beatrice_otter: I always have been what I chose (Choice)
[personal profile] beatrice_otter
Title: True Colors
Author: [personal profile] beatrice_otter 
Warnings: none
Written For: 2011 Bujold Fest
Fandom: Vorkosiverse
Characters: Aral, Piotr, Xav, OC
Rating: PG
Betaed by: [personal profile] philomytha 
Prompt: Ezar dies during the war against Yuri. Xav can't take the throne--too old?--so Aral becomes the boy emperor of Barrayar.
Summary: Aral was doing math problems and grumbling about it when they got the word. Da later told people that Aral had been studying military strategy, and Aral didn’t contradict him, but really, it was math.

At AO3

Aral was working on his math when the news came. The oldest surviving Vorkosigan Armsman stood a quiet watch in a corner; Aral hadn’t been alone since … since that night. He hated it; they were in the middle of a civil war, and he wasn’t a baby, so why couldn’t he fight with the men? There had been soldiers as young as him during the Cetagandan war—Kly told him about them, once, before Grandda Xav told him not to—and Aral was sure there were in this war, too. Yet here he was, well behind the lines in the heart of his District, in comfort and safety in an old fortified hunting lodge. If Xav were back on Beta where he spent most of his time, Aral could probably get Da to agree to letting him fight or at least command a guard rotation so that others could be spared for front-line duties. But Xav was here, and he insisted that almost-twelve or not Aral’s first duty was to study and learn so that he would be a good Count when the time came, as his father before him was.

Aral swallowed. He was to be Count. Because Mikhail was …. Anyway, twelve was old enough to fight, and at the very least old enough not to need nurse-maiding.

Da and Grandda were still alive, and they were both fighting even though Grandda was really too old—he was almost sixty! Surely he would be too slow and Yuri’s men would get him. And then it would be just Da and Aral. And then if Da died, too, it would be just Aral, alone. Before Yuri’s Massacre Xav had been his favorite grandparent, who always had time to play even with the younger son and unlike Grandma Arundhati would play war games with him. But Grandda Xav had no time to play with him now (and anyway, Aral was too old to play). All he did was make Aral learn his lessons instead of joining his father in avenging his mother and brother and cousins and aunts and uncles and Armsmen and armsmen’s families and all the people the Emp—Mad Yuri’s¬ armsmen had murdered.

So Aral was doing math problems and grumbling about it when they got the word. Da later told people that Aral had been studying military strategy, and Aral didn’t contradict him, but really, it was math.

Nobody told him directly. Da and Granda were away fighting, as were most of the Armsmen who had survived, and the two assigned to him now were so vigilant in their duties they didn’t have time to talk to him. Aral found out when Armsman Bondar burst into the room with three other Vorkosigan Armsmen who’d all been off with Da, grabbed Aral, and took him down to the escape tunnel in the cellar where they all waited for a long time.

At any other time, Aral would have been indignant to be swung under an arm and carried off like a baby. But this time, he clamped his mouth shut to keep anything from coming out. He wasn’t going to cry, he wasn’t afraid, it was just shock, and if he could have trusted his voice and they’d had time he would have told Bondar that. He tried to focus on every sound: he could hear, this time. Last time, that night, he had been deafened from the grenade and covered in his mother’s blood, and Bondar had flung him into an aircar rather than slinging him into a tunnel and letting him go forward on his own two feet. This time was different. He stumbled on between two Armsmen, careful not to trip in the dim light and slow them down.

It wasn’t long before they stopped. Aral crouched with his back to the wall, and fingered his knife, still in its belt sheath. He tried to keep his breathing steady so his men wouldn’t know how scared he was. He knew better than to say a word. If they were hiding in the tunnel, it was because Yuri’s men might be coming for him, and they weren’t sure whether it was safer to hide or leave. The tunnel was coated in sound-proof foam—that was something Grandda Xav had brought back from Beta this last time, and it meant they didn’t have to worry about being quiet because if Yuri’s men broke into the hunting chalet they wouldn’t hear their escape through the walls. But it also meant that if Yuri’s men got in without tripping the alarms, Aral and his Armsmen wouldn’t be able to hear them through the walls either. Their first warning would be the click of the door opening at the far end of the tunnel, and so they all needed to be very quiet so that they would hear it. Well, his Armsmen would hear it; Aral’s hearing wasn’t quite as good since ….. They’d practiced this before, and Aral knew what he was to do.

Except this time it wasn’t a drill, and Aral didn’t know why they were here in the humid darkness of the tunnel, with what felt like all the rock of the Dendarii mountains above their heads. He couldn’t hear and there wasn’t much to see in the dim light. He took a deep breath and let it out. Plastic, that’s what he smelled. Nice, clean, plastic, not charred meat and copper. Aral slid his knife out of its sheath, just a little, and felt the blade. Yes. Sharp. He’d sharpened it that morning. And the day before, too.

Bondar looked at him and frowned, and Aral put the knife back, flushing. Bondar was the Vorkosigan armsmaster, the teacher of blades. He’d taught Aral how to use a knife, to skin an animal in hunting or to parry a sword if you were attacked. And when he actually needed to know all that, Aral had grabbed the wrong knife! Bondar had been the one to pry it out of his hands and trade it for a stunner, in the aircar. He’d complimented Aral’s reflexes—you were very quick to grab the knife, my lord—but it was still the wrong knife. And anyway, Aral was Vor—Bondar couldn’t just yell at him as he would have an Armsman who made such a terrible mistake. No, Aral knew what he’d done.

It seemed like days had passed (although it was probably only a couple of hours) before they got the all-clear signal and emerged, the dim light of the lamps and candles seeming bright. The windows were all covered up, of course, and armored too, so Aral couldn’t see whether it was day or night. One of Da’s guerrillas was there, and he wasn’t bloody or anything, so it had probably just been a false alarm. If Yuri had found out where they were, they would be leaving by now. The guerrilla and Bondar spoke quietly—Aral couldn’t make out what they said—and then the guerrilla left.

Aral expected Bondar and the extra Armsmen would leave once the danger was over, but they didn’t. They stayed, arrayed around the room in addition to his usual guard, and that was strange. Da and Grandda and the new Emperor Ezar needed all the trained Armsmen they could scrape together, so why were they wasting so many to guard him? What had happened?

Aral swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. ”Bondar, is the Count my Father well?”

Bondar nodded soberly. “Yes, my Lord, and the Prince your grandfather.” He paused. “The Emperor is dead.”

Aral froze, in shock. If Bondar had meant Emp—Mad Yuri, they would have been celebrating, not hiding. But if Emperor Ezar was dead, who would rule after Yuri was killed? Would they slide back to the endless round of civil wars before Dorca the Just unified them? The Cetagandans were sure to come back, if they did …

Aral wondered who his Da and Grandda would choose to replace Ezar. There weren’t many candidates left.

“You should continue with your lessons Prince Xav has set for you,” Bondar said, and it wasn’t quite a suggestion.

Aral nodded and sat back down at the table. Da and Grandda would take care of things. They would tell him when it was safe to know, when there was no threat from Mad Yuri’s torturers or that new galactic truth drug. He opened his book again, but he couldn’t pay enough attention to understand what it said. The house was too quiet.

***

At night, Aral slept on his stomach, hoping the pillow would quiet any noise he made when he woke from nightmares of black and silver uniforms, blood on the walls, and the wrong knife.

***

Two days later, Aral still hadn’t heard from Da or Grandda and Bondar was still there, commanding the Armsmen and guerrillas who guarded Aral. No one would talk to him, but they exchanged a lot of glances over his head.

That afternoon, one of the hillwomen who cooked and cleaned for them took Aral’s measurements. He hadn’t outgrown anything; why did he need new clothes? He stood there, fidgeting, as she took measurements with a knotted string and not a proper tape measure like Da’s man in Hassadar did. He wondered if she knew what was going on outside the house. She probably didn’t, he decided. She was just an old woman, and anyway none of the servants talked much because it was safer that way. If she’d only answer yes or no when he asked about maple syrup for the groats, she probably wouldn’t tell him anything about what was going on even if she knew. Mad Yuri’s men had truth drugs, he reminded himself. They weren’t telling him anything so that he couldn’t tell anything if he were captured. They would have told him if Da or Grandda or Cousin Padma was dead. Everything was going to be fine.

***

The next day the woman returned with half-made clothing to fit to him.

It was too fine to be a disguise (and in that case, he’d probably be given someone’s ill-fitting castoffs, not newly-tailored clothing). And it wasn’t in brown-and-silver. It was black.

Aral had a perfectly good set of house blacks, and they were here with them; he’d worn them when they burnt offerings for Ma and Mikhail and Uncle Ivan and Aunt Maya and Cousin Tara and Cousin Christophe and Cousin Dima and … and all the rest. (Aral still didn’t know who all was alive and who was dead. Except for Cousin Padma, most of them seemed to be dead.)

That was the only time he’d been allowed outside in the daylight since he’d been brought here. It had been weeks ago; Aral had lost track of the time. It had been cold; Winterfair was long gone and the planting season was coming fast, but up in the mountains the chill lingered in the morning air and Aral had had to clench his muscles to keep from shivering. He could see his breath, white puffs of his spirit, pale against the black of his uniform.

Just like the black fabric he wore now. Black was the color of death. And the color of the Emperor. He eyed the seamstress, but she never looked up from the seam she was pinning. He sighed. Being fitted was so boring. He could only stand there like a doll as the woman worked around him. And no one would talk with him. Before long, his thoughts slipped back.

Out on the lawn, the morning he burned the offering, the contrast between the frosty breath and black uniform had caught his eye. Ma had been teaching him about contrast, and had just bought him a new set of charcoal pencils to draw with. Those pencils had been at the house when Yuri’s men came, in black and silver flashing in the light. They hadn’t come in secret. They hadn’t needed to; they were the Emperor’s men. They had demanded an audience, and then started shooting. And now Ma would never teach him any more about art, and the pencils that she had given him were still in his bedroom, abandoned. Just like they’d had to abandon the bodies and flee with their lives.

Maybe Yuri’s men had taken the bodies and buried them, Aral had thought. Maybe they’d thrown them in a mass grave, all tangled together. Maybe they’d buried them with all honor to placate their ghosts. Or worse, perhaps just left them where they had fallen, left to rot. Aral had seen animals, dead in the woods, gnawed by other animals and infested by insects. An image rose up in his mind, of Ma lying as he had last seen her, with Mikhail lying by her side, but decayed and putrid, surrounded by men in black uniforms. Aral had burned the offering out on the lawn because it was convenient, not because Ma and Mikhail were there. He had bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut to keep from crying.

Aral had never burned an offering by himself before. When his sister Zilya died, Ma had lit the offering. For Grandda Mikhail, Aral’s older brother had had the honor of lighting his namesake’s offering. When Grantante Nadezhda had died, Da had performed the rites.

But Aral was the only one here to light this offering. His voice was steady as he recited the names of the dead—the ones they knew were dead, at least; it was bad luck to burn an offering for someone who wasn’t dead, even if you were pretty sure they had to be. He opened the box he had brought with him, and brought out locks of hair to place in the plain clay bowl, the best he could find in the house. One from Da, wrapped in a brown ribbon. One from Grandda, wrapped in a black ribbon. They had given them to him before they left. A lock each from the surviving Armsmen, both the ones with Da and the ones who were guarding him. Finally, he took his knife and cut a lock of his own hair, adding it to the bowl. He took a deep breath, remembering what he had chosen to say. “I will burn another offering, Mother,” he said, “when Yuri is dead. I will have a brazier worthy of Countess Vorkosigan, the granddaughter of Emperor Dorca the Just. I will see that you are buried with your daughter and son at Vorkosigan Surleau. I will see you have a greater burning. Until you rest in peace with our kin, help Father and Grandfather in their vengeance and bring bad luck and terror to the madman who killed you. Please, mother, keep Da safe. All of you that Yuri killed—we remember, and we will avenge your deaths. All this I swear by my word as Vorkosigan.”

He had sighed when it was done, watching his breath float on the cold air. It was the first time he had given his name’s word.

When the last of the hair had burned—it had only taken a few seconds more, hair burned so quickly—the Armsmen brought him back inside. He hadn’t seen the sun since.

A sharp tug brought him back out of his memories. The seamstress was done pinning, and was carefully removing the half-finished garments. Aral watched as she folded the black cloth away and left. He dressed himself, and went to his closet.

He didn’t see his House blacks. He’d shoved them to the back where he didn’t have to look at them, but they should still have been there. He went through each garment in the closet, hanger by hanger, and they weren’t there. As he stood staring into his closet and wondering where they’d gone, he realized that his regular brown-and-silver uniform was gone, as well. He knew that it had also been among the clothes Ma Lebedev had grabbed out of his rooms at Vorkosigan Surleau before she and all the other armsmen’s wives had fled into the hills.

Something was wrong, and no one was talking to him.

***

Bondar was probably in the dining room, which had become the command center for the house. Aral was only a child, but he was the Vor and Bondar was the Armsman. He thought for a few minutes about what Da would say and do, and then he went to find Bondar.

Bondar was indeed in the dining room, with maps and other documents spread out over the table. He looked up when Aral entered, and stood.

“Armsman Bondar,” Aral said. “Why have my House uniforms been taken? Why, when I am in hiding, do I need new ones? Why will no one tell me how the war goes now that Emperor Ezar is dead? And most of all, why have you not returned to fight alongside the Count my father?”

The Armsman glanced at his brother Armsmen before answering. “My lord—“ he said heavily, and Aral knew that tone of voice, it was the tone he’d had when telling Aral he was too young to learn the sword with Mikhail and to go back to his nursery.

“No,” Aral said. “I have asked you a question, and you will answer, Armsman.”

Bondar swallowed. “My lord, I apologize that I have kept this from you. The Count asked me to delay until he could be here to tell you in person, if possible.”

“Tell me what?” Aral burst out.

“You have been named Emperor Ezar’s successor.”

Aral gaped at him. “I am to be Emperor?” A few months ago, he hadn’t even been heir to the District!

“No, Sire,” Bondar said. “You are the Emperor already. Count Vorkosigan and his allies have already sworn allegiance to you, in your absence. In a few days we will go to your father and grandfather, and you will receive their oaths in person.”

It was too much to take in; Aral’s mind whirled with thoughts and emotions he couldn’t name. “But … but why wasn’t Prince Xav declared Emperor?”

“Princess Arundhati is … too Betan to be Empress, Sire,” Bondar said.

Aral nodded. Not many people liked Grandma; she made them nervous, or offended them, even though they couldn’t show it for fear of offending her husband. “And Grandda would not put her aside.” He paused, biting his lip. “I will have to change my name, won’t I?”

“Prince Xav has adopted you.”

So. His name was already changed, and he hadn’t even known. He was no longer Vorkosigan, but Vorbarra. If he was another name, did that mean his name’s oath to his mother’s ghost was broken? “Thank you for telling me,” Aral said unsteadily. He turned and left without a word.

When he reached the door to his room, he turned to the Armsmen who flanked him. “I would like to be alone,” he said. “Please wait out here.”

To his surprise, they obeyed.

***

There were more fittings the next day—two uniforms, the Vorbarra blacks for a final fitting (now heavily embroidered in silver), and a set of Imperial red-and-blues.

Aral watched in the mirror as they tucked and folded and pinned. He’d dreamed of a uniform like this since he could remember, like the one Da wore when he was in Vorbarr Sultana. It didn’t feel like he’d thought it would. It itched, and the collar felt tighter around his neck than his old brown uniform had.

Bondar had received a message from Da overnight, it seemed, with instructions as to what Aral should be told. So he sat in the corner of the room as the woman worked, listing off the political and military situation, and then quizzing Aral about it. “Count Philippe Vorloupulous is Count Andrei Vordarian’s second cousin through their grandmothers, the Vormuir twins Helga and Olga, who were daughters of the fifth count,” Aral recited. “The two counts quarreled about Mimi Vortala when they were younger and have never made up. Philippe has thrown in his lot with Da, and Andrei is sitting the war out and trying to remain as neutral as possible just as his father did when the Cetagandans came. But Andrei’s men are looking the other way when our men cross their lands, and his agents are selling our armies food at deeply discounted prices. Andrei runs a tight District so he probably knows about it and condones it—maybe he arranged it. They haven’t been allowing Mad Yuri’s men the same liberty. Andrei is trying to play both sides against the middle; he’d rather be a power-broker than choose sides. He’s not personally cowardly but not bold, either.” It helped, of course, that he already knew all the people involved and had heard the story of Philipe’s disastrous courtship and fallout with Andrei as gossip when it happened; but he hadn’t paid too much attention to the politics of it because Mikhail had been the heir and Aral wouldn’t need to know it all. And besides, he knew nothing of what had happened since the war started, and that changed things. It was a lot to remember.

“Very good, sire,” Bondar said. “Count Vorinnis?”

Aral frowned. “There are two claimants to the District, as both the Count and his immediate family were killed by Yuri because Count Vidal Vorinnis’ father was Dorca the Just’s cousin who got the District as a reward for his loyalty after the previous Count was deposed. Two of Vidal’s first cousins are claiming the district, René on our side and Boris on Mad Yuri’s side. Neither has control of the District; a cousin twice removed of the count Dorca deposed named Maximillian Vorsmythe has also declared himself Count Vorinnis and holds the District seat and little else, while Count Vidal’s surviving Armsmen have declared for Count René Vorinnis, the true Count. Since the Vorinnis lands are right near the Vorbarra district, a lot of the fighting has taken place there and most of the locals are hunkering down and staying out of the way while their betters fight.” It was not the way things happened in the Vorkosigan district; no Vorkosigan subject would be willing to sit out of such a fight.

“And Count René Vorinnis is a descendent of Dorca the just while the pretender Boris is not, and Boris is married to Count Vordarian’s sister,” Bondar reminded him.

“Is that why Vordarian’s trying to sit this out?” Aral asked.

“Possibly; I didn’t think they were close, but Vordarian has to know she is hostage to his good behavior,” Bondar said.

Aral nodded. Of course Mad Yuri was a dangerous monster who needed to be killed, and of course people were going to die—good people—to see it done, and Count Vordarian should be fighting with them rather than just quietly sending them aid. But Aral didn’t like to think what he’d have done if Zilya were still alive and Yuri had her in his power.

***

Aral rode into his Da’s—his—camp on horseback. They’d ridden out of the Dendarii mountains on horseback to avoid attracting attention from Yuri’s flying patrols, and then took an armored personnel carrier most of the way. But they rode horses for the final approach to the fortified manor that was their current base of operations. Aral wished he could have ridden his own horse, but supposed the roan gelding they found for him wasn’t bad on short notice.

It was only a twenty-minute ride, purely for show and symbolism, but it was the longest twenty minutes of Aral’s life. He’d never ridden at the head of a column, before. Bondar rode half a length behind him, with a Vorbarra pennon in his stirrup. Aral wasn’t the only one in Vorbarra black-and-silver today; he supposed that meant that Bondar would be staying with him instead of Da.

The manor had walls, from back in the Time of Isolation, when parties such as the one Aral rode before were the height of warfare. Modern weapons would obliterate the old stone in seconds, but at least it kept prying eyes away from what happened inside. And Aral supposed there were probably a lot of modern defenses hidden away, if they were bringing him there and letting everyone know.

He rode up to the gate and stopped, a massive expanse of wood and iron. “Hello the gate!” Armsman Bondar cried. Somewhere behind him, Aral knew, one of his Armsman was exchanging electronic pass codes.

“Who goes?” cried a warder.

“Aral Vorbarra, Emperor of Barrayar and Count Vorbarra!”

“Be welcome to our camp!”

At that, the massive doors swung inward, and Aral nudged his horse to a walk. As he passed through the open maw of the gate he felt the tingle of a force shield lowered for entry, and noted gun muzzles set into the wall that had been well-camouflaged. He felt an itch between his shoulder-blades and had to fight the urge to hunch down.

That urge got stronger as he entered the courtyard proper. There were twelve Counts and fifteen would-be Counts, all arrayed before him in their House uniforms, with one Armsman each standing behind and to their left. It was more dazzling than the Council of Counts was. There were fewer people, but the sun shone brightly and reflected off of all the colors. And unlike the one time he’d visited the Council of Counts, everyone was looking at him.

Aral’s throat was suddenly dry, and he swallowed a few times. What was he supposed to say? They’d told him something to say and he couldn’t remember it!

He stared down at Da, who was in the front of the crowd of counts, Grandda at his side.

“Welcome, my Lord,” Da said. “My brother Counts and I come to swear allegiance to our rightful Emperor.”

“I thank you for your loyalty and will strive to be worthy of it,” Aral said with relief. “Once the madman has been cut out I will strive to bring a new era of peace and prosperity to us all.” That done, Aral swung out of the saddle and handed the reins to a waiting servant. The Counts moved into a loose line with Grandda at its head and Da behind him.

“I acknowledge you today as my rightful heir, son of my blood and of my choosing,” Grandda said. “You will be known as Aral Xav Vorbarra henceforth and from now on.”

“I submit to your will and guidance, father-of-choice, and strive to be worthy of the great honor you do me,” Aral said.

Grandda knelt before him and held up his hands. Aral placed them in his own, and they recited the oaths of allegiance. It only took a few seconds. Just a few seconds, and now he was Emperor. Grandda stood and moved into position just behind Aral and to his right. Some Armsmen in Vorbarra black and silver—Aral didn’t recognize them, they must have been Emperor Ezar’s men—joined him. There would be a private ceremony later for them to swear allegiance to him as Count Vorbarra.

Da stepped forward and knelt before Aral, hands held up to swear allegiance to him.

Not long ago, it had been Aral kneeling before Da—Count Vorkosigan—to swear allegiance as heir. Even kneeling, Da came up to Aral’s shoulders. He felt very small, as he recited the words Bondar had drilled into him.

***

“You did very well, Aral,” Grandda said that evening, as they sat in Aral’s suite after dinner.

“Yes, you did, Sire,” Da—Count Vorkosigan—said. “It wasn’t perfect, but that’ll come. By the time Yuri’s dead and you can come out in public, you’ll be ready.”

“Thank you,” Aral said. “Um, how long do you think that will be?”

“That’s hard to say,” Grandda said. “Probably not long; the more unstable he gets, the more men come to our side or just desert, to get out of his range. He’s still got all his charisma, but everybody knows it’s a veneer over madness now.”

“What happens then?” Aral asked.

“Then, if we capture him alive, we execute him,” Count Vorkosigan said. (Count Vorkosigan. Aral must practice that: not Da, Grandda was his Da now, Count Vorkosigan.) “Every Count will have a cut, and every surviving Vorbarra of the first rank—if everyone’s equally guilty, it’ll save on unrest and trouble later. Killing an Emperor isn’t a trivial thing, and we want to keep it that way. Can you imagine the chaos if anyone who had a grievance with their liege lord could kill him? No. Haven’t decided the order yet; I’ll probably go first. You’ll go last.” He took a sip of his wine.

Aral considered this. He wanted to kill the man who killed his Ma and Mikhail, but … “What if he’s already dead?”

Count Vorkosigan shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. It’s the symbolism of it.”

“After that, you will go to Vorbarr Sultana and take any remaining oaths of allegiance,” said Grandda. “I’ll go with you to handle any business that needs to be done, as your guardian and your regent. Then on to a tour of the Vorbarra district, so that they can swear allegiance and get a good look at you. Then back to Vorbarr Sultana and the real work begins.” A servant had entered and stood behind Grandda’s chair. He whispered in his ear. Grandda frowned. “You’ll excuse me, I have some business to take care of.”

“Anything I should know?” Count Vorkosigan said.

Grandda shook his head. “No.” He bowed to Aral. “Sire.”

Aral watched him go, then turned back to Count Vorkosigan. There were so many things he wanted to say; they fought for space in his mouth.

“Well?” Da said. “Speak up, boy. Sire.”

“Have you found the bodies? Ma and Mikhail and the rest?”

Da shook his head. “Yuri had them all buried that night—some say not all of them were dead when he chucked them in the ground. And he didn’t even put gravestones on them. With any luck, he’ll be the one the nameless dead haunt with bad luck. We won’t have time to really look until after he’s gone. Your—Prince Xav assures me that Princess Arundhati can use galactic scanners to identify the remains no matter what that madman did to them. We’ll bury them all properly and give them a good burning to help any lost spirits find their way.”

Aral sighed in relief. Da would take care of Ma. Aral didn’t have to worry about breaking his name’s word to her, even if it wasn’t his own name now.

“Will you remarry?” Aral asked, hesitantly.

Count Vorkosigan flinched, and stared down into his wine glass. He reached out to the bottle with a steady hand and refilled it, placing the bottle back gently. “I shall have to,” he said at last, still not looking at Aral. “I need an heir. Thanks to Yuri, there aren’t even any Vorkosigan cousins I could adopt.”

Aral nodded. And he wasn’t a Vorkosigan anymore. He had a new name.

Da—Count Vorkosigan—looked up and gave him a small smile. “Don’t look so worried. I’ll choose a woman from a family with few blood ties to the Vorbarras; your half-brothers will have no claim. And you won’t have to worry about living under the roof of an evil stepmother.”

Aral nodded. He’d probably never see the inside of Vorkosigan House again. His chest felt funny at the thought.

“And we’ll have to get you married, as well,” Count Vorkosigan said. “You’re young enough that we have a few years—maybe as many as five, even—but a married Emperor is a stabilizing force, even if you’re too young to father children, yet. Give it some time for things to settle out, and we’ll see what alliance would best serve. There are still a handful of people among the high Vor with Vorbarra blood in them, grandchildren of Dorca the Just and his predecessor that Yuri’s death squads didn’t find. Perhaps Alexandra Vordarian.”

Aral wrinkled his nose. He didn’t want to think about girls! “Alexa’s old!”

“Only about five years older than you, young man,” Count Vorkosigan said with a grin. “Besides, that’s just perfect. She’ll be entering her prime breeding years when you get old enough for her. Then again, her hips are a bit narrow… what about Kareen Vorinnis, I wonder? She’s a bit young, but her bloodline’s better.” He took pity on Aral and stopped talking. “You don’t have to worry about this now, Sire, it will be some time before any decisions need to be made.” He drained the last of his wine. “And now, I have some work to do. You should be in bed, Sire.”

He rose, and turned to go.

“Before you leave, Count Vorkosigan,” Aral said.

“Yes, Sire?”

Aral licked his lips. “When we are alone, may I still call you Da?”

His father paused, closing his eyes. When he opened them again, they were wet. He nodded. “Of course, Sire.”

(no subject)

Date: 2011-09-08 06:17 pm (UTC)
aedifica: Photo of purple yarrow flowers. (Achillea millefolium)
From: [personal profile] aedifica
Ohhh, ow! That is, it feels very true, and that last line of Aral's tugs hard at the heart (I teared up, reading it). Nicely done!

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