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Unbounded Truths, or the Oral Tradition

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“Unbounded truth is not a thing / Cramped to time or bound in space…”

 

“Becky,” her father called, and Rebecca put down her pre-five-space assignment without regret.

“Yes, sir?”

“Comconsole for you.”

“Oh. Who is it?”

“The Crown Prince of Barrayar,” Duv Galeni said blandly. No one could do “bland with implications” quite the way Rebecca’s father could.

“Oh,” she said again, and went out into the hall to sit down at the family comconsole. “Rebecca Galeni.”

The familiar features of Serg Xav Gregorovich Toscane Vorbarra formed over the plate. “Hi, Becca. Am I disturbing you?”

“Anything but. I was doing my P5S homework. I’m not cut out to be an engineer.”

“Me neither,” he agreed. “I’m leaving that one to my sister, all the way.”

“Laura? I thought it was a jump pilot she wanted to be.”

“That was back when she was eight, and it was just because she was in love with Nikki.”

Rebecca grinned. “Seryozha, we were all in love with Nikki. You may not have noticed, but when we were ten or so there was no one in this world more glamorous than Nikki Vorsoisson, as far as we were concerned.”

“I noticed,” he sighed. “…Becca, would you be free sometime soon to sit down and talk a little? Sometime after your math homework is due, of course.”

“The word for you is punctilious,” she told him. “Yes, why not? This weekend? The usual place?”

“Please. I’ll buy you a hot chocolate.”

“You’re too kind.” They specified times and dates, and she punched off and went back to struggling with spatial significators.

At breakfast the next morning, her father considered her over the coffee.

“Yes?” she said finally, pouring him a second cup. Neither of them were in the habit of eating in the morning, though her mother and Clem were munching groats.

“I was wondering if you’ve reached the age where one should draw certain conclusions from your social connections.”

“Da, stop talking ImpSecSpeak,” Clem advised, with his mouth full. “If you want to ask Becca if she’s dating the Crown Prince, why not just say so?”

Duv raised an eyebrow. Delia seemed to feel it was her turn to chip in. “Swallow before you speak, Clemmie. Becca, love, are you and Seryozha seeing each other?”

“Not the last time I checked,” Rebecca said. “We are still friends, same as we’ve been all our lives, thanks to parents who had us play together from the time we were babies…”

“I expect you were waving at each other from your respective uterine replicators,” Delia agreed placidly. “Well, do let us know if you end up otherwise. If I’m ever to become the future Emperor’s mother-in-law, I’d like warning in advance. And your da feels the same, I’m sure.”

Duv did one of his best saturnine looks at that, and forbore comment; Rebecca thought “feels the same” probably didn’t begin to cover it.

“You might find yourself related to the Emperor otherwise,” she suggested, instead. “Clem could marry Reenie. Laura’s a bit out of his age range, I think…”

Ewww,” said Clem, comprehensively. “Girls.

Delia just managed not to choke on her groats. “Oh dear. Duv, I think we need to start worrying now.”

“Because Clem, like most self-respecting ten-year-old boys, is less than well disposed toward the opposite sex?”

“No, no. Because he sounds just like Ivan Vorpatril at that age, from what Miles tells me, and look what happened there…”

 

The Imperial Library attached to Vorhartung Castle was extensive, but not well known. Entrance was by application only, of course, and the main reading room, north-facing but surprisingly light and bright, was usually occupied by a mix of elderly Vor who found it a pleasant place to doze and harassed humanities graduate students from the University of Vorbarr Sultana. The little readers’ café perched on its roof was even less known, but Seryozha and Rebecca had been frequenting it since they were only just old enough to be let wander around the castle on their own. It had no more than five tables set at discreet distances, comfortable squashy chairs, and a menu covering coffee, tea, hot chocolate, lemonade in the summer, wine for patrons of age, spiced fruit bread, and excellent madeleines.

Seryozha was already established at the corner table, with a half-empty mug and a plate of spice bread in front of him. Rebecca found a mug of hot chocolate—minus the whipped cream, which was how she liked it—placed on the table as she sat down.

Bearing in mind her parents’ scruples, she asked him what was uppermost in her thoughts: “Are you sure we still ought to be doing this at going on eighteen? I don’t want to inconvenience you with rumors that the Crown Prince is dating the Chief of ImpSec’s half-Komarran daughter.”

“That would be the half-Komarran Crown Prince, don’t forget,” Seryozha corrected. “Don’t put yourself out. The people around here are very disinclined to do anything that would trouble my father. Or even more so, my mother.”

“Fair enough.” She sipped her hot chocolate, noticing that there was already whipped cream at the corner of his mouth. Seryozha had his father’s severe coloring and bone structure overlaid by his mother’s pleasing plumpness, an odd but not unappealing combination.

“Have some bread,” he urged, taking a piece himself. “Do you mind if I talk at you for a while?”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“Thanks, Becca. I appreciate it.” Both Seryozha’s parents had made sure from his earliest childhood that he understood the difference between Requesting and Requiring something and being given it willingly.

He sighed, took another bite of spice bread, washed it down with the last of his hot chocolate, and took the plunge. “It’s embarrassing—the first part is—but—all right, on the comconsole I said about my sister being in love with Nikki when she was a kid, didn’t I?”

“Yes…”

“And you said everyone was in love with Nikki? Well, um, I mean you were quite right. I had an incredible crush on Nikki too.”

“Did you now.” Rebecca reserved judgment.

“Lately at school…” Seryozha hesitated, his face taking on some of his father’s remote expression. “Chris Vorlaisner…one of my classmates, I don’t think you know him…anyway, well, I kissed him.”

“Did you now,” Rebecca repeated, making time. “And did he kiss you back?”

Seryozha gave a slightly forlorn chuckle. “He did as it happens, so kind of you to ask. And no, we didn’t make any promises about doing it on a regular basis, but…Don’t get the wrong idea, Becca, I didn’t drag you here to consult with you on my love life. It’s what happens next that I’m getting at. I told my mother, you see.”

“You did?”

“Well—I wanted to tell someone. Not to gloat over my prowess, Becca, give a man a break. For, you know, a parallax view. I wouldn’t talk to the other chaps at school, and I thought, well, Mother—she didn’t grow up on Barrayar, she thinks differently about these things.”

Rebecca considered her own father’s attitudes. “I guess. So what did Aunt Laisa have to say?”

“Well, nothing I hadn’t really expected. The first thing she said was that she was glad I was happy and she hoped he was a nice boy—“ he rolled his eyes, and Rebecca grinned—“and then, um, she talked about some stuff about, um, health,” he went on rapidly, the fair skin reddening over his cheekbones. Rebecca refrained from comment.

“Anyway, after that, she kind of sighed, and said she didn’t think I needed her telling me, but as long as I planned to succeed my father as Emperor of Barrayar one day, I would have a duty to marry—marry a woman—and produce an heir.”
“And what did you say to that?”

“I told her,” his chin coming up, “I knew it and I expected to do my duty by Barrayar. The thing is, I don’t…I mean, I don’t not like girls. I’ve kissed girls before, and liked it fine.”

“Oh, you have? And how come I didn’t hear about this?”

“I don’t tell you everything, Becca… Oh, all right. Last Winterfair. Tania Vorbretten—she’s one of Laura’s friends. Nice girl.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Did you tell Aunt Laisa about her, too?”

“Not by name. Anyway, that was all right. Mother just said it seemed like I understood the essentials, and I should have fun within the inevitable constraints.” He sighed deeply. “The thing is, I didn’t tell her not to tell my father.”
“And you think she did?”

“I’m sure of it. She mostly does, unless you specifically ask her not to. That’s the way they are.”

“You didn’t want your father to know.”

“No. Yes. No. I wasn’t wild about it—you know about Barrayarans, especially the Vor—but after all, he was raised by Gran’tante Cordelia. I would have been too ashamed to tell him face to face, but I didn’t think he’d do a full Old Vor on me.”

“But…?” Rebecca ate some spice bread and waited.

“I don’t know,” finally, his voice cracking a little. “He hasn’t said anything, or done anything different. He isn’t…you couldn’t point to anything. But the way he looks at me, when he thinks I’m not looking…as if I were, I don’t know…a piece of unexploded ordnance from the Ceta War?”

“The kind that if it does explode, you don’t know whether to watch out for shrapnel or genetic warfare,” Rebecca murmured.

“Just so,” he growled. “I mean—I told my mother, I’m prepared to get married in the usual way when the time comes. Just because I might, you know, fool around a little bit before then—“

“As if you might not have done that anyway,” she put in.

“Exactly. Look at my grandfather, he seems to have had plenty of fun before marrying my grandmother.” Seryozha paused. “That was a hint for me. The other times I’ve seen my father look that way lately—Becca, you’ve been to the big fancy receptions at the Residence, haven’t you?”

“A couple of times. Not often.”

“Well, you know how they announce one. So I’ll be ready to go in, with my father and mother in the little anteroom, and Voraronberg gives out with his bellow ‘His Imperial Highness, Crown Prince Serg Vorbarraaaah!’ And—it’s dim in there and it’s just for a moment—but I’ve seen my father’s eyes do that same thing.”

There was a pause, and Seryozha took the last slice of spice bread and demolished it methodically. Rebecca sipped her hot chocolate.

“Your father was very young when your grandfather died,” she offered after some time, turning over snippets from Modern Barrayaran History class in her head. “I don’t think he could have much in the way of memories of him.”

“So you think I’m on the wrong track?”

“I honestly don’t know.” She licked chocolate off her top lip. “I take it just asking your father is right out?”

Seryozha looked away, the round comfortable face pinched around the mouth, reminding her that his usual easy-going, guileless manner was not as natural as it seemed. “I’d rather not…do so unless there aren’t any other options,” he said, and she decided it was fairer to leave it at that.

“Your mother, then.”

His eyebrows went up. “Ah. Now there you might have something. I could also work in a little guilt for her having told my father the whole thing…”

“Do not guilt-trip your mother,” Rebecca decreed. “This is one of our family rules—extended Koudelka family, I mean—it might as well be yours too. Anyway, I think she’d respond better to a simple request for information.”

“Very possible. You wanna come?”

“You don’t feel it’s a private Vorbarra thing?”

“Of course it’s a private Vorbarra thing. Since when does that not include you? Your family has been part of the whole private Vorbarra thing since before either of us was born.”

“And then some, I guess. Well, I’m willing to come along and hold your hand—“

“—and satisfy your curiosity—“

“—excuse me, daughter of the Chief of ImpSec? What else did you expect? anyway, if you’re up for it, but do give Aunt Laisa the choice too, she might see private Vorbarra things a little differently.”

“Not likely. Thank you, Becca. I’ll let you know when she’s free.”

 

Comconsole mail (secured, level VB1): timestamp 25:11:03, verified sender Laisa TOSCANE VORBARRA, verified recipient Duv GALENI

…hope you won’t mind mail instead of a call, but I didn’t want to disturb you at work and then there was this stupid reception. (I hope that part won’t reach your analysts’ eyes.) The only thing which couldn’t wait is that your daughter and my son have requested (Requested and Required?) an audience with me, in hopes that I could enlighten them on, as my son coyly put it, “grandfather-related confusion.” To be honest, at first I couldn’t think what he was talking about—Seryozha sees his Granddad Victor at least yearly, after all, and if my father has any secrets they’re strictly financial. And of course Becky is the apple of Commodore Kou’s eye. Then it occurred to me that, well, each of them did once have another grandfather.

I can’t imagine that Seryozha would come to me to ask about Gregor’s father—there’s no shortage of Barrayarans around him, after all, and I was a babe in arms when the Crown Prince died at Escobar, not to mention other considerations—but I can see that, as a Komarran, I might be an easy person for Becky to come to when she wanted to know about her Komarran grandfather. If, that is, she happened to be hesitating about asking you directly.

Duv, I’ve never been in the need-to-know loop on this one. I know what’s common knowledge at home about the Galens, of course, including Becky’s namesake. I know the little you told me when we first became friends. I’ve heard a few other things since then from Gregor, and also from Kareen KVK and (a little) from Ivan. I don’t want to turn the kids down—I think they have a right to know what’s in their own family, and as Cordelia used to say, if they’re old enough to ask, and so on—but I don’t want to make trouble between you and Becky, either. You need to tell me what you’re all right with having Becky know about her grandfather. …

 

Comconsole mail (secured, level VB2): timestamp 04:17:52, verified sender Duv GALENI, verified recipient Laisa TOSCANE VORBARRA

…Sometimes I wish I’d been able to give up Komarr altogether and become Duv Galeni, an up-and-coming prole from one of the newly terraformed South Continent districts (I can do a damned good South Continent accent, on the rare occasions when it’s called for). Ancestorless, and thus with no more burdens passed on to my children than the ones I chose for myself. But there you are, choice is the issue, and I couldn’t have chosen that even if Barrayar had made it possible. Identification with Komarr is the one really distinguishing trait of my family, I suppose, from my aunt to her brother to me.

Sorry, Laisa, you really don’t need these dark-hours ramblings. These days I find that I sometimes need to have a few honest conversations with myself in the small hours, of the kind an ImpSec man is rarely permitted to hold with others, to keep my head on straight during the day.

You may be right that Becky, and Clem when he’s older, will have the right to know something of what their grandfather was. You are kind to put my relationship with Becky first; there are also other concerns, as you’ll have understood, and other people—primarily Mark Vorkosigan, who stands, for my sins, in the nature of an uncle to Becky and Clem—whose privacy must needs be protected. The line to walk is a fine one.

Here, then, are my conclusions—as head of ImpSec, as my father’s son, and as my daughter’s father—on what comes into the need-to-know loop, as you put it, for Becky at this point. (Seryozha as well, given that he understands the context.) Let me say also that I’m grateful that it’s you to whom this probably inevitable task has fallen…

 

Seryozha Vorbarra was not usually nervous of his mother. His father, sure. Not in the way some of his schoolmates talked about their fathers, who still had those Old Vor (or more-Vor-than-the-Vor prole) habits of taking belts to their misbehaving offspring, or making it clear that a son who scored lower than the ninetieth percentile on his Academy entrance exam might as well consider himself no son any more, or…no. His Imperial Majesty Gregor Vorbarra did not engage in corporal punishment (or have his Armsmen do it for him), and seemed to love his family regardless of what conditions applied, but…he was still His Imperial Majesty Gregor Vorbarra. Seryozha had never seen his father under extreme conditions—when occasional disasters happened, the kids were always shuttled off to their own wing—and thus felt, if anything, less confident because he wasn’t sure where Gregor’s boundaries lay.

Her Imperial Majesty Laisa Vorbarra, though, had always been the reassuring one in the family. She got mad easily, but she also cooled down fast and always explained why she’d been mad, something the Emperor was notably bad at. She laughed at things, but never at people, and she was good at coming up with new angles for problems (whether it was explaining to your little sister just how you’d come to break her toy jumpship, or writing a ten-page essay for your Modern History class without using any first-person pronouns). Also, she gave the best hugs on Barrayar.

But today he couldn’t feel reassured. They were in her office, with the light cream walls decorated with family artwork, meaning his own childhood finger paintings and Laura’s methodical pencil diagrams of jumpships and monorails and Reen’s watercolors (even at age eight, Reen was clearly way ahead of her older siblings on the art front). The late-afternoon light came in the window and lit up the glasses of tea on the table as his mother poured.

Laisa was in one of her usual trousers-and-bolero outfits, her standard compromise between Barrayaran and Komarran styles, in a silvery blue. Seryozha and Rebecca were both in uniform, having come straight from their respective schools. Rebecca, who not surprisingly seemed less tense than Seryozha himself, was tugging at the hem of her skirt and complaining pleasantly about her school’s refusal to admit trousers as part of the uniform— “and I’d go to the administration, but it really does seem like a request that would come better from someone without a Komarran parent. Not that they’d look on it with prejudice, my school’s pretty good that way, but they’d see it as a sign of a different culture.”

“As opposed to the natural trends of modern Barrayar,” Laisa agreed. “Maybe you can enlist some of your friends.”

“Especially the Old Vor ones, you mean? I’m working on it—Liza Vorsafina’s probably the best place to start, but it’s taking some time, and meanwhile we all have cold legs…”

Seryozha made a point of not looking at her legs, self-consciously adjusting the hang of his own stiff tunic. “Mother, Becca, if you feel you’ve accomplished sufficient small talk?”

They both blinked at him. “I hope your diplomacy is more practiced than that when it’s outside the family,” Laisa said mildly. “Fair enough. Have some cookies, both of you, and we’ll get started.”

The cookies were the fat triangles that Gregor called kolach and Laisa taschen cakes; Seryozha remembered regular parental debates over whether they were indigenous to Barrayar or brought there by Komarrans, not to mention whether the filling should be poppy seeds or apricot jam. He and Laura had always voted for chocolate, and there were examples of all three persuasions on the plate today. For once, though, he wasn’t hungry.

He took a chocolate one anyway, and bit into it in the hope of some useful endorphins. Rebecca had one with apricot, and his mother helped herself to the poppy-seed version and set it down on her plate without taking a bite. “All right. Let us get started.” And then, for some reason, she turned to Rebecca. “Becky, I want you to know I’ve cleared this discussion with your father, and he knows what you’re going to hear from me today—in fact, he gave me most of the details. Otherwise I wouldn’t have agreed to talk with you.”

Because he’s Chief of ImpSec, I guess, Seryozha had time to think, and then his mother took a deep breath and began, still facing Rebecca, “Your father’s father died twenty-five years ago, on Earth. He and your father had been…had been out of touch for many years, but Duv was there when his father died, through a…a complex series of events. They were never reconciled, though. Your grandfather found it…unacceptable, I suppose you could say, that Duv had joined the Barrayaran military and changed his name. You knew that your father was born David Galen, right?”

Rebecca nodded, a little stiffly, and cleared her throat. “…My mother calls him David sometimes.”
“Does she,” Laisa murmured, and then shook her head a little and kept on going. Seryozha thought about intercepting her, telling her wait, you’ve got the wrong grandfather, and then saw the look on Rebecca’s face—fright and intent mixed together—and stayed quiet with effort. He took a huge, tasteless bite of the taschen cake.

Laisa’s light pleasant voice, the Komarran accent still clear after twenty years on Barrayar, went on. “Duv…your father thought his father was dead by then. You know about your uncle who died, right?”

“…A little.”

“It was thought that your grandfather had died at the same time. Duv thought he had no more family to…well, that there was no one to whom he needed to justify going to Barrayar.”

Seryozha tried to imagine having no family. Father, mother, sisters, Grandma Lal and Granddad Victor and all their connections on Komarr, Rebecca and her family and the extended Koudelkas, Oncle Miles and Tant’ Ekaterin and their brood, the Vorpatrils and Grand’oncle Simon, Gran’tante Cordelia… . His impression of Rebecca’s father was one of respect and a certain amount of awe, the latter if anything augmented as he grew older and realized that in many ways he owed his own daily safety to Duv Galeni being good at his job. Had Uncle Duv felt unbearably lonely, with no family to report back to? Or finally free of all kinds of breathing down his neck? No, surely not that. Seryozha was certain already that even if he succeeded his father after Gregor’s death (not the abdication the Emperor had been mumbling about lately), he would never stop feeling Gregor Vorbarra looking over his shoulder. Family didn’t seem to be a removable factor.

(And how did this apply in his father’s case? he wondered, remembering the question he’d thought his mother was going to answer for him. Did Gregor feel Prince Serg the elder constantly with him as he carried out the Imperial mandate, or did it make a difference that Serg had died when Gregor was small and had never been Emperor? He guessed not.)

“So you can probably imagine,” Laisa was continuing, “that your father was pretty shocked when his father contacted him.”

“Here? On Barrayar, I mean?”

“No, this was on Earth. Duv was a military attaché at the Barrayaran Embassy at the time. Your grandfather would never have come to Barrayar…well.” Laisa sighed, and sipped her tea. “How much do you know, either of you, about the Komarran resistance movements?”

Seryozha and Rebecca looked at each other. “I know the Modern History teacher gets nervous whenever Komarr comes up in the curriculum,” he offered, figuring Becca could use a minute to process. “Okay, so Barrayar annexed Komarr, what, fifty years ago?”

“Fifty-six,” Rebecca corrected him, rather mechanically.

All the women in his life were more given to precision than he was. “Fifty-six, yeah. Not a bloodless annexation, unfortunately, meaning even more dissatisfaction among Komarrans than there otherwise would have been. At least that’s how the textbook tells it,” he added, watching his mother’s expression.

“The Barrayaran textbook, yes,” she confirmed, dryly. “Remind me to get your grandmother to send a sampling of Komarran high school textbooks over. I wonder if she still has mine? I’m told that the most recent editions no longer refer unquestioningly to Aral Vorkosigan as the Butcher.”

“Gran’tante Cordelia’s Count Aral.” Seryozha’s memories of Aral Vorkosigan were hazy. “Maybe the people who write the textbooks should talk to Gran’tante Cordelia?”

Laisa chuckled. “Very few people can run up against Cordelia and remain unchanged by the experience, textbook editors no less, I imagine. You can suggest it to her as a…what…fifth career? Well, anyway. The annexation—or invasion, as I was taught in school—and then the Solstice Massacre, in which, among others, Rebecca Galen died.” She looked at their own Rebecca, who nodded, indicating that she knew about her namesake. “Her brother, your grandfather, was deeply affected by her death—her murder. Or so I am given to understand. He became…he took up resistance against the Barrayarans.”

“Violently?” Rebecca asked, her voice calm.

“Yes,” Laisa said bluntly, and Seryozha swallowed. Nobody was paying attention to him. “He was a wanted terrorist. He raised your father up to be one too, until your uncle died and your grandfather disappeared.”

“And then my father went to Barrayar and changed his name and got his history degree and joined the Service,” Rebecca filled in, her voice still calm and steady. “And then he went to Earth and found out his father was still alive. And what happened then?”

“Complications ensued,” Laisa said very dryly, and Rebecca gave a small hitched giggle that sounded much shakier than her speaking voice. “It’s a long story and parts of it are classified, and other parts are none of anyone’s business but Duv’s own. In brief, your father…he had a chance to explain to his father why he was wearing a Barrayaran uniform and why he believed that was the right thing to do. Your grandfather…didn’t take it well. Other complications happened. One end result was that your grandfather was killed. And no, it wasn’t your father who killed him, I can tell you that much without any complications whatsoever.”

“And more questions on the topic are probably a bad idea,” Seryozha suggested quietly, in case Rebecca’s brain wasn’t working as well as usual.

His mother gave him a very steady look indeed, and then nodded. “At this point, I’m afraid so.” They both looked at Rebecca, who sipped her tea in steely silence.

“Why did…did Becca’s grandfather get in touch with her father, on Earth?” he asked. “If that doesn’t come under the category of more questions.”

“I don’t think it’s a question you shouldn’t ask,” Laisa replied, after a moment. “I’m not sure it’s one I can answer—partly because of confidentiality, but even more because I don’t know, none of us does. Duv keeps his own council on the subject, which is how it should be, and—I don’t know how much anyone really knows that, except for Duv’s father himself. He may have wanted to rescue his son from the Barrayarans. He may have wanted a loyal lieutenant with a lot of useful inside knowledge. He may have wanted to see his son’s face for the first time in years. I don’t know. We don’t know.”

After a moment, Rebecca put her teacup down and cleared her throat. “Thank you, Aunt Laisa. I can see why my father thought you were the right person to talk about this.”

Laisa stroked the back of her hand lightly, once. “I was honored to be asked. Are you okay, Becky? That’s a lot to take in at one go.”

“What, that my grandfather was a Komarran terrorist?” Rebecca sighed. “I don’t know…I mean…on Barrayar, I suppose it makes me just one of the folks, even. Look at how Oncle Miles talks about his grandfather, back with the Cetagandans. Or Oncle Dono about his…”

“It’s not all that uncommon on Komarr,” Laisa observed thoughtfully, pausing to take a first bite of her cookie. “Duv’s father was…a very extreme case. But there are a lot of so-called ordinary respectable people in my parents’ generation, say, who did their share of freedom fighting in their own way—marches, campus takeovers, seditious comconsole boards, the things Barrayar didn’t crack down on too hard because Aral Vorkosigan was Prime Minister by then…well. I strongly urge both of you to take a few Modern Galactic History classes in college, even if you stay on Barrayar.”

Seryozha watched as his mother poured herself more tea and Rebecca licked apricot jam off the corner of her mouth, and judged that the immediate crisis point was past. “How about my grandfather?” he asked mildly, heart beating harder.

Rebecca’s eyebrows quirked. Laisa looked surprised. “Your Granddad Victor? I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I get the sense that the most radical thing he ever did was proposing to my mother. He’s a businessman to his bones, not a rebel.”

“Like Oncle Mark,” Rebecca mused, and Seryozha happened to see his mother’s hand freeze in the act of reaching for another cookie, motionless above the plate. Before he could draw breath, she helped herself smoothly to a chocolate-filled triangle and smiled at Rebecca.

“Oh, Mark and Kareen may keep an eye on the bottom line, but they have their radical side, believe me. Ask your Tante Kareen—or better still, your Tante Martya—someday about the way the butter bugs came to Barrayar…”

“Actually I meant,” Seryozha plunged, “my other grandfather. Um, Prince Serg.”

Laisa hesitated. “…How do you mean, love?”

“I mean. Well. What was he like. Where did he fall on the scale from, you know, wanted terrorist to business tycoon.”

Rebecca snickered at that, and then put a hand to her mouth. “I might be a little bit hysterical,” she murmured apologetically, and ate another cookie as if to shut herself up.

“What he would have thought of, you know, me and Vorlaisner at school like I told you the other day,” Seryozha added in an incoherent rush, figuring he might as well get all his concerns out while he had the floor.

He was badly disconcerted to see his mother suddenly sitting a fraction straighter and placing her hands neatly on her thighs, fingertips together: the tiny gestures immediately transformed her from his mother into the Empress of Barrayar. “Seryozha, love, I can’t…I really can’t talk to you about the first Prince Serg. That’s for your father.”

“But you could talk to Becca about her grandfather instead of Uncle Duv? I mean—sorry, Becca, I don’t mean you’re—or your father—“

“I get it, shut up and let Aunt Laisa say her piece,” Rebecca advised him, patting his knee once firmly to reinforce the message. Seryozha swallowed hard and focused on his mother.

Laisa smiled at him, but she was still wearing the Empress. “There are some things it takes a Komarran to talk about, and others that only make sense to Barrayarans. If Aral—“ She stopped short, sighed. “If your Grand’oncle Simon were in better health just now, he might be the right person to talk to you about Prince Serg; they were the same generation. I’d rather not strain him, though. And in any case, I think your father has the right of first refusal.”

“What is it that takes such a complicated string of advisors to convey?” Seryozha mumbled.

“Don’t try to get around me that way,” Laisa scolded gently. “I’ll talk to your father, Seryusha, all right? After all, like Becky, you have the right—not to mention the need—to know your family history.”

Seryozha sighed. That was what he’d had in mind originally, after all. It was surprisingly bitter to be reminded that he didn’t have the nerve to bring the subject up with Gregor himself.

 

Nikki most often stayed at Vorkosigan House when he was onplanet, but this time one of his Vorthys cousins was on some kind of sabbatical and had offered them the use of the empty apartment. There were two sunny bedrooms, even if one was pretty small, and a tiny balcony looking out on Vorstarffin Avenue. Lin adored the view and wanted to be out there all the time, so he’d had to make a rule about no climbing on the railings, no matter what.

The living room was darker but had a big table with adjoining comconsole, good for wormhole maps and five-space calculation scratch paper, and a lot of floor space, good for games. Seryozha Vorbarra and Rebecca Galeni came in shivering on a weekend afternoon with rain turning to sleet, which at least meant that Lin wouldn’t be tempted to venture outside. Nikki hoped the ImpSec man and the Vorbarra Armsman wouldn’t get chilly waiting in the hallway, but they were probably used to worse. He turned the heat up a notch and sat the kids—no, not kids any more, they must be eighteen, God, how old was he getting—down at the table.

Seryozha bobbed up again right away, going over to crouch on the floor by Lin. “What you got, little one?”

“Nexus puzzle,” Catalin informed him seriously, blinking through strands of fine black hair. Nikki wondered if he should cut her bangs for her, or if they were supposed to be growing out; he’d have to remember to ask Marina the next time he sent a message to Escobar. Joint custody was complicated that way.

“From her step-great-grandmother,” he explained to Seryozha. “The Countess—“ he’d never learned to add ‘Dowager’—“figured it would help her understand where I’m at all the times I’m away piloting. Trouble is, she wants to know what all the different systems are like.”

“Why does that make trouble?” Rebecca asked, from her seat at the table.

Nikki grinned. “You know something about Jackson’s Whole, right? Tell me how I’m supposed to explain that planet to a four-year-old?”

Both his guests laughed. Seryozha ran his thumb lightly under Lin’s chin as if he were stroking a cat—she giggled—and came back to his seat. “It’s okay to talk about—this issue—in front of her?”

“At this stage, yes—she’s not old enough to follow adult discussions yet, unless they’re about something she’s really interested in, and this doesn’t qualify. Anyway, once she gets into her jigsaw puzzle she doesn’t pay attention to anything much else.”

“Well, it’s a very fine puzzle,” Seryozha offered, in a deadpan shot through with nerves. Nikki was unexpectedly reminded of Ivan Vorpatril and his ingenuous habit of applying levity to ease a situation along.  

“As the Countess says, if it’s worth doing…Well. Thanks for coming up here in the nasty weather, anyway, it was much easier for me than packing the little one up to head out, or explaining to Vorkosigan House why I needed some babysitting. I’ve talked with your father and I hope I can answer your questions, Seryozha. Becca, are you the ImpSec presence today?”

Rebecca’s eyes widened, for a moment. “It’s something of a joint project,” she answered, in that dry tone straight out of the Duv Galeni book of interviews—nature or nurture, Nikki wondered. “You could say we’re working on this grandfather problem together. Both having, you know, problem grandfathers.”

“You could also say she kindly came along to hold my hand, or that she’s got ImpSec level curiosity all right,” Seryozha interjected.

“Well, I’m given to understand that all the relevant parents have cleared it—“ and what would it be like to come from a family where security clearance wasn’t required to tell a family secret? He hadn’t been there since age nine. “—so, you’re welcome as by me. I’d have something for you to eat, but someone ate the last of the cookies this morning, I’m sorry to say.”

They both smiled. “We’ll do fine without,” Seryozha said. “Um…well then…”

“Right.” Nikki plunged in. “Okay, to begin with, your first question is probably along the lines of why your father sent you to have this conversation with me at all, when I’m not a relation—“ and thank God for that, I’ve mostly figured out being a step-Vorkosigan but imagine being blood kin to the Emperor—“and I wasn’t born when the first Prince Serg was around, any more than you were. Both of you have to have thought it through that far?” He waited for them to nod, Rebecca looking slightly amused and Seryozha still with that bland Ivan-look. “Well, take it a little further—if you haven’t already. Tell me why your father requested that somebody else talk to you about your grandfather. Work it out.”

“He doesn’t want to talk about my grandfather,” Seryozha responded immediately. “Not a hard one. But, first off, I don’t know why he doesn’t want to, and also—also, I don’t know how much he just doesn’t want to talk about it, and how much it’s me, specifically, he doesn’t want to talk about it to.”

“Get a decent speechwriter when you become Emperor,” Rebecca murmured. “You’ve got prepositions dangling all over the place.”

“Shut up, Becca,” with obvious gratitude. “How’m I doing so far, Nikki? Apart from the prepositions.”

“I’m a pilot, not a grammarian. You’re doing fine. Part the first is what we’re here to talk about, mostly, and part the second—well, it’ll come with the other. Be patient, though, because I need to start with the reason it’s me doing the talking, and it’s going to take time before we get to your grandfather.”

They both nodded again.

“Well. You both know that Miles is my stepfather, not my biological father, right?”

“Of course. Your name’s Vorsoisson, not Vorkosigan.”

“Yes indeed. He would have adopted me, but I thought I needed to hang onto the name. Do you know how my mother came to be married twice? No, ancient history as far as you kids are concerned, okay. My father died when I was nine. A breath mask accident on Komarr. His name was Etienne Vorsoisson.” So far so good, nothing that wasn’t in the public domain, nothing that he hadn’t explained to any number of classmates and colleagues and girlfriends over the years. Seryozha and Rebecca were making the usual polite noises, watching his face to see where this was going. Sharp kids. Well, what else would he have expected from Gregor and Laisa’s son and Duv and Delia’s daughter?

“Then again,” he went on, spinning the words out as lightly as he could, “they didn’t tell me right away, but his death wasn’t just one of those things. Accident, yeah, but nothing that simple. There was a lot going on right then on Komarr, and most of it is probably still classified to hell and gone—ask your dad, Becca, if it’s legal for you to know by now he can tell you—but my father was mixed up with the wrong people. He was stealing—embezzling, if you like the word better—and lying, and when it all went to hell he did everything he could to save his own neck without ever facing up to what he’d done. And he was always careless, stupid careless, and that’s why he died.” Pause to breathe. Seryozha’s face was blank, calm, careful. Rebecca looked as if she was thinking furiously.

“That’s what your father told me,” Nikki went on as steadily as he could, “when I was nine going on ten.”

My father?” Seryozha’s voice came out high, and he cleared his throat. “Why? I mean—not Tant’ Ekaterin or Oncle Miles?”

“They couldn’t. Classified, remember, and still outright dangerous. Even Miles keeps the rules when the alternative is getting people killed—except maybe himself, but that’s another story. Anyway.” Why was it impossible for Miles’ name to crop up in any conversation without going off on a tangent on another plane altogether? He could handle five-space just fine, he should be able to cope with Miles-space by now. “So if something is too classified to mention, who has the authority to talk about it?”

“…The Emperor,” said Rebecca and Seryozha together, disconcertingly synchronized, like a mismatched pair of twins.

“You got it. So Miles said to me, look, I can’t talk to you about this but I know a man who can, and took me in to Vorhartung Castle. Gregor sat me down and talked me through what I’ve just told you.”

“…So,” Seryozha said cautiously after a moment, “the Emperor—my father knows how to talk to people about their fathers. Just not about his own.”

“Yes and no. I’m not done with my part of the story.” Nikki wished he’d thought to lay in some tea, or wine. Or some of Miles’ godawful maple mead. Gregor, I didn’t think this was the way I’d be paying back what I owe you. “Now jump forward fifteen years, to me and Marina on Escobar after we got married, when we decided to have a child. We sat down with the doctor to make plans for the uterine replicator, and…I worked out my father hadn’t done right by me in another way, a much more personal one.”

(The doctor was a tiny old lady who must have been barely short of retirement; with her gnarled shoulders and creased brown face, she reminded Nikki of a nub of ginger root, and in fact he could never remember her full name and found himself calling her Dr. Ginger in his head. She had such a thick Escobar Norteno accent that at first he couldn’t understand half of what she said and had to let Marina handle the conversation, but intelligibility came with practice. And she certainly knew her business.

If anything, he was thankful that she was, in every way possible, not Barrayaran. It made it a little less difficult (even now) to say, well into the discussion, “Is it possible to confirm before birth whether the baby has any, well, genetic disorders? The thing is, I have this condition called Vorzohn’s Dystrophy. You probably won’t have heard of it, I don’t think it exists on Escobar. I know it can’t be treated until age nine or ten, but if we knew whether the treatment was going to be necessary or not…”

Marina was blinking at him; she knew about the Vorzohn’s, he wouldn’t have let her marry him otherwise, although “a genetic disorder which has already been treated” had clearly seemed to her like no big deal.

Dr. Ginger had screwed up her eyes to glare at him through the slits. “Indeed I have heard of it, young man, our practice here is not confined to our own planet, not like some backwaters. And I’m sure I don’t know what misapprehension you may be laboring under, but like most disorders of similar type, Vorzohn’s Dystrophy can be screened for at conception and, if necessary, treated when the embryo goes into the uterine replicator. Wait until age nine or ten, indeed!” Muttering something that sounded suspiciously like Countess Vorkosigan’s Barrayarans!, she scribbled illegible notes on her patient chart. “Now, moving on…”

Nikki didn’t remember hearing a word of the rest of that session.)

“After that,” coming back to the present, “I had a talk with m’mere when we came to Barrayar after Catalin was born, to introduce her to her namesake. She told me…a little more about what it was like being married to my father. Don’t get me wrong, he was no monster, he wasn’t much worse than foolish and selfish…but…I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say I’m proud to be my father’s son. And I hate him for taking that away from me.”

He heard Seryozha breathe in sharply, and looked at him.

“And that’s something you have in common with my father,” the heir to the Empire said softly, without a question mark.
“Seryozha…?” Rebecca, the logical thinker, was shaking her head at his intuitive leap, but he went on.

“If Prince Serg, the first Prince Serg, if he wasn’t…if there wasn’t something wrong, no one would go through all this to tell me about him. You went back to my father, didn’t you? Nikki? After you talked to Tant’ Ekaterin the second time.”

“Yes. Yes, I did.” That unexpected perceptiveness—what else did Seryozha see that he normally didn’t remark on? “We talked about…being in that position.”

“How did Prince Serg put Oncle Gregor in that position?” Rebecca asked, very quietly.

Nikki took a deep breath, and focused on her face rather than Seryozha’s. “In short? Among those in the know, it’s considered that the Escobarans did Barrayar the best turn they could have by doing away with Serg. He might or might not have been a responsible ruler, nobody can know—he’s said to have had an aptitude for math and logic which might have stood him in good stead—but in his private life, he was—“ he bit back a vicious, hedonistic sadist with no moral compass, the words Gregor had used in a clear toneless voice, and substituted “not admirable. He was unfaithful to Princess Kareen, for a start, and with, well, people who didn’t have a choice about saying yes or no to him.” He hadn’t consciously used people rather than women, but he just saw something flicker in Seryozha’s eyes. “The ways he amused himself…weren’t very amusing for others. I don’t know any of the details, nobody does at this point…maybe Simon Illyan still remembers some of them, God help him. Anyway, um, that’s why your father understood how I felt right then,” he finished lamely.

Seryozha said, in a toneless voice almost uncannily similar to the one Gregor had used, “Did he hurt my father?”

“No. They mostly kept your father away from him, from what I’m told, Princess Kareen and I guess whoever else was around—“

“My grandmother,” Rebecca volunteered crisply. “When she served the Princess.”

“Yes, of course. And Simon, and what’s his name, the one before Simon, and the old Emperor. But your father said that when they did meet, Prince Serg was always good to him.”

“Small favors,” Seryozha murmured. His eyes were half shut, his expressionless face making it impossible to tell whether he was thinking hard or simply stunned.

Nikki looked over at Lin, crawling cumbersomely around the finished corner of her puzzle to stick another piece in at the opposite edge. “Something else your father told me? We were both lucky in one way.”

(“Lucky?” Nikki had repeated incredulously, wishing Gregor weren’t so damn deadpan—would it kill the man to show you a fraction of what he was feeling. “How, lucky?”

“Your mother designed the garden out there.” Gregor nodded in the direction of the window, without looking out. “I’ve had the pleasure of spending a good deal of time with her in the process, and thereafter. And I’ve heard Miles talk about her, of course.” Briefly, they both grinned. “She’s someone I have no difficulty admiring. You don’t think that makes you lucky, having such a mother? And my mother—well. Unlike yours, she didn’t survive to find a Miles, or to see her first grandchild, but I am still proud to be her son.”

They waited while Kareen’s shade passed.
“And we’ve been blessed in other ways,” Gregor continued, almost briskly now. “I can’t imagine it’s all been wine and roses—or maple mead and skellytums, I suppose—growing up in Vorkosigan House, but would you really have missed out on Miles if you could choose? I had Aral—“ He stopped, swallowed, went on determinedly. “And Cordelia, of course, and Alys—all but diametrically opposite approaches, but both informed by love. And Simon, in his way. And others. Ask your mother the gardener about what nurture can do for nature. Or ask Enrique Borgos,” he added.

Nikki swallowed. “You mean, they could make us into Glorious Bugs?”

Caught off guard, Gregor snickered, a sound Nikki wasn’t sure he’d ever heard the Emperor make before. Just for an instant, he looked Nikki’s age, or even younger. “Heh. Yes, there could be worse ways to put it. Enrique knows all of them, I’m sure.”

“But—it’s not just—so you’re saying—it doesn’t matter?” Nikki heard his voice drift higher and took a breath, making himself think of the jump in all its wide, moving strangeness. “It shouldn’t matter—to me—if my father was a, a, a cowardly manipulative prick, or to you if yours was—“ He couldn’t go that far.

“A monster,” Gregor finished, with his customary gentle wryness. “Well, ‘doesn’t matter’ and ‘shouldn’t matter’ are two entirely separate propositions. I would say rather—and if this sounds facile, remember that I’m pushing fifty and I’ve been grappling with this since I was younger than you are now—that we owe it to ourselves, and to our children, to get as close to, well, glorious, as we can. Take the best of what we’ve been given, not the worst.”)

Finished recounting Gregor’s advice, Nikki looked at Lin, humming to herself through a hank of hair which she had started sucking on; he got up, went over and crouched down to ease the hair out of her mouth. “Mmm,” she said, half protesting and half giggling, and pushed her forehead against his collarbone like a friendly cat. He kissed the top of her head and disengaged himself gently to return to the table, where Seryozha and Rebecca were looking at each other.

“I had a hard time with that. I felt as if Gregor was letting me—us—off the hook. There was a lot of time to think about it that year, though, sitting up nights with Lin, and doing jumps.” He had long since learned not even to try explaining to non-pilots what the jump was like; there was no more meaning in it than trying to explain music to the tone-deaf, like that old line Miles used to quote about cats’ guts haling souls out of men’s bodies. “It came to me after a while that he was saying how hard it was—to take the best—not how easy it would be… . But you, though, Seryozha.” He looked away from the past and focused on the young man in front of him. “We’re talking about your grandfather, not your father. Even by blood, you have a lot of best to take—hell, like I said, I’m just a pilot, not a talker, but—“ He shook his head, impatient at himself for not coming up with the right words.

“It all comes down to the family you have, doesn’t it,” Seryozha said softly. “What you make of it.”

“What it makes of you,” Rebecca echoed.

Nikki looked at the two of them—Seryozha tall and broad-shouldered like the Vor, comfortably padded as the spare-framed Vorbarras had never been, dark hair not quite falling into his eyes. He really did look rather like Ivan, distant as the relationship was, but with a reserve in his expression, maybe even in his bones, that was un-Ivanlike. Rebecca was almost as tall—she got it from both sides of the family, after all—with her father’s coloring, dark hair braided halfway down her back, and her mother’s bone structure. Happily she’d avoided her father’s fleshy blade of a nose, but even so she looked like Duv in the dark hooded eyes that took in everything there was to see, out of a mixture of self-preservative caution and sheer joy in knowledge.

“You’ll make it all right,” he said. You Glorious Bugs. “You have any questions, after that, you know, not very coherent explanation?”

Seryozha sighed, deep and a little tremulous. “Nikki, thanks. Really, thanks. I’m glad—I’m really glad it was you who talked about all this. And that you think it’s—I’m okay.” He laughed faintly. “Talk about not very coherent... . The thing is, well, I do have one question. You said, um, the first Prince Serg—my grandfather—that he...he didn’t confine himself to Princess Kareen.” (An impressively graceful phrasing for an eighteen-year-old boy, Nikki thought, while trying not to wince at the word confine.) “Did…were his partners, well, were all of them women?” He was scarlet.

Nikki blinked, having expected the question to wind up on other lines altogether. “Well, no, I get the impression that there were men involved. I mean…in the Escobar invasion, from what Gregor said…there weren’t a great number of women around…” He bit his tongue, thinking of Uncle Vorthys’ old catchphrase. No artificial shortages, indeed.

The self-conscious despair suddenly visible on Seryozha’s face shocked him to the core. He felt a tinge of the vertigo he was used to on shipboard, those moments when the gravity cut out, just for an instant, and the deck seemed, not to pitch under your feet, but to have already been aligned far differently than what you’d taken it for. Me, Madame Vorsoisson’s little boy, a galactic, he reflected a little dizzily.

“That wasn’t what made Serg what he was,” he said, surprised at the gentleness of his own voice. “Galactically speaking—away from the Time of Isolation—who you go to bed with is pretty value-neutral. What makes the difference is who chooses, and how you treat each other once you’re there.” He thought about the cramped, cozy dorm room at piloting school, the weight of Jaume’s head on his shoulder as one or the other of them fell asleep over the endless five-space problem sets. Later there was the scent of Marina’s hair trailing across his face, new sweat and almond perfume, during those first weeks after they’d traded up her saggy old single grav-bed for a brand new double. It wouldn’t help to try and explain any of that to Seryozha and Rebecca, though; they’d have to get there on their own, jointly or severally. Still, he had once been coming from the same place.

Seryozha was nodding, his eyes focused somewhere around the day after tomorrow, until Rebecca touched his arm and he looked back at Nikki. “Okay,” he said, quietly, and they let it go at that for the moment.

The kids—the young man and woman, he corrected himself—made their exit quite soon after that, in a gentle flurry of small talk, Seryozha pausing to swing Lin upside down and make her shriek with delight, hair brushing the floor. He set her gently back on her feet and grinned sheepishly at Nikki before shaking his hand in farewell. Rebecca gave him something more like an analyst’s salute, which Nikki returned, amused.

The apartment seemed too quiet after that, even though the two of them had hardly been noisy. Catalin was pulling her completed puzzle apart, tossing the pieces up in little fountains. He ought to start thinking about her dinner, or do a little more work fine-tuning next month’s jump sequence. Instead, he sat down at the comconsole and began a message to Marina.

“Hi, Mari, it’s me. Lin and I are still in Vorbarr Sultana, we’re doing fine, she missed her trip to the park today because it’s raining…” Later he’d bring Lin over to the console so she could “talk to Mama,” the way comconsole messages were “talk to Da time” when he was jumping. For now, he told Marina Lin’s latest remarks and happenings, forgot to ask her about cutting Lin’s bangs, and went on with the usual line: “So you got the wedding planned yet?” imagining her usual, laughing response: “Don’t even have the bride-or-groom lined up.”

It was their regular, stubborn joke, once things had settled a little after Marina’s first declaration: You matter so much to me, Nik, but I need to find somebody who can be married to me all the time, right there with me. It’s not just that you’re away piloting a lot. Half your heart belongs to the jump.

And he had gone along, just asking her to promise they could stay friends, share Lin’s custody as far as his work permitted. He wondered with new sharpness how much of that quick compliance had come from his own need not to be his father.

His mother’s voice, cool and a little tired, rocking a sleepy Catalin as she spoke: Yes. Yes, I think he did love me. He clung to me as if I were his hope of heaven, but he never had anything else to cling to, and one way or another, for him, I think it added up to love.

That wasn’t going to be his way to love anyone. He was still working on the happy medium, though, between Tien’s death grip on Ekaterin and the pilots he knew who couldn’t really love anything but the jump. It all comes down to the family you have, he thought, echoing Seryozha, and wishing it was just that simple.

 

The big Vorbarra groundcar, logy with armoring, swished steadily through the tail-end of the rain. In the glasshielded privacy of the back seat, Seryozha looked out the window, hands clenched in his lap. Rebecca watched his profile, assembling information in her head for easy retrieval later, aware of the quivery strain around her stomach muscles that meant she’d had more of a shock than her brain was willing to admit.

“Becca—“ he said finally, still looking out as the car swung ponderously around the corner from Vorstarffin Avenue to Danilov Street. “Why is the whole thing such a black box? Nikki said he—the first Prince Serg—was good at math. Maybe that’s where Laura gets it?”

“Maybe,” Rebecca said, following him into medias res and clinging to her noncommital presence. “Or maybe she gets it from Aunt Laisa and your other grandfather, the family financiers. Or from both sides. Nikki said the first Prince Serg was good to your father, too. If you’re kind to your children—and you will be, duh—will you say that’s Prince Serg in you too?”

“Maybe,” Seryozha echoed her. “How can you tell? You can’t take an action, a feeling, and put it under spectrum analysis.”

“Don’t say that to Oncl’ Enrique,” Rebecca said thoughtfully, taking the chance to lighten the atmosphere a little. “He might take it as a challenge. Tante Martya says he’s easily bored.”

“She should know. Listen, Becca. Not right now, there’s university and…maybe eventually the Service and, I don’t know, other business first, but would you consider one day, um, marrying me?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You don’t have to look so offended. If you’d rather not, I withdraw the offer. The fact is, though, right now I don’t think I can ever…I mean, all this Prince Serg stuff, I’d have to go through it with anyone I wanted to have children with, which is to say anyone I planned to marry. Just for, you know, informed consent. I have a name to redeem,” catching his breath a little as if he hadn’t expected to hear himself say that. “And I honestly don’t think I could face going over all this again from scratch. You’ve been here the whole time, you know the score, how about it?”

“Seryozha Vorbarra…” Rebecca was laughing, in spite of herself, and it felt wonderful even though she wasn’t sure it was the reaction he’d had in mind. Still, there was an answering grin spreading across his face. “Stop blurting at me. I have it on good authority that your father gave your mother a ride on a beautiful white mare before he asked her to marry him. You’re slipping in the romantic proposals department, you know. Not living up to your father’s example.” That she could use the loaded words so easily made her wonder, momentarily, if he didn’t have more of a point than he knew.

“Fuck my father’s example,” Seryozha said. He couldn’t quite pull it off without going red over the cheekbones, but his voice meant business. “I can arrange for the white horse later on—when it stops raining,” he added, frowning out the groundcar window, “if you insist on it. You haven’t actually answered me.”

“No, I haven’t. I mean…Seryozha, I’m honored. Not because you’re the Crown Prince,” she added, watching his face. “Because of you.”
“It’s mutual,” he said seriously. “I wouldn’t have asked anyone else the same way. No matter how informed they were.”

“Thank you. Um. Look, I think I want to be ImpSec. An analyst. A civilian, for choice. I don’t want to give my blood and bone to the Service the way my father has, I want to know things, and make sure other people know them so the blood-and-bone quota can go down a little, so people don’t have to get blindsided the way we just have…” She gulped for breath.

“Now you’re the one blurting,” Seryozha said gravely, sounding a little unsteady; she wasn’t sure if he was trying to suppress laughter or tears. Possibly he wasn’t sure of it himself. “Should I take that as a no?”

“You should take that as a, I have priorities,” Rebecca said, perhaps a little over-firmly. “I have things I’m planning to do before I ever get around to even thinking about something like being Empress of Barrayar. Look at Gran’tante Cordelia, she was a Betan Survey captain long before she was ever Regent Consort or Vicereine. We’ll live long enough.”

Seryozha sighed. “I guess…that’s the fairest answer I could ask for. Only, Becca? When you do get around to thinking of it? I know you have to think about the Empress part…but…think about me, Seryozha—Serg—not just the Emperor—into the bargain.”

“Always,” Rebecca told him. “If I were Vor I’d give my name’s word on it. And that holds no matter what else.”

 

Her father was at home, which was unusual at this hour, even on one of Delia’s class nights. He was cooking, some kind of stew for the rainy day—she could already smell the garlic and paprika—and passed her the cutting board and a bag of carrots as she came into the kitchen.

“You didn’t bring Seryozha home for dinner with you? Didn’t your mother invite him yesterday?”

“He decided he had business with his father. They have an overdue conversation or two.” Rebecca began to peel the carrots, wondering if it would be one of the rare days when Gregor Vorbarra could make Da higher on his priorities than Emperor. Or maybe it would be the first (ever?) real conversation on Barrayar between an Emperor and an Emperor-to-be.

“I see,” Duv said, neutrally. He stirred the browning garlic, sending up more fragrance. “Keep us posted.”

“Oh, I will. If ImpSec doesn’t hear first,” she added.

Duv shrugged. “There are times when even ImpSec knows to turn a deaf ear. You’ve discovered that for yourself already, I think.”

“Have I?”

Rebecca’s father looked at her across the vegetables. “You remind me of Simon Illyan sometimes,” he said quietly. “Holding up the wall and observing, never giving anyone else anything to observe.”

She swallowed. “I might want to be Simon Illyan, I mean ImpSec, when I grow up.”

“Welcome aboard,” immediately and sincerely, making her catch her breath. “But be Rebecca Galeni first, and let people know it. There has to be a time sometime when a Komarran can go ahead and make his—her—presence felt.”

“…But you have,” Rebecca tried, after a moment. “And Aunt Laisa.”

“Not as what we were. Or what we would have been.”

“If you were still David Galen?”

“Do you think I’m not?” her father asked her.

“…I don’t know.” She put down the vegetable knife, playing absently with the neat carrot hexagons she’d made. “You have to ask somebody who knew David Galen and Duv Galeni both, I guess.”

“A tough proposition, Becky. There isn’t anyone who fills the bill. Even Duv didn’t know David for a while.”

“I guess not,” finally, trying to keep her voice steady. “Did you ever…I mean…did you miss him?”

“…Always.” Duv was looking at her, looking through her. “David. My brother. My father… .”

“What about your mother?” she asked, thinking suddenly that the last few days had been full of an overabundance of male ancestors. “My grandmother. What was her name, for instance?” She remembered a few holos of a slight woman with her father’s dark hair, face half hidden behind the baby—Duv, no David—in her arms.

Duv smiled at her, a much sadder expression than his customary dark look. “Before she married my father? Ruth Angyal.”

“And then Ruth Galen.”

“Yes…I suppose…perhaps she gave up one Ruth for another,” he said obscurely. “Faithfulness, rather than…Becky, did you ever think about why your brother’s name is Clement?”

“Well, for Grandkou, yes? I know he never liked the name, Grandrou likes to tease him about how you and Ma could hardly have named Clem ‘Kou Galeni,’ but…” It was clear that this obvious point was not what Duv was driving at.

“Yes, that, of course. But it was a…fortuitous name in that way. I didn’t…didn’t propose to name my son after my father. Instead we named him for…well, ‘Clement’…it’s Delia’s father’s name, yes, that was important, but have you ever looked it up in a dictionary?”

“Actually,” Rebecca said with some triumph, “I did. I was eight when Clem was born, and I had that big All the Languages of Barrayar dictionary that your Professora gave me for Winterfair, and I was looking up every word I ran across.”

Her father’s expression softened slightly. “Yes, I remember your mother had to stop you bringing it to the breakfast table…And what did you find?”

“Clement,” she repeated, summoning up ten-year-old memories. “Well, it’s an English or French word, an adjective, the noun in English is clemency—if Clem had been a girl would you have named him that?—and it means, well, forgiving, lenient, merciful.”

Duv did not speak, letting her hear the echo of the words in her own voice, her everyday Vorbarr Sultana accent with just the hint of her father’s metallic Komarran consonants.

“Mercy for whom?” she asked finally.

“For all of us who need it,” Duv said, very quietly. “Forgiveness…Ruth, in a new generation, possibly. Or not.” She remembered Laisa telling them that no one really knew why David Galen’s father had found him again. “Children are hope, not promises.”

Rebecca let the words expand slowly within her, a delicate bubble which burst soundlessly at her outer boundaries, its collapsed matter instantly forming a tiny dense presence like a neutron star at her center. She listened to it pulse for a moment longer before speaking. “I’m lucky you didn’t name me Pandora, then.”

Duv laughed at that, the sound she’d heard in the background of her life for as long as she could remember, harsh and warm at once, usually mixed with her mother’s bubbling chuckle. “We didn’t have to. Everyone’s child is Pandora. Every parent has gifts to give—and some gifts are…monstrous.” She thought of Laisa saying your grandfather didn’t take it well, and Nikki’s I hate him for taking that away from me.

He came around the counter to draw her into a quick hug—not one of his usual habits, even less so now that she was older—and released her as quickly. “Why do you think Seryozha was named Serg?” I have a name to redeem, Prince Serg’s grandson had said. “We look for the hope in all of you. As they looked for it in us…”

Rebecca looked at her father and thought of the grandfather and grandmother she would never know but through a glass darkly, and of her Grandkou and Grandrou. Their daughters, her mother and her three aunts by blood, and her three assorted uncles by (give or take a legality or two) marriage, and their children, and Clem. The other relatives-not-by-blood, mostly with Vor in front of their names—an unthinkable closeness even a generation and a half ago—and closest of all, Seryozha.

We look for the hope in all of you. Knowing herself born a vessel of hope made her feel fragile as glass, and—like the second-generation Komarran soletta, the one completed the year she was born—strong enough to shine.