Actions

Work Header

Pray that You Never Need to Choose

Work Text:

The Kangxi Emperor, ruler of China and various other parts of Asia in the 17th century, and Emperor Gregor Vorbarra, ruler of three planets in the far future, were inexplicably drinking tea together.

"I was really, really young when I became emperor," Kangxi declared.

"How old?" Gregor asked.

"I was six years old. What about you?"

"I became emperor when I was four years old."

Kangxi blinked. "You got me there."

They continued to drink tea.

"My father sucked," Gregor said.

"Yeah, my father sucks too," Kangxi said.

"I suppose that is ... wait a minute, you used the present tense, not the past tense. Surely your father isn't still alive."

"Technically, I am speaking in Chinese, and Chinese does not have a present or past tense. However, it is true that my father is still alive."

Gregor's eyebrows shot up. "Was your father emperor before you?"

"Yes."

"Then how exactly did you become emperor - when you were six years old?"

"My father was so sad that his favorite concubine died that he left the palace and disappeared," Kangxi replied.

"Where is he now?"

"He's now a Buddhist monk at a remote monastery, and he has cut himself off from all attachments to the secular world. Including his relationship with me."

"Wow," Gregor said. "My father was terrible, but at least he did not intentionally abandon the throne and turn me into a child emperor just because his heart was broken over a woman who was not even my mother, nor did he disown me."

"What was so terrible about your father?" Kangxi asked.

"My father," Gregor said darkly, "was a sadist."

"And?"

"He was a sadist!"

"So what?" Kangxi responded. "My sister is a sado-masochist, and I love her."

"Please don't tell me that she has a fetish for pregnant women."

"As far as I know, that is not one of her fetishes. Yet she did get pregnant herself during BDSM play - even though castration is one of her fetishes."

"I do not want to know anything more about your sister," Gregor said. "What about your mother?"

"She died when I was eight years old," Kangxi replied.

"I'm sorry to hear that. My mother died when I was five years old."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Kangxi said. "Did she die under suspicious circumstances?"

"No, she was obviously killed by one of the guards of the pretender who had kidnapped her and been holding her hostage for months."

"Wow," Kangxi said. "My condolences. My mother was held captive too, but at least she survived. Do you at least have another mother?"

"Yes!" Gregor said. "She is the wife of the man who was my regent. She came from another planet, so she, ah, taught me to see the universe from a different perspective. For example, I have different views on the position of women that I might have had otherwise."

"And what about your regent? Did he ever try to usurp the throne."

"Nope," Gregor said. "Even though some say he has a better claim to the camp stool than I do, he willingly handed over power when I came to my majority. There was a time when I thought he was going to wrongfully take power for himself, but I was wrong."

Kangxi's eyebrows shot up. "Wow."

"I'm guessing that you did not have such a good experience with your regent," Gregor said.

"Let's see, I had four co-regents originally, but one of them was a cruel and power-hungry aristocrat who had one of the other co-regents killed and gained complete control over the other two. He definitely was planning to usurp the throne, and he would have too, except I threw him into prison."

"How old were you?" Gregor asked.

"Fourteen," Kangxi replied.

Gregor whistled. "Did you have another regent after that?"

"Invite someone else to steal my power?" Kangxi asked rhetorically. "Hell no."

"What did your father do about all this?"

"Nothing."

"So you have been personally ruling the Manchu empire, which is inhabited by hundreds of millions of people, since you were fourteen," Gregor confirmed.

"Pretty much," Kangxi responded.

"And I thought that coming into my majority at the age of twenty was early," Gregor said. "Do you have another mother?"

"Of course," Kangxi said. "The Dowager Empress practically is my mother. When I said that my mother had been held captive, I was talking about her, not my birth mother. My friend Xiaobao rescued her, you know. For that alone, he earned a great deal of gratitude. Did you have a childhood friend rescue your foster mother too?"

"No," Gregor said. "Actually, it was my foster mother who rescued my childhood friend. Because he is her biological son."

"Oh," Kangxi said.

"His name is Miles," Gregor said. "My playmates, well aside from Droushie, were Miles, Ivan, and Elena, who are all a few years younger than me. That mattered a lot when we were little."

"I did not have many playmates either as a child," Kangxi said. "But I got to play with Xiaobao. He was the only one who would fight with me, you know?"

"Oh?" Gregor said.

"Well, I was the emperor, hardly anyone dared scratch a hair on my head. Except Xiaobao, but he is terrible at hand-to-hand combat, so it was safe to beat him up."

"What!" Gregor exclaimed.

"Between being abandoned by my father, my birth mother dying, my other mother being held captive, being under the care of a vile regent, and none of the boys wanting to play with me, I had some emotional problems as a kid," Kangxi explained. "Anyway, Xiaobao would play with me because he didn't know I was the emperor."

Gregor raised his eyebrows. "How exactly could he have gotten close enough to you that you became playmates without finding out that you are the EMPEROR OF CHINA?"

"Technically, I am the emperor of the Manchu Empire, which includes China," Kangxi said. "It's a long story, and you wouldn't believe it anyway."

"Would you believe it if I told you that, while on vacation, Miles managed to become the admiral of a mercenary fleet?" Gregor asked.

"Yes," Kangxi said.

"What if I told you that some Komarran terrorist - Komarr is a territory which was conquered during my grandfather's reign - had made a clone of Miles, raised him, and trained him to be an assassin, all so he could get close to Miles' father and myself, kill us, and try to usurp the throne while Komarr broke free."

"I don't believe that," Kangxi said "because cloning humans is impossible."

"It is possible in my time," Gregor said.

"Oh," Kangxi said. "Then that story makes complete sense."

"Really?"

"Is this terrorist a Komarran prince or princess?"

"First, he's obviously not a princess because I used the pronoun 'he'" Gregor said.

"Remember, I'm thinking in Chinese, and spoken Chinese does not have separate male and female pronouns," Kangxi said. "I'm not going to catch the gender of the pronouns you use."

"Ah," Gregor said. "Well, he was one of the highest ranking oligarchs, so he was the closest thing Komarr had to a prince."

"And I am guessing that Miles' father was the general who was responsible for the invasion of Komarr being a success," Kangxi said.

"Actually, he was an admiral, but you are otherwise correct," Gregor said. "How did you know?"

"Because, aside from the cloning thing, this is just like something which happened in my empire," Kangxi said.

Gregor raised his eyebrow. "Without cloning, how did your, ah..."

"Han Chinese princess."

"How did you Han Chinese princess do this?"

"She kidnapped the baby born to the woman the general was totally in love with, and raised that girl to become a killer so that the general would be assassinated by a woman who looked exactly like his one true love. No cloning was necessary."

"I suppose I should not be surprised that this type of plot is older than wormhole jump technology," Gregor remarked. "Around the time that your Manchu people invaded China, did some associate of that general insult his personal honor, provoking that general to initiate a violent confrontation of some sort?"

"How did you know?" Kangxi asked.

"Oh, I am merely did what you did, thinking of your invasion of China being just like our invasion of Komarr, and guessing that the same things happened," Gregor said. "I suppose the Han Chinese never tried to collapse any wormholes between China and Manchuria."

"The Han Chinese did build a great wall," Kangxi noted. "It did not work."

"Trying to collapse the wormhole did not work for the Kommarrans either."

They drank some more tea.

"But seriously, Xiaobao did not know you were literally the emperor."

"Well, he found out eventually."

"That is wonderful! I wish I had a childhood friend who didn't know that I was the emperor of Barrayar. Though to their credit, Miles, Ivan, and Elena tend to treat me as their friend first and only as emperor second, unless we're doing something official."

"Yeah, it was cool," Kangxi said.

"I tried something like that when I was older," Gregor said. "I ran off to see what it was like to not be an emperor."

"Sweet," Kangxi said.

"No, it was wrong and irresponsible!" Gregor replied.

"Somehow, I think your empire was able to survive you having a vacation," Kangxi said. "I take vacations too. I sometimes even travel incognito, when I am trying to..." He stopped speaking as his face took on a much more serious look.

"Is something wrong?" Gregor asked.

"Never mind," Kangxi said. "You were telling me about taking vacations."

"Well - I did not exactly tell my security people that I slipped away," Gregor admitted.

"Okay, that was a bit of a mistake," Kangxi said.

"Well, they would not have let me leave if I had told them," Gregor said. "Imperial Security and my Prime Minister, who had been my regent, felt like two parentheses which limited my rule."

"I thought you said that your regent was not a usurper?"

"Well, it was not that he tried to usurp. It was just that he did such a good job that it took me a long time to get used to using my own power," Gregor said. "I had heard that there was an emperor of China who ended up pushing a broom somewhere."

"Probably," Kangxi said. "Emperors of China have done much weirder stuff than that."

They drank so more tea.

"Where is the long, extended commentary on what kind of tea we are drinking, the history of the people who drank tea, and the significance of this tea?" Kangxi asked.

"What?" Gregor said.

"It's just that we have been drinking tea for so long without a narrator going off on some detailed tangent about culture and history. Heck, it has not even been stated what kind of tea we are drinking."

"I admit, I am waiting for a narrator to talk about the social impact of new ideas and technology myself," Gregor commented.

"Where do you think we are now?" Kangxi asked.

"I suspect we are in a crossover fanfic, and the fic writer does not have the slightest interest in justifying how we are in the same place and time, or why we understand each other in spite of speaking different languages." Gregor sighed. "I suspect the fic writer does not even care about historical accuracy or whether we stay in character."

"Does that mean I can start acting like a quiet and reserved introvert, and you can start acting like a loud and brash extrovert?" Kangxi asked.

"I think it would be wise not to go too deep into meta," Gregor said. "I prefer to preserve my sanity."

"All right," Kangxi said. "So, tell me more about your friend Miles."

"Miles is also not a means to preserve my sanity."

"He must be an interesting guy."

"He's clever and knows how to manipulate other people into doing what he wants."

"That sounds just like Xiaobao," Kangxi said.

"Well, I believe that if we were to pit my Miles against your Xiaobao in a game of wits, Miles would win," Gregor stated.

"No, he wouldn't," Kangxi said. "Xiaobao would cheat."

"Miles would notice that Xiaobao was cheating, and counter him."

"Does Miles have a sense of honor?"

"Yes, very much so."

"Xiaobao does not, so he would exploit Miles' sense of honor."

"Miles would get back at him."

"Xiaobao would run away."

"Miles would chase him."

"Xiaobao would go into hiding."

"Miles would find him."

Kangxi stopped talking, and sat there, sipping tea. Gregor did not know what he said which made Kangxi react like that. It was particularly eerie because, by now, Gregor had figured out that it was not in Kangxi's nature to be quiet or reserved.

Gregor decided to start up the conversation again. "Miles has a physical disability. It's in his bones."

"Xiaobao is illiterate, and doesn't bother to learn real martial arts."

"Miles thinks he's a hero."

"Xiaobao thinks he's an anti-hero."

"Miles is hyper."

"Xiaobao is lazy."

"Then I guess he is not traipsing around the galaxy fixing problems and creating even more of them."

"No," Kangxi said. "He traipses around the countryside avoiding problems and creating even more of them."

Gregor snorted. "Miles also managed to gather up a harem during his adventures."

"What a coincidence," Kangxi said. "Xiaobao also managed to gather up a harem."

"Miles got a harem full of violent warrior women who are way better at combat than he is," Gregor said.

"You're kidding!" Kangxi said. "The women in Xiaobao's harem are like that too!"

"Well, I bet that your Xiaobao never went to a foreign empire which had a history of invading your empire, and then fell in love with the woman who then became their empress."

"Not quite," Kangxi said.

Gregor rolled his eyes. "Just tell me what happened."

"Well ... Xiaobao did go to Russia and had an affair with their regent."

"Xiaobao is bisexual?" Gregor said. "Oh no, you're probably talking about Princess Sophia."

"Yes - you've heard of her?"

"A traditional Vor education includes studying the history of the Romanov dynasty of Tsarist Russia," Gregor said. "If I recall correctly, Princess Sophia was the regent of Peter the Great before he reached his majority."

"Peter the Great?" Kangxi said incredulously. "More like Peter the Wimp!"

"He's just a kid in your time," Gregor said. "You of all people ought to know that a child emperor can turn into an formidable force."

"Touché," Kangxi said. "Xiaobao was actually the one who told Sophia that she could become a regent and rule Russia, even as a woman."

"She did not come up with that idea herself?" Gregor asked.

"No - she's European. Europe is an exotic and benighted continent where they force women to give up their own names and take their husbands'. She needed a Chinese dude to tell her that women can hold power in their own right, because she never could have broken through her sexist cultural conditioning on her own."

"Isn't it a little sexist to say that women cannot break through their cultural conditioning without a man's help?" Gregor said.

"Not when it gives me a chance to bash European culture," Kangxi said. "And it is a fact that, whenever Europeans visit China, they are so amazed at how awesome we are that that is all they can talk about. And when European princesses meet Chinese men, they are willing to throw an awful lot away in order to be with a Chinese man, because they realize that Chinese men are so much better than European men."

"I am not European," Gregor said, "but I admit that I feel a little bit of affinity with Tsarist Russia, and I am a little sensitive to claims that they needed a foreigner to come in and tell them how to fix their backward culture."

"But isn't that what happened to Barrayar?" Kangxi asked. "You had this foreigner come in and marry your regent, and according to you, she was also your surrogate mother. She taught your regent and yourself how to fix up your degenerate culture, did she not? If she had not been the Anna to your King of Siam, would the women of Barrayar have empowered themselves?"

Gregor pinched his lips tightly as he sipped more tea. "At least," he said "it was a case of a woman schooling men, rather than a man schooling a woman."

"Yeah, but it just goes to show that Russian speaking women can't resist their own culture's sexism if a foreigner doesn't come along to hold their hands," Kangxi said.

"I understand that your current relationship with the Russians is not much better than our current relationship with the Cetagandans, but please stop being so - so-"

"So 'orientalist'?" Kangxi asked. "Those Europeans dump this 'orientalism' thing on us Asians all the time, so I cheerfully throw this 'orientalism' thing back at them. Besides, as a main character from a controversial satirical novel, I get to make pointed and offensive remarks."

"I'm not an expert on Old Earth history," Gregor said, "but it was my understanding that it was mainly western Europeans who engaged in orientalism, and they threw as much of it at the Russians as they did at Asians."

"So the Russians get 'orientalism' thrown at they by both the western Europeans and Asians like us," Kangxi said. "Their tsar really should be called Peter the Wimp."

"Let's just drop the subject," Gregor said.

They drank tea in silence for a few minutes.

"I just married a Komarran and made her my empress," Gregor said. "I intend to have all of my sons with her. I hope that having a half-Komarran crown prince will help calm down the Komarrans and make them feel like part of the Imperium, rather than look at us as foreign overlords."

"It's not going to work," Kangxi said.

"How do you know?" Gregor asked.

"The Han Chinese emperors really sucked," Kangxi said. "They sucked so bad that, even though they ruled the richest and most powerful country in the world, they couldn't stop a bunch of warlike nomads from successfully invading them."

"The 'warlike nomads' you are referring to are your Manchu people and your Mongol allies?"

"Yes, if we hadn't conquered China, someone else - the Uyghurs, the Russians, the Cossacks, maybe even the Tibetans - would have conquered China instead."

"And I suspect that, had we not conquered Komarr, someone else would have. Hmmm, I suppose the Han Chinese people's feelings about your Manchu people is much like the Komarrans' feelings about us Barrayarans." Gregor spoke in sotto voce "And while I will never say this in public, yes, I think the fact that the Komarrans were not able to repel our invasion is evidence that their government was ... lacking."

"The thing is, I do not suck as an emperor," Kangxi said. "I try to rule in a way which benefits the common people. I root out corruption to the best of my ability - my government is certainly much less corrupt than those of the last set of Han Chinese emperors. I try to make sure that essential infrastructure is built and maintained. And I was able to stop those Russians from invading."

"With Xiaobao's help."

"Yes, with Xiaobao's help. It's amazing, he can't read, yet he was able to learn Russian and lead a successful campaign against the Russians."

"I do not know Chinese history nearly as well as Russian history, but I have read that you are one of the best emperors China ever had."

"Thank you. So, given that I am a more competent ruler than their recent Han Chinese emperors, you would expect that the people would want me to stay in power. But noooo, they would rather have a terrible Han Chinese emperor, as long as he was Han Chinese and not a Manchu like me. That is why there are all these secret societies trying to eliminate me."

"But what does that have to do with me making a Komarran woman my empress? Wouldn't having a Han Chinese woman be the mother of your crown prince make your subjects more willing to accept your rule?"

"You don't understand," Kangxi said. "We've already tried that. My own birth mother was Han Chinese. I have as much Han Chinese as Manchu blood flowing in my veins. Yet there are still a lot of secret societies trying to assassinate me simply because I am not Han Chinese enough to satisfy them."

"That is ... disappointing," Gregor said. "I hope that it will work out better for my son and heir than it did for you, but ... it might not. At least my children will not be inbred."

"Why would your children be inbred?" Kangxi asked.

"My family - and the Barrayaran High Vor in general - tend to marry our cousins for multiple generations. I do not even want to think about how many times Vorbarras have married Vorrutyers."

"Ah yes, the Dowager Empress is also my father's cousin - he had to keep marrying women from Genghis Khan's clan, just like his forefathers, to maintain the Manchu alliance with the Mongols. But how does that lead to inbreeding?"

Gregor thought the answer was obvious. "Because when you keep having children with your cousins, your children become inbred."

"Hey, my father only married his cousins, he didn't have children with them."

"If he didn't have children with his wives, then how did he have children?"

Kangxi thought the answer was obvious. "Concubines. My birth mother, for example."

"Oh. We Barrayarans don't have concubines."

"Why not?"

"Because it is not a part of our traditions."

"Then how do you ensure you will have a son who is strong enough to rule?"

"With our current reproductive technologies, I think I can manage to have a healthy and capable son without a harem of women," Gregor said.

The teapot was empty, so they brewed a new batch of tea.

"It's annoying that Miles keeps on committing treason," Gregor complained.

"I know - Xiaobao has committed a lot of treason himself."

"We once sent Miles to a remote island for a few months in order to teach him some discipline."

"I sent Xiaobao to a remote island too!" Kangxi sighed. "It did not work. He was just as inclined to commit treason after he was on the island as he was before. At least he did not commit treason while he was on the island."

"Oh, Miles did commit treason while he was on the island."

"That is impressive," Kangxi said.

"Miles is an overachiever," Gregor remarked. "Not that I doubt Miles' personal loyalty to me. I am sure that, in the presence of an assassin, he would not hesitate to shield me with his own body."

"I know that Xiaobao would shield me with his own body against an assassin's blow," Kangxi said. "Because he literally has. I thought he was going to die."

Gregor had no words.

"So are you still friends with Miles?" Kangxi asked.

"Of course! He's my best friend! He was my best man at my wedding," Gregor said.

"Even though he keeps committing treason?" Kangxi asked.

"Well, usually it was only technical treason, not treasonous treason," Gregor said. "I almost had him executed one time, and that freaked me out. I gave him another chance, and I'm glad I did."

"Even though he later committed treason again?" Kangxi asked.

"Well, I gave him another chance after that," Gregor said.

"What are you doing to prevent his treasonous activities?" Kangxi asked.

"I made him an Imperial Auditor," Gregor said. "I'm sure you have given your Xiaobao important positions because of all he has done for you."

"Yes, I made Xiaobao the Duke of Mount Deer. What is an Imperial Auditor?"

"Because Miles is now an imperial auditor, he now has most of the same powers I do, unless I specifically order him to do or not do something," Gregor explained.

"I do not understand how this limits his ability to commit treason."

"If he has the legal authority to do something, it's not really treason," Gregor said. "Going with the flow is much easier than trying to stop him."

"What if you discovered that he was supporting your enemies?" Kangxi asked.

"I ... do not think he is doing that," Gregor said.

"What did he do to give you the confidence to give him all this power?"

"Miles had committed treason - again - but in the light of his earlier service he had only been medically discharged," Gregor said. "Then he caught a major conspiracy launched by - oh, let's just say he was a high official in my government - so that is why I appointed him as an imperial auditor."

"What if there had not been a high government official who had conveniently launched a conspiracy around the time Miles needed to get back into your good graces?" Kangxi asked.

"I don't know," Gregor said. "Miles still would have been medically discharged ... he was really volatile at that time. I suppose it is possible that he would have forced me into a position where I would have had to choose between our friendship and doing what I feel I must as emperor."

"Yet you have managed to avoid making such a choice so far?" Kangxi asked.

"There were close calls, such as that time when I was listening to Count Vordrozda, but yes, I have never been required to choose between my friendship with Miles and my duty as emperor."

Kangxi slammed his fist on the table. It caused his tea cup to turn over and spill.

"If Xiaobao had not done so much - save my life, save my mother, help me overthrow my co-regent, save my empire from foreign assault - I would have executed him a long time ago," Kangxi said. "Yet he had done all those things for me, for my empire. So I gave him a second chance, and then a third chance, and then..."

Kangxi shook his head and stood up. "Pray that you never need to choose for real between your friendship with Miles and doing what you feel you must do as emperor."

He stormed away, leaving Gregor alone at the table.

Gregor did not know what kind of treason Xiaobao had committed, what Kangxi had done about it, or what had happened to Xiaobao. Yet it was clear that Kangxi had lost his dearest friend.