Gregor had been beyond ready for the day to end so when his personal secretary hesitated at the door his heart sank.
“What is it?” He asked as his brain started to come up with multiple possibilities, all of them horrible.
The man was too practised and professional to wince, but Gregor’s thought he could hear one in his voice anyway, as he said. “There is one more petitioner sire.”
“We’ve reached the end of the list.” He disagreed as if he really thought that would make any difference when he was quite aware that the theoretical schedules of his life could be thrown aside by external forces.
“That’s correct sire. Only she wasn’t on the list. Lady Sonia Vorpatril turned up and requested a meeting at your convenience. Said she was happy to wait until you were done with,” The man’s voice went a shade dryer, “I believe she called it your actual work for the day.”
This wasn’t exactly worse than he had expected as Gregor was able to imagine a great number of bad things, and this didn’t necessarily mean further death, but he was disappointed nonetheless.
Miles had the ambition and lack of caution for treason but Sonia had always seemed more interested in the latest fashions than in politics. He wasn’t even convinced she knew who any of the government of Barrayar was except for her direct relations. Though her relations were rather the problem right now. Still, the Vorkosigans must be worried indeed to send her to plead their case, when all indications he’d had from Lady Alys suggested her daughter took every chance to run away from responsibility.
Though given responsibility in Lady Alys’ mind tended to be code for marriage he couldn’t begrudge his much younger cousin that when Gregor was doing exactly the same thing. From the same woman even.
A chill ran through him at the reminder that Lady Alys’ own allegiances hadn’t been proven clean yet, and he couldn’t help but wonder whether if he’d agreed to marry one of her candidates he would have found himself dead the moment there was a new baby heir for Aral to be regent for.
None of that made him any keener on talking to Sonia right now, “Did you not tell her there are proper channels for if she wanted to request a meeting?”
As if Lady Alys’ daughter could be unware of that, and indeed Sonia was quite capable of contacting him informally if she wanted to too. He had given her his comconsole number though she’d never used it, whether because she’d lost it, or whether because young university students having fun had no time for older harried cousins trying to be emperor of three planets.
His secretary wasn’t cowed, “I did attempt to suggest so, but she said she didn’t want to go through her mother, and her being your cousin I felt it proper to bring the matter to you.”
Gregor stilled, “She wanted this kept from her mother?”
“She said she preferred it to be so, though she acknowledged that was ImpSec’s decision not hers.”
Well then that begged some questions. Either Lady Alys wasn’t in on it and Sonia was, Lady Alys was and Sonia wasn’t or had refused to be and was coming to him with her concerns, or Sonia had got into some completely separate sort of trouble and was trying to hide it from her mother.
Yet she by bringing it up in this manner she had chosen to bring it to the Emperor and not to her cousin.
Gregor had quite the imagination but he couldn’t fathom what sort of trouble Sonia could be in that was an imperial matter that wasn’t related to the current mess. He supposed with her likely place in the succession she could be a target for someone but ImpSec should deal with that sort of thing.
If he could trust ImpSec.
Regardless trying to imagine that it was about anything other than Miles felt like he was trying to trick himself into hope. He sighed. “Did you tell her any pleas about Miles should go through the proper channels?”
“Yes, she said it wasn’t to do with Lord Vorkosigan.”
“Well.” All he could do was see what happened. “Let her in and We shall see what she says.”
Sonia kept her head down as she came in the room and dropped to a perfect if deeper than usual formal curtsey once clear of the door.
She rose, and looked up at him and for moment he was struck by her resemblance to his memories of his mother. He forgot sometimes that they were related through their mothers as well as on the Vorbarra side. He’d never noticed any similarity there before. Or none beyond that which existed between any High Vor; tangled together as all the families were, anyway.
Now though; something in her posture, and the failed attempt she was making to conceal the clear fear on her face, looked just how he remembered his mother had asking for something, he couldn’t recall what, from his father or grandfather. He’d never expected that expression to be turned on him by Sonia.
He’d never wanted it to be, and he felt another rush of hatred for Miles for dragging her into it without even the protection of marriage and causing it, because this had to be about Miles. Nothing else could explain this seriousness from Sonia of all people.
“Sire.” Her voice wobbled slightly
“What do you want from us?” He asked draping his unease in Imperial blankness.
She inhaled and clenched her hands into fists, and he could see the moment she found her resolve on her face, “An answer.”
“You don’t seem to have asked me a question.”
“Alright then sire.” She looked him in the eyes. “Is it your wish that I marry Count Vordrozda?”
“What?” He said in a way her mother would have said was quite unbecoming of an Emperor, and which back when Lord Vorkosigan was pretending at preparing him for his role in truth he would have told him betrayed too much of his feelings
He couldn’t quite help it though. He’d been expected talk of treason. Of Miles. Not this.
This had not been one of Gregor’s scenarios. He had no idea of any connection before his friend and Sonia. They’d danced, but then most of the unmarried High Vor males, some of the married ones, and half of the galactic ambassadors had danced with Sonia. Gregor had always been glad that she seemed to enjoy it and didn’t resent being used as be window-dressing at Imperial events.
His friend had made remarks on how attractive Sonia was, but Gregor had never given it that much thought because thinking too hard about flattering remarks people made about Vor women made it much harder to feign incomprehension when they stepped up their hints about how the woman in question would make a fine Empress.
He’d especially been careful to ignore any such remarks about Sonia because apparently some people out there thought folding in the various Vorbarra branches together was somehow a good idea.
Sonia stared at him, “It is not then?”
Her tone was impossible to make out, and apparently it was the day for him seeing their mutual relations in her because this blank careful politeness made it very apparent that she was Lady Alys’ daughter in a way it usually wasn’t when he saw her at balls or with her friends.
“Are you asking our permission to marry Count Vordrozda?” He asked trying to get a grasp on the situation.
He hadn’t particularly though the Count was her type—which from the reports he’d heard tended to be dashing but untitled officers rather closer to her own age.
“What? No.” She retorted, with that careful tone falling out of her voice to something that just about managed to stay the right side of disrespect to her Emperor.
“Why are you asking us then?”
“I thought you wanted me to, and I know my duty to Barrayar,” she didn’t quite curtsy but somehow gave the impression of it, “I would if you wanted me to.”
Gregor tried to make sense of that. “But you wouldn’t if we didn’t?”
“We have no plans for your marriage”
She seemed to sag in relief, some of that stiffness draining out of her posture, then she frowned slightly as if she was the one trying to work out a puzzle, “And it would not displease you if I was to turn the Count down should he ask?”
“No. It is our hope that you will be free to wed where you please.” He wasn’t inflicting a political marriage on anyone if it could be avoided.
Sonia’s entire face lit up “Oh, thank you G-“ she switched, remembering the Imperial formality, “Sire.”.
She looked for the first time in this meeting like the little girl he remembered, when her mother took her with her to the Residence, rather than some ghost of his mother, or copy of her own.
“But we are confused why you seem to think otherwise? Has someone said something to you? If there’s a rumour we would appreciate knowing.”
“There may be a rumour, but it’s his own actions which have caused me to wonder.”
Some old Vor instinct re-asserted itself in him, “he’s not imposed on you has he?”
She might have been one of the new generation of High Vor girls in Vorbarr Sultana ready to take advantage of Galactic contraceptives but to his horror he heard Cordelia’s voice in his mind reminding him that that didn’t mean a girl was open to anyone’s advances.
“Not in that way. I’d almost be reassured if I thought that was the issue. I mightn’t even have minded so much, but really I’m not even sure he’s that attracted to me, which is part of what concerns me because if he doesn’t want to sleep with me then why would he want to marry me unless,” She seemed to realise she was blathering and came to a stop.
It was too late though. Gregor had seen what she was implying, given that marriage too would unite some disparate Vorbarra branches, and he couldn’t help but wonder if this was a Vorkosigan plot after all to insert a wedge between himself and Count Vordrozda, even if Sonia herself wasn’t aware of it.
“Why exactly were you worried then?”
Sonia looked troubled, “It’s things he says. About me seeing Lorimal in the future, or how marriage is a very settling condition, or,” she bit her lip, “about his friendship with you sire.”
“You’re a Vorpatril. I’m not the one you’d be asking for permission to marry from.” Technically he does a right over marriages made by those in his line of succession, according to one of the old laws mouldering under Vorhartung Castle, but for various political reasons there wasn’t an official succession these days for all everyone knew where it would fall.
“You’re the Emperor sire,” Sonia pointed out.
That was true, and he knew he could compel the matter of her marriage but, “We do not plan to start exercising our power in that way.”
She looks a little cowed, and he knew she hadn’t meant to indicate he was about go on some overreach of Imperial power. This was Sonia after all.
“Its fine Sonia, I’m not upset with you, go off and avoid him whenever you see him if you want without upsetting me.” Though in the circumstances, “Perhaps dance a few more times with Count Vorvolk next time? He can shield you.”
At least Henri he trusted, and he didn’t think his friend would hold it against him if he asked him to keep company with Sonia. Better to keep her away from all the rest of it, and from getting too pulled into hiding in the Vorkosigan bubble either.
She smiled at the loss of the imperial pronoun, “Thank you. Really. You can’t imagine how much I appreciate all of this. I’d hug you if I didn’t think that would terrify your armsman.”
In fact Gregor would have appreciated a hug almost as much as he would have appreciated being someone who could be hugged by his cousin without it having to be treated as possible assassination attempt.
“Perhaps another time.” He said even as he wondered again how close she was to Miles and how she’d react if push came to shove, or Gregor had to execute him.
It was a subtext Sonia seemed to miss as she thanked him again and made her exit.
Gregor watched her go, and wondered if he should put less trust in Count Vordrozda, or whether that was an overreaction to a failed romance, or even if he was concerned who he could trust to truthfully look into it.