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The King's Quarrel

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I. Memories

Da says that if anyone asks about Uncle Ges, Donna should just say he was killed in the war, and not go into any more detail. This is the first hint Donna has had that there might be any more detail, and she’s dying of curiosity, but Da won’t answer questions, and Pierre doesn’t want to talk about Uncle Ges. It’s really Pierre’s fault that Donna never even met him properly.

Being in mourning means she gets to wear real clothes to school, instead of that stupid uniform. She expects that having an uncle killed in the war will make her important, but when she gets to school she sees that almost half of the girls in her class are wearing mourning, so there is nothing very interesting about Donna.

When she comes home that day, Da is drinking prickly-pear brandy and arguing about the funeral with Uncle Jaques over the comconsole. Fine, he says, go and spit on his grave if you want to, but just go … Because I’m the head of this family and your District Count, that’s why, and under the circumstances we need to keep up appearances.

In the end Uncle Jaques does turn up at the funeral, with By and little Julia in tow, although he isn’t wearing his House blacks. Donna and By hide behind one of the monuments afterwards, to see if he really will spit on the grave, but they can’t catch him at it.

* * *

“Ivan darling, you’ve had four drinks in the last hour. We’re taking a groundcab.”

Ivan grumbles a bit about having to retrieve his car in the morning before the municipal guards start issuing tickets, but Donna stands firm, and he doesn’t put up too much of a fight. Ivan is biddable, which is one of the qualities she likes in a young man. He goes along with nearly everything.

She wonders, sometimes, if he really likes being an officer at all or if he just went along with it because it was what one did; but she hasn’t asked. It isn’t serious. He’s too young, and she is certainly not the sort of person who would make a suitable Lady Vorpatril. Besides, after two marriages that didn’t work out, she is very much in the mood for not serious.

There is a long queue for cabs, and they overhear fragments of conversation from the people in front of them. She was a widow when she met him, you know, first husband died at Escobar. Not much of a loss, from what I’ve heard…

“’Sfunny,” says Ivan, once they are in the cab, “everybody always says that about people who died at Escobar.”

“Do they?”

“’Strue. Seems like everyone’s got an uncle or a cousin or a neighbor’s da or something, and whenever they mention it, they always follow up with but really, he wasn’t much of a loss. It makes me wonder –” and by now it is clear that Ivan is very drunk, because he doesn’t ordinarily let people know he thinks this much or this deeply – “do they feel like they have to say that because it was such a fiasco? If I get killed in some stupid war that ends in defeat, is everybody going to say oh well, it was only Ivan, he wasn’t much of a loss?

I had a brother who died at Escobar,” says the cabbie. “He really was kind of a bad lot, though. Nearly went to jail, but our ma had a friend in the Guards who pulled a few strings.”

“See what I mean?” whispers Ivan, and Donna doesn’t have the heart to argue that she has reason to believe her own uncle was also a bad lot. She promises, instead, that she would never say Ivan wasn’t much of a loss, and because Ivan is very young and thinks himself in love, that seems to satisfy him.

II. Histories

Donna wondered, sometimes; but she never had the resources to do a proper investigation. Count Dono does.

Count Dono has a full-time Director of Research and Communications. This somewhat grandiose title belongs to a man named Gene McSorley, who is perhaps not entirely a success at the communications part of his job. Dono always has to tweak the speeches he writes to make them slightly less radical. But Gene also happens to be a retired ImpSec man, which makes him quite good at the research end of things.

Dono frames it as a commemoration project to mark the fortieth anniversary of Escobar. Interviews with all the survivors in the District. (As Count, Dono naturally has a full list of those receiving pensions.) Oral histories of the dead, while there are still people around who knew them. Perhaps a book will come out of it; in any case, the material will certainly be a useful addition to the District archives.

Gene does not look as if he finds the project very interesting, but he dutifully begins to collect oral histories.

* * *

“You’d better cancel the commemoration,” growls Gene two weeks later. “As far as I can make out, everyone who died at Escobar was a juba-fiend, or a violent drunk, or a pedophile. About the most positive thing anyone seems to have to say about any of them was sure, he was a jackass, but he was our jackass and he could be a bit of a laugh as long as you didn’t let him alone with your sister. I don’t think that’s a quote for the coffee-table book, exactly.”

“Interesting,” says Dono, who has a pretty good poker face. “What do you make of it?”

“I’ve no idea. But I don’t like it.”

“How many people have you interviewed?”

“Twenty or so. Family and friends of maybe twelve or fifteen of the dead? If you want exact figures, it’s all in my notes.”

“Well, keep on with it. Let me know when you find someone with a good story that would go over well at a ceremony.”

* * *

Gene does, although it takes him longer than it ought to. Andrei Roubaix, by all accounts a model son and brother, sincerely mourned by his surviving family members, his fiancée, and a large circle of friends.

“Roubaix,” says Dono thoughtfully. “The name’s familiar … There’s a plaque with his name on it in Vorhartung Castle, that’s what it is. He was a staffer, and then I guess he got war fever and enlisted.”

“Whose staffer?”

“The Minister of the West, I think.” That sounds right – it would make sense that the Minister of the West would hire a young man from the west – although Dono can’t swear to it. He might have given the plaque more than a passing glance if he’d known that Roubaix was a District boy.

* * *

The Vorhartung Castle archives prove more informative than the plaque itself. Roubaix had worked as a speechwriter. His crowning achievement, before his enlistment and death at the untimely age of twenty-four, had been a series of addresses to the Council of Ministers urging immediate action against Escobar. Evidently he’d believed what he was saying, enough to join up himself.

“You could make the case,” says Dono, “that he was one of the architects of the war.”

Gene snorts. “You’re assuming people listen to speechwriters. I’m not sure they do anything of the sort.”

I listen to you,” says Dono. “Very closely, most of the time.”

Gene mutters something under his breath that sounds like “Could’ve fooled me.”

* * *

In the park outside Vorhartung Castle, there is what used to be an equestrian statue of Emperor Yuri. The Yuri part was pulled down and melted shortly after the emperor’s death. The plaque beneath the statue currently reads, simply, “HORSE.” Off-world tourists often assume it is a statue of the famous Lord Midnight, and Dono has even overheard one or two of the younger tour guides repeating this belief.

He wonders, idly, whether it would become a statue of Lord Midnight someday, if everyone in some far distant future believed that it was. He realizes how weird this thought is, and shakes his head to clear it. He is tired. Too much time in the archives.

* * *

“What did they teach you about Escobar, at school?” Dono asks Olivia, who is young enough to have learned about it at school.

“The way my teacher taught it, it was mostly the story of the War Party,” says Olivia. “How they pushed for it, agitated for it, and how it ended up completely destroying them. A sort of be careful what you wish for tale.” Olivia thinks about this some more. “Of course, she always wanted history to mean things. I’m not sure I believe that any more.”

I think history means things,” says Dono, “It’s made by people, and people usually do mean something when they make decisions, don’t they?”

“I mean, she always wanted history to have a moral.”

“Yeah. It probably doesn’t have that.”

Mostly. But Olivia’s old teacher was sort of right, Dono thinks, in that there seems to have been a rough sort of justice underlying what happened at Escobar.

Once upon a time, men had seen that sort of justice as divine.

… some peradventure have on them the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder; some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with pillage and robbery. Now, if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God; war is his beadle, war is vengeance; so that here men are punished for before-breach of the king’s laws in now the king’s quarrel…

But Emperor Ezar hadn’t believed in God; he’d said so. Often, according to people who had known him.

An idea occurs to Dono, and he draws in his breath. It is fantastic, improbable; it is also wholly consistent with the character of Emperor Ezar, as it has been described to him. But if it is correct, the Emperor must somehow have miscalculated and sacrificed his own son.

History has a moral, indeed. But it passes belief that an Emperor so meticulous in his planning could possibly have blundered that badly. It seems the stuff of fiction, of some ancient tragedy: Let them fight that will / For I have murdered where I should not kill.

* * *

“Oh no,” says Olivia, when Dono confides his theory to her, “of course it’s not possible. Because surely Uncle Aral would have had to know, wouldn’t he, and he would never…”

A slight pair of frown lines appears on Olivia’s forehead, and Dono recognizes – because Olivia always thinks a great deal more than she says – that she is wondering, after all, whether Uncle Aral would. Given the right circumstances.

* * *

Gene McSorley seems more willing to accept the possibility, though Dono thinks this springs from a general cynicism about emperors, rather than any great faith in Dono’s intuition.

“In a weird way,” says Dono, “you almost have to admire it. It shows a … remarkable commitment to justice. On a grand scale.”

Gene says nothing, but before the day is out, Dono finds the transcript of one of the District interviews on his desk.

He wasn’t always like that. When we were courting, he was the kindest man you could hope to meet, and when our first boy was born, he was thrilled. He loved playing with the baby, and little Denis loved him too. As soon as he could walk, he used to go running to the door to see if his Da was coming home…

Komarr changed him. He was a different man when he came back. Angry, even when he wasn’t drinking, which he usually was. That’s what’s always hurt me the most, that the children don’t remember a time when they weren’t afraid of their da, even Denis. I hate to say it, but it was kind of a relief when he was killed, and of course the widow’s pension was a help…

“Justice,” says Gene, quietly, ironically.

“Reparation, then,” offers Dono. It throws the death of the Emperor’s own son into a different light; a family broken for other families broken, a strange sort of expiation. This explanation seems more plausible than happenstance; still, something keeps tugging at his mind.

III. More memories

“The interesting thing about King Lear,” says the burly roughneck on the next bar stool, “is that at the beginning of it everyone is already fucked.”

“Really,” says Dono, consciously keeping the upward lilt out of his voice. He knocks back the rest of his pint of lager at a gulp and signals for another, the way he’s seen workingmen do, with the barest hint of eye contact with the bartender and a tap of the thumb against the glass. If he can pass as a proper man here, he thinks, high society is going to be easy.

Only on Barrayar is one likely to be treated to an exposition of King Lear at a dive bar. Oh, Dono thinks, the egalitarian world of Beta had its charms, but it’s good to be home.

“Uh-huh. ‘Cause they say dividing the kingdom is Lear’s big mistake, but when you think about it, it ain’t like the king’s got any good choices, y’know? He can stay king, but he’s old and going crazy. If he leaves the whole shitshow to Cordelia, who’s the only one that’s got any business being queen, the other two sisters are going to be pissed, and it ends in civil war. Or if he goes with primowhadjacallit, it all goes to Goneril, and maybe he’s hoping Albany can keep her in line, but really that’s gonna last till she finds herself a new boy-toy and poisons Albany. If that long.” The stranger takes a swallow of beer. “Way I see it, the only way out is not to have a kid like Goneril in the first place. Or he could have poisoned her. Her and Regan, both.”

Dono ventures to suggest that most parents have a certain natural reluctance to go around poisoning their children.

“Yeah. That’s why I don’t hold with having any kids at all. You never know what you’re gonna get, and by the time you do know, it’s too late to do anything about it.”

* * *

“Is By all right?” asks Olivia.

It is the second Winterfair of Dono’s countship, and they are celebrating it in the proper style, with a flurry of guests and lights and music. Of course there are political negotiations going on under the surface, but the undercurrents are not so treacherous as last year, and Dono feels a certain freedom to enjoy the season and the company of friends.

He watches By for a while, and comes to the conclusion that he is probably not all right. Oh, he seems cheery enough, effervescent even, buoyed by floods of champagne. He flits from one group of guests to another, full of bright, witty, and inconsequential conversation.

The aunt that Dono doesn’t remember is said to have been in that sort of mood right before she melted her face off with a plasma arc.

He takes By off to his private study, makes him drink enough that his defenses are really down, and finally says, “There’s nobody here but me, and I know perfectly well what you are, so tell me what it is that’s been getting to you.”

“I wish I could,” says By, startled into candor, and then shakes his head. “Can’t. Maybe in thirty years when it’s all declassified.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.” By favors him with a crooked smile. “It’s just one of those … situations. They come up from time to time, and there isn’t any real question about what one needs to do, it’s just a matter of going through with it.”

Dono splashes a little more wine into their glasses and leans back in his armchair, inviting further confidences but not forcing them.

“I had … somebody who was something of a mentor, when I first started. He told me a bit about how he got his start. He’d sort of stumbled into it. He was a teenage runaway, and he happened to overhear a couple of sexual assault victims planning to take revenge on the man who’d done it to them, and he reported it. And, just like that, he had a job, and the people he’d overheard were never seen again.”

“Ah.”

“This case … it’s shaping up to be a bit like that. Not in the particulars, of course. Nor is it quite as bad. I hope.”

“Is this man still … around? Your mentor, I mean?”

“Yes.”

“Go and tell him about it. Will you do that for me?”

“I don’t do counseling,” he says, and then, “Yes.”

IV. Questions

It occurs to Dono, now, that there could have been only a few people important enough that plotting against them would be sufficient grounds for disappearing someone. Ifhe, a sitting Count, were to sexually assault someone, it would of course be illegal to plot vigilante justice against him; but surely the conspirators would be arrested and given an open trial, without any regard for any scandal that might fall on Dono.

That leaves – who? The Prime Minister, perhaps; Imperial Auditors; and members of the Emperor’s immediate family. And he’s only really sure about the last one.

He’s pretty sure By can’t have made that inference, or he would never have retold that story no matter how drunk he got.

* * *

He stands in the doorway of the room where his children are sleeping. They have both nearly vanished under heaps of stuffed animals, which is how they like to sleep these days. The mastodon, which is little Pierre’s favorite, has fallen off the bed. Dono picks it up and tucks it back into Pierre’s arms, and kisses him on the brow.

Fatherhood, he thinks, meant something different back in the old days. You didn’t necessarily spend much time with your children, especially when they were small; that was women’s work. Still. Could any father …?

What if, he thinks, one of them grows up to be just like Richars? Could you leave the District in his charge, knowing who and what he was?

Several possibilities crowd into his mind: that’s what Count’s choice is for; there are surely therapists who could help a budding Richars, off-planet if not here; the people of the District have their freedom, and can get away.

Suppose you lived in a world where none of those possibilities existed, and there was only one possible heir. What happens to the District then?

He thinks he might let the District go to hell, and that startles him, because he would have said that the welfare of the District mattered more to him than anything else, more than his own family. He dislikes catching himself in hypocrisy, but there it is.

* * *

He floats a different version of his theory to his brother-in-law Duv, claiming that he had heard it from one of his tenants, just to see what Duv will say. The mastermind in this version is not the Emperor, but rogue members of the anti-war party; Dono supposes this will make the whole theory sound less crazy.

Duv smiles indulgently and explains all about the psychology of historical conspiracy theories. People are naturally pattern-hunters, he says, and they like the illusion of knowing things other people don’t know. Then, too, there are people who are distrustful of authority, and take great delight in believing things that experts claim to be impossible.

“I suppose this one is impossible?”

“Oh yes,” says Duv, and offers several perfectly logical reasons why rogue members of the anti-war party could not plausibly have masterminded the events at Escobar. None of them, unfortunately, precludes the possibility that the Emperor himself might have done so.

“So I should go back and tell him that?”

Duv shakes his head. “I wouldn’t bother. Generally, if you refute one conspiracy theory, people who think that way will move right on to the next. They’ll happily tell you in one breath that the defeat was arranged by the anti-war party, and that the whole war was faked and the defeat never happened at all.”

* * *

Have you … er … changed your ideas about what happened at Escobar?” asks Olivia afterward. (Poor Olivia, Dono thinks; she would be the one to spot it if he ever did go mad, and she would have to decide what to do about it. Given the Vorrutyer family history and Olivia’s own Olivia-ness, she has surely rehearsed the possibility in her own mind, without telling anybody about it.)

“No. It’s just, one doesn’t make those kinds of accusations against emperors in public. Even dead ones.” Nor living viceroys.

“I think you ought to ask Uncle Aral about it,” says Olivia suddenly. “I mean, not over tightbeam of course, but one on one, next time he’s here.”

“Do you really think he’d tell me?”

“I don’t know. But I think it’ll drive you crazy if you never ask.”

V. Possibilities

He never does ask, because as it turns out there isn’t a next time he’s here, and with Count Vorkosigan dies any chance of certainty, because even if he has confided anything to his widow or sons, Dono isn’t about to ask them. There are a few other people who might know, such as Simon Illyan, but it doesn’t seem right to ask them either.

He goes home after the funeral, pours himself a stiff whiskey, and goes back to work: there are various drafts of speeches awaiting his approval, as well as a design for a banner reading “YOUR COUNT VOTES,” intended for the next District listening session. (The slogan is Gene McSorley’s work. It is true that Dono has an excellent record of being present for Council votes, but – knowing Gene as he does – Dono suspects it might also be intended as a subtle reminder to the people of Vorrutyer’s District that they do not get to vote. He approves it, regardless.)

Don’t drink, he thinks, legislate. He’s good at that.

He considers what sort of laws might plausibly have prevented what he thinks-might-have-happened, looks up some historical precedents, and hammers out a draft.

* * *

“If we had a proper democracy,” says Gene, when Dono gives it to him to look over, “there would be no need for any of this.”

“We sort of do have a democracy now, it’s just that people vote by moving to a new District. It’s – it’s like extreme caucusing.”

Gene looks unimpressed by this line of argument. They have had this conversation before, and it never really goes anywhere.

“Anyway,” says Dono, “it’s possible to elect someone who becomes unfit for office. Or, for that matter, to elect someone because he’s unfit for office. I don’t believe any form of government is a guarantee of anything in particular.”

Gene alters a word or two, shrugs as if unwilling to expend more effort, and hands the draft back. “You’ll never get it through the Counts, you know.”

“No. I expect not.”

* * *

“What you are proposing,” says Count Vorhalas, tottering into Dono’s office and leaning heavily on his cane, “is little more than legalized revolution.”

Dono looks him over. He owes his Countship to Vorhalas, and – despite agreeing with him about absolutely nothing else of political substance – he rather likes the old man.

“I think we’ve always had legalized revolution,” he says slowly, looking out to the statue of HORSE, “it’s just that we usually legalize it after the fact.”

“Right. That’s how it ought to be. Bad mistake to encourage it.”

He thinks of telling Count Vorhalas that a spot of legalized revolution might have saved his brother’s life, and decides it will come across as cheap point-scoring. In any case, he will not be believed. (Besides, it’s entirely possible that Count Vorhalas hadn’t liked his brother, given the general tenor of Dono’s discoveries about the Heroes of Escobar.)

“Well,” Dono says instead, “as a member of the loyal opposition, I shall rely on you to make that case.”

Vorhalas nods, and goes out. Respect.

* * *

“I doubt very much,” Dono says over and over, to a great many people, “that it will ever be invoked save in the direst of circumstances. It requires a two-thirds majority in both Councils. Have you ever known two-thirds of the Counts to agree on anything?

To be fair, though, something close to two-thirds of them seem to agree on this: that it is a dangerous idea to allow two-thirds of the government to depose an Emperor, or an Emperor’s heir, for a concept as nebulous as unfitness for office. The bill languishes for a while, with no one willing to sign on as co-sponsor, and then Dono unexpectedly finds himself invited to tea with the Emperor.

* * *

Gregor’s expression, as usual, gives nothing away. Dono rather wishes that Lady Donna had slept with the Emperor when she had the chance. People were never such absolute closed books after you’d been to bed with them.

One thing that does seem to be a signal is that the two princes are present. The little one is at play under his father’s desk, oblivious to it all; the eldest, an oddly solemn boy of eight, pretends to be absorbed in a book but watches his father’s visitor curiously from behind it. The girls are nowhere to be seen. (Dono notices when girls are absent.)

“I do not, as you know,” says the Emperor, “ordinarily intervene in party politics, save to cast the occasional tie-breaking vote. I have decided to make an exception for this particular bill, as it directly affects me and mine.” His eyes flicker toward the children.

Dono prepares to justify himself, to apologize; he starts off by saying something about having looked at a number of precedents from other governments, at various times –

“I was aware,” says the Emperor dryly. Of course he was; one underestimates this Emperor’s knowledge of history at one’s own peril.

Dono starts on his well-practiced spiel about how improbable it is that two-thirds of both Councils will agree that some hypothetical future Emperor or heir is unfit for office unless he really is unfit.

“I was aware of that, too.” Gregor looks steadily at him, and Dono resists the impulse to squirm. “I suspect, looking at the same precedents, that this law will run into the opposite problem. Considerably more than a third of your hypothetical future Counts and Ministers will probably be all too willing to leave a manifestly unfit Emperor in place, as long as it serves their own ends to do so.”

“You’re probably right, Sire,” Dono admits, and then it registers, belatedly, that Gregor has said law and not bill, will and not would. Emboldened, he suggests, “But it would be … a bulwark of sorts, wouldn’t it? One that may possibly prevent a tragedy.”

“Indeed. I hope so, at any rate. I do not anticipate, by the way, that you will have any difficulty getting your thirty-one votes. The two who come before me in alphabetical order may be a lost cause.”

Well, it’s a good thing the Vorzyncke family didn’t end up as emperors, Dono thinks, wildly – and then, Does he know? It is not a question that can be asked, and the man’s face is impassive.

“Thank you, Sire,” he manages, in an only-slightly-strangled voice.

“Thank you, Count.”

He must know. Or suspect. Or does he? Dono resigns himself to the fact that he will never know, not for certain, and stops to play with the children on the way out.