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Just Another Family Dinner

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“Stop.”

Ivan’s voice was quiet, but there was a thread of steel in it that cut right through the Arqua babble.

“…and, Tej, surely you could make some kind of effort to…” finally even Pidge trailed off into silence.

Ivan surveyed the squad of in-laws sitting around the dining-table. “Thank you. Choose a new topic.”

Even the assembled Arquas paused for a moment, slightly daunted. Then Pidge – of course it was Pidge – frowned, “She’s our sister. We can talk to her however we want. We’re just trying to help her.”

Star leapt in, “Yes, we’re just critiquing her, so she can improve.”

Ivan took a slow, steadying breath, “Tej is my wife. Nobody bullies Lady Vorpatril in that way. Nobody tells her that she needs to be fixed, or changed, or that she’s not good enough. She’s perfect just the way she is. And whatever she chooses to do, or be, it is no longer your business or your concern. Find a new topic. Now.”

By winced. He’d heard that dead-calm, flat-level voice before. It seemed that Ivan shared more genes with Gregor and Aral than anyone realised.

Unfortunately the Arquas lacked By’s finely-tuned warning system. Star leapt in while Pidge was taking her next breath, “You might think she’s perfect, but we expected her to do better – in her marriage and her life. We’re just trying to motivate her to – ."

Ivan showed his teeth, but it wasn’t a smile, “No. You’re just playing the same game you’ve always played – making yourselves look better by picking on someone too young, and then too nice, or too discouraged, to fight back. Tej has someone to fight for her, now. And your concerted campaign of bullying stops. Here and now.”

“We never – “ It was Ruby this time, eldest of them all.

“You always.” Ivan glared at them, with full Vor-intensity. The younger ones glanced at their parents. The Baronne met Shiv’s steady gaze for a moment, then both of them turned back to their meals, apparently unfazed by their son-in-law’s surprising strength of character.

“You’re an only child,” Pidge was scornful, as if this was somehow another of Ivan’s failings. “You don’t know what it’s like to have sibs.”

“I had … something close to a brother. Trust me, I know what it’s like to cope with a... highly motivated … sib. I can guess what Tej went through with all of you.”

Star smirked, “It’s just so disappointing, when we know that she could be so much better if she’d just make a bit of an effort.”

It was probably the smirk that did it. By flinched, and leaned back from the table.

“So much better?” Ivan’s voice was very quiet now, and ice-cold deadly. “As good as all of you, you mean? As good as the nine of you who were born long before she was? There’s what – nine years between Tej and Rish, yes? So you each had a head-start on her of ten, fifteen, nearly twenty years. And then she had to grow up with nine people watching her for every mistake, every point of weakness that they could attack. Because you didn’t want any competition, did you – you were in a race for the prize. Even a baby sister was a danger who had to be humiliated and discouraged at every opportunity, until she learned that if you don’t try you don’t fail, and don’t get tormented. She couldn’t be allowed to be as good as you, the prized ones, the specially tailored, gene-spliced, marvels. And what a marvellous group you are.”

He paused to draw breath. Once again the Baronne looked towards Shiv, but he sat still and silent. Moira ignored them all. The younger Arquas were momentarily silenced by shock and outrage.

“Now I’ll return the favour. Since you’re so fond of critiques, to help the victim improve, I’ll be happy to help you all. I’m in a very helpful mood.”

This was an Ivan that none of them had seen. Tej looked at her stunned sibs and smiled. Yes, he was laid-back and comfortable. Relaxed. Easy-going.

But it was BARRAYARAN easy-going.

“First we have the Winterfair decorations. At least they have a purpose in life, and the talent to carry it out. They had no real need to trample Tej, it was just entertainment for them. And, of course, it’s so much easier to follow the mob than to stand against it. They just added to the pressure as needed.” His gaze swept past them, consigning them to secondary status. The Jewels mostly looked furious, although Rish seemed more subdued.

“And then there’s the even-sibs. Cream of the crop, top of the pile. Sure. Just remember, cream isn’t the only thing that floats to the surface. And each one believes they’ll be the next leader of the House.” Ivan leaned forward, glaring at Star, Pidge, and the newly-revived Erik, “And I’ve spent my whole life surrounded by people who can run a three-planet empire. I’ve seen what it takes to rule. You three… you couldn’t run a piss-up in a brewery.”

The outraged shouts were cut off as Ivan went on, “So, let’s look at our three prospects, the shining examples who each think they could run a House. Let’s start with Erik. Who makes Vordarian look like a shining success.”

The Jacksonians looked confused. By winced.

Ivan was already in full flight, “You actually thought your parents would just – what? Take early retirement? Go sit on a beach somewhere and sip fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them? Have you even MET your parents? How could anyone with two working brain cells think that they’d just go away and give up? Not to mention your abysmal assessment of your Prestene partners. You really thought they’d put you in charge and then let you run your own little kingdom, on their money.”

Erik, newly defrosted and still rather subdued, hunched his shoulders and snarled quietly.

Ivan gave him another of those not-smiles, “Study some history, Erik. Barrayar’s, for choice – we have a startlingly wide selection of coups, revolts and rebellions, some successful and some not so much. Few of them were as pathetically inadequate as your little effort. I know people who can invade planets, win civil wars, or spin space fleets out of thin air. Frankly, with your planning skills, you really aren’t suited to be in charge of anything more complicated than a garbage run. Maybe you should study psychology as well as history. And learn to use a flow chart.”

Ivan waited for a moment, then gave a satisfied nod, disposing of Erik’s incompetence, and Erik, completely.

“Now we have Pidge, our legal expert.”

Pidge looked outraged. Everyone else looked intrigued. Tej hid a smile.

“So, Pidge. Full of knowledge and training, with all the negotiating skills of a feral Tau Cetan fire lizard.”

The gasps around the table weren’t really of shock.

“Pidge, let’s see what your part was in the whole debacle. Financial and diplomatic deals with other Houses, is it? So where were all those Deals when Prestene came through the door? How many people were lined up to help you? You’re very good at browbeating people into things, but by the time you’ve finished they never want to Deal with you again. Didn’t see all that many of them rushing forward to help you. And what have you done since then to make sure it never happens again? I suppose you’ve set up safe houses in a few quiet spots on the Whole, and some scattered around the nearest worlds? Caches of data chips with funds and ID, clothes, transport, contact lists, med kits, and everything else that might be needed? Including skin colourants for the Jewels, of course. Do you have a small transport fleet, not traceable back to this House, that always just happens to have at least one ship in orbit around the Whole, so that next time it won’t be such a terrified scramble to get away? Have you got accounts stashed on other worlds, so that nobody has to go dig up any more of Barrayar to get the funds to survive? How many new Deals have you made to form alliances with other Houses?”

Even Pidge couldn’t face down the barrage of questions. “I – we’re getting organised – these things take time –“

“And disaster is instant.”

“You don’t know what it takes to – “

“I know exactly what it takes. I worked for the man who runs Barrayar’s space fleets – all of them. I know exactly what it takes to organise and maintain, and monitor, and plan. Especially plan. It seems that you don’t. Get better at it, or get out of the way and find someone who can do the job. Your family deserve the best. And that doesn’t seem to be you.”

Verbal vivisection was a popular sport in the family, but nobody had ever taken it to this level before. And nobody had ever been able to cut Pidge down so effectively. All those who weren’t in the firing line were torn between sibling support and guilty glee. Glee was ahead by a few points.

Ivan was in full flight now, “And then we get to Star, our brilliant security expert."

Star glared at him. True to form, the others fell silent, enjoying the prospect of someone else being under fire. “Star. So good at security that she was utterly blindsided by one of the worst-organised palace coups in history.”

“I wasn’t-“

“You had no clue. No idea. Nothing. Almost didn’t get out at all. You think Security is all about nice big, noisy weapons. Well, I grew up calling the head of Imperial Security Uncle Simon. He’s my stepfather now. And I can tell you, by the time Security needs big noisy weapons they’ve failed, usually abysmally. Security isn’t about prancing around in your sexy little work-out gear showing off and using big impressive guns. It’s about paying attention to details. It’s about watching and noticing and putting tiny clues together and thinking. Especially thinking – which really isn’t your strong suit, is it Star? Were you watching the money, seeing which Houses were spending up big on men and weapons, or massing information, or weren’t spending at all and holding their funds close? Did you monitor traffic – real and com – and see who was talking, who was listening, and who was moving around? Did you have a network of informers passing on useful snippets of information for you to cross-reference and interpret? Are you doing that now, so that you don’t get caught out again?”

“I – that’s the job of – we have people who – “

“You have YOU. People can be bought, or blackmailed, or just lazy and busy. YOU need to be watching and monitoring. All the time. But that’s not as much fun as prancing around showing off, of course.”

Star was on her feet now, “You can’t – “

“I can.” Ivan’s voice rolled on over her outraged splutterings, “And now we get to your worst mistake. A total dereliction of duty. You betrayed your whole family.”

“What! I didn’t – “

“When we were in the tunnels you were posted to guard our backs. You were our line of defence, we all depended on you. And you left your post simply because you wanted to see what was happening. The rawest recruit in any army wouldn’t fail so badly. And because of your incompetence the whole family could have been captured and iced down by Vigo Imola, and sent off to the Prestenes, all cryofrozen and helpless. It was pure luck that ImpSec picked up on the stunner beams and dropped by. And then the firefight set off the bomb and nearly killed us all, which would also have been your fault. And THEN the family could have been imprisoned or deported by the Barrayaran Empire, ending up with nothing. It didn’t happen – and none of the good outcomes came from you. You failed. Totally. You deliberately neglected your duty, you left your post and betrayed your whole family, through absolute incompetence.”

“Listen, you jumped-up backwoods hick, just because you’ve linked up with Tej doesn’t mean I won’t-“

“ Sit. Down. ”

By shuddered. Definitely channelling Aral. Even the Baron shivered for a moment at that tone.

Ivan surveyed them all, “It seems that even the lure of controlling this House isn’t enough to attract anyone to partner any of you. Hopefully your parents will find a way to tempt someone to make the effort; the only way they’ll get a suitable heir out of your generation is if one of you marries someone with far more skills than any of you possess. Or perhaps they’ll have to hope for more talented grandchildren. You’d better make a start on that soon – partnering and breeding could be your only useful functions for your House, you’re not achieving anything else.”

The Baron and Baronne were sitting like stone. Moira was ignoring them all with Haut scorn, quietly sipping her tea, just the flicker of a frown on her face now and then.

Ivan’s voice grew warmer, “And now, since you enjoy it so much, let’s look at Tej, and her contribution to the family.”

Ivan gripped Tej’s shoulder, “Tej would have been far safer without Rish, but she steadfastly refused to abandon her. Tej was prepared to take a twenty-floor dive to her death rather than betray you all. Tej made the best decisions she could in terrible circumstances, and she kept herself and Rish alive. And everything you have now is because of Tej.”

Tej reached up to pat the hand on her shoulder. Their fingers twisted together, gripping tightly.

“Because of Tej you weren’t all tossed off Barrayar when you first arrived. Because of Tej you had access to Simon, whose protection allowed you to investigate around the bunker. Because of Tej you weren’t all arrested and imprisoned or deported, or worse, for releasing biohazards on Barrayar, and for trying to steal vast amounts from the Imperium. Because of Tej you had access to Gregor, and a Deal that got your House back for you. Because of Tej you have Barrayaran support now.”

His voice was rising now, no longer deadly quiet, but full volume, ringing with outrage and determination, “Out of the whole pack of you, Tej is the only one who made any positive contribution to the entire debacle. You’re all sitting safely here now because of Tej. So from now on NONE OF YOU will tell her that she’s not living up to your narrow little expectations, or fulfilling a potential you define that has no relevance to her. DO. YOU. UNDERSTAND. ME.”

There was a moment of ringing silence.

Byerly sighed, “I tried to warn you.”

Shiv surveyed his son-in-law thoughtfully, “You have an interesting skill set, Vorpatril. Perhaps you’re right about what we need to look for in the next generation, to run this House.”

Ivan sat down suddenly.

And so the family dinner went on. Erik sulked, Pidge and Star seethed, the Jewels were subdued, trying to hide their reactions, but variously scornful, outraged and gleeful. Moira ignored the whole scene. By ate steadily, with the air of a man fuelling up in the face of some expected disaster. Shiv and Udine were very thoughtful, glancing at their daughters, son, and surprisingly assertive son-in-law, and murmuring together. Tej glowed, giving Ivan loving smiles and trying not to look at her simmering sibs.

Ivan chewed food he could no longer taste, and tried to work out how soon he and Tej could leave.