The first three times--the suborned nursemaid, the stratagem with little Elena that Bothari had never explained to them in its entirety, and the revelation of the bribes and threats to medical personnel before Miles's first big spinal surgery--Cordelia had raged, and Aral had made himself calm in counterpoint. His father was only testing, he'd assured her. Bothari (and Sophie, the unimpeachably loyal nursemaid who had tended to Gregor in his infancy and knew something about threats to her charges, and Dr. Vaagen, who had quite cheerfully offered his entire staff up for fast-penta interrogation when he learned one of them had had contact with Count Vorkosigan) had turned away all dangers. The Count would realize he was thwarted and give up.
And when Cordelia had spent her fury and relaxed enough to entrust Miles back to Sophie under Bothari's watchful eye, on each of those three nights, Aral had lain awake with his own rage. He didn't dare unleash it even so far as angry words. He didn't dare to feed it on ideas of vengeance. He waited until Cordelia slept and lay awake beside her, watching her sleep, watching Miles sleep safe in his cradle on the bedside security monitor, waiting for the killing fury to subside into something he could control. Something he could use, for them. The first three times it was simply beyond him, and he had to bury his anger alive, and fall back on his own artificial assurances. Miles was safe enough, and the Count would stop eventually.
His father had fought off the Cetagandans with little more than rocks and stubbornness, Aral knew. He would not give in while he thought he had the least chance of succeeding. Aral could not protect his family, or Gregor, or Barrayar, if he gave in to the overwhelming urge to make Miles safe in the one way he was certain of. So Aral swallowed his rage and waited.
The fourth time seemed to break something in Cordelia. Bothari brought Miles to them at lunchtime and reported that he had intercepted the General at the side of Miles's cradle. The General had already removed the specially-contoured pillow from behind Miles's head and back--which by itself could have done Miles nearly as much harm as smothering him with the damned thing--and Bothari had "removed the General from arm's reach of Lord Miles until he agreed to leave."
Cordelia had simply taken Miles from Bothari and retreated to their bedroom, and Aral had paused only to tell Bothari he'd done well before he followed her.
She was pacing back and forth across the room, holding Miles up against her shoulder, so that he was looking at Aral whenever Cordelia looked away. Aral found himself switching his expressions on and off like a signal beacon every two seconds: a reassuring smile for his son, grim attention for his wife.
"I want to press charges for attempted murder," Cordelia said, turning abruptly to face him, so that Aral barely had time to get the right look on his face. Her words were low and desperate, and it was obvious in every atom of her body that she was aware of reaching for a last resort.
Aral wondered how long she'd been holding this in reserve, telling herself that she would save this demand for the moment it was absolutely necessary. Probably about as long as he'd been dreading having to explain to her that it was impossible.
"I'm sorry, Cordelia. He would be acquitted, and the vindication would make him impossible to deal with."
Cordelia offered him a frankly stunned look, and swayed for a moment as if she were going to fall. Then she braced herself, adjusting her grip on Miles, and said in a barely-controlled voice, "He just tried to murder a child in broad daylight, in Vorbarr Sultana, in the Imperial Residence, in our home, how can he possibly--"
Miles let out a half-cry--the I'm not sure I like this and if I don't I'll start crying for real in another twenty seconds cry--and Cordelia's words stopped on the instant. She shifted him to her other shoulder, kissing the top of his head as she did.
In a flat, resigned tone, she said, "He'd be acquitted. Tell me why."
Aral stayed where he was, just inside the door, observing Cordelia from a safe distance. "Bothari is the only witness, and an armsman can't give evidence against his liege lord: legally his is the Count. There's no other evidence, and Miles is unharmed. And even if we had a stronger case to offer, we'd have to prosecute him in the Council of Counts."
Cordelia turned her back at that, but Aral found himself continuing to explain anyway; Miles watched him with bright-eyed interest. "A significant number of the Counts would acquit him on a charge of bare-handed murder if he committed it in the middle of the Emperor's Birthday parade, just because he's General Count Piotr Vorkosigan." Miles blinked solemnly, absorbing this news, and Aral forced himself to say the rest to his son's face, to tell him the truth of his world. "Even among the ones who don't hold out that much personal loyalty, there are a meaningful number who would never rule anything but death from natural causes in the case of an infant with visible deformities."
Cordelia turned halfway, showing him her profile and hiding Miles from him. "This is the world you've brought your son into."
This is the world you've trapped me in.
Aral spread his hands in surrender, unable to summon words that weren't a doomed defense. Cordelia turned her back and began to pace again, and Aral knew he'd been dismissed. He stepped out of the room just long enough to cancel the rest of his day and then came back in to wait. Cordelia didn't speak again, but Aral knew he had to keep this vigil. This was merely a long pause for thought in their confrontation, and he did not intend to miss whatever came next.
Cordelia fed Miles precisely at the usual times, silently ignoring the food brought up for her and Aral. She violated even the sacred alternation of diaper duty when they were both present. She kept Miles under her own hands every second, and Aral knew better than to try to intervene. She'd savage anyone who came between her and her child right now, and Aral wasn't at all sure that the carnage would be only verbal.
It was after midnight and Cordelia was sitting on their bed with Miles lying between the safe barricades of her legs when she finally looked up, unerringly directly at Aral. It was the first sign he'd had in hours that she knew he was there.
"I've been thinking," she said, and her voice was very calm and even. "I should take him to Beta Colony, for medical treatments. I'm sure they could do better for him there. And by the time we come back, he'll be so much improved, it will be a fresh start with your father."
Aral realized abruptly that he wasn't angry. He hadn't been all day; something had changed for him, too, this time. For now, though, he could only answer what Cordelia had said. "Do you think that's absolutely necessary?"
Cordelia looked back down at Miles, bowing her head. A few locks of her hair had come loose from their knot at the nape of her neck, and when they fell down near his face Miles--who would never sleep if there were people around who he could interact with--promptly grabbed them. Cordelia didn't detach his hold, though Aral could see from two meters away how hard Miles was pulling; one of these days he would manage to lift himself up by that grip.
"It's been irresponsible of me not to obtain the best care available for him. I should have taken him when he was still in his replicator, he'd have been much less subject to travel stress then."
It had been nearly a year since the cesarean; as far as Aral knew, in that time Cordelia and Vaagen had already been in touch with every galactic authority who had any possibly relevant expertise. Miles's case was unique and uniquely Barrayaran, and Cordelia had told him before that Beta Colony couldn't cure everything. Aral didn't point any of that out. Cordelia knew it as well as he did.
"I can't--Aral, I simply can't stand by and wait for someone to kill him. I can't. It's insane."
Aral walked over and sat down on the floor beside the bed, so that he could look up into her face. He reached past her knee to lay his hand on Miles's chest, and Miles kicked his upside-down feet and flailed his hands, still clutching Cordelia's hair. Aral saw the pain-tears sheen her eyes, but she still didn't rescue her hair from his grip. Aral slid his fingers up to Miles's chin, tickling him there until Miles, chortling and babbling, released his hold on Cordelia's hair to clutch at Aral's fingers.
"You're talking about years," Aral said quietly. In fact she was talking about kidnapping, under Barrayaran law, but Aral would rather lose Miles to Beta Colony forever than invoke his custody rights against Cordelia, today or ever.
Cordelia tucked her hair back behind her ears. "If he's walking and talking when we come back--if he can run away from danger and tell us what's happened--"
"He won't know me," Aral said, wiggling his fingers in Miles's grip and making him laugh.
Cordelia said nothing.
"I couldn't go with you. I don't think I could even safely leave Barrayar for a visit to Beta Colony at this point, let alone an extended stay. Bothari would go with you if you asked, of course, but he'd leave Elena behind. She wouldn't know her father either, by the time you came back."
"Barrayar is trying to kill my son."
"No," Aral said quietly. "My father has been trying to kill our son. It will not happen again."
"Because Bothari stopped him? Aral--"
"Because I will stop him," Aral said, his eyes on his son's face. He tapped his finger against Miles's lips, and Miles blew raspberries until he collapsed into giggles at the sounds they produced between them.
"I will demonstrate to him that he cannot possibly win," Aral explained. "And if I cannot make him see that, then I will do what is necessary to ensure that he cannot have access to Miles, or to you, ever again."
"Why now," Cordelia said sharply, and it was the first real emotion he'd heard in her voice. Aral couldn't find it in himself to feel anything but relief. If she was willing to be angry at him, she wasn't gone yet. If she was willing to be angry at him, his moment of readiness had not come too late.
"Because before now all I could think to do about my father was kill him," Aral said, quite calmly, brushing his fingers over Miles's lips, parted now in a toothless grin. "Now I'm ready to defeat him."
Aral very properly didn't stand when General Count Vorkosigan entered the room. Having issued an Imperial summons, Aral was receiving him in his capacity as the Lord Regent. Furthermore, Gregor was right in the middle of a page, and Aral's standing up would have interrupted him in a way that the comings and goings of other adults didn't.
"And Vorthalia said, 'I will, my liege!'" Gregor tilted the picture book to show it to Miles, lying on the blanket between him and Aral. "See Vorthalia? See his sword?"
Miles crowed excitedly and made a well-aimed grab for the brightly colored picture book. Gregor, who knew Miles's reach to the millimeter, deftly angled the book away.
Aral glanced up to see his father taking this all in with a sour look that suggested that--in no particular order--he felt the staging was heavy-handed, he was irritated that the presence of the children was putting off Aral's planned rebuke, and Aral's sentimental over-involvement with children's playtime was no better than he expected of his weak and endlessly disappointing son.
"Gregor," Aral said quietly. Piotr instantly assumed an expression of grandfatherly benevolence that Aral had not seen directed at Miles since before he was born the first time.
Gregor scooted carefully away from Miles, laid the book down, and popped up to his feet. "Welcome to my home, General Count Vorkosigan. Please come and sit, we're having an informal lunch today."
Aral smiled, knowing Gregor would see it in his peripheral vision though he wouldn't actually look over for reassurance. The practiced words were actually long-familiar to Gregor, as were lunches with Counts and Ministers. Aral had arranged a rotation by which each of them had a more-or-less private lunch with Gregor in turn--two or three of them a week meant each saw him more than once a year. Count Vorkosigan had had a turn six months ago, in fact, but Aral had declined to supervise, allowing Lady Alys to step in and play social hostess. She'd reported back in admirably clear and complete detail, afterward.
The General said, very properly, "Thank you, my liege," and turned to accompany Gregor to the table. Aral rose to his own knees and scooped Miles up before he had time to get into a fuss over Gregor's abandonment of him. They followed the General and the Emperor, and Aral was so practiced at settling Miles into his special chair at the table that he had him strapped down and the chair locked in place scarcely a moment after Gregor had climbed into his own seat.
Count Vorkosigan--correctly, despite Gregor's promise of informality--remained standing until the Lord Regent sat down, which allowed Aral to watch his face as he looked across the table at Miles. He only registered surprise for an instant, but it was there for a practiced observer to see. Viewed across the lunch table, propped up in his chair which positioned his bent legs out of sight, with one spinal curve already half-corrected by surgery and the other, as promised, starting to correct itself naturally, Miles looked very much like an ordinary baby. He was small, of course, but he held himself up quite well and looked around curiously.
Miles babbled something at the General, waving one hand eagerly, and Aral saw his father's face shut down into steely politeness.
Gregor, as he often did for Aral and Cordelia (and Drou and Bothari, and Kou, and Simon), interpreted. "I believe Lord Miles wants to welcome you as well, Count Vorkosigan. He lives here with me and Lord and Lady Vorkosigan, so that is proper."
"Thank you," the Count repeated, though he didn't address his thanks to anyone in particular.
Just then the door opened and lunch appeared. The adults' trays were borne by the usual Residence servitors, while Drou carried Gregor's, and Bothari carried Miles's along with the clips to lock it in place at the table-edge so that Miles couldn't pull it onto himself or flip it over the edge of the table--both skills he'd acquired within the last month. Miles nonetheless pushed at the tray, testing, as soon as Bothari put it within reach. Bothari was too quick for him, but even after the Armsman--whose brown and silver echoed the Count's formal House uniform--retreated with Drou and the others, Miles continued shoving at his tray, ignoring the food neatly arranged on its surface.
"Lord Miles," Gregor said, in the firmest tone of authority Aral had ever heard a seven-year-old deploy, though he heard this one on nearly a daily basis. Miles looked up instantly, absolutely focused on Gregor. "I request and require you to eat your lunch."
Gregor picked up one of the vegetable sticks from his own plate and took a bite from it, and Miles obediently picked up an identical vegetable stick and began to gum it energetically. Aral would have been stunned if Gregor didn't execute this maneuver so regularly; the Count seemed to be looking at Miles rather as he would a performing animal.
Aral restrained himself from pointing out that that was incredible cleverness for a child who had--despite what his birthday would indicate--only taken his first breath seven months ago. Among other things, it would have sounded too much like Alys's boasting about Ivan. Instead, Aral started on his own lunch and shot the Emperor a significant look. Gregor, who usually did not have to cope with the distraction of Miles during a meeting with one of his Counts, returned to the standard script.
"Count Vorkosigan, how fares your District lately?"
The rest of the lunch passed without incident. Aral occupied himself with eating, to give Gregor and Miles a good example, and also to keep himself from saying anything. Now was not the time. The Count seemed content to monopolize the conversation and told Gregor one story after another. Gregor listened solemnly and ate all his vegetables.
Miles, to Aral's educated eye, ate and drank about as much as Miles ever did, and distributed the remainder of his food in the usual extravagant manner across his tray and his own face and arms and hair and down his--thankfully impervious--shirt-front. He also contributed the occasional babble-comment to the conversation when he perceived a lull. Gregor helpfully translated these remarks, which always revealed that Miles had been paying close attention to the Count's stories and actively making connections with the things Gregor learned in his lessons.
Eventually Gregor's plate was clean and Miles tipped over his cup in the traditional ceremonial end of mealtime. Drou and Bothari returned, perfectly on time. Drou stopped a few paces short of the table, and Gregor popped to his feet, so Aral and the General rose as well. Bothari continued around the table to Miles and wiped him clean with a few practiced passes of a damp cloth, then kept Miles's hands immobilized with one hand and unfastened the tray from the table with the other, so that he could pick up tray and cloth together before Miles got his hands free.
Aral said his goodbyes to Gregor on autopilot; Gregor said polite farewells to the Count and Lord Regent, and waved effusively to Miles, who waved back as soon as Bothari loosed his hands. Bothari followed Drou and Gregor out, and Aral turned his back on his father to unfasten Miles from his seat. He scooped his son up and held him the way Miles liked best, with his back to Aral's chest and his legs hooked over Aral's arm, so that he could look around from his secure vantage point.
Bothari came back in and took up a station just inside the door just as Aral turned to face his father. The Count looked back and forth from Aral to Bothari with an expression of unsurprised resignation, altogether unimpressed.
"So," he said, "what's it going to be?"
His deference to the Regent extended precisely so far as not ending that sentence with boy, but that was enough to show he'd been paying attention, at least.
Aral resumed his seat with Miles still cradled against his chest, and said, "You may stand, Count Vorkosigan. Up to now I have hesitated to speak in the Emperor's Voice on my own behalf, but I can see that it's the only way to make you listen, so be aware: I request and require you to hear what I am about to say."
The General gave him a look that was nine parts irritation and one part grudging respect: it was an unfair trick, but unfair tricks had always been the stock in trade of General Vorkosigan's men. He nodded slightly, accepting Aral's terms, then said, "May I order my Armsman to leave the room, my Lord Regent?"
"He is assigned to Lord Miles's security," Aral said evenly. "He will not abandon Lord Miles in your presence at your order or any other."
Aral could almost see the dry comment his father swallowed at that, but he did swallow it. Aral let it pass.
"First, I want you to understand something I thought you would have worked out for yourself by now. I am not waiting for you to dispose of my son for me so that I can be rid of a deformed heir without my wife thinking I'm a villain."
The General looked faintly scornful at the idea, but Aral hammered the point home. "Miles is my firstborn son, my heir by blood and choice, and I will resist with all my power any attempt to take him from me."
Aral glanced down at Miles, who usually napped after his lunch, and had been up late the night before--but of course, with interesting people around to watch, Miles was wide awake, studying the General with an air of alert eagerness. When Aral looked up again, the General was staring off over Aral's shoulder.
"You've seen some of that power for yourself today. In case the pantomime was not perfectly clear, I will spell it out. If any harm should come to the Emperor's baby foster brother, upon whom he dotes, it would be my sad duty to explain to the Emperor what had happened, and who was responsible.
"But this is not a matter of mere threats of retribution. There is no victory condition available to you in this campaign, unless you have come to so hate an innocent child that you are willing to sacrifice everything to accomplish his mere death. You cannot win, General."
His father shot him a look of pure cornered fury. A Vorkosigan did not accept another man's word for when he was beaten. Aral met that look steadily, and shifted Miles from his right arm to his left without looking down at him.
"In the first place, you should be aware that Cordelia and I will never have another child. I repeat: I will never have another child. Accidents have become an impossibility, and we have forsworn more deliberate measures. There will be no brother to compete with Miles. He will have no sister for you to marry off to Padma's boy or some crony's grandson, so you can name a new heir whose children will carry your blood. If you cut Miles out of the Vorkosigan line, you cut me out as well, and so yourself."
It was not necessary to bring up the other possibility, a young Countess and a fifty-years-younger brother for Lord Vorkosigan. If it were possible it would have happened already, and Aral had no need to bring it up. It was unnecessary to be insulting in the middle of a demonstration of overpowering force.
"Furthermore you should understand that I will no longer sit idly by, or hesitate to use every recourse available to me. If I have any reason to believe that you are planning to harm my son from this moment forward--if I discover one person working on your orders to get near him, if I just once find you near him yourself without authorization--you will, that very hour, be Imperially appointed to the Viceroyalty of Sergyar."
The General's face was like stone, now. Miles was a warm, still weight against Aral's chest, lulled by his father's voice.
"You will rule over flying jellyfish, six-legged beasts, and a few hundred malcontents desperate enough to emigrate. Your military garrison will be entirely composed of men being punished for something so dire that Camp Permafrost wasn't enough. I will see to it that you never receive permission to depart from your post for any occasion short of your own funeral. If you should live so long, upon his majority I will make Gregor fully aware of the circumstances of your appointment. You will die under an alien sky, never having set foot in your District again, never having breathed the same air as my wife or my son."
Aral thought he detected a brief spasm of pain on the Count's face, at that, and felt a brief upwelling of anger, that it took that threat to reach him; it was strange that he could feel it, that he had not been angry until just now and could tell the difference. He pushed the feeling away, and kept to his script, devised last night after Cordelia had at last put Miles down to sleep, and demanded a tactical briefing. He spoke so calmly that Miles merely looked up at him curiously, and never felt frightened.
"If by some mischance you do succeed in hurting or killing my son, know that I won't bother to lay charges against you with the Counts. I will kill you myself, with my own hands."
He'd have to fight Cordelia for the privilege, and it would have to be an unfair fight to be sure he'd win it, but it didn't matter that she'd never forgive him for taking her vengeance from her. She'd never forgive him for allowing Miles to be hurt or killed, either, and the murder of a husband, father, or father-in-law was cause to execute a woman. A husband's murder of his own father was presumed to be a crime his wife could not possibly have prevented, and so she could not be found criminally complicit no matter what she knew beforehand.
"The last thing you'll know, as you go down into the dark, is that whatever happens to the Emperor and to Barrayar after the Lord Regent commits open patricide, it's on your head. I hold three worlds hostage to your good behavior, because I have sworn to do no less than everything I can.
"You waged a war against the man who took your firstborn son from you. I'm a Vorkosigan too, Father. I can do no less."
The General remained standing perfectly still for the space of a few breaths, and Aral couldn't read his expression at all. Then his gaze dropped to look directly at Miles, and he said flatly, "What would you have of me, then? My word not to harm him, nor to incite or allow another to harm him?"
It would be an insult to demand his name's word, and it was very nearly an insult for the Count to offer it, when the fact that Miles shared his name ought to have been enough to earn him far more than mere tolerance.
"Nothing so specific," Aral said. "Hold out your hand."
They hadn't even attempted to include this in the naming ceremony, six months ago. The omission had caused comment, but the Count's point-blank public refusal would have caused more.
He held out his hand, and Aral closed his hand around his father's wrist, over the cuff of his tunic so that they did not touch skin to skin. The Count--because he couldn't not, having been so challenged--tried to strike toward Miles with his extended hand. Aral stopped him in the first inch of motion, squeezing hard enough to grind his bones in the process.
"It's not binding if it's forced," the Count said, his voice refusing to betray pain. "And we lack any legal witness."
Bothari, silent by the door, was an Armsman and, of course, could not testify.
Aral grimly bared his teeth and did not loosen his grip. "I don't know what I've done today to give you the impression that I give a damn about what's legally binding. You will not lay a hand on my son without my hand on you. Say it, or dare to turn your back on me without saying it. Your choice."
The Count showed his own teeth, but when next he moved his hand he did it slowly and gently, and Aral allowed him to settle his palm on top of Miles's head. So far as Aral knew, this was the first time his father had touched Miles at all, with or without murderous intent.
"This is Miles Naismith Vorkosigan," the Count said, and forced or not he did the thing properly, in an oath-making voice. "Firstborn and trueborn son of my only living son and heir."
Miles didn't wait for his grandfather to finish speaking before closing his fists on the shiny silver braid at the edge of his sleeve. When the Count fell silent, Miles answered back with a pleased-sounding babble of his own. Aral smiled down at his son and held on tight.