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?”
The look of delighted crogglement on Mark’s face was worth the hour Kareen had spent talking down Gorge, Ekaterin thought. They’d shared sympathetic glances as they arrived at the Palace, hedged about with security and both keeping a careful watch on their partners to make sure Gregor’s surprise wasn’t spoiled by any unauthorised fireworks. But Kareen had managed to distract Mark for much longer than anyone had expected and then after he had realised the comconsoles weren’t working she’d straight away let the security team show him Gregor’s recorded message. So, yes, Gorge had got out, for a while anyway, but really he had made such progress.
Miles had managed a bit more enthusiasm and had required substantially less quiet briefing, at least in what exactly a surprise party and/or an “unbirthday” was actually for, Ekaterin thought gratefully. The presence of the kids, heroic quantities of balloons and the promise of fireworks later, not to mention the need to spread some charm over the Silvy Vale contingent also helped. Quite a lot.
Really, Alys, Ekaterin and Kareen agreed quietly later, if you were going to try to throw a surprise party for the Chance Brothers, Gregor was the only man who could bring it off.
Simon, though, disappeared early on, although no-one really noticed the dark shadow that followed Gregor round the room.
“The Emperor is looking a little…” Roic said quietly.
“Don’t worry about it,” Pym said. “I hear from his men that he’s had a trying afternoon.”
Roic imagined the work that must have gone into keeping a party this size a secret from M’Lord AND his brother, and smiled in grim appreciation.
“Did a grand job, though - no-one said a word.”
“I hope someone got a picture of their faces.”
“I’m sure the Emperor thought of everything. And if HE didn’t, the Empress did.”
“Great party, Gregor, thanks again,” Miles said grinning, a little drunk. “You realise I nearly demolished the Vorkosigan House drains planning an escape route till Ekaterin persuaded me it wasn’t an invasion?” He looked a little wistful at the lost opportunity for exploding excrement. Simon came and joined them, putting a firm hand under Miles’ elbow and steering him a quarter circle till he was facing Ekaterin, the toddlers, and the fireworks table. “I think Ekaterin would appreciate some help with Helen Natalia and the ordnance,” he said mildly, and Miles - as ever attracted to the thought of blowing something up, particularly if he had an appreciative audience to yell “make it go bang, da!” winked briefly at Gregor and was gone.
“It’s all right, Gregor,” Simon said quietly. “Walk with me quietly into the green parlour. People will think you are looking after me.”
Gregor found he couldn’t speak. His face was going to twist, the mask would fall, everyone would know…
“With the greatest respect, Sire, no.”
Yianni, the new man on the security detail, was the only one left. Gregor had successfully ditched his armsmen at the shuttle perimeter and had ordered the security detail to guard his exit. But when he stepped through the airlock Yianni was, somehow, still at his shoulder and all the request-and-requires in the universe didn’t seem to be going to move him.
“Sire. I’m ordered not to let you encounter your visitor alone.”
“And you take your orders from Allegre rather than from your Emperor?”
Yianni looked pained. “I… they’re Cetas, sire! My granddas, sire, both of them, were killed in the occupation. They’d never rest easy if I let my Emperor go alone into a Ceta ship.”
“A Ceta ship - a Ceta Ambassador’s ship - which is actually a two person shuttle that we sent up to fetch him, and is parked in Vorbar Sultana, with half of Imp Sec pointing guns and listening devices at it?”
Gregor looked, really looked, at the man. He’d never seen hide nor hair of him before today, which was a point in his favour. “Where are you from, Lieutenant?”
“Vorbohn’s district, Sire. I’ve been on ship duty for the past two years and I’m due back next month. My family are on Komarr and I’m joining them tomorrow. General Allegre said I was to go with you, do what you told me to do except never leave you alone for a second, and then forget what happens when you’re done, Sire. I’m your wingman, nothing more.”
Gregor sighed. Allegre had seen the outline of his problem, then, even if he didn’t have any of the details.
“Sire! M’mother and her fella have a deli in one of the outer domes. Doing right well, I hear; well enough to keep m’sister anyway. I’m just passing through on my way back to the Reliant.”
“All right Yianni. Stay close, and say nothing. I Request and Require you to remember nothing of what you see and hear inside.”
“Da! Da! Make it go bang!”
Simon shut out the sound of Helen Natalia’s enthusiasm, shut the (combat-rated, soundproof)door of the green parlour before the table fireworks could start.
“Sit down,” he said. “Here. Drink this.”
There was no rotgut brandy in the Imperial Household, of course, but Gregor knocked back a tumbler of whatever it was and made the same face you’d make if there were.
“If you want an ear, mine are yours. If you want a shoulder… mine are yours. Whatever you need, Gregor.”
The Emperor held out the tumbler and Simon poured him another generous three fingers of… whatever it was in the decanter, and then sniffed cautiously and poured himself a little, just enough to taste.
Gregor’s shoulders were shaking.
Simon looked firmly at the bottom of his tumbler and then poured himself another few drops… and another three fingers for the Emperor. They both firmly ignored the tears running down the Emperor’s cheeks.
“Whatever you need, Gregor,” Simon said again, quietly.
They sat in silence for a while, not asking, not telling.
Gregor took a deep breath and nodded. Yianni opened the door and, shoulder to shoulder, they stepped through.
It wasn’t obvious; the height was enough to throw you at first. He stood six foot four, looking down on Gregor, and broad shouldered like an ox. Yianni’s presence seemed… not as superfluous as Gregor had imagined.
“You have a name?” Gregor said.
“Peter,” he said at once. “It should have been Piotr or Pierre, of course, but Peter seemed more… appropriate… under the circumstances.”
The smile was the same, but the eyes were… different, somehow.
“Well, welcome to Barrayar,”
“Coming from you, Sire, that means a lot.”
“”Sire” is only appropriate for a Barrayaran citizen.”
“Or a Komarran, or Sergyaran. But I take your point. I’m assuming I shouldn’t call you “Gregor” then either?”
Gregor’s face moved. It was intended for a smile, but he wasn’t sure what his face was doing at that point, and there was a huge piece of his attention that was going into the task of keeping it still, giving nothing - nothing - away, not to this man.
Because there was no getting away from it, once you got over the height, the likeness was amazing. Big as Ivan, with Mark’s coiled spring muscular readiness but, heartbreakingly, with Miles’ smile, the lively intelligence behind the eyes, the - charm. He smiled at Gregor and Gregor saw it all.
A third Vorkosigan.
Second Vorkosigan clone, third Vorkosigan brother.
Because Mark had done the work, the bloody, painful, heartbreaking work, of getting the Council of Counts to accept that a clone could be a valid Vorkosigan.
Just as Miles before him had done the work, the bloody, painful, heartbreaking work, of getting them to accept that someone with deformities wasn’t necessarily a mutant.
Peter (Piotr Pierre, he automatically named him) would slide easily into place. A mutant, a clone and a ceta? The Vorkosigans would have the full set. The Chance Brothers? Fat, Slim and… No.
“What are your plans,” Gregor heard himself say. How calm he sounded! Was this how Yuri had sounded when he gave the order? Had his father?
“I was hoping you would introduce me to my… family.”
Because they would, Gregor knew, adopt him as family. Cordelia’s prejudices about clones, about not abandoning your children, were like integrity - you caught them from a carrier. Cordelia would look at this third… son… and wouldn’t see what Miles and Mark could have had, could have been, but would instead see Peter, the third son, as he was. And as he could be.
“Thank you, Simon.”
Gregor had recovered himself after only a few moments. What did we do to you, boy, Simon thought sadly. No-one should be so… self-contained. Whatever it was, it had been bad.
“Whatever you need, Gregor,” he said for the third time. “You know there are people who can help, whatever help you might need.”
“Not for this. This is… mine. This is… on me.”
“Then thank you.”
“For carrying it. You think we don’t know? You think I don’t know? I was trained by Negri, I lived through Escobar, Komarr - twice, Vordarian, the Cetas - also twice… I had that chip in my head that played them all to me, every mistake I made, every mistake everyone else made. You think I don’t know that sometimes being in command means carrying the load yourself? So whatever this is, thank you for doing it, for not sharing it. And, in case you didn’t realise, we trust you. Whatever decision you made, whatever secret needs to be kept - remember Ezar and what he did for Serg. Sometimes you just have to… do what has to be done. I trust you. You did it for the best.”
And then they sat a while longer, while the Emperor cried on his shoulder.
“I’m truly sorry,” Gregor said quietly.
“For what must happen. For the collapse of the little plot by Ghem General Kassar. Because it has collapsed, you know. We were forewarned. No-one knows you’re here,”
“Yes, they do, I had messages from m… from the Countess.”
“No. We were warned you were coming. No-one has seen those messages but Us.”
“But they’ll know. My… mother. My… brothers. Mark. Miles.”
“No. You’re a weapon pointed at their heads by a small faction of Ghem, and the Haut aren’t backing you. So no, you aren’t going to be the third Vorkosigan son, and you aren’t going to tear down everything my foster father and foster mother created and undo their work, the work which We have tried to carry forward in Our Empire. So no, you aren’t going to take us back to the days when Mark and Miles, the two most brilliant men I know, would have been despised as mutants and their throats cut in favour of a “normal” heir like you, however Cordelia came by you. No. We have spoken.”
Gregor had a nerve disruptor in his hand but before he could level it he - Peter, Piotr, Pierre - had one too. But Yianni stepped in front of his Emperor like a good soldier...
There was a moment of… pause. The world poised on its axis.
“I’m sorry,” Gregor said again. He was, that, desperately sorry; both for the boy dead at his feet, and for the other standing opposite, nerve disruptor pointed at the corpse.