It was early in the morning when Aral walked out of the Residence into the Emperor's private gardens. The burned wing of the building loomed over his head, a stark reminder of the past on this calm day. The scars of long war were clearly etched on the city, but the slow reconstruction had begun.
Across the river, the military presence did not seem to deter the crowds gathering near Vorhartung Castle. The old building was still undamaged, rich with lights and colors to celebrate the first full session of the Council of Counts in over a year. Aral rubbed his eyes. Wouldn't they all be pleased if he fell asleep in the middle.
Cordelia had tried to get him to sleep last night, but she hadn't succeeded. He'd stayed awake beside her in the unfamiliar bed, staring into the dark for hours, until he'd gotten up at dawn and paced around the corridors. He'd seen the strain in her eyes over the past few days as she went through her new, unfamiliar routine. Cordelia wouldn't say anything, but Aral knew that she had wanted this day to come even less than he had.
His Captain had given so much for him. Aral wished that he could give something back.
Damn Vorhalas and Kanzian and all the rest. Damn all the men who'd demanded this blood sacrifice of him, who would sit him down on that cursed camp stool and tie him to it with golden chains, who would have him tear apart what little remained of his oath and honor and lay the shreds at their feet. It was Aral's failure that had brought them all here; it was right and proper that he should pay for it. But not like this.
But now the day had come at last, and there was something he had to do. He had been avoiding it all these days, but he could not do so any longer.
He reached the southern corner of the garden, where a small wooden gate stood half-hidden between two tall trees. A lone guard stood watch beside it. He came to attention as Aral approached. Aral nodded to the guard, pushed open the gate and entered the grounds of the Imperial cemetery.
He had not been here for many years, since before Komarr. He walked slowly between the rows of graves, stopping to read familiar and unfamiliar names. He found Captain Negri's marker at a raised patch near the wall, a good vantage point from which to keep an eye on all the others. He paused for a few moments before his grandfather's grave, wondering what the old man would have said if he could have been here.
He looked away from the corner where they'd buried Serg in an unmarked grave. He had no wish to go there.
The graves of Emperors were set aside, sheltered from the rest by a quiet grove of flowering trees. Aral knelt down before the newest stone and opened the bag he had carried with him. Setting the bowl carefully on the ground, he took his father's seal dagger from his belt.
He'd worn one of his father's old House uniforms, brought up from Vorkosigan Surleau. There was nothing else. Aral had been too busy fighting a war for the last two years to bother dressing as Count Vorkosigan, and there had been no time to have a uniform made for him. It made him twitch, and not only because of the poor fit. It was the wrong thing to wear for this conversation.
He moved through the familiar actions, cutting a piece of his graying hair, adding oil and shavings of wood to the bowl. Last of all he drew from his pocket a heavy piece of paper. Between his seal and his signature it was covered with writing in four languages; his formal declaration of his claim to the Imperium. It went into the bowl with the rest.
Matches came next. Aral struck a flame and held it to the offering. It blazed up satisfyingly.
In the silence of his mind he addressed the crackling flames that consumed his words. Here is my oath and the oaths of my ancestors. Here is my honor and the honor of my House. Here is my life and the lives of my children. My peace and their safety. Take them all.
So small a pyre on which to burn so much. But I will change this planet for the better. I will rebuild it into a world of safety, of peace, of honor. I swear it on my word as Vorkosigan.
Aral had fought and raged against this day, but in the end, that promise was what had bought him. The promise of a world that would keep its children safe. A world worth fighting for. Today he would give his peace and his honor for that promise, and he would give more if he had to. He could withhold nothing that was his from Barrayar.
I will keep your grandson safe, he promised. That was not enough, but it was all he had to offer, the last remnant of his shattered oath.
Thin wisps of smoke curled upwards from the fire, twisting and mingling with each other as they rose into the air. Aral's mind brought them together into the figure of an old man, his skin pale and grayed with age. If he concentrated on his memories, he could feel the man's gaze on him, a pair of sharp hazel eyes boring through Aral's skin to lay bare his thoughts.
Aral closed his eyes and bowed his head before the grave. Forgive me, Sire.
He remained kneeling on the grass while smoke floated into the wind, and paper curled and crumbled into dark ash before his eyes. He received nothing but deafening silence. Aral had not truly hoped for more; the old man had never pardoned easily.
In the distance, the banners were rising over the roof of Vorhartung Castle, and men were moving about the Residence grounds, preparing for his departure. Aral took one last look at the grave before he gathered up the remains of his offering. Then he rose to his feet and walked away from the silent past to his future.