Yelizaveta cracked the weakest possible smile. "So Cordelia is a social success?"

"Absolutely," Anastasia replied with a bit more vivacity then was entirely natural. "Her god-awful idea of small talk adds to her interest. Her guests stand by in breathless anticipation of what will come out of her mouth next."

"That's Betans for you," Yelizaveta said, smile vanishing. Her eyes strayed towards the door of the small sitting room not far from the huge and ancient bedchamber where the Emperor lay dying.

"You haven't finished your dinner," said Anastasia. "If there's any change at all we'll be notified, Yelizaveta, eat!"

Her mother in law looked unenthusiastically down at her poached salmon and speared a pink flake with her fork. Anastasia suppressed a sigh. Getting his chosen regent approved by the council had been the very last item on Emperor Ezar's agenda for the future. He was ready to die – but Yelizaveta was not ready to let go. Ezar had rescued Yelizaveta from Beta Colony. He and his Empress Vera had taken the place of her massacred parents and sponsored her marriage to Xavier. Ezar was quite literally the last of her birth family. With his death House Vorbarra would be down to a middle aged woman and a four year old boy.

And House Vorkosigan wasn't doing much better Anastasia thought uneasily. Give us sons, Cordelia. Lots and lots of sons, or someday I'm going to be in exactly the same place as Yelizaveta is now.

Ezar's interminable death dragged on and on. Xavier and Anastasia moved into the residence, not for his sake but for Yelizaveta's. It became more and more difficult to pry her from his side, even for an instant. Anastasia began to wonder if Yelizaveta was keeping her uncle alive through sheer force of will. Certainly the doctors had no better explanation for this incredibly lingering end.

At least he wasn't suffering. Ezar had gone beyond physical pain long ago but now he seemed free of his mental agonies as well. Sonorous, labored snores alternated with brief, breathless but cheerful moments of apparent full consciousness during which he seemed to have gone back in his mind to earlier, happier times. He chatted with the long dead Empress Vera as if she were there at his side. He asked Yelizaveta about her school lessons and teased her about long ago admirers. He even spoke of Serg remembering him as an infant and a small boy full of promise, untainted by cruelty or madness.

If there was a God, Anastasia thought, He had nothing but mercy for the filicide. But then if she, a mere mortal woman, could understand and forgive the terrible thing Ezar had done for Barrayar how could an infinite God do less?

Days passed, and nights. The Emperor sank into coma but heart and lungs stubbornly went right on working. Finally Anastasia woke abruptly in the wee-hours of an early autumn morning to see her father in law standing over her, all of the expressive lines of his face drooping downward. She knew what he was going to say before he said it. "He's going. Any time now the doctors say."

Emperors die in the midst of a crowd. The medical staff had been pushed to the back of the room, displaced by old Vortala, some other senior ministers and assorted members of the Imperial General Staff including Negri off by himself in a corner. Yelizaveta stood in her customary place right by the bed, one of Exar's hands between both of hers, ice blue eyes fixed on his blanched and fallen face. Xavier slipped through the crowd to his wife's side watching her not the dying Emperor. Anastasia lingered by the door. A few seconds later it opened to admit the Dowager-princess and the little boy who all too soon now would be their Lord and Master.

Kareen gave her a ghastly semblance of a smile which warmed into something more human as Anastasia clasped her hand. Together they led the heir to his gran'da's bedside and Anastasia pulled up a footstool for him to sit on. Gregor was appropriately grave but didn't seem to be in actual distress. He stood on tiptoe to pat Ezar's limp hand – a completely spontaneous and unprompted gesture - then sat down obediently to wait, leaning sleepily against his mama's side. The three Vorkosigans arrived shortly thereafter. The two men moving to stand near the prince and his mother, and Cordelia slipping quietly into the furthest, shadowy corner next to Negri.

It didn't take all that long, less than an hour. The rest of them only knew for sure it was over when Yelizaveta, her face frozen into a frightening impassivity, finally put down her uncle and foster-father's hand, folding both on his still chest and closing his eyes.

Anastasia's father moved her gently to one side to make room for him to kneel before the prince – no, the Emperor – and pledge his oath. The other men followed; Vortala, Gran'da and Xavier first by virtue of their rank as counts and vassals primus, the chiefs of staff including Negri and finally the ministers. Then it was the women's turn; first the Vorbarra princesses, Yelizaveta and Kareen, then Cordelia was drawn out of her corner and finally Anastasia knelt to place her hands between Gregor's two small ones and swear the liege oath unto death for herself and on behalf of her absent husband and their heirs yet unborn.

…..

The funeral was a five day long nightmare. Anastasia dogged Yelizaveta's steps waiting for her to break down – or run amok with two swords, whichever came first. At least Cordelia was no longer her problem. Alys had taken over the social godmothering duties when Anastasia assumed responsibility for Marjorie after Roland popped the question, the happy couple were only waiting for the end of state mourning to announce their engagement. Anastasia had let Alys keep her beach house – more like forced her to keep it. Looking out for, and cleaning up after, the Betan Lady Vorkosigan was forfeit enough and of considerably more practical use to Anastasia.

Barrayaran women are expected to see their kin out of life as well as into it. Yelizaveta as the senior - indeed only - surviving Vorbarra woman presided over the funeral ceremonies with Anastasia, taking the place of a daughter, at her side. Assisted by Ezar's batman and chamber servants they prepared his body for the lying in state. There was almost nothing left of him, his uniform, decorations and state robes weighed more than he did. Then Yelizaveta sat enthroned beside the body as it lay on the bier in Castle Vorhartung's great hall for four long days, receiving condolences with frozen courtesy as her family looked on in mounting fear.

"She's going to crack like an egg once this is over," Cordelia murmured to Anastasia as they stood together on the minstrels' gallery above the hall, gazing down at the slowly shuffling line of loyal, black clad subjects filing past the body and the chief mourner. "She needs a therapist not all this ceremonial nonsense."

Anastasia shuddered. "God and Ancestors, whatever you do, Cordelia, never say that to Yelizaveta. She'll go off like a plasma grenade! She had a belly full of your 'therapy' when she was prisoner on Beta Colony."

Cordelia stared. "When she was what?"

"I guess you're too young to remember her case," Anastasia conceded after a considering glance at her stepmother. "Yelizaveta was the only survivor of her family. Father, mother, sisters and baby brother were all massacred by Yuri's murder squad. Yelizaveta was mostly shielded by her mother's body but neural damage left her half paralyzed. Her grandparents, naturally enough, sent her to Beta Colony to get the best galactic medical care. We weren't up to neural replacement back then -"

"Nor are you yet," Cordelia broke in grimly.

Anastasia shrugged. "Not up to Betan standards I grant you. Anyway they fixed Yelizaveta up right enough, then your government decided to 'rescue' her from barbaric Barrayar by trading on her derived Betan citizenship and digging up some distant cousin to claim custody – Princess Dorothee's immediate family would have nothing to do with the plot I'm happy to say.

Cordelia's face lit in sudden understanding. "Oh! the Barrayaran princess, I was too young to notice the news at the time but of course I've heard of the case."

"They've made seven holovids of it at last count – with us Barrayarans cast as the villains every time." Anastasia said a little bitterly. "We see it differently of course. From our point of view a member of our Imperial family was held captive by an off-world government for three standard years and subjected to mental torture passing for 'therapy' because she wanted to go home!"

Cordelia swallowed and looked uncomfortable. "You're right, that's not the way they tell it on Beta Colony."

"It's the way Yelizaveta tells it." Anastasia said grimly. "She has no good memories of your home world, Cordelia, or of your famous 'therapy'."

"I've had problems with it myself," her stepmother answered.

…..

The funeral procession was a relatively modest rehearsal for the grand parade that attended on the boy- Emperor's formal entrance into his new estate processing from the Residence along a winding route through the new city and over the Starbridge to tour the old city and finally take official possession of his fortress of Vorhartung. The whole business took nearly five hours, including halts for speeches and loyal demonstrations.

Gregor was a small, elfin figure in miniature scarlet and blues perched gleefully atop a tall and beautiful but calm to comatose gelding led by an armsman in the Vorbarra purple and gold. The Emperor was preceded by the Guardian of the Speaker's Circle holding a cavalry spear flying the Vorbarra battle colors in his fist, and followed a respectful horse-length behind by his Regent Aral Vorkosigan; then came a massive state coach surrounded by liveried outriders carrying Her Imperial Highness the Princess-dowager Kareen; Princess and Countess Yelizaveta Vorbarra Vorkleves; the Regent-consort Cordelia Naismith Lady Vorkosigan and Anastasia Vorkosigan Lady Vorkleves.

The four ladies were literally packed round with priceless fabrics, the pale billowing satins and laces of their court gowns and their ten foot state trains; purple velvet twined all over with olive leaves and gillyflowers in gold thread; black satin glittering with silver leaves and stars; and heavy brown silk damasked with a maple-leaf pattern stitched with silver bullion. They were carefully unpacked at the castle by a full dozen armsmen in the liveries of their assorted Houses, stood through more speech making and a display of military drill as the keys of the castle were formally handed over to the new Emperor, then were escorted with the rest of the cortege to the white drawing room to refresh themselves with a lavish buffet lunch and wait for the streets to clear enough for them all to get home by ground car.

Normally the key ceremony would have been followed immediately by the oath takings which would go on for as long as necessary – a full sixty-six hours with only brief breaks back when Ezar took possession of castle and empire. But Princess Kareen had flatly refused to countenance any such thing and the new regent had backed her up. Instead they all went home to a good dinner and a good night's sleep before reassembling the next morning in the council chamber. The Princess demanded, and got, a fifteen minute break every hour on the hour. A three hour lunch and nap break and a cut-off time of six in the afternoon. Needless to say this dragged the oath-taking out to several days to the acute annoyance of certain of the more arrogant and thoughtless Counts.

It took a full ten-day, the Barrayaran week, but the rites were all performed with due ceremony and in their proper order. And then, finally, everybody was free to go home and get on with their lives.