Lois McMaster Bujold, "Barrayar"

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CHAPTER Three

The next day Cordelia had an official escort to the full Joint Council session in the person of Captain Lord Padma Xav Vorpatril. He turned out to be not only a member of her husband's new staff, but also his first cousin, son of Aral's long-dead mother's younger sister. Lord Vorpatril was the first close relative of Aral's Cordelia had encountered besides Count Piotr. It wasn't that Aral's relatives were avoiding her, as she might have feared; he had a real dearth of them. He and Vorpatril were the only surviving children of the previous generation, of whom Count Piotr was himself the last living representative. Vorpatril was a big cheerful man of about thirty-five, clean-cut in his dress greens. He had also, she discovered shortly, been one of her husband's junior officers during his first captaincy, before Vorkosigan's military successes of the Komarr campaign and its politically ruinous aftermath.

She sat with Vorpatril on one side and Droushnakovi on the other, in an ornate-railed gallery overlooking the Council chamber. The chamber itself was a surprisingly plain room, though heavy with what still seemed to Cordelia's Betan eye to be incredibly luxurious wood paneling. Wooden benches and desks ringed the room. Morning light poured through stained-glass windows high in the east wall. The colorful ceremonies were played out below with great punctilio.

The ministers wore archaic-looking black and purple robes set off by gold chains of office. They were outnumbered by the nearly sixty District counts, even more splendid in scarlet and silver. A sprinkling of men young enough to be on active service in the military wore the red and blue parade uniform. Vorkosigan had been right in describing the parade uniform as gaudy, Cordelia reflected, but in the wonderful setting of this ancient room the gaud seemed most appropriate. Vorkosigan looked quite good in his set, she thought.

Prince Gregor and his mother were seated on a dais to one side of the chamber. The princess wore a black gown shot with silver decoration, high-necked and long-sleeved. Her dark-haired son looked rather like an elf in his red and blue uniform. Cordelia thought he fidgeted remarkably little, under the circumstances.

The Emperor too had a ghostly presence, over closed circuit commlink from the Imperial Residence. Ezar was shown in the holovid seated, in full uniform, at what physical cost Cordelia could not guess, the tubes and monitor leads piercing his body concealed at least from the vid pickup. His face was paper-white, his skin almost transparent, as if he were literally fading from the stage he had dominated for so long.

The gallery was crammed with wives, staff, and guards. The women were elegantly dressed and decorated with jewelry, and Cordelia studied them with interest, then turned her attention back to pumping Vorpatril for information.

"Was Aral's appointment as Regent a surprise to you? she asked.

"Not really. A few people took that resignation-and retirement business after the Escobar mess seriously, but I never did."

"He meant it seriously, I thought.

"Oh, I don't doubt it. The first person Aral fools with that prosey-stone-soldier routine is himself. It's the sort of man he always wanted to be, I think. Like his father."

"Hm. Yes, I had noticed a certain political bent to his conversations. In the middle of the most extraordinary circumstances, too. Marriage proposals, for instance."

Vorpatril laughed. "I can just picture it. When he was young he was a real conservative—if you wanted to know what Aral thought about anything, all you had to do was ask Count Piotr, and multiply by two. But by the time we served together, he was getting . . . um . . . strange. If you could get him going . . ." There was a certain wicked reminiscence in his eye, which Cordelia promptly encouraged.

"How did you get him going? I thought political discussion was forbidden to officers."

He snorted. "I suppose they could forbid breathing with about as much chance of success. The dictum is, shall we say, sporadically enforced. Aral stuck to it, though, unless Rulf Vorhalas and I took him out and got him really relaxed."

"Aral? Relaxed?"

"Oh, yes. Now, Aral's drinking was notable—"

"I thought he was a terrible drinker. No stomach for it."

"Oh, that's what was notable. He seldom drank. Although he went through a bad period after his first wife died, when he used to run around with Ges Vorrutyer a lot ... um . . ." He glanced sideways, and took another tack. "Anyway, it was dangerous to get him too relaxed, because then he'd go all depressed and serious, and then it didn't take a thing to get him on to whatever current injustice or incompetence or insanity was rousing his ire. God, the man could talk. By the time he'd had his fifth drink—just before he slid under the table for the night— he'd be declaiming revolution in iambic pentameter. I always thought he'd end up on the political side some-day." He chuckled, and looked rather lovingly at the stocky red-and-blue-clad figure seated with the Counts on the far side of the chamber.

The Joint Council vote of confirmation for Vorkosigan's Imperial appointment was a curious affair, to Cordelia's mind. She hadn't imagined it possible to get seventy-five Barrayarans to agree on which direction their sun rose in the morning, but the tally was nearly unanimous in favor of Emperor Ezar's choice. The exceptions were five set-jawed men who abstained, four loudly, one so weakly the Lord Guardian of the Speaker's Circle had to ask him to repeat himself. Even Count Vordarian voted yea, Cordelia noticed—perhaps Vortala had managed to repair last night's breach in some early-morning meeting after all. It all seemed a very auspicious and encouraging start to Vorkosigan's new job, anyway, and she said as much to Lord Vorpatril.

"Uh . . . yes. Milady," said Lord Vorpatril after a sideways smile at her. "Emperor Ezar made it clear he wanted united approval."

His tone made it clear she was missing cues, again. "Are you trying to tell me some of those men would rather have voted no?"

"That would be imprudent of them, at this juncture."

"Then the men who abstained . . . must have some courage of conscience." She studied the little group with new interest.

"Oh, they're all right," said Vorpatril.

"What do you mean? They are the opposition, surely."

"Yes, but they're the open opposition. No one plotting serious treason would mark himself so publicly. The fellows Aral will need to guard his back from are in the other mob, among the yes-men."

"Which ones?" Cordelia's brow wrinkled in worry.

"Who knows?" Lord Vorpatril shrugged, then answered his own question. "Negri, probably."

They were surrounded by a ring of empty seats. Cordelia hadn't been sure if it was for security or courtesy. Evidently the second, for two latecomers, a man in commander's dress greens and a younger one in rich-looking civilian clothes, arrived and apologetically sat in front of them. Cordelia thought they looked like brothers, and had the guess confirmed when the younger said,

"Look, there's Father, three seats behind old Vortala. Which one's the new Regent?"

"The bandy-legged character in the red-and-blues, just sitting down to Vortala's right."

Cordelia and Vorpatril exchanged a look behind their backs, and Cordelia put a finger to her lips. Vorpatril grinned and shrugged.

"What's the word on him in the Service?" "Depends on who you ask," said the commander. "Sardi thinks he's a strategic genius, and dotes on his communiqués. He's been all over the place. Every brushfire in the last twenty-five years seems to have his name in it someplace. Uncle Rulf used to think the world of him. On the other hand, Niels, who was at Escobar, said he was the most cold-blooded bastard he'd ever met."

"I hear he has a reputation as a secret progressive."

"There's nothing secret about it. Some of the senior Vor officers are scared to death of him. He's been trying to get Father with him and Vortala on that new tax ruling."

"Oh, yawn."

"It's the direct Imperial tax on inheritances."

"Ouch! Well, that wouldn't hit him, would it? The Vorkosigans are so damn poor. Let Komarr pay. That's why we conquered it, isn't it?"

"Not exactly, my fraternal ignoramus. Have any of you town clowns met his Betan frill yet?"

"Men of fashion, sirrah," corrected his brother. "Not to be confused with you Service grubs."

"No danger of that. No, really. There are the damnedest rumors circulating about her, Vorkosigan, and Vorrutyer at Escobar, most of which contradict each other. I thought Mother might have a line on it."

"She keeps a low profile, for somebody who's supposed to be three meters tall and eat battle cruisers for breakfast. Scarcely anybody's seen her. Maybe she's ugly."

"They'll make a pair, then. Vorkosigan's no beauty either."

Cordelia, vastly amused, hid a grin behind her hand, until the commander said, "I don't know who that three-legged spastic is he has trailing him, though. Staff, do you suppose?"

"You'd think he could do better than that. What a mutant. Surely Vorkosigan has the pick of the Service, as Regent."

She felt she'd received a body blow, so great was the unexpected pain of the careless remark. Captain Lord Vorpatril scarcely seemed to notice it. He had heard it, but his attention was on the floor below, where oaths were being made. Droushnakovi, surprisingly, blushed, and turned her head away.

Cordelia leaned forward. Words boiled up within her. but she chose only a few, and fired them off in her coldest Captain's voice.

"Commander. And you, whoever you are." They looked back at her, surprised at the interruption. "For your information, the gentleman in question is Lieutenant Koudelka. And there are no better officers. Not in anybody's service.'

They stared at her, irritated and baffled, unable to place her in their scheme of things. "I believe this was a private conversation, madam," said the commander stiffly.

"Quite so," she returned, equally stiffly, still boiling. "For eavesdropping, unavoidable as it was, I beg your pardon. But for that shameful remark upon Admiral Vorkosigan's secretary, you must apologize. It was a disgrace to the uniform you both wear and the service to your Emperor you both share." She kept her voice very low, almost hissing. She was trembling. An overdose of Barrayar. Get hold of yourself.

Vorpatril's wandering attention was drawn, startled, back to her by this speech. "Here, here," he remonstrated "What is this—"

The commander turned around further. "Oh, Captain Vorpatril, sir. I didn't recognize you at first. Um . . ." He gestured helplessly at his red-haired attacker, as if to say, Is this lady with you? And if so, can't you keep her under control? He added coldly, "We have not met, madam."

"No, but I don't go 'round flipping over rocks to see what's living underneath." She was instantly conscious of having been lured into going too far. With difficulty, she nut a lid on her temper. It wouldn't do to be making new enemies for Vorkosigan at the very moment he was taking up his duties.

Vorpatril, waking up to his responsibilities as escort, began, "Commander, you don't know who—"

"Don't . . . introduce us. Lord Vorpatril," Cordelia interrupted him. "We should only embarrass each other further." She pressed thumb and forefinger to the bridge of her nose, closing her eyes and gathering more conciliating words. And I used to pride myself on keeping my temper. She looked up at their furious faces.

"Commander. My lord." She correctly deduced the young man's title from his reference to his father, sitting among the counts. "My words were hasty and rude, and I take them back. I had no right to comment on a private conversation. I apologize. Most humbly."

"As well you should," snapped the young lord.

His brother had more self-control, and replied reluctantly, "I accept your apology, madam. I presume the lieutenant is some relative of yours. I apologize for whatever insult you felt was implied."

"And I accept your apology. Commander. Although Lieutenant Koudelka is not a relation, but only my second-dearest . . . enemy." She paused, and they exchanged frowns, hers of irony, his of puzzlement. "I would ask a favor of you, however, sir. Don't let a comment like that tall in Admiral Vorkosigan's hearing. Koudelka was one 'of his officers aboard the General Vorkraft, and was wounded in his defense during that political mutiny last year. He loves him as a son."

The commander was calming down, although Droushnakovi still looked as if she had a bad taste in her mouth. He smiled a little. "Are you implying I'd find myself doing guard duty on Kyril Island?"

What was Kyril Island? Some distant and unpleasant outpost, apparently. "I ... doubt it. He wouldn't use his office to carry out a personal grudge. But it would cause him unnecessary pain."

"Madam." She had puzzled him thoroughly now, this plain-looking woman, so out-of-place in the glittering gallery. He turned back with his brother to watch the show below, and all maintained a sticky silence for another twenty minutes, until the ceremonies stopped for lunch. The crowds in both gallery and floor broke away to meet in the corridors of power.

She found Vorkosigan, Koudelka at his side, speaking with his father Count Piotr and another older man in count's robes. Vorpatril delivered her and vanished, and Aral greeted her with a tired smile.

"Dear Captain, are you holding up all right? I want you to meet Count Vorhalas. Admiral Rulf Vorhalas was his younger brother. We must go shortly, we're scheduled for a private lunch with the Princess and Prince Gregor."

Count Vorhalas bowed profoundly over her hand. "Milady. I'm honored."

"Count. I ... only saw your brother briefly. But Admiral Vorhalas struck me as a man of outstanding worth." And my side blew him away. She felt queasy, with her hand in his, but he seemed to hold no personal animosity.

"Thank you, Milady. We all thought so. Ah, there are the boys. I promised them an introduction. Evon is itching for a place on the Staff, but I told him he'd have to earn it. I wish Carl had as much interest in the Service. My daughter will be mad with jealousy. You've stirred up all the girls, you know. Milady."

The count darted away to round up his sons. Oh, Cod, thought Cordelia. It would have to be them. The two men who had sat before her in the gallery were presented to her. They both blanched, and bowed nervously over her hand.

"But you've met," said Vorkosigan. "I saw you talking in the gallery. What did you find to discuss so animatedly, Cordelia?"

"Oh . . . geology. Zoology. Courtesy. Much on courtesy. We had quite a wide-ranging discussion. We each of us taught the other something, I think." She smiled, and did not flick an eyelid.

Commander Evon Vorhalas, looking rather ill, said, "Yes. I've . . . had a lesson I'll never forget. Milady."

Vorkosigan was continuing the introductions. "Commander Vorhalas, Lord Carl; Lieutenant Koudelka."

Koudelka, loaded with plastic flimsys, disks, the baton of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces that had just been presented to Vorkosigan as Regent-elect, and his own stick, and uncertain whether to shake hands or salute, managed to drop them all and do neither. There was a general scramble to retrieve the load, and Koudelka went red, bending awkwardly after it. Droushnakovi and he put a hand on his stick at the same time.

"I don't need your help, miss," Koudelka snarled at her in a low voice, and she recoiled to go stand rigidly behind Cordelia.

Commander Vorhalas handed him back some disks. "Pardon me, sir," said Koudelka. "Thank you."

"Not at all, Lieutenant. I was almost hit by disrupter fire myself once. Scared the hell out of me. You are an example to us all."

"It . . . didn't hurt, sir."

Cordelia, who knew from personal experience that this was a lie, held her peace, satisfied. The group broke up for its separate destinations. Cordelia paused before Evon Vorhalas.

"Nice to meet you. Commander. I predict you will go far, in your future career—and not in the direction of Kyril Island."

Vorhalas smiled tightly. "I believe you will, too. Milady." They exchanged wary and respectful nods, and Cordelia turned to take Vorkosigan s arm, and follow him to his next task, trailed by Koudelka and Droushnakovi.

 

The Barrayaran Emperor slipped into his final coma a week later, but lingered on another week beyond that. Aral and Cordelia were routed out of bed at Vorkosigan House in the early hours of the morning by a special messenger from the Imperial Residence, with the simple words, "The doctor thinks it's time, sir." They dressed hastily, and accompanied the messenger back to the beautiful chamber Ezar had chosen for the last month of his life, its priceless antiques cluttered over with off-worlder medical equipment.

The room was crowded, with the old man's personal physicians, Vortala, Count Piotr and themselves, the Princess and Prince Gregor, several ministers, and some men from the General Staff. They kept a quiet, standing death-watch for almost an hour before the still, decayed figure on the bed took on, almost imperceptibly, an added stillness. Cordelia thought it a gruesome scene to which to subject the boy, but his presence seemed ceremonially necessary. Very quietly, beginning with Vorkosigan, they turned to kneel and place their hands between Gregor's, to renew their oaths of fealty.

Cordelia too was guided by Vorkosigan to kneel before the boy. The prince—Emperor—had his mother's hair, but hazel eyes like Ezar and Serg, and Cordelia found herself wondering how much of his father, or his grandfather, was latent in him, its expression waiting on the power that would come with age. Do you bear curses in your chromosomes. child? she wondered as her hands were placed between his. Cursed or blessed, regardless, she gave him her oath. The words seemed to cut her last tie to Beta Colony; it parted with a ping! audible only to her.

I am a Barrayaran now. It had been a long strange journey, that began with a view of a pair of boots in the mud, and ended in these clean child's hands. Do you know I helped kill your father, boy? Will you ever know? Pray not. She wondered if it was delicacy or oversight, that she had never been required to give oath to Ezar Vorbarra.

Of all present, only Captain Negri wept. Cordelia only knew this because she was standing next to him, in the darkest corner of the room, and saw him twice brush his face with the back of his hand. His face grew suffused, and more lined, for a time; when he stepped forward to take his oath, it had returned to his normal blank hardness.

The five days of funeral ceremonies that followed were grueling for Cordelia, but not, she was led to understand, so grueling as the ones had been for Crown Prince Serg, which had run for two weeks, despite the absence of a body for a centerpiece. The public view was that Prince Serg had died the death of a heroic soldier. By Cordelia's count, only five human beings knew the whole truth of that subtle assassination. No, four, now that Ezar was no more. Perhaps the grave was the safest repository of Ezar's secrets. Well, the old man's torment was over now, his time done, his era passing.

There was no coronation as such for the boy Emperor, but instead a surprisingly business-like, if elegantly garbed, several days spent back in the Council chambers collecting personal oaths from ministers, counts, a host of their relatives, and anybody else who had not already made their vows in Ezar's death chamber. Vorkosigan too received oaths, seeming to grow burdened with their accumulation as if each had a physical weight.

The boy, closely supported by his mother, held up well. Kareen made sure Gregor's hourly breaks to rest were respected by the busy, impatient men who had thronged to the capital to discharge their obligation. The strangeness of the Barrayaran government system, with all its unwritten customs, pressed on Cordelia not so much at first glance, but gradually. And yet it seemed to work for them, somehow. They made it work. Pretending a government into existence. Perhaps all governments were such consensus fictions, at their hearts.

 

After the spate of ceremonies had died down, Cordelia began at last to establish her domestic routine at Vorkosigan House. Not that there was that much to do. Most days Vorkosigan left at dawn, Koudelka in tow, and returned after dark, to snatch a cold supper and lock himself in the library, or see men there, until bedtime. His long hours were a start-up cost, Cordelia told herself. He would settle in, become more efficient, when everything wasn't all for the first time. She remembered her first ship command in the Betan Astronomical Survey—not so very long ago—and her first few months of nervous hyper-preparedness. Later, the painfully studied tasks had become automatic, then nearly unconscious, and her personal life had re-emerged. Aral's would, too. She waited patiently, and smiled when she did see him.

Besides, she had a job. Gestating. It was a task of no little status, judging from the cosseting she received from everyone from Count Piotr down to the kitchen maid who brought her nutritious little snacks at odd hours. She hadn't received this much approval even when she'd returned from a yearlong survey mission with a zero-accident record. Reproduction seemed far more enthusiastically encouraged here than on Beta Colony.

After lunch one afternoon she lay with her feet up on a sofa in a shaded patio between the house and its back garden—gestating assiduously—and reflected upon the assorted reproductive customs of Barrayar versus Beta Colony. Gestation in uterine replicators, artifical wombs, seemed unknown here. On Beta Colony replicators were the most popular choice by three to one, but a large minority stood by claimed psycho-social advantages to the old-fashioned natural method. Cordelia had never been able to detect any difference between vitro and vivo babies, certainly not by the time they reached adulthood at twenty-two. Her brother had been vivo, herself vitro; her brother's co-parent had chosen vivo for both her children, and bragged about it rather a lot.

Cordelia had always assumed that when her turn came, she'd have her own kid cooked up in a replicator bank at the start of a Survey mission, to be ready and waiting for her arms upon her return. If she returned—there was always that possible catch, exploring the blind unknown. And assuming, also, that she could nail down an interested co-parent with whom to pool, willing and able to pass the physical, psychological, and economic tests and take the course to qualify for a parents license.

Aral was going to be a superb co-parent, she was certain. If he ever touched down again, from his new high place. Surely the first rush must be over soon. It was a long fall from that high place, with nowhere to land. Aral was her safe haven, if he fell first . . . she wrenched her meditations firmly into more positive channels.

Now, family size; that was the real, secret, wicked fascination of Barrayar. There were no legal limits here, no certificates to be earned, no third-child variances to be scrimped for; no rules, in fact, at all. She'd seen a woman on the street with not three but four children in tow, and no one had even stared. Cordelia had upped her own imagined brood from two to three, and felt deliciously sinful, till she'd met a woman with ten. Four, maybe? Six? Vorkosigan could afford it. Cordelia wriggled her toes and cuddled into the cushions, afloat on an atavistic cloud of genetic greed.

Barrayar's economy was wide open now, Aral said, despite the losses of the recent war. No wounds had touched the surface of the planet this time. The terraforming of the second continent opened new frontiers every day, and when the new planet Sergyar was cleared for colonization, the effect would triple. Labor was short everywhere, wages rising. Barrayar perceived itself to be severely underpopulated. Vorkosigan called the economic situation his gift from the gods, politically. So did Cordelia, for more personal, secret reasons; herds of little Vorkosigans. . . .

She could have a daughter. Not just one, but two— sisters! Cordelia had never had a sister. Captain Vorpatril s wife had two, she'd said.

Cordelia had meet Lady Vorpatril at one of the rare evening political-social events at Vorkosigan House. The affair was managed smoothly by the Vorkosigan House staff. All Cordelia had to do was show up appropriately dressed (she had acquired more clothes), smile a lot, and keep her mouth shut. She listened with fascination, trying to puzzle out yet more about How Things Were Done Here.

Alys Vorpatril too was pregnant. Lord Vorpatril had sort of stuck them together and ducked out. Naturally, they talked shop. Lady Vorpatril mourned much at her personal discomforts. Cordelia decided she herself must be fortunate; the anti-nausea med, the same chemical formulation that they used at home, worked, and she was only naturally tired, not from the weight of the still-tiny baby but from the surprising metabolic load. Peeing for two was how Cordelia thought of it. Well, after five-space navigational math, how hard could motherhood be?

Leaving aside Alys's whispered obstetrical horror stories, of course. Hemorrhages, strokes, kidney failure, birth injuries, oxygen interruption to fetal brains, infant heads grown larger than pelvic diameters and a spasming uterus laboring both mother and child to death . . . Medical complications were only a problem if one was somehow caught alone and isolated at term, and with these mobs of guards about that wasn't likely to happen to her. Bothari as a midwife? Bemusing thought. She shuddered.

She rolled over again on the lawn sofa, her brow creasing. Ah, Barrayar's primitive medicine. True, moms had popped lads for hundreds of thousands of years, pre-space-flight, with less help than what was available here. Yet the niggling worry gnawed still. Maybe I ought to go home for the birth.

No. She was Barrayaran now, oath-sworn like the rest of the lunatics. It was a two-month journey. And besides, as far as she knew there was still an arrest warrant outstanding for her, charging military desertion, suspicion of espionage, fraud, anti-social violence—she probably shouldn't have tried to drown that idiot army psychiatrist in her aquarium, Cordelia supposed, sighing in memory of her harried and disordered departure from Beta Colony. Would her name ever be cleared? Not while Ezar's secrets stayed chambered in four skulls, surely.

No. Beta Colony was closed to her, had driven her out. Barrayar held no monopoly on political idiocy, that much was certain.

I can handle Barrayar. Aral and I. You bet.

It was time to go in. The sun was giving her a slight headache.

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