General Allegre stirred his coffee and Gregor tried to look alert or at least interested. The words he wanted to say lingered at the back of his throat but he couldn’t quite bring himself to say them. Coward, he chided himself. He was the undisputed Emperor of three planets, after all: what was the worst that could happen?
“General Allegre: I need you to allocate me a new member of my personal guard. Someone with discretion. Someone who will carry out a small task for me and never speak of it.”
That wouldn’t do, of course. He would have to tell Allegre what the “small task” was, and then the secret wouldn’t be a secret any more.
And what WAS the worst that could happen, after all? Gregor had no doubt that, somewhere in the Imp Sec or Imp Mil cellars there was a file. Yuri had taught the Empire - and his late unlamented father Serg had taught the secret apparatus of state even more vividly - that there needed to be a plan for the restraint of a Mad Emperor. Perhaps Cordelia had been involved, he thought hopefully, in which case it might be quite a sane and gentle plan. Perhaps he would be quietly whisked away to a medical institution and Laisa declared Regent for baby Ezar during the Emperor’s “indisposition”. Perhaps asking Allegre for an Imperial Assassin wouldn’t be the end of everything.
The words, however, continued to stick in his throat, so the Emperor drank his coffee and tried to pay better attention to his morning security briefing.
It had begun, as these things do, with a simple comconsole call. It was on the private line, though, and Gregor didn’t recall ever having given that particular number to Ivan’s Ghem Grandmother-in-Law.
“I hope you don’t mind my acquiring this number from Ivan Xav, but I need a moment of your time… please.”
The “please” got his attention.
“I have been having an interesting discussion with a former colleague of mine.”
There was something in the ImpSec report… yes, there it was. An interesting coincidence, then, that Ivan’s Moira Ghem Estif and Emperor Fletcher Giaja’s right hand woman Haut Pel had just happened to be on the same planet at the same time and meet for tea and exquisite little cakes and discussion of old times in the Celestial Garden? Gregor short-circuited ImpSec’s Cetagandan paranoia by the simple method of requesting and requiring his not-quite-relative’s presence in a secured room with a cone of silence.
And, no, he didn’t discuss what he had learned from her with anyone - anyone - else.
After General Allegre left, a little startled looking after the end of the briefing, Gregor started on his calls.
“No,” Gregor said. "Get me lady Vorkosigan first."
He wrote three words on a flimsy and handed them to to the messenger, by which time his comconsole was chiming and Ekaterin was looking out at him.
"Lady Vorkosigan," he said carefully, "we Request and Require that you and the children remain in Vorkosigan house today, please. Some people from Imp Sec are on their way and you won’t notice them unless you try to leave, when they will try to baffle you with a story about a security drill. However I thought you might appreciate knowing that there is absolutely no danger: I simply want Miles and Mark out of the way for a couple of hours."
"I... see." she said carefully. Which meant she didn't, but she would do as he asked. Reliable woman, he thought.
"Have YOU ever tried to surprise them? We're having a surprise un-birthday party for them both, at the residence, this evening, and they are NOT going to spoil my surprise by stumbling across any clues first."
Ekaterin smiled and the knot in Gregor's belly eased up, just a little. She believed him, Miles would be puzzled but she'd handle him, and if all went well neither of them would ever know any different.
He called Kareen Koudelka and had the same conversation about Mark. Unfortunately Mark was out at the butter bug farm but he despatched a traffic patrol to transport her to him: trying to contain Mark without her gentle hand on his collar would be, just, no.
The orders to the Imp Sec details he had procured from Allegre were relatively easy: at least, he was relatively confident that they, at least, would obey without asking awkward questions.
"Gentlemen. We Request and Require you to carry out a vital security task for Us today. You, gentlemen, will go to Vorkosigan House and you, gentlemen, to MPV Industries. You will keep a broad perimeter so that, all being well, no-one will ever know you were there. However should anyone try to leave the premises you will detain the Vorkosigan family under house arrest and communications blackout until eight pm today, at which time you will deliver them to the Residence. They are attending a surprise party and neither Lord Vorkosigan nor Lord Mark knows - nor is to know - anything at all about it."
He handed each team leader a recorded message. “They may not try to leave at all, in which case they should never know you were there. But their comconsoles and other comms equipment are about to fail so they are unlikely to stay quietly indoors. You will tell them it is a security drill; both Lady Vorpatril and Miss Koudelka will support you. But you may use any means necessary, up to and including stunner fire, to carry out my instructions. Do you understand?”
Normally "Sire!" in that tone of voice could be relied upon. Good. He was very aware of the clock ticking in his head. What else? “The recorded message I just handed you is to be used only if stunner fire has been tried and the little buggers STILL persist-“ because they would, he knew with that sinking feeling; either of them was quite capable of breaking out of a high security jail guarded by paranoid Jacksonian torturers. Their own houses?
The recorded message said, simply: “This is your Emperor. Miles, Mark: we request and require you and all your family to stay indoors till eight and then go with these people. That is all.”
You know, that might have been the way to start, not finish, he thought. Well, the die was cast now.
“Lady Vorpatril," She was waiting for him on the comconsole screen. Simon was with her: good. That was almost everyone. Ivan and Cordelia were both safely off-planet. Team Koudelka thought they were helping Laisa organise the surprise party and were busy trying to round up Ma Kosti and the Vorkosigan armsmen without either Mark or Miles becoming aware of it.
“I’m sorry to drag you away from your work, but I have a special request for you both. Laisa and I are organising a surprise party for Miles and Mark tonight, and I would like to have some of his liegepeople from the Dendari Hills attend. I have a lightflyer sitting outside and I would be most grateful if you could both be persuaded to drop everything and arrange for the appropriate people to attend - and, more importantly, to feel comfortable - clothes, manners, dance steps etc.”
He could see Lady Alys swallow a number of objections to this, but all she said was: “yes, Sire.” Oh, he was going to pay for this, in So Many Ways! But she disappeared off the screen and he was left with Simon’s anxious face.
“It’s all right, Simon,” he said carefully. “The party starts at eight. And - have YOU ever tried to surprise the little bugger?”