All his life, Yegor Delacroix wanted to serve the Imperium, like his father. When he was a kid, playing guerillas and Cetas, he wanted to be General Vorkosigan—but that honor always went to Stas, who did a wonderful Dendarii accent.
When they played Escobar War, Yegor wanted to be Prince Serg. But Georgos had the dark good looks, familiar from all the vids. Also, he punched anyone who said he shouldn't be the Prince, and Georgos had a surprisingly powerful punch for such a skinny kid.
(The way they played it, of course, the Prince discovered the trick with the plasma mirrors immediately, and invented the gravitic imploder lance on the spot. The rest of the boys ran hollering though the corridors, drunk on the conquest of Escobar, until the Matron told them there'd be no cake with their tea unless they were quiet.)
When they played Vordarian's Pretendership, they had a problem. Teo went so far as to suggest that they ask some of the girls to play, and the boys at the Imperial Service Orphanage never played with the girls. Yegor said he'd be Lady Vorkosigan. Georgos snickered and called him Lady Delacroix, but Yegor didn't mind. He got to chop off the Pretender's head.
When Yegor was twelve, he met Armand Beaumont. Dr. Beaumont taught physics at the orphanage, and he was the first adult who didn't wear a uniform that Yegor had ever admired. When Dr. Beaumont talked about physics it was like being handed the keys to the universe. He also told funny stories about growing up with five brothers on a farm in Vorpatril's District. Yegor knew that two of those brothers had been killed at Escobar, like Yegor's own father. That was part of what made it easy to talk to Dr. Beaumont about things—not just mechanics and optics but the meaning of life, and whether he should ask Olga Zats to the Emperor's Birthday dance.
The other part was Dr. Beaumont's sister, who still lived on the farm, and found it impossible to believe that anyone was feeding her brother in the city. She sent him care packages, more than he could eat himself, and there was always a cake plate in his office, stacked with lisettes, linzer tortes, and thick gooey slices of babka.
But the best thing about Dr. Beaumont was the way he helped Yegor and his friends organize the Academy Society—a club dedicated to preparing for the entrance exams to the Imperial Service Academy. Every free period they had during the day they spent on the exercise field, and at night they did extra readings in history, chemistry, and orbital mechanics.
And if some of the Society's activities—like the guerilla production of Twelfth Night, or the scavenger hunt across the rooftops of Vorbarr Sultana—had very little to do with the Academy, Yegor hardly noticed. This, he thought, was what growing up meant: childish fantasies became concrete goals, which could be striven for and attained.
When Yegor was seventeen, he failed the Academy entrance exams. A low score on the composition section had rendered irrelevant an otherwise decent showing—and most of Yegor's life to date.
"Never mind," said Stas, passing over the bottle of cheap wine. Stas' score on the math section had been abysmal. "We'll join the Service as enlisted men and work our way up. You don't need to be a professor—or a bleeding poet—to be a soldier."
Yegor took a deep drink and passed the bottle back. "Nah, I don't think so," he said. He wasn't drunk enough to admit that his main reaction to the results had been relief. He wasn't sure there was that much drunk. But it was true.
Stas, good as his word, joined up the next day. Yegor found a job in a warehouse, and a flat on a street of the Caravanserai that hadn't yet gentrified out of the range of a working man with no savings. The pay was decent and he got along well with the foreman and his work-mates, but when a lightflyer factory in Vorinnis' District posted an ad for workers who'd taken a basic mechanic's course, Yegor left the job and the flat without a thought. It was as if, in letting go his dream of the Service, he had let go the only tether holding him to the world, and set himself adrift in space.
When Yegor was twenty-one, he met his father. The slim packet of flimsies, stamped "Declassified by Special Order of the Emperor," had been chasing him across five changes of address in three Districts. By the time it caught up with him, in the South Continent where he was working on a terraforming crew, it had been joined by an awkwardly-recorded invitation to meet from one Captain Eustace Vorjenkins. Captain Vorjenkins, it seemed, had been discharged without prejudice sometime after Escobar, but still insisted on the Captain. In his face, Yegor could see how his own hairline would recede and his jowls begin to sag in twenty-five years' time. It wasn't a pleasant sight. But after the terraforming job ended and Yegor collected his pay, he found himself on the morning shuttle to Hassadar, in Vorkosigan's District. And shortly afterwards, in a café near the station, scanning the crowd of commuters for a familiar-yet-unfamiliar face.
"You have to understand," said Captain Vorjenkins, when the greetings and small talk had sputtered and died, and the barely-tasted cups of coffee sat cooling on the table. "It was a different time. We were the Prince's inner circle, the conquerors of Escobar, the lords of four planets—so we thought. It wouldn't have been smart to refuse the honors the Prince offered—"
"Honor?" Yegor echoed.
"It was—" Captain Vorjenkins began. Finally he settled on, "It was a long time ago. But I swear, I never knew about you. I never imagined—they were Galactic women, they had to have had contraceptive implants. They must have known what might happen."
Yegor was reminded of late-night study sessions with Dr. Beaumont and the Society. Note the use of the passive voice. "You make it sound like a weather report. Cloudy with a chance of rape."
Captain Vorjenkins shrugged unhappily. "I don't have much to offer you—"
"Is that why you think I came here?" The café's other patrons were staring. Yegor lowered his voice. "For a handout?"
"Why did you come?" said Captain Vorjenkins.
It was a fair question. Yegor frowned into his coffee. "I hoped you would tell me it wasn't true."
"I won't offer you money," said Captain Vorjenkins. "But I talked with my wife, and she'd like to meet you. And the children—your half-brothers and sister—I haven't told them everything, of course. And there's my name. It's yours, if you want it."
There were advantages to being Vor, even an acknowledged Vor bastard. And there was certainly no honor in Delacroix, a name apparently chosen at random from the population registry. But there was no dishonor in it either. "No, thanks," said Yegor.
All his life, Yegor had believed that his father was a hero, gloriously dead. Now it seemed that he was a rapist, a coward, and very much alive. The knowledge was strangely freeing. He no longer had to live up to, or fail to live up to, that golden image. For the first time, Yegor let himself wonder what else he'd rather live up to.
The next day Yegor did two things: He sent a message to his mother on Escobar, and he filled out an application to Hassadar Teacher's College.
When Yegor was twenty-four, he got his teacher's certificate. It wasn't until after he'd enrolled for the first semester of advanced courses that he realized he'd lived in Hassadar twice as long as anywhere else in his adult life.
Yegor never did hear back from his mother. His second Winterfair in Hassadar, he unbent enough to accept an invitation to Captain Vorjenkins' home. Things weren't easy between Yegor and his father, but it turned out he liked his half-siblings a lot. He played crossball with Cyril and Valery, listened to Stefan's ideas about the meaning of life, and showed Maria how to fold flimsy lightflyers. He explained about lift and drag as the flyer glided over the Vorjenkins' fishpond, and watched Maria's face open up like he'd handed her the keys to the universe.
When Yegor was twenty-eight, he left Barrayar for the first time, not on a warship but on a passenger liner. If this face-to-face interview went as well as the remote ones had, he wouldn't be coming back.
It did, and he didn't. He spent his days teaching algebra, intro to 5-space geometry, and French (Standard Galactic, not Barrayaran) to the sons and daughters of Komarr's elite, and his nights dealing with the fallout when someone's illicit homebrew exploded in someone else's underwear drawer. He got all the incorrigibles in his dormitory, but they weren't any wilder than Yegor and his friends at the orphanage had been, or any more ingenious in their pranks than the Dendarii hill-kids he'd had as a student teacher. Most of his pupils liked him, and those that didn't, respected him. And those that didn't do either were won over the first time he got a Winterfair package from Maria, who couldn't believe it was possible to get a decent peach tart on Komarr.
With the rest of the staff it was a different story. None of them were openly hostile, but none of them treated him as one of themselves. The only exception was the school's counselor, Constance, who subjected him to the same dry, unsettling frankness she used on everybody. They took to having lunch together, in his office or hers, every few days. Yegor found her keen dissections of school politics both funny and enlightening, but it did nothing for his outsider status. When he found his dormitory assignment suddenly changed, he figured it was because he was the new hire, the Barrayaran, once again being given a job no one else wanted.
"Don't you believe it," said Constance. "Why do you think we're getting a group of transfer students from Jackson's Whole in the middle of the semester anyway?"
Yegor poked at his salad gloomily. He liked many things about his new home, but Maria was right about the food. "I don't know."
"Neither do I," said Constance, savagely spearing a protein cube. "And I damn well should, don't you think? There's some seriously weird shit in their case histories, but half the file was blacked out by military censors. How they expect me to help these kids—but I can tell you this much. You weren't chosen lightly. Both of us must have been background-checked to within an inch of our lives. I'm surprised I didn't wake up one night looking down a syringe held by some horse-fucker with eyes on his collar—" She paused, fork held in midair. "Um. No offense."
"None taken," said Yegor. "It's not as if I were the Service's biggest fan, myself."
When Maree was ten, she met Yegor Delacroix.
She didn't know quite what to make of him. His voice was like that scary mercenary commander's—Bothari-Jesek—but he had a nice face. Lily would have told Maree not to be stupid. She remembered Lily pulling her by the hand through the corridors of the ship, saying not to trust the mercenaries, didn't she want to meet her mother . . . .
Lily could be mean sometimes. But she always knew what to do, and besides she was Maree's best friend and she missed her. Some of the girls were saying that Lily had gone with her sisters. It didn't seem fair that Lily's sisters should be real when Maree's mother was a lie. When Maree thought about that, she was ready to say good riddance to Lily and her mother and all of it.
Mr. Delacroix was walking around the room, talking to some of the other girls. They were laughing. The pastries on his desk looked really good. Maree tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, stepped forward, and said, "Hi."
"Hello, Maree," said Yegor. "Welcome to Komarr."