The Ariel's shuttle accelerated. Gregor curled back in his seat, trying to avoid the attention of his omnipresent ImpSec guard. They looked as though they expected him to sublime into thin air at any minute, and Ungari was still muttering about smart-assed mutinous mutants when he thought Gregor couldn't hear.
The tactical VDU was currently displaying a pretty rotating mock-up of the Prince Serg on the shuttle's approach readouts. Now there was irony-who had chosen the name? Gregor clearly remembered looking-well, drooling-at the technical specs with Count Aral, and Cordelia had made some pithy remark about men and warships, but he couldn't remember ever approving the name. Not that it mattered to anyone but him; an unlucky ship could be made so by her name, but it had to be widely perceived as unlucky.
The comm unit crackled to life. "Shuttle, there. What shuttle's that?"
The crew of the Prince Serg already knew exactly what the shuttle was-its IFF beacon was broadcasting its pennant number in all directions, and Ungari had informed them they were coming, no taking chances here-but what the verbal challenge really meant was "Do you have aboard an officer we will have to receive with ceremony?"
The ImpSec sergeant beside the pilot returned, "Fleet," in the hushed tone reserved for death and Emperors. Ceremony, boys. This is the big one. Gregor sighed, adjusting back from a scruffy crew of mercenaries who addressed their commander as "Yo, Admiral."
His arrival on board the Serg was positively casual by Barrayaran standardsany ship under Aral Vorkosigan's command wasn't going to waste time on useless pompbut the ship's ImpSec contingent met him in the hangar and double-filed after him up to the bridge, all shiny boots and sharp salutes and general spectacular over-enthusiasm. Did they think he was going to jump out of a window here?
They passed a team of techs working at some conduits behind the bulkhead panelling, who dropped their tools and came to attention as Gregor approached. Repairs already? No, this was building work on the run. I hope the guns are finished. The techs ripped off textbook salutes, then realised that Gregor wasn't in uniform, and looked embarrassed. He acknowledged, feeling a certain wistfulness for the brief time when all he'd only had to worry about light fittings, and not an imminent Cetagandan war.
The bridge. Gregor swallowed, aware of the disadvantage inherent in the fact that his Prime Minister and greatest military strategist was also the man who had brought him up. So far he'd managed to avoid real-time contact with his Admiral, apart from a brief vid call which had included various Hub military. This was the first opportunity for explanations. I screwed up, Uncle Aral. Bad.
Tac room. He managed to get his entourage to stay outside, but they made so much noise the whole crew could probably hear them. The door was so new that it still had its protective layer of plastic.
Count Aral was standing over a console with a junior officer, whom he dismissed before turning and saying formally, "Sire." He wore his dress greens as unconsciously as a second skin, but, more than any overt comment, this renewed Gregor's uncomfortable awareness of the Dendarii greys he still wore.
"Admiral Vorkosigan." Yes, in this context, most surely the correct title. Sharp grey eyes scanned Gregor from top to toe.
"You all right, boy?"
Gregor nodded. The Count stepped forward and gave him a swift, hard hug. Even after eight years or so, it still seemed wrong to Gregor that he was the taller.
"You may count yourself lucky you're too big now to be given a good shaking," Aral said, but there was water in his eyes.
Gregor squirmed inwardly. "I was drunk. It seemed like a good idea at the time." He paused, feeling again the stirrings of anger at being lied to. "There was a reason: no Emperor might be better for Barrayar than the wrong one."
The Count paled slightly, his mouth tightening. Hah. He knows why, Gregor thought, and then with a pang of contrition, He looks old.
"I'm sorry," he added. "I expect I'll be saying that a lot from now on."
"Mmm. Simon's just about eaten his fingernails to the shoulder now, I should think. He's had Alys weeping in his office, and Drou threatening to have his head if ImpSec didn't turn you up. Or the perpetrator's." He grimaced. "With Cordelia and Drou, you know they're capable of that. Vide Vordarian."
Gregor shifted his weight to his right leg. By the sound of this, his formidable collection of honorary aunts would be out for his blood when they heard the true story. It was going to be a scaled-up version of that time with the tank.
The uncomfortable silence seemed likely to last, so Gregor fell back on essentials.
"Did you get the Vervani's latest news from the hot side, sir? The spirit was willing, but the competence was...um."
Aral opened a hand in the direction of the tac display. The conversation still seemed to be up to Gregor.
"I brought some people. Aslunders. They were asking to be impressed, so..." Gregor waved a hand at the universal shininess of the Prince Serg. "They're getting on great with the Vervani, now, but they're a bit iffy about going into battle led by Barrayarans-their fleet's in transit across the Hub, by the way. They started out chasing Miles, but were left behind by events. By the time it gets here, I hope the Aslunders will be persuaded. The Vervani, on the other hand, will sell their souls to anyone who'll get the Cetas off their necks."
Count Aral looked surprised and-it was-impressed, yes! "Are we there, then? How did you manage to get co-operation so fast?"
"Variations on the theme of 'rescue' and 'Cetagandans'." Gregor's mouth curled uncontrollably upwards. "And careful avoidance of any mention of Komarr or Escobar." Not that he felt much like discussing Escobar himself at the minute, either.
Aral gave him an answering glint of grim amusement. "And all in that grey rig, too."
"This," Gregor swept a hand along the seam of his trousers, "is now the uniform of an official Barrayaran force. Not that they know it."
"There's a set of your dress greens in my cabin," Aral informed him dryly. "I suggest you wear them when the Polians arrive. Their navy's out in force behind us. I doubt they left much in their own system."
"Good. Mmm. This isn't a Barrayaran invasion, it's a defence by interested parties against an unprovoked attack. The Hegen, uh-"
"Alliance, I think. What about Miles's lot, how long are they going to be able to hold out?"
A muscle jumped in the Counts jaw, the only visible sign of the tension between the father and the Admiral. The underlying sick fear that had been driving Gregor since he had heard about the Cetagandans sharpened. A dozen horrible things could have happened to Miles and Elena by this time. If the Cetas came piling through the wormhole, now...
Perhaps he had Miles's and Elena's blood on his hands already. You will undoubtedly have someone's, before this ends. It's not any less your responsibility because you don't know whose yet. He took a breath, trying for some of Count Aral's control.
"He seems able to manage the Dendarii. The Vervani are trying to protect the planet and the Hub wormhole, so they're pretty stretched. The Rangersthe rival mercsthey might go for a stab in the back, but they'd have trouble finding it for long enough to get the knife in. That's why we'reMiles is using them as a shield. The lot of them, I'd sayone pass, two at most, is all that they can take. Though that depends on what the Vervani decide to do, of course."
He realised that he was starting to babble, Miles-fashion. Admiral Vorkosigan didn't need to be told basic facts about wormhole strategy. He added, watching the bleak look on Aral's face, "Sorry. I wanted to go with Miles, but he wouldn't have me."
"Quite right of him. At least I have one of you safe."
The flat grey feeling of being overprotected settled over Gregor again. He could feel the constraints that had held him down all his life tightening, enclosing him as effectively as battle armour. Escaping them had been a bad idea, and lessening them seemed impossible.
Count Aral moved aside to look at something blinking on a screen beside him. "The Polians should be rendezvousing in three hours. I take it that's the Aslunders out there. If we can all get sorted out..." His face became abstracted, calculating. "You should stand off in the Hub after we jump, just in case. That Illyrican cruiser that Miles borrowed-"
"Oh, no," Gregor said. He had been half-expecting this, but he still felt a swoop of disappointment in his stomach. "Not left behind again. There isn't even anything useful I can do this time."
Count Aral looked up, frowning. "What, were you planning to jump with us? Into the middle of a wormhole slugging match?"
"Real Vor rulers should be military commanders. What honour is there in leading from the rear?" And my honour is already in pieces.
The Count abandoned the tac display, his mouth turned down, apprehensive. "Gregor, see sense! Your death at this point would be disastrous."
"This tac room will be the safest place in the system," Gregor argued. "Nothing that has the Serg's legs will be able to touch her, weapon-wise."
In another minute he would be begging. Barrayaran compulsions, the analytical part of his mind said, before being overwhelmed.
Count Aral shook his head slowly, mouth tightening. He looked at Gregor with pity, which made him feel worse. "I'm sorry, Gregor, I don't want to take that chance. The unforeseen is the default, in war."
The old familiar frustration welled up in Gregor. The world closed and contracted, as an image of his immediate future formed in his mind's eye: stuck in limbo, waiting uselessly for news. "Anyone would think I had no brains or courage! What other Emperor of Barrayar was consistently left behind with, with the baggage train?"
"Well, some of them did have the strategic talents of the average mule," the Count murmured.
Gregor waved this sally aside. "You let Miles take ten times the risks, you always did! At least if we lose gravity I won't break my bones into five hundred pieces!"
He knew it was a low blow. Aral's face went still. "Miles-is my own responsibility to risk," he said quietly.
"And I am my own responsibility. I'm not a child any longer, sir!" Then why are you acting like one, kiddo? Gregor felt his paradigms shifting, again, but this time it was a heady mixture of terror and adrenaline, like learning how to dive. Or fly.
The room and the Count's figure seemed very focused, diamond-sharp and bright. Gregor straightened to parade-ground attention.
"I am jumping to Vervain in the Prince Serg," he said levelly. "I request and require that this be so. Admiral Vorkosigan."
He kept looking Aral in the eyes, wondering what he had just done. It was more frightening than falling from the balcony. A rapidly changing sequence of emotions showed on the Count's face: startlement, anger, conflict...gratification? It settled finally on what looked like wry respect.
"You're right, boy, you have grown up," he breathed, looking like someone coming round from stunning. He gave a formal bow, said crisply, "As you will, my liege," and turned away.
Gregor stumbled backwards into a console, feeling as though he'd jumped to solid ground and found it to be water. Is this what Miles's 'forward momentum' is like? Is this what he feels like all the time? "Count Aral?" he managed to croak.
"Istill need my strategist and admiral."
The Count smiled a little. "Of course."
Gregor hitched one knee across the workstation chair. Unfortunately, the back wasn't tall enough to let him loll his head against it, as he badly wanted to do.
"Medals for the wounded," he said, thinking aloud. The Prince Serg, having the most up-to-date medbay in the fleet, had received all the worst triage cases. That knowledge didn't do much to help the shivery feeling in Gregor's solar plexus, though. "Pensions, of course, all the usual stuff. Or perhaps medals for everyone? Considering that it's the first war most of the current generation has fought in. And the last, I hope." The shivers grew to a whole-body shudder.
"Amen to that," said Count Aral. Gregor tipped his head back to look at him.
"Hey, if everyone gets a medal, that'll include me." He grinned, half in disbelief, that he'd done the thing, he'd faced his battle and come through.
Aral's gaze fell on the display of glitter on the breast of Gregor's tunic, which he'd been too tired to even undo yet. The Count raised an eyebrow.
"You know what I mean. A real one."
"I suspect your decision in this matter may not be entirely impersonal," the Count said gravely.
"So, sir? What do you think, your personal interest in the question being purely nominal?" Gregor started wrestling his way out of the green tunic.
"Another one for the desk drawer?" Aral said. "Miles is a little too old to play with them now."
"Ah. I see a slight hitch there. Ensign Vorkosigan can't exactly be rewarded for something Admiral Naismith pulled off."
The corner of Aral's mouth twitched slightly. "Poor Miles."
Gregor pulled his arms free of his tunic and hung it over the back of the chair. "Then there's the Dendarii. I'm sure they'd rather have pay than medals, especially if they're in as bad a state as they look. They took the first hit for us, after all."
"I can hear Simon's budget creaking already."
"I don't think it'll stretch that far. Damn, finance. I hate finance." Gregor scrubbed his hands wearily over his hair. "I think I can do it out of my own pocket, and extract the money from the Council later. I don't expect that that'll be a major problem. The Counts are all going to love this little war, when they hear about it."
"Well, not Count Vorbretten. Lord Vorbretten was killed."
Gregor winced. "That'll just about kill the old man, I should think. Poor René. And Lady Vorbretten and the girls."
At least Ren's father wasn't a sadistic lunatic. Still just as dead, though.
"On the finance side of things, don't forget this fleet's budget."
"Ah? Oh, yes. That may just add enough to stretch. I don't care, there's no way I'm going to let the Dendarii be screwed over. They deserve better than that."
He remembered Elena's face when he'd told her he was conscripting the Dendarii as Imperial troops, and the light in her eyes as she'd asked, "For real, this time?" She had felt abandoned by Barrayar, even though she'd abandoned it first. Aunt Cordelia would no doubt have some pithy Betan comment on the subject, probably along the lines of people-eating planets.
The summer before he'd gone off to the Academy, when Miles and Ivan had been in the most obnoxious stage of puberty, he and fourteen-year-old Elena had formed a brief alliance. With hindsight, she'd probably had a crush on him, four years older and with the glamour of military school about him. Odd, to be nostalgic now for a time when he'd been secretly tired of the company of little kids. I can't fail her and Miles; they didn't fail me.
"The grateful Vervani," Aral remarked, "have invited us for an official visit."
Gregor made a face. "Speeches? State dinners?"
"Your digestion is forty years younger and your metabolism is twice as fast."
"A small genetic gift," Gregor remarked. "D'you suppose they have retrogenes for it?"
Count Aral refused to be sidetracked. "Besides, I just did Pol. Your turn." His hand absently rubbed his stomach.
Gregor sighed. "Oh, well. At least I could leave Ungari behind. His sulking is starting to get on my nerves."
Count Aral grinned. "I meant to ask you, what did you do to the man? Your ImpSec tail doesn't usually go around glowering like that."
"I didn't do anything to him. It was all Miles. I suppose you depress him because you remind him that Miles is too well-connected to have skinned and stuffed."
The Count put his hand to his eyes. "What has Miles done now?"
"Oh, only locked up Ungari because he wouldn't do what Miles told him to. He was afraid Ungari would mess up his retrieving-me operation."
"Ah. He really has a severe insubordination problem. It's wearing out commanding officers rather fast." The corners of Aral's mouth twitched.
"He never obeys me; what chance does a mere ImpSec captain have with Miles when he has his C-in-C wrapped around his little finger?" Gregor asked, lifting his eyebrows.
"I suspect that in Miles's mind 'senior officer' has somehow become conflated with 'someone to crawl around the floor playing Human Ludo with'." Aral bit his knuckle, his laughter lines crinkling. "Mind you, his objective generally is recognisable, it's just the tactics are completely unorthodox."
"I can just hear him now. Didn't you want Gregor rescued, Simon? I know you didn't actually ask me to stop a war with the Cetagandans, but it seemed like a good idea. Look at how Barrayar's status in the Hub has improved! Surely there must be some way of channelling all those, um, attributes into something useful, long-term? It's not as though he wasn't willing to serve Barrayar, after all."
The nebulous strands of a half-formed idea-let's see what happens-dispersed as Aral asked, "So how did Miles actually get you back? When I heard-" He broke off, his mouth setting grimly. "It seemed like the worst sort of hostage situation. The price the Cetas would be willing to pay for you has to be astronomical. Why didn't that woman try for it?"
"That's...what I thought, too." Gregor inhaled, revulsion returning. "So I upped the stakes. The whole Imperium."
"I let her think I would marry her," Gregor clarified.
"Ah?" said Count Aral, looking speculatively at him. Gregor felt himself blush. "And did it work?"
"Oh, yes." Gregor curled up, arms about his torso. He felt cold and shrunken, inwardly, as if he were invisibly bleeding cryo-fluid.
"What I was told about this would seem to have been a précis," said the Count, plainly fascinated. "Go on."
"Well, I'd been stringing her along, I didn't have a clue what was happening in the Hub, and then she told me that Miles was on the comm, chirping that he'd brought the Dendarii as reinforcements for her. Then I found he'd been telling Cavilo-oh, it was a masterpiecethat he was second in line to the Imperium, I wasn't the only potential bridegroom, she could have Miles instead-oh, yes, and that she wouldn't get around you by fluttering her eyelashes."
"Yes, I imagine Cordelia would have something to say about that," Aral murmured. Cavilo versus the Countess, Gregor thought. I know who I'd be putting my money on.
"So, then?" Count Aral prompted.
"I told her that Miles's mutations had driven him insane-sorry-"
"One part of that was right." Gregor recognised the Miles-induced half-bemused laugh.
"-and that he went about muttering Imperial plots to himself in corners, but was quite safe when he got his medication on time." Gregor mentally edited out the part about Miles's chances of future offspring. "And that the Vorkosigans liked being the power behind the throne-camp stool-rather than on it."
"The better placed for a stab in the back, no doubt." Aral was suffused.
"Anyway, we went aboard the Ariel, and she trusted me enough to leave me loose. We'd stuffed her up with so much rigmarole she didn't know how to think, I suppose. We ended up in a blind corridor, the shuttle blown out of its clamps behind us, facing down Elena and a plasma cannon."
"Inside a spacecraft?"
"Yes, quite. Then Miles shouted, 'Drop your weapons or Gregor dies!', there was this one moment when everyone was completely croggled-"
"I recognise the style, yes," the Count choked.
"Except I've had twenty years of exposure to Miles-induced crogglement. So while Cavilo was still un-dropping her jaw, I said, 'Ha-ha, he's bluffing, watch,' and just walked forward until I hit the plasma cannon."
He sighed, remembering how clean and sane and familiar Miles and Elena had felt, like coming home. He'd felt like kissing Elena and hugging Miles hard enough to break bones, but the cannon had been off-putting.
"I think I even startled Miles," he added thoughtfully, "because it took him a couple of seconds to shut the blast doors behind me. It's not often I manage to blindside Miles." He grinned.
The Count wiped his eyes. "It's a good thing certain members of the Council of Counts didn't see Miles's sworn liege-woman pointing a large impressive weapon at you."
"Oh, it wasn't loaded," Gregor reassured him. "None of their weapons were. That piece of Barrayaran conditioning holds very strong." He thought of the Counts running at Vordrozda and his loaded needler.
"I might almost feel sorry for the woman. It sounds like you and Miles gave her a run for her money."
"Well, it was mostly Miles. I'm glad now that he gave me experience of someone with a thought process like a corkscrew. Although it was Cavilo's utter lack of loyalty to anyone other than herself that scuppered her, really." His tone turned bitter. "She was so busy stabbing everyone else in the back, she forgot to watch her own."
Count Aral gave Gregor one of his sharp looks. "Hmmm?"
It all came spilling out, then. "I didn't give her my name's word, but she thought that I had. I promised, and what's a form of words, anyway? She even said to me that she knew what the word of a Vor lord meant. And I needed her to trust me, because otherwise she'd have sold me to the Cetagandans." He lifted his eyes to Aral's, unhappily.
"Ah. Death before dishonour? Would you be forsworn, or a corpse?"
"Or a forsworn corpse. I took oath to protect and serve Barrayar, not dump another Cetagandan war on its doorstep, if I could avoid it. You might say: Barrayar's safety; another five million dead; what do Gregor Vorbarra's word and honour matter, compared to that?"
His mouth twisted in bitter self-loathing. He frowned at Aral's startled look.
"You look like you've seen a ghost," he said, and then, morbidly, with a little cold stab under the heart, "Whose?"
"Your grandfather looking out of your eyes, boy," Count Aral said. "Very big on expediency, old Ezar was. Men's lives and their honour, all material for-" He broke off.
Gregor shivered, intangible ice fingers on the back of his neck. What did he ask of you, Aral Vorkosigan?
"Don't go down that path, Gregor. I know you don't hold your honour cheap. But when all choices lead to dishonour-that's no choice at all."
"I could have chosen to not run away in the first place, I suppose."
"True. Though the results have been far from completely disastrous, even for you personally."
Gregor propped his chin on the back of the chair. "I wanted to be someone without so much depending on me...it crushes me, at times. But I found that the Emperor is not something I can lose. Did you ever want to escape, just get out of the whole complicated tangle of Barrayar and politics?"
A glint of amusement lit Count Aral's face. "Oh, yes. When I was separated from Cordelia, during the Escobar invasion, I used to have this fantasy of turning up on her doorstep on Beta Colony. I think I'd planned to be an unarmed combat instructor, as that was the only one of my skills I could have used there."
Gregor smiled. "All I got to do was put in light fittings. And I don't have a Cordelia to run to. I like your version better. When we go homewhere am I supposed to be at the minute, by the way? Vorkosigan Surleau?"
"ImpSec got hold of a young officer who looked like you, spun him a story of an assassination plot, and sent him off to the mountains. An eager volunteer, I might add."
Gregor gave a short laugh.
"I don't see what's so funny about loyalty," said the Count, deceptively mild.
"Oh, not that. It's just so bloody ironic; someone volunteering to be me."
"I believe I've told you before: reluctant rulers are less dangerous."
"Not even any time off for good behaviour," Gregor mourned. "Criminals get a better deal."
"How Betan of you to say so."
Gregor gave an acknowledging shrug. "When I go home, everyone's going to honour me for leading the defence against the Cetagandans. Not that I was anything but a passenger."
"All the best strategies are set up beforehand," the Count pointed out. "Trying to do it in the heat is much less efficient."
"Mmm. But I'll know what it cost me to get to that point, that I don't deserve honour."
"Ah. That. Can I make a distinction? Reputation is what others know about you, something external; honour is what you know about yourself, internal. When they don't matchwhen you receive public adulation while your honour lies in shards at your feetthat's a refined form of torture."
It was comforting to know that Count Aral had felt all this before him, rather than dismissing it. "Was that at Komarr?"
The Count smiled faintly. "It was a problem of short order. My reputation rapidly followed my honour into the dust." He paused. "It's like survivor's guilt. You have been bereaved of something real."
"So?" said Gregor, engrossed. "As one survivor to anotherhow do you live, afterwards?"
"Like most things in life, it passes. Honour is something living, not mechanical. It can heal, like the rest of you, given time." He smiled ruefully. "You're probably tired of hearing counsels of patience from an old man, but it's all I have to offer."
Gregor shook his head. "No, I'm not." You should have been an orator on Beta, in your escape-dream.
"By the way," Count Aral said, as the silence lengthened, "not everyone at home will be fêting you, you know. Some of us don't have the public image to get in our way."
Gregor flinched at the thought of the lectures probably awaiting him from Simon Illyan, Lady Alys, Cordelia, Drou...
"You left out something, sir. Honour and reputationwhat do you call what your friends know about you?"
Count Aral considered, and smiled at Gregor. "I call that love, boy."