The maid was new; she kept looking covertly at Gregor, blushing, and almost dropping the coffee cups. Gregor removed his Imperial self, hoping that would help the process along, and looked out of the window at the garden. When he finally got his cup, he curled down on the rug beside Cordelia's chair, the way he used to when he was small.
"I'm almost wishing Miles back six wormholes away," Cordelia said, sipping her coffee. "If you'd told me that this time last week, I wouldn't have believed you. He's been bouncing off the ceiling, these last few days."
"Is that unusual?" Gregor asked innocently. Cordelia ignored the jibe.
"No-one but Miles," she said, "could raise an army by accident. Are you sure that letting him keep them is a good idea? What might he inadvertently acquire next? The Cetagandan Empire?"
Gregor's mind boggled, briefly, at the thought of his empire expanding to four times its size, before refusing altogether to contemplate the prospect. "In that case, I'd do what I did with the Dendarii. 'You keep them, Miles.'" He added, in response to Cordelia's raised eyebrows, "It's what he's wanted all his life. Command of five thousand Barrayaransort oftroops by the age of twenty-one."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Cordelia murmured.
"It'll be all right," Gregor said, as firmly as he could manage. "The means are...um...unusual, but the ends are good."
"A rational government wouldn't let Miles run a picnic," Cordelia said, half-laughing.
Gregor recalled certain picnics that had involved Miles. "I'm the government, remember," he said softly, setting his cup on the floor. "How rational am I?" There it was, the crux of all his fears.
She looked him in the face. "What's this about, Gregor?"
"You lied to me." The words seemed to drop straight to his tongue from his subconscious, where they had been lurking, insidious little monsters, throughout the last weeks. "About my father. What he was."
A lesser woman might have evaded, or defended herself, because the lies had only been by omission and implication, but not Cordelia Vorkosigan. Without dropping her eyes from Gregor's she said, "Yes, we did. I'm sorry. Sorry for the reason for it, too."
"When were you going to tell me, when I was fifty? Even Miles knew, and I didn't!"
"We didn't tell Miles either. He found out independently."
"How?" Gregor said shortly. Something seemed to be going wrong with his breathing.
"He met one of the victims."
"When?" Were they on Barrayar, too? Watching him, waiting for him to show the first signs that he, too, was a monster?
"On his last little...adventure with his mercenaries. She'd been an Escobaran ensign, in the war."
"Oh." What did she and the others think, when they saw him on the news vids? Did they look for his father in his face? Gregor felt cold nausea in the pit of his stomach. "I need to know what happened, in the war. You know, don't you? You and Count Aral were there in the middle of everything."
"Yes. Aral had been offered command of the fleet, but he turned it down. He didn't approve of the invasion from a military perspective. That was why Ges Vorrutyer and Prince Serg were in charge." She was picking her words slowly. "They saw the invasion as an opportunity. At home on Barrayar, the old Emperor kept a tight rein. He had an enormous amount of control, even though he was dying. Besides, there were the Counts, and the people--it wasn't so very long since Mad Yuri's War."
"Yes," Gregor murmured, dry-mouthed. "There's a limit to how far an Emperor's absolute power is tolerated, even on Barrayar."
"Is that a visceral reality for you, or only a mental one?"
Gregor swallowed. "When I think about the stories I got--How Uncle Aral Took The First Cut From Great-Uncle Mad Yuri--it does go to the guts."
Cordelia mouthed something he guessed was Barrayarans. "I believe your mother held the opinion that Ges Vorrutyer had corrupted Prince Serg. Aral thought Serg was worse. Personally, I think the corruption was mutual. Friendships are like that; they concentrate what's already there, both the good and the bad."
"Why did Aral think that? I wouldn't have thought he'd have given any of the Vorrutyers the benefit of the doubt, not after what happened with his wife."
"Where did you hear about that?" Cordelia asked, resignedly.
"Byerly Vorrutyer. Naturally."
Suddenly, facts coalesced in Gregor's head like a landslide. "C-Cordelia, that s-story about Aral and Admiral Vorrutyer beingerI thought it was just slander--but then, I thought that about the other, too." He took a breath. No indignant denial from Cordelia. "Is it true? But he loves you!"
The idea of Aral having settled for Cordelia, presumably for the sake of a Vorkosigan heir, was shockingly disturbing. He had thought he'd already had all the emotional grenades that could be thrown at him.
"Oh, yes," said Cordelia with Betan briskness, "he's bisexual."
"The things you don't know about your parents," Gregor said, flippant with relief, as his world-view settled back on to its foundations again. His words didn't catch up with him till a second or two later, too late to look for a reaction from Cordelia.
"Is that going to bother you, Gregor? I know what traditional Barrayaran views on it are."
"It's not that, it's...Vorrutyer. I mean, a, a, a sadistic madman, and then you?"
"Oh, it's Aral's taste you're questioning," said Cordelia, with a transitory glint of humour. "Perhaps you should talk to him about--"
"No," Gregor said, with what he hoped was finality.
Cordelia sighed. "No, I can't imagine either of you initiating that conversation."
She sipped her coffee. "Thank heaven for escaping the abysmal decisions we make when we're young and stupid. Aral was very young when his wife committed suicide, and very reckless and unhappy--'suicide by obnoxiousness' I believe was the phrase he used. Ever been so miserable that you didn't care whether you lived or died?"
"Don't underestimate the power of a shared history, and, um, availability. Aral had known Vorrutyer since they were in the Academy, and of course they were some sort of cousins anyway. He was a soldier, too, and considering Barrayaran obsession on that point--"
"Oh, I see," Gregor said. "'Dear Captain'?"
"Yes, exactly," Cordelia said, giving Gregor a clever-boy glance.
"I can understand that. Helplessness and--and passivity don't attract me either."
"I knew all those girls were wasting their time acting the wilting flower of Vor womanhood at you."
"Was she like that? Veronika Vorrutyer?"
"I don't know. I remember Aral saying once, that he wouldn't have thought a plasma arc a woman's weapon... I don't know what effect her death had on Ges Vorrutyer; by the time I met him, he was so fixated on revenging himself on Aral that he only remembered his sister as Aral's appendage. He had deteriorated over the years, according to Aral. He was just an unpleasant voyeur, back then. Harmless in comparison to what came later, by the time of the war."
"And?" was all Gregor could manage. He felt as though he was about to be sick on the Vorkosigans' library carpet.
Cordelia inhaled audibly, and said, as clinically as a Betan therapist, "They broke their prisoners, body, mind and soul, for no reason other than their own pleasure. A delight in destruction, torture as a work of art...Vorrutyer used to pick out the pretty young women from among the prisoners, and work on each for some time. He'd use some of the soldiers--they picked them out too, the ones that already had a twist, to bring down to their level. Vorrutyer had his team rape the prisoners, to start off, then he'd move on to physical damage--some of the women died. The luckier ones.
"The Prince liked his victims pregnant. Vorrutyer used to have their contraceptive implants removed, and after he'd finished with them--if they were still alive--hand them over to the Prince for more--"
"Stop. Please." The room seemed to be closing in as physical panic surged through Gregor's body. He leaned his forehead against the arm of Cordelia's chair, open eyes sightless against the brocade. He fought his shaking muscles to get a steady breath.
"Too much truth?" He could hear the pain of compassion in Cordelia's voice. "You did ask."
"I'd been hoping that was one of the lies." He felt Cordelia's hand against the back of his bowed head, long cool fingers stroking his hair. "Were there...surviving babies?"
"Whenever the Escobarans regained their prisoners, their surgeons transferred the foetuses to uterine replicators. They shot seventeen of them straight back to the Barrayarans."
"What happened to them?" Do I have half-siblings walking around somewhere? Please, no.
"Imperial Service Orphanage, mostly. Aral saw that they were provided for... That was where the replicator for Miles came from, if you want to think about good from evil. There were none on Barrayar before that."
"Why did no-one stop them? People must have known what was going on," Gregor said, his mind reaching in an agony to wipe it out, make it have happened another way. His thoughts made a sudden zigzag. "I can't let anything like that happen in my military!"
"No," Cordelia agreed. "Aral found it easier to reform the army as Lord Regent than as Commodore Vorkosigan running around with a plasma arc."
The recognition that had been lurking at the corners of Gregor's mind suddenly came into focus: he was listening to an eyewitness account. He lifted his head.
"You were the Barrayarans' prisoner in the war," he said. He mustn't have been able to let himself think it before; that the woman who had taught him mathematics and talked him out of his nightmares and rescued him from Vordarian's troops, carried him in her arms, had been tortured and raped by his father or his cronies.
"My acquaintance with Admiral Vorrutyer was mercifully brief," Cordelia said dryly. "I wasn't raped, and he ended up with his throat cut."
"Ah. I recognise the modus operandi." He shivered.
"Hadn't you ever heard that rumour before? Actually, it was not my hand. Then, as later, it was Bothari's. That was one of the bravest things I've ever seen."
"I should think it would be. And--what about my father?"
"I only saw him once, in a mirror, when I was hiding in Aral's cabin."
Gregor shivered again. He knew it was hypocritical to be relieved because he wouldn't have to know one of his father's victims, wouldn't have to look at Cordelia with that inherited guilt, but he felt relieved, all the same.
"I used to wish, when I was small, that he hadn't died at Escobar. Then my mother would have lived and I would have had parents. I see now that it's the best thing that could have happened. I remember Grandfather telling me--he must have been thrilled, really. All that intriguing my father did, just to get himself killed." His breath hitched. "Ezar was giving him rope, wasn't he?"
"You can do the math as well as I can," said Cordelia grimly.
"I'm kind of glad he isn't around to ask how much."
Cordelia's eyes rested on him, measuringly. "I'm sorry that we mishandled you over this, love. I never could think of a good time to break that to you, and we'd hoped that you would never have to know it."
Five years ago, when he'd been newly come into his majority, and reckless and terrified together? Four, when he'd been getting his first lessons in power-hungry maniacs? Thank you, Count Vordrozda, for that service. No.
You asked for the truth, his Betan-trained internal editor pointed out ruthlessly. So now you know, and there isn't anything worse. Please, nothing worse.
"I have to tell you something now." He hadn't been sure he could confess this, and he'd better get it over before he lost his nerve. He hadn't given his word as to when he would talk to Cordelia. "I didn't exactly fall over that balcony on Komarr. I was on the point of jumping."
"Ah." Cordelia closed her eyes briefly. She didn't look surprised, Gregor noted darkly. Distressed, but not surprised. "My poor lamb."
"The sacrificial variety, you mean?...I was dithering about when I took a nose-drive over the edge. There were some creepers or something that I managed to grab. Once I was on the ground, it occurred to me that there was more than one way to kill an Emperor."
"I kept thinking that you weren't nearly cold-blooded enough to premeditatedly walk off without leaving word, even if it meant you wouldn't get away clear. That was what convinced me something had happened to you. And on Komarr, of all the disastrous political scenarios. I was extremely annoyed when I found out that you had walked off under your own power. Now I have reverted to being extremely anxious."
"Sorry, I'm sorry, I never meant to hurt you, or Aral or Drou or Simon--" He put his hands up to his forehead as a shield. He'd given up trying to control his face somewhere near the start of the conversation, but the corners of his eyes were smarting.
"Gregor..." Cordelia said, a thin edge to her voice. She broke off, and her hand came to cradle his head again. Long pause, as Gregor's desolation ebbed back to manageable size.
"...are you still suicidal?" Cordelia had regained her clinical tone.
"No." He tried to look back objectively at those moments on the balcony. "I just wanted to get out. For everything to stop. Those domes were giving me claustrophobia anyway...and it seemed better to die like that than later, of slow madness, or the way Yuri did."
"Had you just found out about Prince Serg?" Cordelia asked, eyes sharp.
"Yes. I wasn't thinking very straight, then. And I was drunk, too."
"Ah. Maudlin," Cordelia diagnosed. She'd seen Gregor drunk before. "It probably would be more enjoyable for you if you keeled over at three glasses, like Miles."
"I don't think anaesthesia is a good idea, really." He sighed. "I think I'm all right now. Back to normal, playing my part in the Vor illusion."
"Construct," Cordelia corrected. "I've revised my ideas."
"It...weighs enough to be real. There's a small irrational part of me that thinks I've lost my only chance to escape. But I carried Barrayar with me. It would be like trying to escape from my own shadow."
"Barrayar eats its children," Cordelia said drearily. "You most of all. Am I the only one who you've told about this?"
"Miles, too. That's everyone."
"Did he send you to me?"
"He said he knows when he's out of his depth."
"He does?" said Cordelia, plainly dubious.
"That's what I said, too. He told me that he just never admits it."
Gregor remembered how calmly Miles had taken his confession, as though jumping from a height were something as normal as Ivan making a fool of himself over a girl. He decided not to share that thought with Cordelia. I wonder how many times Miles has tried it?
"Listen, kiddo, any time you need to talk about this, or feel like jumping off any more balconies, come to me, all right? We haven't stopped our caring for you just because you grew up, you know. Promise?"
"My word as Vorbarra." He pulled at a few loose threads in the upholstery of the chair. "I'm no longer concerned that I only have a puppet power--I think Aral and I have that one finally sorted out now. What worries me now is how to handle it."
"Do you understand, now, why Aral was reluctant both to take the Regency and to release it?"
"Yes. Oh, yes. I'm very glad he's not retiring to Vorkosigan Surleau yet. I need my backup."
"I think you've learned well. Thank heaven you turned out to be intelligent. And willing to use your mind. I don't know what we'd have done with an Ivan. And you seem much more, er, confident, since you came back home."
"That was partly the battle--knowing that I had the courage to be in a real action, not just a mascot. Oh, don't look at me like that, I can't help being Barrayaran. Anyway, it was being able to prevent a full-scale war, too, with a lot of help, of course. And--several other things. Oh, actually directing Miles's energies into something useful, for once."
Cordelia snorted. "You'll have to give me lessons on that one."
An answering smile, unbelievably, twitched at the corners of Gregor's mouth. He reached still, greedy for more reassurance. "But I'm only twenty-five, Cordelia. There are years and years yet for me to go mad, even if I'm fine at the minute."
"Aral said to me once that madmen weren't the cause of Barrayar's history, but its result."
"Well, that gets me coming and going. At least we finally have gene-scanning, so my sons can start out sane. If the geneticists can work out which bit is the hereditary insanity, among the messed-up Vor genome."
"Galactic medicine does have other areas, you know." She looked at him probingly.
"The Emperor of Barrayar in Betan therapy? No. That one is most definitely out."
He heard her mutter, "Barrayarans!" with the inflection that turning it into swearing, but continued doggedly, "How much good could therapy do anyway? I can't stop being Emperor, and it's a bit late now to sort out my genetics. Do you realise that I'm the only descendant of Dorca's first Empress who hasn't, so far, gone insane? My father, Mad Yuri, Seriously Annoyed Empress Annalise, and me."
Cordelia raised her eyebrows. "Seriously Annoyed? Who thought up that?"
"Why does that not surprise me?" Cordelia made a face.
"We were pretty young...Mad Yuri and Seriously Annoyed Annalise...Ivan wanted Slightly Crazy instead, but Miles won, as usual. She wasn't their grandmother. I haven't got to the point of killing my relatives yet--although I do wish that Yuri had paid a little more attention to Vordarian's succession theory--but I'm possibly getting a little paro about, well..."
"Paranoia seems an entirely reasonable reaction to being born on this planet," Cordelia said, with an edged smile.
"Sometimes everyone really is out to get you?" Gregor said. "If I could think Miles was betraying me--" Thinking about Vordrozda's plot still made him squirm inwardly, one of the things that he wanted to go back and do right this time, when he woke at three in the morning.
"Yuri sent assassination teams," Cordelia said sharply. "You call a trial by peers, even if they are those bloody-minded old goats in the Council. And Aral wasn't the only one being torn apart by it. Credit me with having eyes."
"Oh," Gregor said. He seemed to be forgiven on that score at any rate. "Can you drive yourself mad worrying about going mad? I can't stop thinking about the torture and the rapes. What if that's how it begins?"
Cordelia sighed. "Gregor, whatever else is going on in your head, you are not a sadist. Believe me, if you'd ever shown any sign of it, there would have been therapy, Emperor or no Emperor.
"Secondly, genetics aren't destiny. You said it yourself earlier; in everything but biology, Aral is your father. The whole of your upbringing is different from--any of your ancestors, in fact."
You're the difference, Gregor thought. Taught me to know myself, to hold back my soul so the job doesn't eat it alive-- That was something to be thought about, later.
"Thirdly, I haven't heard you mention your mother yet. I checked once; her family has no inherited insanity, and she had no common ancestors with Prince Serg for seven generations."
Gregor's eyes widened. "Of all the cold-blooded bastards! Grandfather must have picked her out deliberately, to get a bit of out-breeding in the family tree. It's, it's obscene! It's like the old Count and his horses! I wondered how Mama ever--What if I turn out to be Ezar instead? He used to scare me when I was tiny, though I never dared to show it. He used to look at me...looking for my father, I suppose. I see now why he kept Mama and me with him from when I was born--"
"Oh. Yes." Gregor swallowed the sick taste in his throat. "You can see where it comes from, can't you? The Vorrutyer taint. What's the phrase--mad, bad and dangerous to know? They've always been sadists and torturers. I bet old Pierre le Sanguinaire didn't get his nickname just for what he did in Dorca's war on the Counts. Then there was Yuri, my father, the Admiral... As for the current lot, the Count's bizarre, I trust Richars as far as I could throw him, and his father wasn't much better. I mean, that twit Byerly is one of the sanest; that says it all, doesn't it?"
"Oh, come on, Gregor, you're over-generalising. The Vorrutyers don't all turn out to be like Ges. The mad architect--well, I suppose those hideous buildings might count as a form of torture. Your grandmother was perfectly harmless, if...not quite in the same reality as most people. Lots of them only go reclusive, like the current Count and Lord What's-his-name, the youngest brother. Some of them even are normal, or what passes for normal on Barrayar."
"Yes, but even the ones like Byerly and Lady Donna have that unpleasant sense of humour, a delight in needling people. It's a miniature version of the same thing."
"Now you're just panicking," Cordelia said bracingly. "Unless you're suggesting that Ivan's a Vorrutyer."
"He's just incompetent at needling," Gregor said. Something in his memory clicked, and he asked, "Is it actually true about Ivan and Lady Donna?"
Cordelia nodded. "Since both of them appear to spend their lives screwing half of Vorbarr Sultana, it had to happen some time, I suppose."
"Eh...more than half, in Donna's case."
"Is that from personal experience? You don't have to answer that."
"No, I was twitchy about screwing my third cousins even before this. It was in an ImpSec report, actually."
"Ah, our ubiquitous friends. I must check under my bed in future."
Gregor grinned. "Unless it has the Escobaran ambassador's wife in it, ImpSec won't be interested."
"Well, perhaps Donna will be the one to settle down with a nice girl, then. Alys is afraid that Donna's intending Ivan for husband number three."
"I really don't think that's what Ivan has in mind," Gregor breathed. He glanced up at Cordelia, one eyebrow lifting. "How does he do it? Any woman he chooses...and I get gawky debutantes with Vor dragons lurking at their elbows, and a power-mad backstabber with a personality like a shark and a mind as twisty as--well, Miles."
"Ah. Aral told me about the mercenary commander."
Gregor brooded. He hadn't wanted her, really, only the potential of her, her negative image, the blacks white. "She pretended to be in love with me. I'd have preferred honest greed. I had her number from the start--you know that look people have, when they get the Imperium in their sights?"
"Vordarian, Vordrozda, various Vor matrons intent on becoming your mother-in-law? Yes."
"I'm starting to think I shan't ever have a mother-in-law. All those girls want to marry the Emperor, not Gregor Vorbarra. I'm a convenient route to power and status. I don't want to look at my wife and see a Cavilo."
"What you need, love," Cordelia said, "is a woman who sees the Imperium as a disadvantage rather than an incentive."
"In that case she probably wouldn't marry me at all."
"If she loves you, she will," Cordelia said firmly. It was the reassuring voice of his childhood, and still trustworthy, even though he knew he was conditioned to believe it.
"I hope I won't have to wait as long as Count Aral did. I don't fancy twenty more years of Lady Alys's matchmaking. Or Ivan's." He shuddered. "Anyway, where do I look? The Vor are all related to me. Marrying a prole isn't exactly feasible, either. Can you imagine getting Lady Alys to organise it, for a start? Or the Counts putting their hands between hers? There'd be another coup."
"Look off-planet," Cordelia advised dryly.
"Like Aral? The Counts faced with a Betan Empress--half of the Conservatives would drop dead on the spot."
He looked up to meet Cordelia's eyes, which were alight with imagination. "What a tempting prospect," she breathed.
"Vortrifrani would burst, I should think," Gregor said. He tore his mind from this entrancing vision with an effort.
"Being used in a relationship isn't confined to Emperors, you know. I don't suppose that's much comfort to you at present, but bear it in mind."
Gregor wondered whether it would be unethical to send an ImpSec covert assassination team to track down the man, woman or herm who had put that ring of conviction in Cordelia's voice. "You don't think I'm wrong to hold out for more. Probably you're the only person on Barrayar who does. I've started getting pointed comments about little Vorbarras."
"From Ivan and Miles, I suppose?"
"And assorted other heirs. And Lady Alys. And Drou. And Simon. And my Armsmen, dammit."
Cordelia chuckled. "They used to talk about women having a biological clock. You seem to have a political one."
"I don't know if I can face saddling my son with my job. What right have I to do that?"
"You're asking me that?" Cordelia said bleakly.
"Miles seems to be doing all right," Gregor offered tentatively. "Surprisingly competent, in a, um, off-the-wall kind of way."
He thought of Miles, a test subject released from the controlled--sort of--environment of Vorbarr Sultana and the Academy into the wild of the Nexus. His mouth twitched. This could be interesting. Will be interesting. Possibly in the Ancient Chinese sense.
"You've got that experimental light in your eyes again," Cordelia said. "The inhabitants of Barrayar, you know, would be very disconcerted if they realised that their Emperor regarded them as a sort of giant chemistry set."
"Well, you know who taught me to think that way," Gregor retorted.
"Oh, I was observing, not passing judgment," she replied. "A certain amount of detachment is healthy. Besides, it beats 'toy soldiers' any day."
"But we're conditioned to be soldiers," Gregor said. "Everyone's used to that."
He thought privately that the Countess's impromptu psychoanalysis was as disconcerting as any attitude of his. Who needs Betan therapy when Aunt Cordelia's around? He felt as though he'd had his mind washed, brushed, shaken out and handed neatly back to him.
There was a cursory knock, and Miles bounced in. By some telepathic process, he somehow drew the beholder's eye to his brand-new red collar tabs.
"Mother, do--oh, hello, Gregor." A profound relief, presumably at the shift of responsibility for Gregor Jumping Off Things from his shoulders to his mother's, modulated Miles's general expression of extreme enthusiasm.
"Such joy in life," Cordelia murmured. "Are we to understand that Simon has given you something to do, or are you merely airing your uniform?" Her eyes met Gregor's, the corners of her mouth carefully tucking in.
"There's no need to laugh at me," Miles said with dignity. "I'm on my way to ImpSec HQ now, actually."
One didn't live long in Barrayaran Vor politics without acquiring the ability to control one's expression. Gregor and Cordelia looked at Miles, and then at each other. Miles sighed, audibly.
"It's nice to see you enjoying yourself, Gregor," he said benevolently.
Gregor wondered briefly whom he was imitating, before being overwhelmed with thankfulness that Miles hadn't come in during the earlier part of the conversation. He could talk to Cordelia and he could talk to Miles, but not both at once. Interesting family conversation for three, he thought. For a few seconds he had an intense image of what family conversation might have been like for him if things had happened otherwise, at Escobar. But there were enough real horrors without inventing more, so he shoved the imagining firmly out of sight.
Miles was babbling over-excitedly in the background, Cordelia giving cool ironic replies. An immense affection, a fervent relief at the familiarity of it, rose up behind Gregor's breastbone. They never change, Gregor thought, with a private inward grin. He was home.