The chatter of pigeons drew Gregor's attention to the window opposite him. His seat was ideally situated to benefit from the bright warmth of the winter sun, enhanced by the thick layer of white that blanketed the world outside, without overheating him or forcing him to squint. The sight of groundskeepers diligently shoveling the walks that crisscrossed the palace grounds kept him momentarily distracted. I wonder if Laisa's ever made a snowman? he thought with a surge of happiness as the image of his fiancee, her cheeks pink with cold, came to mind.

Beyond the gates of Vorhartung Castle, life in Vorbarr Sultana was just returning to its business-as-usual rhythms after the one-two punch of the emperor's betrothal to a Komarran and the worst blizzard in decades. Nearly all the major streets had been cleared of snow and stranded groundcars, shelters were in place to provide for those in need of a warm bed and food, and emergency crews had been dispatched to look in on the homebound and tender any necessary care. Although all of these tasks, and the cost of fulfilling them, fell to the municipal bureaucracy, the emperor had given instructions for the diversion of resources from his District accounts to ensure the city's smooth and speedy recovery.

Within the castle itself, however, Gregor had a more urgent matter demanding his attention - a matter that was not directly related to his betrothal to Dr. Laisa Toscane only days before, yet the two were closely intertwined. After the recent upheaval at ImpSec HQ, Gregor needed to watch his next steps very carefully. He was confident that General Allegre would acquit himself well as the new chief. Indeed, the years Guy had spent in the Komarran division would reinforce Barrayar's outward-facing image Gregor had spent most of his reign cultivating. No one, be they on Escobar, Cetaganda, Beta Colony, or distant Earth, could look at Allegre's promotion to chief of ImpSec and have any doubt about the arrangement of priorities on Barrayar's political agenda. Each step forward took Barrayar that much farther away from the Time of Isolation.

When it came to Komarr, though, a misplaced step forward could easily result in two humiliating steps backwards. Gregor'd been conscious of the political ramifications of his betrothal to Laisa long before he'd mustered the courage to propose - he'd spent several sleepless nights thinking through that very issue - but as the euphoric haze that had enveloped him for the past several weeks began to make way for the return of his usual demeanor, he'd been disturbed to realize how potentially disastrous their marriage could prove to be, for both Barrayar and Komarr, if he wasn't careful.

The discovery of Ser Galen's byzantine plot several years before had demonstrated not only the resilience of Komarran resistance, but also the lengths some would go to in order to throw off Barrayaran rule. For all their diligence in excising the tattered remnants of Galen's conspiracy, Gregor knew that ImpSec still hadn't identified, much less eliminated, all of them. Whether they were underground on Komarr or hiding in plain sight elsewhere, there would be other plots, other revolts, other attempts. It was only a matter of time before they made themselves known.

It was thus of critical importance that the man Gregor appointed to head Komarran Affairs for ImpSec, taking the position lately made vacant by Allegre's promotion, be acutely sensitive to the delicacy of the situation. He must be expected to represent - and, when necessary, impose and enforce - Barrayar's interests in relation to Komarr without leaving broken Komarran toes in his wake. He must be able to take Komarr's temperature and then apply an appropriate Barrayaran remedy in the event of ague. Head of Komarran Affairs had always been something of an ordeal by fire - history had made sure of that - but now, with Gregor and Laisa's marriage on the horizon, it would perforce become even more so. It thus needed an occupant who not only appreciated and understood the history of Barrayaran-Komarran relations, but someone with the intestinal fortitude for politics.

His attention returning to the matter at hand, Gregor looked away from the window and down at the flimsy that rested atop his thigh. Two hours ago, when the men now arrayed around him had first trooped into his office, it had held a short list of names. In the interval, all the names save one had been neatly crossed off. It was not by chance that the remaining name had been saved for last. Tuning back in to the debate he had ignited upon reading aloud that name to the men he'd summoned here to advise him on this crucial appointment, Gregor turned his attention to the man now speaking.

"I don't know," Prime Minister Racozy was saying, thumping his clenched fist on the chair arm for emphasis. "I don't like the circumstances that keep bringing him to my attention. The man seems to be a lightning rod for trouble."

"You can hardly fault him for that," Allegre said. "It's not as if he was the instigator in either case."

"Yes, but nor do I want us to wind up with someone who regularly finds himself up to his ears in scandal and controversy."

"Regularly?" Allegre barked. "Twice in a fifteen-year career does not indicate a pattern."

"For God's sake, mere weeks ago he was arrested in this very building on suspicion of--"

"He was framed," Allegre retorted. "Framed, and fully exonerated. You know this, Prime Minister."

Racozy exhaled loudly. "I know this. We all know this." He made a sweeping gesture with his arm to indicate the circle of men gathered around Gregor, then jabbed his forefinger in the direction of the window. "They don't know this. They know only what the rumor-mongers and gossip mills tell them."

Aral Vorkosigan, straddling a backwards-facing chair as was his habit, asked, "And what is the word on the street about Captain Galeni?"

"That he's Komarran, for starters."

"Hardly earth-shattering news. So is the empress-to-be," Vorkosigan pointed out.

"From the viewpoint of ordinary Barrayarans, it's not the same thing." Racozy glanced sidelong at Gregor. "The people will be able to accept a Komarran empress far more easily than they will a Komarran heading up Komarran Affairs."

Gregor stiffened slightly. "Why do you say that?" he asked quietly.

His face coloring, Racozy looked away from Gregor's steady gaze. "Please don't misunderstand me, Sire. I don't mean to disparage Dr. Toscane in any way."

"I thought nothing of the kind, Prime Minister. But please answer my question."

Vorkosigan cleared his throat, drawing Gregor's attention to him. "If I may, Sire," he offered, his hands held palm up before him as if in supplication, "I think what the Prime Minister is reluctant to voice out loud is that, from most Barrayarans' point of view, Dr. Toscane's primary, if not her only, role as far as the Imperium is concerned will be to produce the next emperor. Beyond that, the empress traditionally holds no direct power over the people, nor does she participate in Barrayar's governance. Thus it will be no great challenge for them to accept her."

Gregor, hearing the slight inflection in the Viceroy's tone, looked up at him, and recognized the calculating glint in his eye. "I see," he said slowly, thoughtfully, tucking this tidbit away to chew on at a later time. He exchanged a slight nod with Vorkosigan. "So," he resumed, addressing himself to Racozy, "is it your contention that the people will object to any Komarran having a position of authority in Barrayar's government, or to a Komarran being entrusted with authority over Komarran interests?"

Racozy rubbed vigorously at his brow. "It is the latter which concerns me more, Sire."

"A Komarran, running Komarran Affairs?" Vorkosigan rumbled dryly. "A truly revolutionary proposal." Allegre coughed, then rubbed at his throat, muttering something under his breath.

"You know what I mean, my lord," Racozy said with a scowl. "It would be imprudent and irresponsible. It runs counter to the very fact of Barrayar's having conquered Komarr in the first place. What next, a Komarran as their Imperial Counselor? Why don't we just relinquish our control of the planet altogether?"

"It would certainly confound the deuce out of any aspiring rebels if we did," Allegre murmured, one side of his mouth twisting upward.

"Which brings us back to my original point," Racozy said, turning back towards Gregor. "Of all people, why him? If you would insist on appointing a Komarran as head of Komarran Affairs, surely there is someone less--" He sighed. "--problematic."

"It's true that except for his father's plot and that nasty business with Lucas Haroche, Captain Galeni's record is clean," Commodore Koudelka said thoughtfully. "Spotless. And exemplary. I was particularly impressed with how he handled that investigation on Komarr a few years ago." He pursed his lips.

Gregor's eyebrow lifted slightly at the way Kou's voice trailed off. "But?" he prompted.

Kou sighed. "But I'm inclined to agree with the Prime Minister. Komarr's still got its share of hot spots, and I don't want to see Duv continually plagued by opportunistic rebels."

"This wouldn't have anything to do with his engagement to Delia, would it?" Vorkosigan asked.

Kou opened his hand in a gesture of concession. "That is a factor, but I'd feel the same way even if he weren't my future son-in-law. People may look at the Ser Galen and Haroche affairs and think Duv an easy mark. Or, worse, as adept at getting out of trouble as he seems to be getting into it. If his integrity even appears in any way questionable, it could lead to a breakdown in discipline."

"Or," Racozy said, "Komarran radicals might see him as a Barrayaran puppet, and use that as an excuse to stir up unrest."

"Komarran radicals have never had trouble cooking up excuses to stir up unrest," Allegre said somewhat peevishly. "They think, 'It's the emperor's birthday, let's plant a bomb on the orbital docking station.'" Kou snorted. "You laugh, Commodore, but I'm not joking. They've given me no end of trouble for as long as I've been part of Komarran Affairs."

"You don't think it'll be any worse for Captain Galeni?" Gregor wondered.

He watched Allegre weigh his words carefully before responding. "No, Sire. In fact, I think that appointing Duv Galeni to head Komarran Affairs will help smooth things over with those who aren't quite so eager to embrace your betrothal to Dr. Toscane."

Vorkosigan let out a grunt of consideration. Gregor lifted his chin. "How so, General?"

Allegre tugged at the tunic of his undress greens, but his gaze was steady. "The Prime Minister told you how ordinary Barrayarans might view a Komarran empress. Allow me to tell you how ordinary Komarrans would see it." Gregor opened his hand, conveying permission. "If you'll forgive my crudeness, they'll likely see it in, um, sexual terms."

Kou's face was bright red, while Racozy found something fascinating in his coffee cup. "Sexual?" Gregor asked, perplexed. Then realization dawned. "Oh."

"Quite, Sire. My apologies, but it is inevitable."

"I understand, General. I still don't understand how appointing Captain Galeni as Head of Komarran Affairs could mitigate this, however."

"For the same reason the Prime Minister fears Barrayarans objecting to a Komarran given a position of authority over Komarran interests," Allegre said, "I believe the Komarrans will deem it... tolerable. It will symbolically restore equilibrium by giving the appearance of autonomy, which could mollify those who might be tempted to interpret your marriage in less salutary terms."

"Ah," Gregor said.

Vorkosigan gave a murmur of agreement. "Well said, Guy." Allegre gave him a nod of thanks.

After drawing his breath, Gregor turned to the slight, placid-faced man with thinning light brown hair who sat on the sofa opposite him. "You've been quiet, Simon," Gregor said. "What do you have to say about Duv Galeni as a possible Head of Komarran Affairs?"

Simon Illyan fingered his temple. "Very little that I can personally remember from working with him, regretfully, because on paper he seems to be an excellent candidate for the post." He gestured towards the stack of flimsies on the table. "What I do know - what I have heard--" he nodded at Vorkosigan "--is that Galeni was the first to notice, and take action, when my memory chip began to fail. That tells me that he is a very astute observer, and not afraid to investigate when something strikes him as odd, no matter what it might imply." Illyan uncrossed his legs and leaned forward to pour himself a fresh cup of coffee from the service laid out on the table, then sat back.

"More importantly," he continued, "is that he is a Komarran. We could not ask for a better representative of successful integration, short of the emperor marrying one of them. Galeni has bent over backwards to prove his loyalty to the Imperium. I say it's time we acknowledge that."

"It's a gamble," Kou said.

Illyan held his hands out at his sides, measuring the weight of the arguments for and against Galeni. "In ImpSec, everything is a gamble. The question is whether the return is worth the risk. In this case, I believe it is."

Vorkosigan's chuckle drew both Illyan's and Gregor's attention in his direction. "I seem to recall saying something very similar to you nearly fifteen years ago, when Galeni resigned his post at the university and applied for admission to the Imperial Service Academy."

A quick smile tugged at the corners of Illyan's mouth. "Did you? And what was my response?"

"You made some acerbic remark about how I seemed to be going soft with age, and accused me of not being able to let go of any residual guilt over the Solstice Massacre. You were adamantly against letting him in, insisted he couldn't be trusted because of his part in the Komarran Revolt."

"Huh." Illyan sat back and tugged his lower lip between thumb and forefinger. "Huh." He dropped his hand to his lap and looked up at Vorkosigan. "Well, it wouldn't be the first time I'd been proved wrong about someone. Nor the first time you'd been proved right."

Vorkosigan waved his comment away with a casual gesture. "We neither of us knew which way the dice would land when we gambled on Galeni back then. I think you'll agree with me, though, that the gamble paid off better than either of us could have hoped."

Folding his arms across the back of the chair, Vorkosigan directed himself to Gregor. "Simon's right. Time and time again, Galeni's been asked to prove his loyalty to the Imperium, to convince us that integration isn't just a fool's errand. Every time he's held up his end of the bargain admirably. How many more times will he have to demonstrate that our trust in him is not misplaced? How long will he be burdened by his father's shadow?" Gregor suspected he knew, from the softening in his expression, where Vorkosigan's thoughts lay at that moment. The son of the great General Count Piotr Vorkosigan and the father of soon-to-be Imperial Auditor Lord Miles Vorkosigan understood all too well the consequences of a father laying too heavy a burden on his son's shoulders.

"I can think of no one better suited to the post," Vorkosigan continued. "He knows Komarr, but his heart - and his loyalty - lies with Barrayar." He nodded in Kou's direction. "In more ways than one. Duv's your man, Gregor."

"Thank you, Gerald," Gregor said when his majordomo escorted Galeni into his office. "Ah, is Laisa about?"

"I believe Dr. Toscane is en route back to the palace from having tea with Countess Vorkosigan."

"Oh, good." He glanced at Vorkosigan, standing off to his side, whose eyes twinkled. "That will be all." The door closed, leaving Galeni standing to attention before Gregor's desk. "Good afternoon, Captain. Thank you for coming on such short notice."

Gregor caught the slight hesitation in Galeni's step and the tightening in his jaw at the sight of Vorksigan and hastened to reassure him. "Please, have a seat." He gestured towards the empty chair next to Allegre. Warily, Galeni did as instructed, and Gregor leaned back against his desk.

"As I know you are aware," Gregor began, "there's been some re-arranging of personnel at ImpSec recently."

Galeni's gaze shifted first to Allegre, then to Vorkosigan, then back to Gregor. He shifted his seat. "Sire," he said thickly.

"I have formally asked General Allegre to take over in the position lately vacated by--" he paused, noting the faint catch in Galeni's breath "--Captain Illyan, and he has accepted. I am confident that the security of the Imperium is in good hands." He rewarded Allegre with a slight nod.

His voice stronger than before, Galeni said, "I agree, Sire. General Allegre has served, and will continue to serve, you well." He turned towards Allegre. "Congratulations, General." Allegre inclined his head in thanks.

"Which brings me to the reason for my summoning you here today," Gregor resumed. "Because, you see, General Allegre's promotion leaves me without someone in charge of Komarran Affairs. With my upcoming wedding, it is of the utmost importance than I find someone to fill that position as quickly as possible. Someone I know I can depend on."

His expression still guarded, Galeni nodded. "Indeed, Sire. If you wish, I could provide a list of worthy candidates for your consideration."

Gregor exchanged a look with Vorkosigan. "Thank you, but that won't be necessary." Galeni's gaze flicked towards Vorkosigan, then back. "I've already made My selection." He paused, watching the array of emotions that Galeni failed to conceal parade across his face as that capital letter rang home. Gregor stood up straight now, observing Allegre, Galeni, and even Vorkosigan likewise straighten their postures in response. "It would do Me great honor, Captain Duv Galeni, if you would be My chief of Komarran Affairs."

Galeni leaped to his feet. "Me? Head of Komarran Affairs?"

"You, Captain," Gregor said with a smile. He held out his hand. "Do you accept?"

He saluted first, then clasped Gregor's hand firmly. "I would be honored, Sire!"

Gregor stepped back then as Allegre got to his feet to congratulate Galeni. "Good man," he said, clapping Galeni on the shoulder. "You're perfect for the job. Stop by my office first thing tomorrow morning and I'll have all the paperwork ready for your retinal scan and thumbprint." He grinned. "There's a promotion in it for you, too. Commodore Galeni. Has a nice ring to it, wouldn't you say?" Apparently at a loss for words, Galeni simply nodded.

Gregor looked over his shoulder at Vorkosigan, still leaning against his desk, arms folded over his broad chest, and raised an eyebrow. At this cue Vorkosigan lowered his arms and came around the desk. "Cap... Commodore," he said.

Galeni turned towards him, and all the surprised jubilation that had animated his features a second ago was almost instantaneously concealed behind a facade of wariness. "I've been looking forward to meeting you for some time. Miles speaks very highly of you," Vorkosigan said. Galeni's eyes widened slightly. Thrusting his hand forward, Vorkosigan continued, "I would be honored to shake your hand."

Gregor watched in tense concentration as Galeni studied the outstretched hand, then looked up to Vorkosigan's face. He could just imagine the ambivalence Galeni - Vorkosigan, too, come to think of it - must be feeling at this moment. At last Galeni reached out with his own hand to take Vorkosigan's in a firm grip. "The honor is mine, my lord Count."

Gregor released an exhale of relief. The Imperium would endure and thrive, entrusted to the care of good men like these.