Aurelia was glad that she and her brother Everard didn’t have the same surname as their older brothers. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her brothers who were so old that they were more like uncles, or that she wasn’t proud of her father and grandfather who had both been dead before she and her five sisters and three half-brothers were born. It was just that, setting out across the galaxy for the first time, it was satisfying that there was nothing in the names ‘Aurelia Naismith’ or ‘Everard Xav Jole’ to link them to the Imperial Auditor, MPVK Enterprises, the conqueror of Komarr, or the great general who had freed Barrayar from Cetagandan occupation. Mama had been very definite about that. She had seen the pressure that Miles and Mark, and Da before them, had been under, to live up to what their elders expected of them. She was determined that the rest of the family would be free to choose their own paths in life.
Armsman Rykov had wanted to accompany Aurelia, at least as far as Escobar. Aurelia didn’t like to hurt his feelings, but she had put her foot down firmly about that. She was Ms Aurelia Naismith, not Lady Aurelia Vorkosigan, and if other Sergyaran teenagers managed to go off to study on Beta Colony without a liveried retainer to protect them, then so could she. Mama had agreed, pointing out to Rykov that Aurelia would be much safer if people didn’t realise that she was Count Vorkosigan’s sister, as it gave them far less reason to kidnap or assassinate her.
However, Mama had also pointed out that the first time she had left her home planet, it had been as a member of an Astronomical Survey crew, not as a teenager trying to take on the whole galaxy by herself, and that if Aurelia was grown-up enough not to need older people to chaperone her, she was grown-up enough to team up with a friend or sibling who also wanted to go to Beta Colony. In practice, this had meant Aurelia spending a couple of years studying at Kareenburg University (which was actually quite a good place to study geology, she had to admit) until her sister Nile and their half-brother Everard were applying to university. Nile hadn’t been interested in going off-planet just yet, as she wanted to study Sergyaran palaeontology, but Everard had been fascinated by some of the brochures from different Betan universities about courses on counselling and family therapy.
Besides, Aurelia thought as they boarded the jumpship for the flight to Escobar, it wasn’t as though travelling in Vor style was any guarantee of things going smoothly. They had all heard the story of how Miles, when he was seventeen, had gone on a trip to visit Granny on Beta Colony, accompanied by Sergeant Bothari, the armsman who had been Miles’s bodyguard ever since he was born, and Bothari’s daughter Elena. Before they had even left the shuttleport on Beta Colony, Sergeant Bothari was in trouble for trying to smuggle weapons, Elena was in trouble for beating up a man who had made an improper suggestion to her, and Miles had befriended and sworn in as armsman a random stranger who turned out to be the pilot who had helped Mama escape from Beta Colony, nearly two decades earlier.
When Aurelia had been little, she had giggled happily when her grown-up brother told that story. When she had been a bit older, she had wondered why Miles didn’t want to talk about what happened next, and whether there had been some thrilling adventure that Mama didn’t want him to tell her about in case it gave her ideas. And then, when she was older still, she had realised that Miles didn’t tell the rest of the story because it wouldn’t go on being a funny story. After all, this was the trip on which Sergeant Bothari had got killed, and Elena had decided she never wanted to come home to Barrayar. Aurelia couldn’t imagine how she’d feel if Rykov got killed defending her. It would be as bad as losing Mama, or Oliver, who was Everard’s father and Aurelia’s not-exactly-stepfather.
It wasn’t until after the ship had set off, and they had wandered into a cafeteria, that Everard whispered to her, ‘Aurie, there’s someone following us.’ Aurelia turned, and recognised the late-middle-aged man who had been a few places behind them in the check-in queue.
‘I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to seem like a stalker,’ the man apologised to Aurelia. ‘I was just curious, hearing your name called.’ Aurelia couldn’t place his accent, except that it didn’t sound either Barrayaran, Escobaran, Betan, Jacksonian, Cetagandan, or from the Union of Free Habitats, like Aurelia’s friend Millie.
(And besides, this man had legs – but then, so did Millie’s brother Nick. Their downsider father and quaddie mother had decided to have one of their children as a downsider in case he wanted to travel to places where having legs would be an advantage, even if this meant that for medical reasons he needed to spend part of each day exercising in artificial-gravity areas. As things turned out, Nick had been the only member of the family to decide to stay in Quaddiespace, working as an orientation guide for visitors, while Millie had moved to Sergyar, and Ellis was currently studying on Beta Colony, its father’s home planet.)
‘I was just wondering,’ the man continued, ‘whether you were any relation to Miles Naismith.’
‘Yes, actually,’ said Aurelia. ‘He was my grandfather.’
‘Grandfather?’ The man chuckled. ‘Well, a lot of us suspected that he was older than he looked. After all, no-one gets to be an admiral by the age of seventeen, do they?’
‘What? He wasn’t an admiral,’ said Aurelia, puzzled. ‘He worked for the Betan Astronomical Survey, like my mother. I mean, not at the same time – he died when my mother was ten, and then when she grew up, she joined the Survey, too, and that was how she met my father, and they fell in love and got married, and then they both got offered jobs on Sergyar. And, uh, this is my brother Everard…’
‘I’m not Miles Naismith’s grandson,’ Everard explained. ‘I’m Aurelia’s half-brother – her father was my mother,’ he added with the self-conscious nonchalance of someone who is heading for a planet where this sort of family structure is routine and unremarkable.
‘Oh!’ The man blinked for a moment, as he took this in. ‘It’s wonderful what they can do with technology these days, isn’t it? Even herms having children with monosexuals.’
‘Yes, of course,’ said Aurelia, thinking of Millie’s female mother and hermaphrodite father.
‘Of course – yes, it would be normal to Betans,’ said the man. ‘Uh – if you don’t mind my asking, I know Sergyar is a Barrayaran colony, and I’d heard that Barrayarans thought of herms as mutants. Did your – shared parent face much prejudice?’
They were in tricky territory here, Aurelia knew, but the stranger’s wrong assumption was ideal cover. They just had to avoid pronouns – no masculine ‘he’ or hermaphrodite ‘it’ or even ostentatiously-non-gender-specific ‘they’.
‘Things are a bit more liberal on Sergyar, because it’s a colony world and the colonists don’t all come from Barrayar,’ she pointed out. ‘In fact, the Betan ambassador to Sergyar when I was born was a herm. But anyway – my father died before I was born, but from what my mother says, I think there was prejudice, because Barrayaran law doesn’t allow polygamy. My parents were openly married, so the relationship between my father and Everard’s father had to be kept secret. But – you were telling me about my grandfather?’
‘Yes – your mother told you he worked for the Survey, did she? Didn’t tell you about Admiral Miles Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries? Or maybe she didn’t know,’ he added. ‘I’m not sure if Betans approve of mercenaries, for all that they’re the biggest weapons exporters in the galaxy, so maybe being a peaceful explorer was his cover story back home.’
‘Well, how do you know so much more about him than his own daughter did?’ snapped Aurelia.
‘I met him,’ said the man. ‘I was on a passenger ship a lot like this one that had been hijacked by terrorists, and the Admiral personally led a posse to come and rescue us. Must have been, oh, thirty, thirty-five years ago.’ (Aurelia tried not to blink at this.) ‘He was getting on a bit – still didn’t look much more than thirty, but he was starting to get health problems, from what I heard later on. At any rate, that was one of his last missions before he disappeared – died, or retired, no-one was sure. Do you know how he died?’
‘In a shuttle crash, back home on Beta Colony, my mother said,’ said Aurelia. She didn’t add, ‘more than fifty years earlier than the date you’re giving.’ She was still worried about the other implications. Instead she said, ‘And he still looked thirty when he died?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said the man. ‘No-one was sure how he did it. There were rumours about Betan rejuvenation treatment – but the Betans are still denying that exists, of course. I don’t know what to believe, myself. Still, if the Betans really were selling treatments that could make you look like a teenager again, the Escobaran Fountain of Middle Age wouldn’t be outselling it, would it?’
‘I expect not,’ said Aurelia, trying to sound non-committal. She was fairly sure Betan rejuvenation treatment did not exist, having heard Millie’s father and Miles laughing about it as an example of how gullible non-Betans would believe anything about Beta Colony. People said that Betans, and to some extent part-Betans, looked younger than their years, though, and that was probably true. Miles didn’t, and neither did Millie’s father, but that was because they’d been ill with a horrific Cetagandan bioengineered plague, and they were among the few people who had survived it at all. Mama certainly didn’t look as old as most ninety-six-year-olds, at any rate.
So – her grandfather had looked young for his age, by the standards of most planets. Nothing odd about that. But he’d died fifty years after the time when Mama had thought she’d seen him die. Definitely odd. And – supposing most of him had been damaged beyond repair, but his brain had survived? Supposing he’d been prepared for the hazards of a mercenary’s life, and had had a clone made? Aurelia felt sick. One of her own brothers was a clone, after all. Surely, nobody in her family would do anything as evil as steal someone else’s body? (Well, no-one on the Betan side of the family, she amended, recalling the stories of how her other grandfather had kept trying to kill Miles.)
No, she decided, this was ridiculous. It must be a misunderstanding. They must have been talking about different people. Probably the mercenary admiral was just someone who had stolen her grandfather’s identity. All the same, it didn’t hurt to let people think she was Admiral Naismith’s granddaughter. Leave a trail of misinformation, all the way.
‘What did he look like?’ she asked.
‘Have you seen The Greatest Escape?’
‘Well, he looked nothing like the actor who played him in that. Much shorter, not nearly as good-looking, and much more annoying.’
Aurelia and Everard made an excuse to leave soon afterwards, and get their luggage settled into their cabins. A vid called The Greatest Escape, a historical drama set during the Marilac/Cetaganda war, was one of the options on the entertainment consoles in the cabins. Brother and sister exchanged a ‘This is ridiculous!’ look, ordered snacks, and settled down to watch it. ‘It probably isn’t even the same vid,’ Everard pointed out. ‘There must be dozens with titles like that – it all goes back to one set during an Old Earth war back in the twentieth century.’
But it was the same vid that the stranger had been talking about. Or, at least, it did feature a mercenary army called the Free Dendarii Mercenaries – with no explanation of why a space fleet would name themselves after a range of Barrayaran mountains where a wholly planet-based guerrilla campaign had been fought – and the hero was a Betan called Naismith. By the end, Aurelia was feeling more thoughtful.
‘I’m pretty sure Miles – our brother Miles – got caught up in that war,’ she said. ‘I remember him saying something about it, once – about being in a POW camp with a lot of Marilacans. He might have been in that breakout, and he might even have met Admiral Naismith. Even if that Naismith wasn’t Mama’s father, he might have been a cousin or something.’
‘Betans don’t have the grandsons-named-after-grandfathers tradition,’ Everard objected. ‘They mostly just choose names that they like the meaning of.’
‘Or names from books,’ said Aurelia. ‘Mama was named after the princess in King Lear, and her father was named Miles after a character in a book by another Old Earth writer, and Mark after the author, except that that wasn’t his real name. And the story is about two people who look like each other and get the chance to impersonate each other, and one of them’s a prince, or something.’
‘Sounds just like our brothers,’ said Everard. ‘Anyway, what next? D’you want to go and pump Mysterious Stranger for more information?’
‘Not just yet,’ said Aurelia. She wanted more time to process what she’d already found out.
‘What d’you think we’ll find out next?’ Everard’s voice suggested that he wasn’t taking this entirely seriously – all right, at all seriously. When they were children, and their older nephews and nieces had introduced them to the game of inventing The Worst Possible Thing that could happen, Everard had been inclined to offer a deadpan recital of apocalyptic scenarios in which everyone died. Aurelia had diverted his attention to making up The Silliest Thing that could happen. She offered one of these now.
‘On Beta Colony, we discover we’ve got yet another sib we didn’t know about, the daughter of Da’s first wife, who it turns out didn’t die after all, she just ran away, and her brother murdered someone else, dressed her in Lady Vorkosigan’s clothes and burned her face off, just so that he could tell Da, “My sister died and it’s all your fault!” just to mess with his mind. And they wouldn’t have done DNA tests in those days. And the real Lady Vorkosigan was pregnant, and she wasn’t sure if the baby was Da’s or someone else’s, and she was afraid that if it was someone else’s, her father-in-law might kill it, so she ran away to start a new life for herself and her child on Beta Colony. So, anyway, our half-sister or maybe stepsister grew up on Beta Colony, she’s in her eighties by now, and she’s probably Professor Rutyer at the university one or other of us is going to…’
‘What does she teach?’ Everard asked.
‘Math, probably, like Justina. So we – I mean, whichever of us meets her – will innocently ask, “Oh, are you any relation to Professor Vorrutyer who teaches Five-Space Math at Kareenburg University? Her adoptive mother is my cousin,” and that’s when it all starts to come out.’
Everard grinned. The tale of how Cousin Ivan had become the legal mother of Justina Vorrutyer was a long story that, unlike Everard’s parentage, had nothing to do with same-sex relationships, uterine replicators or three-parent babies, and everything to do with creative interpretation of the performative speech laws.
Then Everard frowned. ‘How do you know she’s a sister, not a brother?’ he asked.
‘This is my fantasy. Write your own, if you want another brother.’
‘You just don’t want Miles suddenly not to be Count, if it turns out he’s got an older brother,’ Everard pointed out. ‘Anyway, if the first Lady Vorkosigan was still alive when your parents got married, it wouldn’t be legal, so Miles shouldn’t be Count anyway.’
‘Uh, maybe Da’s first wife died, sometime before Mama met him,’ said Aurelia. But no, she wanted this to be as happy a story as possible. ‘No, no – it was just that their marriage had broken down irreparably, because they hadn’t seen each other for over twenty years, and Mama met her, sometime between meeting Da the first time on Sergyar, and going off to war against him.’
‘Why do we need yet another sib, anyway?’ Everard protested. ‘Isn’t eleven of us enough, even for your mama? Or twelve, if you count Emperor Gregor.’
‘Oh, come on! It’d be so cool, having sibs from Sergyar, Barrayar, Jackson’s Whole and Beta Colony! And with four different surnames, as well.’
‘All right,’ sighed Everard. ‘As long as you remember how to tell the difference between actual relatives and ones you’ve just made up.’
‘Oh, I’m interested in the real ones, too,’ Aurelia said. ‘When we get to Escobar, we’ve got some time to waste before we need to catch the ship to Beta Colony. I’m going to send a message to Miles then. Or do you think we should wait till the next vacation? Instead of going home, invite ourselves to come and stay with Miles, and ambush him with it then?’
‘You can, if you want,’ said Everard. ‘I’m not going to Barrayar.’
‘It’s just – embarrassing. I can see Miles’s armsmen thinking that considering I’m Count Vorkosigan’s brother, they should be calling me Lord Everard, but they can’t because I’m a bastard.’
‘Don’t say that! You’re not a bastard. You’ve got your father’s surname, haven’t you?’
‘My parents weren’t married,’ Everard retorted. ‘They couldn’t have got married.’
‘Honestly, just because Barrayarans don’t have a tradition to cover a count becoming mother to a three-parent baby several years after his own death…’ began Aurelia in a passable imitation of Mama’s accent. Everard didn’t laugh. ‘Why does it matter, anyway?’ Aurelia continued in her own voice. ‘Rykov doesn’t treat you and Pierre any differently from me and Nile. I didn’t think you worried about – our family being an unusual shape.’
‘It doesn’t matter, on Sergyar,’ said Everard. ‘It doesn’t here, or on Beta Colony. It isn’t a problem anywhere in the universe except Barrayar.’
‘Well, that’s why you need to face it, then,’ said Aurelia triumphantly. ‘Not immediately, of course – talk to the student counsellor about it at uni, I think it’s compulsory for trainee therapists to have therapy themselves anyway, isn’t it? Then, at the end of your first year, go back to face your fears on the planet both your parents came from, and get material for your second-year research project while you’re at it. And while you’re doing that, I’m going to be researching the Betan side of my heritage. I wonder whether Granny knows anything.’ Granny was still managing to hang on past her 120 years, just about, but even Betans grew old and frail eventually. Aurelia had planned to visit her in the nursing home anyway. And there were her Betan uncle and cousins, too…
As it turned out, they came face-to-face with the Barrayaran side of their heritage sooner than expected. When they arrived at the transfer station, Armsman Kosti was already waiting for them. ‘Lady Aurelia and – Student Jole,’ he managed. ‘I, uh, when I got to Sergyar, Countess Vorkosigan, I mean, the Dowager Countess Vorkosigan, said you’d already gone, but I managed to get a faster ship and – you need to come back to Barrayar! It’s m’lord. He’s very ill. We think he might be dying.’ Kosti looked as if he was struggling not to cry. He had known Miles since he (Kosti) was a teenager even younger than Everard was now – nearer Pierre’s age – looking for a summer job, and had been Miles’s chauffeur for a few months.
‘Of course we’re coming,’ said Aurelia. ‘Have Mama and Oliver and the others already gone?’
The three of them sucked disgusting transfer-station coffee from bulbs while they waited for the next ship back to Sergyar. The whole scene reminded Aurelia of her older brothers’ description of how they had heard the news of Da’s death. She hoped Miles managed to hang on long enough for the family to be reassembled from across the galaxy to say goodbye.
When (after the long, frustrating, full-of-horrible-wormhole-jumps journey from Escobar to Sergyar to Komarr to Barrayar) the jumpsick travellers arrived at Vorkosigan House, Miles was still alive and conscious. Aurelia’s nephew Aral came to welcome them as they arrived.
‘My father says he’s fulfilling the new family tradition: third Count Vorkosigan in a row to die peacefully in bed,’ he reported. ‘Having already fulfilled the other family tradition by dying in battle.’
Aurelia could remember that, when she was little, Aral used to be called Alex. He had finally started using the name Aral when he was seventeen, after finding the courage to tell Miles that he didn’t want to go to the Imperial Academy, he wanted to be a marine biologist. Miles had been very shocked at this break with tradition. Mama had pointed out that, considering that Aral Alexander had a mother who was a landscape gardener, an older half-brother who was a civilian jump-pilot, a great-aunt who was a historian, a great-uncle who was an engineer, a grandmother who had started out as an astrocartographer, a nearly-step-grandfather who had retired from the Service to become a biologist, and an aunt and uncle who were entrepreneurs, it wasn’t as though there was only one traditional career path to follow.
In the thirteen years since then, Professor Lord Vorkosigan had made ground-breaking (so to speak) discoveries about the ecosystems of Barrayar’s oceans, which was something no Barrayaran before him had thought of doing. The typical Barrayaran attitude could be summed up as: some of the inland lakes are terraformed and you can fish in them, the sea isn’t and you wouldn’t want to eat anything that came out of there, or even spread it on your fields as fertiliser, what more do you want to know? But now, more and more people were discovering the vast assortment of Barrayaran sea-plants and animals, none of them as intelligent as Earth dolphins or even octopuses, but far more interesting than most of the Barrayaran animals that had migrated to land.
The family agreed that it was best if they didn’t all go to visit Miles at once. Aurelia knocked gently on the bedroom door, in case he was asleep, but he called cheerfully if weakly to her to come in. ‘Hi, sis,’ he said. ‘How far did you get before Kosti caught up with you?’
‘The transfer station on Sergyar.’
‘Really? He must be slowing down. When he was my driver – even scarier than Ivan. Anyway, how was your first taste of freedom?’
‘Interesting,’ said Aurelia. ‘Uh – Miles, had you ever heard that we had another famous military ancestor, apart from Da and Grandda? Had you ever heard of Admiral Miles Naismith?’
Miles grinned. ‘Oh, yes.’
‘Did you ever meet him?’
‘Lots of times. The first was – when I was seventeen – not long after Grandda Piotr died.’
‘Was that when you went to Beta Colony to visit Granny? Were they still together? I thought everyone thought he’d died long before that. Did you meet him at Granny’s house?’ Aurelia felt ashamed of pumping her sick, possibly dying, much-older brother for information like this, but she couldn’t stop herself. And even though Miles was in bed and attached to a drip, and even though he had to keep pausing for breath, he didn’t look like someone who wanted to be left in peace. He just looked – Miles-like.
‘Well, not exactly. I – got into an adventure involving mercenaries,’ Miles confessed.
‘Was that when Sergeant Bothari got killed?’ asked Aurelia, and regretted it. For the first time, Miles really did look ill. His brow furrowed in pain as he considered how to answer.
‘That – wasn’t exactly Naismith’s fault,’ he said. ‘At least – it was partly my fault – and – partly reprisals from the Escobar War and – miscommunications and – just stupid coincidence.’ He paused to compose himself for a few minutes, and then smiled. ‘Getting me accused of treason, now, that was Naismith’s fault!’ he added with a grin. ‘He was – quite the old rascal.’
Aurelia thought that their grandfather hadn’t been the only rascal. ‘You knew he was still alive, and you didn’t tell Mama?’ she asked sternly. ‘You didn’t tell Granny?’
‘They knew. Granny – even had – a wounded Dendarii soldier – staying with her – while she recovered from her injuries. Mother – thought the whole thing was insane but – Naismith gave me a chance to – succeed on my own merits. Not just be Lord Vorkosigan.’
‘So – does that mean you worked for him?’ Aurelia didn’t know much about her brother’s career as a courier, or why it had led to him being a prisoner on Dagoola Four, or being blown up with a needler grenade and cryogenically frozen on Jackson’s Whole. If he had been moonlighting working for a mercenary army, it could explain a lot more – but surely a loyal Barrayaran subject wouldn’t do that?
‘He was working for Barrayar,’ Miles explained. ‘We were the Dendarii’s best customer.’
‘Did you get on well? Better than with Count Piotr?’
‘It was – different,’ said Miles. ‘Like Grandda Piotr, he nearly killed me – except that Naismith really did get me killed, once – and gave me the chance to have adventures I couldn’t have had otherwise – and when he died – even though he’d been on the way out for years – I felt that it was my fault – because of my stupid decisions. I was jealous of him –Naismith – because he had everything I couldn’t have, as Lord Vorkosigan – confidence, freedom, an exciting sex life. I never met any women who could be interested in Lord Vorkosigan, when the alternative was Admiral Naismith. Well, not until Ekaterin, anyway.’ He had been starting to get agitated – well, being constantly upstaged by your grandfather must be probably the most embarrassing thing ever – but now he relaxed, at the thought of Ekaterin.
‘When did he die?’
‘When I was – nearly thirty. It was – even worse than Grandda Piotr’s death – more like – when Bothari died. Only – in the end, I realised – I hadn’t really lost Naismith. He would still live on in me.’