Notes: Originally written for the prompt 'confession' at the LJ comm lmb_challenge, and inspired by the following quote from The Warrior's Apprentice:

"The question," said Gregor distantly, "was whether the Captain served me, or my Prime Minister." Bitter uncertainty still lingered in his eyes.

"All who serve me serve you, through me," Count Vorkosigan stated. "It is the Vor system at work. Streams of experience, all flowing together, combining at last in a river of great power. Yours is the final confluence." It was the closest to flattery Miles had ever heard his father come, a measure of his unease. "You do Simon Illyan an injustice to suspect him. He has served you all his life, and your grandfather before you."

*

Aral went himself to ImpSec. He owed Illyan that much. He brandished the Imperial Pardon aggressively at the ImpSec sergeant at the desk, who cringed away from it. Aral could read his thoughts on his face: they'd taunted the wolf whilst he was caged, and now he was going to be let loose. He set his jaw and hoped that his blithe assurance to Miles of 'no harm done' was going to be proved true.

He marched double-time to the cell. The guard keyed the door open, then retreated hastily. The cell was deceptively innocent, just a little white box containing nothing except Illyan himself sitting cross-legged on the floor, his back against the rear wall. Illyan was a little thinner, a little paler, with a month's beard growth partially covering a yellowing bruise on his jaw. Aral growled low in his throat, and Illyan opened his eyes.

"Ah," he said in a hoarse voice. "It's you. Are you coming in to join me?"

"Unfortunately not. Your little holiday is over. Miles has been cleared of all charges, and Hessman seems likely to be replacing you in here soon. Gregor has ordered your release."

"Oh. Good." Illyan shut his eyes for a moment. He seemed rather subdued, but then, Aral thought, he'd had a good month to get the frustration and impatience out of his system. After a moment he began to lever himself to his feet, slowly and stiffly. Aral crossed to his side and slid a hand unobtrusively under his elbow in support.

Illyan didn't speak or relax his rigid defensive posture until they were through the prison entrance and heading for the lift-tube up to the main levels. Then he said, "I'm glad it's turned out all right, but I think you'd better keep Miles away from me for a while. What happened with those bloody mercenaries?"

"They're all yours," Aral said with a grin. "Gregor has appointed them a Crown Troop, to be assigned to ImpSec and used as you see fit."

The faint colour in Illyan's face drained, and he swayed on his feet. "I have Miles in my chain of command?"

"No, just the mercenaries," said Aral, suppressing a chuckle. "Miles is off to the Academy, thank God." He steadied Illyan and nodded to the hovering medtech. "You can have all the rest of the news once you've seen the medics."

Overriding Illyan's weak protest, he delivered him to the ImpSec clinic and waited watchfully in the outer room.

"Just exhaustion and the effects of solitary confinement,'' the senior physician reported after a few minutes. ''The bruises are superficial.''

Aral's brows snapped down, and the physician quailed. He entered the private room, where Illyan was sitting up on an examining bed, his face closed.

''So,'' he said, not looking at Aral, ''you want me back.''

''I need you back, as soon as possible. ImpSec has been worse than useless for the past month.''

''I daresay it has.'' Illyan's expression was unreadable. What had he been thinking, during that month of solitary? But after a pause, he said, ''How did you convince Gregor that I haven't been privately running cover-ups for you?''

''Miles did it all. I just had to sit there. Once Gregor knew he was no traitor, the whole thing unravelled. Hessman turning Vordrozda in helped.''

Illyan's lips quirked. ''Wish I'd seen that.''

''It was quite a show.''

The physician bustled about, examining various readouts. ''There's no real need for you to stay here, sir, so long as you get some rest and a square meal soon. You can, er, return to duty within forty-eight hours, if... '' he trailed off, looking uncertainly at the Prime Minister. Illyan's face was still impassive, but Aral could see that there was something on his mind.

''Why don't you come and have that square meal with me?'' Aral suggested. ''Not doing any business,'' he added with a glance at the medic. ''But I've missed having you around this past month.''

At that, Illyan sighed. ''All right.'' He got up and went to wash and change. Aral waited, and the medics tiptoed awkwardly around him. After a few minutes, Illyan emerged, shaved and in uniform, looking almost normal apart from his pallor. They left the infirmary and headed towards the canteen without discussion. Aral watched his watchdog carefully, wondering how best to coax him back to his normal self. He had meant to tease Illyan on the irony of being locked up in his own dungeon, but something about Illyan's silence stopped him. This wasn't the time.

They were served dinner in a small room off the main canteen. Illyan had turned off all the bugs and sensors as they went in. They ate in almost-silence, Illyan responding to Aral's gambits with monosyllables. Finally Aral gave up and waited for Illyan to say whatever was on his mind.

When Illyan spoke, it was so quietly that Aral had to strain his ears. ''I think I should resign.''

Aral raised a single eyebrow. ''Why?'' His voice was not quite dispassionate.

''Gregor is right about me.''

Aral sat very still, and waited.

"I don't mean about the particulars of this situation, exactly, but in general. My first loyalty... is not to him. And he knows it. You know it too."

Aral did. He had felt the tension over this issue when talking to Gregor, though he had skated over it as lightly as possible. He didn't think he could skate over it now.

"How can I go on serving him as his Security chief, when my loyalties are so divided? It worked well enough when you held the Imperial power as Regent, but now my hands ought to be between Gregor's alone. But they're not."

Aral suppressed the urge to offer to release Illyan's hands, go through the formal procedure. He had already done that when Gregor took office, and he knew it wasn't the real problem. Oath-relationships on Barrayar codified and organised loyalty, just as marriage organised love, and this problem was not with the form but with the bond that it represented. A bond that couldn't be broken with a ritual.

After a moment of thought, Aral offered this. "All of us offer divided loyalties, in the final analysis. Come on, you know this. You vet men to stand behind Gregor with charged nerve disruptors. You don't insist that Gregor be the only person they care about in the world."

"I sometimes think I would if I could," Illyan muttered.

"Bollocks. They'd be inhuman. Caring about other people is what makes us sane. And everyone would have trouble when faced with a conflict of interest between their Emperor and-and someone else they cared about."

"But none of them have loyalties split between the Emperor and another high-ranking member of the government. If I were vetting myself, I'd never give myself this job. Not now."

"And that's why you should keep it," Aral said, hoping for a way out of this thicket of perplexity. "You are able to be objective, even about yourself. Gregor needs a Security chief who will watch everyone, himself included."

Illyan paused, then slowly shook his head, refusing the solution. "Gregor doesn't need a Security chief who would disobey a direct order if it was an order to harm you or yours."

That bald avowal of loyalty stopped Aral dead. "Thank you," he said in a low voice after a moment of silence. "But you know I would never ask you to do that."

"Of course not. Sometimes I think your loyalty is all that holds Barrayar together. But you wouldn't have to ask. That's the problem."

Aral wiped his hand across his face and wondered if he should just agree. Let Illyan make his resignation, let him stop hammering ImpSec into a modern galactic agency and rest. Was it pure selfishness that made him want to argue and persuade Illyan to stay?

But watching Illyan believe himself to be untrustworthy, a poor chief for ImpSec, made Aral's brain hurt. And his heart. He tried a new tack.

"Let me put it this way, Simon. Suppose you saw me aim a nerve disruptor at Gregor. Would you have any doubts about what to do?"

"No," said Illyan instantly, then stopped. "No," he repeated. "I'd take you down immediately. But it would hurt. Like hell." His voice turned leaden, and entered Aral like a bullet. The pain of the last three months, long walled up inside him, escaped all at once.

"Yes," he responded, very quietly. "It would. It does." He'd been seeing Miles staked out in the Great Square every night in his sleep for the past month. If Miles had truly been amassing an army to lead against Barrayar, he would have had to submit to that, and these theoretical problems would have been real.

"But you carry on serving," said Illyan after a moment. "How?"

"What else can I do? I'm Vor."

Illyan's eyes dropped, and he was silent.

Recognising the strategic moment, Aral went on, "I can only say to you what I said to Gregor. All who serve me, serve him. I will not ever ask any who serve me to break faith with Gregor. And I do need you, Simon. Gregor does too. Certainly you have good men who could do a good job in charge of ImpSec, but-they wouldn't be you." He smiled suddenly. "Besides, what else would you do? Can't see you settling down to work for some business, and you're a bit young to retire." He took a bite of his dessert. "I tried to retire once, you remember. It didn't work out."

"Oh, you'd have to assassinate me, if I retired. Or take this chip out, if that's possible. Probably isn't." But Illyan's eyes had lightened.

"I'd pity anyone who tried to assassinate you," Aral said in a like humour. "In fact, I do. How many of them have you got so far?"

"Seven. They've trailed off a lot lately, I suppose word has got around." He began to eat his dessert, which he had been staring morosely at for a while. "Two tries at poisoning, one kidnapping-that was fun-three taking pot-shots, and that, er, honey-trap."

Aral smiled in recollection, and they finished their meal in an easy silence. Illyan gave a sigh and leaned back in his chair. Aral noticed as if for the first time the lines of stress and exhaustion still on his face. For a moment Illyan closed his eyes. Then he opened them again, sat up with a grimace and said, "Very well. Your dog will remain at his post."

An ironic smile crossed Aral's lips, but his words were sincere. "Thank you."