood, and it felt good to talk to him, as family - however distantly related - as well as someone who knew Petya better than most, almost as well as she herself did. He listened attentively, and to her mind, quite sympathetically.
    “That’s the one thing I hate the Cetas the most for,” she told him, “not the destruction of Vorkosigan Vashnoi, not our life on the run, not even the absence of anything remotely resembling a ‘normal’ family life, but for changing Aral from my precious, sweet baby boy, with the most infectious, bubbling laughter you’ve ever heard, into this grim-faced, hyper-alert, perfect little soldier.” Her iron-grey eyes were icy, her voice whisper-soft - her quiet, implacable rage nearly more terrifying than Piotr at his very worst. “Far too soon. His childhood was over even before it began. You know what the worst part is, Ezar - the absolute worst part? The poor thing doesn’t know it can and should be any different.” She looked down at the child, now sound asleep, cradled against her as they rode, and snuggled him closer. “I will never forgive them. Ever.”
    She hated the Cetas with every fiber of her being for what their Occupation was doing to her son. Aral loved the water - being in it, on it, or near it. He should have sparkling lakes with fresh, clear water to splash in instead of muddy puddles. He should have ingenious toy construction kits instead of twigs, shell casings and mud for his clever little architectural masterpieces. He should have a real ball, groomed fields and carefree friends to play with instead of a lopsided, makeshift rag-and-string concoction to kick around in the mud, with the youngest of the soldiers and armsmen as playmates. His budding talent demanded bright watercolors, plump brushes and crisp white paper for his artistic creations instead of berry juice, tent tarps and mud. Mud, all too sadly, was a recurring theme in her child’s life.
    Aral woke, not having slept nearly enough. He was shyly proud and very much amazed at Ezar’s earlier comments on his soldiering efforts. He was anxious, though, concerned how his father would react to his part in the events of the past two days. She tried to encourage him not to get his hopes up, and he seemed as glumly resigned as she was. That hurt - both of them. To soothe him, she sang a favorite lullaby, an ancient Scots tune she had learned from her mother that had become a private, deeply treasured ritual between them. For reasons she couldn’t fathom, the fact that he sang it with her - Selig never had and Galina hadn’t shown any interest yet - always filled her with a wild, unspeakable joy. It was something timeless from her own childhood and her mother’s, and her mother’s mother’s mother, down through the ages. The thought that he might sing it to his own children and grandchildren some day was a source of profound comfort to her. The tune had the desired effect, as he drifted off and was soon sleeping soundly again - her perfect little soldier, her precious, sweet baby boy. No. No, she would never - could never - forgive the Cetas. Not ever!