For a brief, terrifying moment, Gregor is convinced that Vorkosigan sees right through him. Vorkosigan is frowning in that familiar way that means Gregor has interested him, and Gregor braces himself for whatever vitriol is about to come his way. Instead, Vorkosigan looks to Grand-- to Ezar and repeats, flatly, "brother".
Ezar nods. "Yes."
Vorkosigan looks to Gregor. "How old are you?"
"Twenty-four," Gregor says, because he and Emperor Dorca (Emperor Dorca) had agreed that the fewer lies Gregor has to remember, the better.
Before Vorkosigan can say anything triumphantly about Ezar's family, Ezar cuts him off. "As I said. Brother."
Something passes between Ezar and Vorkosigan and then Vorkosigan swallows what he was about to say. Gregor gets the uncomfortable feeling that this was a really, really, really terrible idea.
"He does strongly resemble your father," Vorkosigan eventually says, like it costs him something to keep speaking with a bastard in the room.
Ezar knows enough of where Gregor comes from to look uncomfortable about that, which Gregor oddly appreciates. He barely remembers his Grandfather, but Ezar reminds him strongly of some of the most distant Vorbarra cousins, few of whom were ever comfortable enough around him, and none of whom appreciated any pointed remarks about how their family line became the Emperor's distant cousins. Ezar's family stole it from one branch and then Dorca stole it from them, but there's two hundred years of history of Vorbarra in-fighting. It had been ancient history to Gregor, but so was the Cetagandan War. Emperor Dorca's first assumption when he saw Gregor appear in the middle of the Emperor's private rooms had been that he was a Marcan spy, not a victim of Cetagandan temporal engineering. Invasion or no invasion, it seems Vorbarras with hazel eyes are immediately suspected of treason. Gregor had had to take a moment to even remember which faction the Marcans had been, and that had probably been the only thing to save his life.
When Gregor gets back, he is going to laugh in his history tutor's face. He'd never been able to remember all of the factions in Dorca's Unification, and now that had been proof that he really wasn't from around this time.
And then Gregor had hastily explained he was actually descended from Ezar Vorbarra and that had nearly gotten him killed again, because the only thing worse than the Marcans were the Sergans. And then Dorca had come to his senses about killing a future Emperor and had become quite civil, and that was more terrifying than Dorca threatening him with a sword.
A handful of people know Gregor's from the future, but Dorca is the only one who knows what Gregor is, and Gregor had been as careful as a threatening Emperor would let him be about what he said. All that Dorca knows is that Ezar ended up married to one of Dorca's daughters -- they're all married right now, so Gregor didn't dare say which one -- and if that had given Dorca the impression that both of his sons die in the war, Gregor can't bring himself to be too sorry about it. Dorca's interrogation methods are good enough for the time, but Gregor has been trained to resist fast-penta. He knows how to give just enough and then lead the conversation elsewhere. Dorca now knows a great deal about the industrial and galactic future of the planet, and as little as possible about the Vorbarra future.
And despite the interrogation, Gregor had gotten the strong impression that Dorca didn't really want to know. Dorca's been at war for most of his life, and now he's been confronted with proof that the Dorcan usurpation ended up failing and the Sergans reinherited the throne. Dorca doesn't want to hear that he was the one to do it, to marry his daughter off to Ezar and admit defeat by making him his heir, and Gregor knows about letting your opponents have their victories. With any luck, when both of the princes survive the war, Dorca will think they've averted Gregor's future and the horror of having the Sergans take back the Imperium.
Gregor doesn't let anything out about how Ezar stole the throne. Gregor values his life. And he resolutely tries not to think about what will happen if one of the princes doesn't survive the war.
"Thank you, sir," Gregor says, smiling slightly. "My father would be pleased to know that."
Vorkosigan huffs. It hurts Gregor's head to recognize it as familiar, to understand that Vorkosigan is laughing at him. Vorkosigan is the only one here Gregor knows, and for all that he only died, from Gregor's view, a couple years ago, he's the only familiar things Gregor's encountered since this all began.
They've temporarily taken over a small village when Prince Xav and his men arrive with supplies. Gregor had already met Prince Xav and he thinks he knows what to expect when Xav gives a Gregor a pointed 'well, come on' look while herding Vorkosigan and Ezar into a house. And then Vorkosigan opens his mouth.
It's one thing, Gregor thinks faintly, to realize that people hadn't been exaggerating when they'd said Xav and Vorkosigan only barely got along long enough to win wars together. It's another to see it and realize how fragile their peace was and how it could still far apart. In twenty or so years, if Vorkosigan and Xav can't swallow their mutual hatred, Yuri will win, they'll all die, and Gregor will never be born.
Vorkosigan ends up winning one argument, but losing the larger one, and from the look on his face, he knows exactly how well he was played. Gregor doesn't even want to consider how Xav ended up being convinced to marry his daughter to Vorkosigan. Oddly enough, it never came up in a history lesson, the why behind the what. Princess Olivia is married off to Piotr Vorkosigan and history would never be the same.
And history never will be the same, if Gregor does something to prevent it from happening.
Gregor swallows hard. Ezar gives him a concerned look.
"Overwhelming?" Ezar asks.
Gregor nods. "Can I ask?" he asks.
Ezar looks over at Vorkosigan, who is taking it out on Lieutenant Tesslev. "Xav's mother, rumor has it, most certainly never slept with Piotr's grandfather. And Pierre Le Sanguinaire certainly didn't tacitly approve of it by then marrying his daughter to the old Count's son."
Gregor flinches. "Oh." When, if, when he gets back, he resolves, he's going to pay more attention to the old, stale rumors that supposedly he's supposed to learn from. Because you never know when you'll get thrown back in time and have to navigate the landmine that is the Vorbarra family. "I can see how that certainly never happened."
Ezar pats Gregor on the back. "Don't worry, Piotr's stopped turning that knife long ago. Now they just have philosophical disagreements about tactics, instead of physical disagreements about affairs. The Crown Prince even thinks it's funny."
Yes, Yuri would. "I see," Gregor says, which may have been the wrong thing to say because Ezar is suddenly looking at Gregor like he's interested him.
"Have you met the Crown Prince?" Ezar asks, and Gregor nods.
"Rather briefly." Very terrifyingly. Prince Yuri doesn't look anything like what Gregor knows he will become later. He didn't even greatly resemble Gregor himself.
"Would you say he will make a good Emperor some day?" And, oh, it's a light, dangerous tone that Gregor knows much too well. He's never going to be able to look Aral Vorkosigan in the face ever again. When he gets home.
"I'm sorry, my lord, I can't discuss it," Gregor says, trying to sound apologetic and probably just sounding relieved, which is not good. Ezar looks even more calculating, and if Gregor just planted seeds of a power grab, there isn't going to be a future for him to go back to, is there? No one ever said that Ezar hesitated before agreeing to lead a rebellion against the Emperor. Prince Xav and Count Vorkosigan had been targeted by the Emperor, but what was Ezar's reason? Merely that he was asked and he saw the necessity of it. Looking at his grandfather now, Gregor does not find that in any way reassuring. Ezar, in Gregor's history, needed to be asked first. Maybe in this reality, he won't. Maybe this time, he'll be the one asking Piotr.
Gregor feels the world slipping away from him and shivers.
"Too much history, not enough breakfast," Ezar decides imperiously and leads Gregor to get some food.
He should have known better, really, he should have. He's paid attention to Aral, to Cordelia, to Vortala. He knows he grew up on the solid foundation of Ezar's reforms, participated, if only as a puppet, in Aral's reforms. He knows that things used to be different.
And now he's seeing it. Now he's living in a world where the only commanding forces on the Vor are their fathers, their heads of house, and the Emperor. There is no rule of law, there is only the rule of family. There is private law and private feuds and private enforcement. Despite Dorca's efforts, there are still private armies. The very idea of one law is laughable.
Back home, Gregor was the Emperor, but now he can conceivably do anything he wants, and if Dorca or a prince doesn't care to check him, he'd get away with it. If his victim had a powerful protector, he might find himself assassinated or challenged to a duel, but there can't be charges brought against a Vorbarra in the Council of Counts. That reform won't happen until the first few years of Ezar's reign, and now that might not happen at all.
And it works back against him. He's vulnerable now, too. Yuri killed most of his family in his madness; he could kill Gregor this time, too. And nothing could legally be done against him. It'd taken a war, it had had to take a war, because Yuri had been within his power, so only a power grab could punish him for murder.
But even after the reforms, Gregor knows, even in his time, he could have done what Yuri did and gotten away with it. Ezar had ordered assassinations, Aral had ordered assassinations in Gregor's name, and Gregor's ordered a few himself. He had his own army, he had his own spies, he had his own assassins. To kill the powerful, he needed proof, but he could have manufactured it. With enough manufactured proof, he could kill anyone he wanted. If he wanted it.
But to kill him would have meant another war.
Cordelia's lessons are sinking in, years too late.
Gregor smiles ruefully. So this is what it takes to make someone in favor of radical change: their own skin on the line.
Gregor's been the Emperor since he was four. He knows how to control himself, how to make sure only the barest minimum shows on his face. He knows how to be the commander. And, apparently, a hundred years ago, all that meant was that he could pass very well as a Vorbarra. Ezar has been reading him much too well, and it seems Vorkosigan has, too, because he settles down next to Gregor by the fire and says, "you might be fooling some people, but you're not fooling me."
And then he jumps back up again and moves on to threaten somebody else.
Paranoia runs in the family and Gregor knows better than to indulge in it, but this isn't paranoia, he tells himself, this is rational suspicion.
Vorkosigan knows nothing, Gregor eventually decides, merely thinks he has a hint of it and is waiting for Gregor to give himself away. And, Gregor reminds himself, Vorkosigan thinks he's Ezar's bastard brother. Vorkosigan probably means he's decided that Gregor must have been raised Vorbarra -- which, Gregor thinks sheepishly, is probably obvious to anyone who knows the family, making it a terrible choice of a lie -- and so thinks there's something else involved, that Gregor's a cousin or spy or both, and that the bastard brother is a cover so that no one suspects Gregor.
That must be it, Gregor eventually decides. Vorkosigan must have come to the conclusion that Gregor is spying on them for Dorca. Gregor remembers Count Vorkosigan; there's no way Vorkosigan looked at him and thought, "that must be the Emperor from the future." His secret is safe. His secret is safe. His secret is safe. And he's going to keep telling himself that until he stops constantly looking over his shoulder, wondering what Vorkosigan knows.
But after that, Vorkosigan starts treating him like a proper Vorbarra, which means Vorkosigan starts trusting him to lead patrols on his own. In this age, to be Vor is to be an officer, and while they may not be good at it, they're all expected to do it. Vorkosigan was a general at twenty-two and that wasn't all nepotism. This was the war that cleaned out the old relics and meant Dorca could create one army out of the Counts's assorted troops. You either died or you rose, and if you were loyal enough, you rose quickly. Vorkosigan was sent to Yuri as his military apprentice at age fifteen and became a general seven years later. Ezar's path is slower, but Ezar, for all that he's the Vorbarra here to keep this part of the Imperial army from becoming Count Vorkosigan's personal army again, is trusted much less. But even there, Gregor knows Ezar will be a general by age thirty.
Gregor's surrounded by war heroes and strategic geniuses and, above all else, men who have breathed nothing but this war since it began. Gregor's military experience was one year under overwhelming overprotection, but he's still the Emperor and he's still spent his entire life watching Aral Vorkosigan at work. Gregor figures it out.
He holds back on offering strategy, because he can't remember when they knew what about the Cetagandan capabilities, and what if the war ends too soon? Gregor can easily think of fifty things that might not have happened if the war ended too quickly, but how can he face Vorkosigan and Ezar and hold back? Ezar knows that Gregor knows more about the Cetagandans than he's saying and, while he doesn't confront him, the looks he gives Gregor in the war council are becoming suspicious in their own right.
Eventually, Ezar turns to him and says, "Captain Vorbarra, do you have anything to add?"
And Gregor can't bring himself to say no.
He tells himself it's the small things. He tells himself it's the difference between that village living and dying. He tells himself he can't play god and decide that his ideals are more important than people's lives. He isn't the Emperor here. It's not his responsibility to decide who lives and who dies.
Vorkosigan doesn't ask how he knows any of it, but Vorkosigan doesn't need to, does he, because Vorkosigan has already decided that Gregor is one of Dorca's faction spies, that he's a Vorbarra born on the wrong side of the family tree who is willing to do anything to get himself better positioned, even sell out his own close relatives. Vorkosigan already has Ezar and trusts him, so what's one more. Vorkosigan thinks Gregor knows about the Cetagandans because he spent the first part of the war pretending to be a traitor to their invaders. Vorkosigan thinks he's only here because he was burned and is now useless as an intelligence agent.
Vorkosigan thinks he's a former double agent and doesn't trust him, and Gregor can breathe easy.
And then Vorkosigan Vashnoi is destroyed.
Ezar jumps him, not caring who sees, and has to be pulled off him, but then Prince Yuri arrives, his face grim, to haul Gregor before Emperor Dorca.
"You knew," Dorca says.
"I'd hoped I could prevent it," Gregor admits. He should be ashamed, but he's been in this war for too long now. He still remembers home, but it's distant, and he's stopped thinking he'll ever be able to go back. The Cetagandans brought him here, but they don't seem to have realized that they did. If anything had ever come of Dorca's investigation into what the Cetagandans had been trying to do when Gregor had arrived in Dorca's bedroom, Gregor's never been told.
Dorca is looking at him like he's a trigger-pull away from cutting Gregor open and seeing what falls out. "Gregor Vorbarra," Dorca intones, "what else are you trying to prevent?"
Gregor is as surprised as anyone when Dorca lets him go back to Vorkosigan's militia.
This time, he'd told Dorca more. Told him that he won't survive to see the end of the war, that he is the casualty of a Cetagandan poison and he dies in his bed. Told Dorca that both his sons survive the war, but not what comes next. Didn't say what comes next, but let Dorca think about it, let it bother Dorca that what comes next might be worse than this.
The unknowns are always worse. They could be anything.
And then Gregor'd told him he's trying to prevent himself from being born, and Dorca had threatened him with a sword again and lectured him about paradoxes. Gregor had started laughing and Gregor buys his life again with that, he thinks.
It had helped that Gregor could tell him truthfully that Vorkosigan Vashnoi was the worst of it, the harshest single blow. It helped that Dorca, underneath it all, overwhelmingly did not want to know what would happen. Because Gregor couldn't prevent Vorkosigan Vashnoi, but he'd prevented other, smaller tragedies, and Dorca had enough people second-guessing his every decision. No Emperor wants a soothsayer around, especially not one actively working to prevent the future.
"Ezar says you knew," Vorkosigan says when Gregor reports and Gregor can't look at him, can only flinch from his tone. Dead, lifeless, rage. "Won't say how."
"I'm sorry, General," Gregor says. "I'm not allowed to speak of it."
"Spies," Vorkosigan growls. "Get out of my sight."
Late at night, Gregor stares into the darkness and thinks about killing Yuri.
Vorkosigan and Xav still don't get along, will never get along. But maybe Xav could be convinced to use his daughter as a way to keep Vorkosigan under control; for all Gregor knows, that's how it happened the first time around. And Vorkosigan is loyal enough. It took the death of his family for him to turn on Yuri, and that was after two years of Yuri's paranoia starting to destroy him.
Or maybe Yuri had been right, maybe there had been new usurpation conspiracy, maybe his family really was about to turn on him. But Yuri went mad. It may have been a pretense, an excuse, but he gave it to them. If there's one thing Gregor knows about his family, it's that if you show weakness, you're going to get stabbed. To get stabbed in the front is a kindness; don't expect it.
Killing Yuri would save the Imperium from Yuri's madness and Yuri's war. Gregor tries to convince himself that he knows enough about what did happen to be able to extrapolate what might happen. But he can't know what will happen if Prince Xav succeeds Dorca. He only knows what did happen when Yuri did.
He isn't the Emperor here, it's not his responsibility to make decisions about succession. But he knows more than the Emperor does. Wonders what would happen if he told Dorca, "the Crown Prince will go mad and massacre everyone." But Dorca's Unification was nothing more than Dorca deciding who was a traitor and so had to die. Dorca might understand only too well. Dorca might even approve. Dorca might call it prudence rather than madness. They're Vorbarras, after all. If they knew how to do anything but struggle to survive at all costs, they wouldn't dare show their faces in public.
And then Gregor wonders, what if he told Xav.
Gregor assumed Vorkosigan would kick him out, or try to trade him to another militia for a broken knife and maggoty rations, but instead, Vorkosigan starts keeping him close. Too close.
"I want to know everything you know," Vorkosigan says.
"The Emperor doesn't know everything I know," Gregor snaps back, and Vorkosigan smiles.
He does end up telling Vorkosigan more than he told Dorca, but it's all strategic, nothing personal. Gregor doesn't tell Vorkosigan who he is or how he knows. Vorkosigan starts to assume Gregor is part of Xav's underground, that Gregor hears everything before it finds its way even into rumor. It's convenient. Much too convenient.
Because one day, Vorkosigan grabs him by the arm and asks him, "you're not descended from me, are you?", looking quite sick at the thought, and Gregor starts laughing. He's doing that too much when confronted, he knows, and he has to stop.
It's hard to stop. It makes the tragedy easier to swallow. He's never going home, he's stuck in a war that was over a century before he was born, and he simultaneously knows too much and too little.
And what if he does go home? He's been gone too long, survived too long in this war. He wouldn't know his Imperium when he saw it, and it wouldn't know him.
"How?" Gregor asks, because he's going to die here, he knows that, and there's no point in lying to Vorkosigan. Not to a man who propped up Ezar Vorbarra throughout his reign and never took it from him, the man who finished off Yuri with a rusty knife, the man who taught Gregor to hunt.
Vorkosigan huffs, offended. "Either you spent your childhood working at a Cetagandan shipyards, and you're much too old to have done that, or you're a mutant who can read minds, which I would have noticed by now, or you come from a time when none of this is a secret. It's obvious. Don't insult me."
Gregor has to shrug at that. "Would you rather I not have said anything?"
"Of course not," Vorkosigan says. "Don't be an idiot. It doesn't suit a Vorbarra."
Dorca is killed by a Cetagandan bio-weapon and Gregor hesitates, but then whispers to Xav, "do you think Yuri could make himself be a little less happy?"
Xav snorts in amusement and Gregor feels sick, wondering what the hell he thinks he's doing. Changing things, that he knows. He can only hope it's changing things for the better.
Gregor meets Captain Negri when Vorkosigan sends him to Ezar's new militia. Negri is sitting at Ezar's side and Gregor has to work hard to contain himself. Negri died almost on top of him, raced his own death to get Gregor to safety, and Gregor thinks, oh, Captain, there you are. He wants to hug him and thank him. He wants to tell him Princess Kareen didn't survive.
He wants to tell him that he's pretty sure, this time around, Negri won't die to save Gregor's life. He's pretty sure that, this time around, Gregor's never going to be born.
Instead, he delivers the correspondence to Ezar and then goes to haggle with the quartermaster.
He doesn't like to think of home. He's never understood time travel theory, any of it. He doesn't know if home knows he's gone, or if it's all in some kind of suspended animation, waiting for him. If he could blink back to his world, would it be the same, or have they already had to decide how to go on without him? Is time parallel or in sequence or just a thought experiment? Can you measure time without anything to measure it with?
If it's just waiting, will there be a moment when it snaps, when it realizes he's never coming back? Does it diverge like a stream, one universe where he comes back, another where he doesn't and Barrayar has go on without him? He should ache for what he's done to Miles, because Aral will take the Imperium to save it, and Miles will have it after him, and Miles will be eaten by the capital. Miles doesn't know how to not court trouble. It's going to be a nightmare.
But it won't be one Gregor is there to see, and it's not on him to prevent it. He's been the Emperor since he was four, but he's not anymore. He's not the Emperor here, and he's learned which choices aren't his to make. He holds the future in his hands and he deliberately threw it away.
Maybe there's no Imperium for Miles to inherit.
Or maybe there's no Miles to inherit it.
Gregor wonders where he came from, where he came to. Somewhere, he wonders, is there a Gregor Vorbarra waking up in a world he created, a world where Xav or Yuri holds power, and Gregor's nothing but a minor Vorbarra? Is it him or just someone with his face? Who is Gregor Vorbarra without Prince Serg dying, without Princess Kareen dying, without Captain Negri dying, without Aral as Regent, without Illyan and his memory chip, without everything that formed him from childhood, without everything that formed his world?
If Yuri doesn't kill his family, if Ezar doesn't become Emperor, if a hundred changed years snap a completely different world into place, would Gregor even recognize it? He could meet his other self, the man who looks like him but is not him, and not recognize himself in that mirror.
He never gets home.