title: Son of the House

summary: The life of Padma Vorpatril

Padma Vorpatril grew up in a house with two doors, built in stone and glass. His first memory was of toddling down the hall, finding the Count in his study. The summer sun was pouring in, illuminating the arms of silver and black inlaid in the desk top. He was always the Count in this room, even if he was the Prince outside. Here was where the District's petitioners met him - and the son of the house too.

It was only later he realized the politics involved, the careful dance between Prince Xav and his distant Imperial cousin. An Empire could be won, but succession to a district was a matter of law. Later, when Emperor Ezar succeeded to Xav's titles and inheritance without a ripple, he understood.

Padma spent much of his childhood thinking everybody's father was a Count. The old Prince disabused him of that gently, but failed to notice Padma's larger error. His mama and papa were pictures on the wall, ones he didn't recognize as his kin.

It was only when he was older that he learned how his family had been wiped out in a moment by the Prince's brother.

The Prince didn't talk about the massacre. It was his big cousin Aral who pointed out Padma's mother in a Betan photographic print, next to Aral's own mother. She looked...like the Prince's wife. Foreign. She was smiling too much, not like the painted portraits. Her hair was in slight disarray.

Sometimes he wished his mother was a painting and not a photograph. Photographs stared. There was a holo of his real father that he looked at once before putting away.

Cousin Aral confessed that he missed his mother deeply, but only to Padma. When his father was around he was proud and disdainful, a Vorkosigan to the bone. They grew apart, as Aral plunged into the Service, as he found a wife and married. He stopped visiting, and the Prince stopped talking about him.

It was right that Padma follow his cousin, though, into the service of the man who had supplanted them. The Prince was not there when he took his officer's oath, though. The Prince was dying.

Padma lit the funeral offering. Who else would? He was the son of the house. Cousin Aral was there, back from his first command, and so was the Emperor, the new Prince, and all the Counts. His grandmother gave him a hug, quietly, after the ceremony, and then she was gone and he was alone.

He received a posting in the capital, but the house in the Old Town was far away from the great Imperial Service Headquarters complex across the river. The city was growing, swarming with men and vehicles. Eventually he left the house to the care of the Prince's aging retainers and moved into a small apartment in the sky-reaching buildings of Ezar Vorbarra's New Town.

When he was thirty, he met a woman. When he was thirty-four, he brought her home, to the house of stone and glass he had grown up in. The furnishings were repaired and replaced, the rooms painted. It became a place of light again, because Alys made it so. The Prince was a portrait now, like his forefathers before him. Padma's mother was still a photograph on the wall.

But that was one year. Blink, and the year is gone. Two women enter the house now, through doors swinging on their hinges, past shattered glass and scorched portraits. One has a child in her arms, tiny and helpless.

"We would have been here, if Commander Illyan hadn't warned us at the last minute to run." Alys looks around, a critical frown on her face. "At least they didn't loot the furnishings for firewood. My jewelry is missing, though."

"Most of the damage looks cosmetic," the other woman says. "You could fix it, if you wanted."

"It wouldn't be the same. I don't want to live here, Cordelia. It's not a safe place, it never was. One of the officers' clubs got sacked by the Pretender, and it's searching for new space. I'll have my lawyer talk to them." She glances sideways. "I suppose I could donate the furniture to the Residence, for the rebuilding." There's a hint of critique in her voice now. It washes ineffectually over her companion, who just smiles.

"It is a bit of a barn, isn't it."

Alys nods grimly. "No place to raise a son."