“Kareen, was, I suppose you would call a true Vor.”
Cordelia expected these questions from her intensive study of youth grief counseling. From both the Betian and, what there was, Barriaran perspectives grief tended to reemerge during important milestones. The advice mostly wilted down to, be frank, age appropriate, do not lie.
The boy-emperor sat on the chesterfield with his legs folded under him. A military history book propped open on the armrest. Nearly a grown man. His face attempted to show dull curiosity but his eyes were focused on Cordelia and burning with interest. His voice carried a particular tone when one of these anemoiac moods.
He stayed silent and waited for more. She wracked her mind for tinder to feed that hungry fire. “What can you tell me about my parents?” Become “who am I?”
“Aral once asked me to become your mother’s confidant, Barriaran for friend. I regret not succeeding in that task.” She put a finger on her lip in thought and studied him back. “You have her bearing, very guarded. I admired her. I’m sure Drou would love to tell you more personal stories. When did you last speak to her?”
“Not recently.” Gregor thumbed the page over and glanced down at it before returning his gaze to the space above Cordelia's head. “What about my father?”
Cordelia's mouth snapped shut in reflex. Her two instinctive responses pulled in the same direction. The first to protect the secret of Escobar, prevent the civil war that would arise, and to bundle the boy away from the truth of his parentage that could only wound him further. She pushed them both down. All the political implications, filial and maternal-adjacent affection, and moral issues aside, he might already know the answers he was asking for. She met his eyes for a moment, the brightness was intensified by a watery glisten of unshed tears. Her silence already confirmed his own fears and he took a brave breath, poor boy.
She checked her impulse to stand and hug him to her. He was the age when it seems most important to be grown up, he would bolt like a deer.
“I met him only once. From the little I know, he craved what he saw as glory and was susceptible to unfortunate influences.”
“Was he mad?” The boy's voice cracked slightly and Cordelia decided not to notice.
“No, he was perfectly lucid in his sadism.” Gregor stayed silent for a long while.
“Do you know if- I suppose you wouldn’t. Drou? Would consider it a failure.” He seemed to be talking mostly to himself. Cordelia did not interrupt. She and Gregor cultivated an agreement of open frankness and confidentiality. She never attempted to replace his mother and foisted no expectations on him, a harbor the youth desperately needed. If her brother had children before his death she might have filled a similar role to them. “You’re Bettan-” He trailed off, hand up as if starting on a point but unwilling to finish his thought.
“I think my citizenship might have been revoked on charge of treason.” She jested to lighten the sour air.
“I thought you were a captured war hero.” He quipped back, “twice over if the pertendership counted as a war.”
Air cleared she ventured into the fray. “Gregor, Talk to me. How can I help?”
He thought for a moment. “I truly don't know. I admit to being tangled up in my own head. Perhaps if I lay it all out?”
She nodded accent and sat back in the sofa. He closed the book and his eyes as if doing difficult sums in his head. “I have a responsibility to the empire, to keep it stable and pull it into the current century. Even you must acknowledge I am the best positioned to do that.” He uncrossed his legs and sat straight as if balanced on the camp stool. “However, that power might exacerbate, should we say, hidden fault lines. If I fall in, whos to raise banner against me? Ivian would be a wonderful puppet for Miles but that's an intrinsically unstable situation. Not least of all because Miles is involved in any way. More to the heart of the matter, am I exaggerating the risk of possible damage or using this as an excuse to shirk what I truly, truly do not want?” He made gestures with his palms up and hands splayed as if laying cards out on a table.
“Do you want data?” She asked.
“Well,” she counted the points on her fingers, “you had none of the early signifiers of sociopathic traits growing up. Illyan hasn’t mentioned delusions. So if you’ve been reporting your fears to him you're clear on that account. You perhaps have traumas associated with early childhood violence however you haven’t displayed rage outbursts since you were 12. I would honestly be more concerned with internalized anger or self harm.”
“I think I learned my lesson on that account.”
“It's possible it will reemerge. If it does please call me or, someone. It’s the damn steel wall between the genders here. Corralling all the males into the military and training them to scent any emotion like blood in the water. If you find an opportunity to make a female friend without the marriage sword hanging over you, please do so.”
He looked suddenly uncomfortable.
She stopped. “Did I just put my foot in my mouth?” She asked.
His eyes traced lines in the drawing rooms ornate crown molding. “Yes but, that means Miles did not advise you on the entire, ah- affair. There are things about that I would prefer to keep confidential.”
“I won't pry him, but you were untangling?”
“If that concludes your report on my mental health Captain Naismith.”
“The summation. When you get back to the residence you can order the dossiers. I’ll promise not to embark on another tirade while you're thinking.”
“I’ve been thinking in circles for days. It hasn’t gotten me anywhere yet.” He shrugged. “My ancestors’ crimes, my mothers victimhood.” He feigned cool detachment, being a deliberately open book, hoping she would read between the lines. “I’ve gotten creative and started to wonder what my life would have been like if We were born female. Very short I suppose.” He wound down and the lull in conversation stretched comfortably as they both thought along the problem.
“I have something you should have, along with a story.” Cordelia said standing up and brushing a tuft of orange cat fur off her skirt. She made to leave the drawing room. “I’ll be back in an instant.”
When she returned he had resumed his pensive attitude and didn’t raise his eyes to her. She was afraid the moment had passed in her absence but as she set the little wooden box on the table beside him he looked up expectantly. “This might seem odd but what do you remember about your flight with Negri?”
His face screwed up. “Mostly false remembrances. Going over things till their threadbare, retelling them. I can’t remember what I remember and what I remember remembering if that makes sense.”
“Perfectly.” She drew out the shoe and placed it gently in his hand. “You had only one on when you landed. The other came off in your mothers hand when she grabbed for you. You told me that yourself. This is the one she kept, in a metal box in her dresser, so it survived the fire.”
His mouth opened in a silent “oh” She gave him a minute and pressed on in a gentle voice.
“If it's a war hero ancestor you want, your mother fits the bill. She dealt with the cards she had, and won. You, alive, happy, free. That's her victory over Serg or over Vordarian, Ezar, the whole ravenous planet.”
She saw a few drops fall on to his hand, clutched over the little shoe. She hovered unsure if she had done right.
“Happy.” He murmured “Free?”
“Ah- yes.” She placed a hand carefully on the chair next to his. His relaxed and opened, palm flat on the leather armrest. She placed her hand over his and squeezed reassuringly. Larger than hers own already. Grown so big so fast. Kareen, your little one is breaking my heart. Isn’t there anything I give for a balm?
“I’ve always secretly hoped you would write a constitution and retired to cut ribbons and make speeches.” She had promised Aral she would never undermine the emperor's authority but a higher vow was being served. “It would take years if you wanted to avoid a war but you have power. Power comes with choices. You can always choose to walk away when something is hurting you, partner, friend or empire. The people who say you can’t just want you to fix their problems for them.”
“I have a responsibility.” He repeated.
“If you choose to take it up then yes, you will. It will be a bit like adopting a child, only with gunships instead of markers.”
“A legacy then, to live up to.” He stood up suddenly startling her. “Lady Vorkosigan you have given me a lot to think about.”
She counted back the conversation to find the misstep and found nothing, it would certainly come to her some time in the next few days, far too late. He turned back, the little bundle stuffed into his jacket pocket, hand protective over it.
“Thank you, for speaking with me. I am going to gather a bit more information before I make any permanent resolution. Is there anything you think I should know?” No, there are things I think you should unknow. He was back to hiding behind formalities. That “Lady Vorkosigan” hadn’t been a stake driven through her deliberately then, just a shelter for pride open too long to the air. She sighed.
“If you want to know the whole story ask Illyan for it. Not the official version, he knows the whole thing. Only, I doubt there's a file on it so you might want him to write it down.” I got your mother killed and my husband murdered your father, mistakes and choices. He raised an eyebrow waiting for more suggestions he knew were coming.
“Don’t read it alone. Talk to Dou. Two birds.”
He nodded and left the drawing room.