The rain pelted down on the roof of the limousine. It was a constant patter that, when combined with the warmth of the ground car's heaters, threatened to lull Cordelia to sleep. She fought the sensation, and instead kept her attention to the dark wet streets of Vorbarr Sultana. She tried to fix the view of the close set brick buildings interspersed with more modern steel and glass in her mind. Buildings she's likely not see again in her lifetime, except perhaps for ghost images brought up on a vid-plate.
Under Sergeant Pouncer's careful direction, the limo passed through the wrought iron gates of Imperial Residence, sighing to a halt at the front doors, where a uniformed liveried man opened the limo door for Cordelia, holding an umbrella to protect her Vor lady's dress from the inconvenient downpour.
Well, that's something I won't have to worry about for much longer, she thought in a brief spark of humor. No rain where I'm going, unless the fire suppression sprinklers turn on.
She was passed off to a house servant, who led her inside the Residence's modern North Wing, the replacement for the section she had helped burn to the ground over... dear, God. Was it actually forty years now? Old memories rose up to the surface, of plasma fire striking irreplaceable wood paneling and ancient tapestries, lighting up a funeral pyre for Princess Kareen and Emperor Vordarian that had been visible from orbit.
But their ghosts couldn't haunt these modern corridors. A fact for which Cordelia was grateful. Too many memories had been washing over her the past weeks already.
The servant opened an anonymous office door, and announced within, "Countess Cordelia Vorkosigan, Sire."
"Thank you, Tavi," Emperor Gregor acknowledged. "Leave us, please." Cordelia stepped through and gave the absolute leader of three worlds a quiet nod. There were actually two desks in the room, the center one occupied by Gregor, and the one against the far wall by his wife, Empress Laisa. The Emperor's strong right hand, as the official press liked to call her, favored Cordelia with guarded smile. Gregor himself was unusually quiet, the normally smiling visage seeming to have dropped back to the pale, quiet air of his youth.
When the door shut, Gregor rose, and seated Cordelia in a station chair across from his desk. At forty five years of age, his dark hair was just starting to turn gray at the temples, and there were lines forming at the corner of his eyes and mouth. Laisa had kept her age better, aided by Galactic medicine, though her hair had some silver streaks running through it. It made look exotic, rather than merely old.
"How are you, Cordelia?" Laisa asked, after Gregor had seated himself.
"I'm well, Laisa," she said. "Now that all the ceremonies are over, I've had a chance to relax. Mark has been wonderful helping me get everything organized for the move. I just have to pack up my clothing and I'll be ready to go."
"Are you going, then?" Gregor asked, his face grave. "Forgive me, Cordelia, but I must ask again. Won't you reconsider?"
Cordelia shook her sadly. She had made this particular decision years ago.
"I'm sorry, Gregor," she said. "But I'm going home to Beta Colony. I came here for the love of Aral. And now..." She paused, her breath catching. Aral's funeral had been six weeks ago, and she'd thought the grief burned out of her, along with his monstrous funeral pyre. Her eyes burned, and Laisa got up to press a handkerchief into her hand. In a moment, she began again. "Now it's time for me to go home."
"Barrayar is your home, Cordelia," Gregor said simply. Cordelia shook her head again.
"No, it isn't," she said. "I close my eyes and think 'home' and I still see Beta Colony. It's where I grew up, it's where my... most... of my family lives, it's where I had my career. Barrayar is the place that tried to kill both my children, and every friend I have here more times than I care to think about. Most of the time it succeeded."
"It's not so bad a place," the Empress said. Laisa, spared the internecine horrors of Barrayar's worst moments, looked on Gregor's world with a happy romanticism that had remained steady despite over ten years of direct contact with its politics. More, if you counted the Komarr Revolt, though she had been very young then.
"It's not home," Cordelia said. "I want to go home." She managed a smile, and gestured to the rain still pelting the window. "If only to be in a place where I don't need protective gear when I step outside my apartment."
Gregor matched her smile for a brief moment, before his face turned grave again. "We will not keep any longer than you wish then. And We will make certain that no ties retain you."
"Thank you, Gregor," she said simply. He gestured for her to get out of the chair, which she did. Another gesture and she dropped to one knee, holding out her hands palm to palm, which Gregor covered with his own.
"In my name, Gregor Vorbarra, Emperor of Barrayar, I release you, Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, from the privileges, obligations, and duties of the Vor," he recited. "Are you willing to renounce your status as Vassal Primus to Me?"
"I am, Sire," she said.
"Who do you wish to be heir to Countship of Vorkosigan?"
"Lord Miles Vorkosigan, Sire," she said, the formal words coming to her from the books she had read the past two weeks. "He is my husband's heir, and mine, as we have formally declared."
Gregor opened his hands, raising them palm upwards, as if letting loose a bird to flight. Cordelia felt something go 'ping' deep within her chest, as a weight she hadn't realized she was carrying came loose from her shoulders. "Then go freely, Cordelia Naismith Kosigan. You are released from the ranks of the Vor."
She stood up, feeling weirdly light on her feet. Gregor's seriousness had been supplanted by a sly grin that wouldn't have looked out of place on Miles. "You look like the cat who just ate the canary, Gregor. What are you thinking?"
"It just occurred to me, that even in your leaving you make precedent, Cordelia," he told her.
"Oh, how so?"
"Well, under normal circumstances, a Vor would only request release from his caste if he wished to distance his family from whatever perfidy he had committed, to spare them retribution. So the next step after this would normally be to either behead you or place you in the pillories in the Great Square for death by exposure and starvation. Merely walking away isn't normally an option."
"Gregor!" Laisa cried out, in mock indignation.
"Walking away sounds better. There must be precedent somewhere for permanent exile," Cordelia said lightly, then immediately regretted her remark when the Emperor's face fell.
"Surely not permanently," he said.
"I can't see ever coming back here," Cordelia said. "It's too far a journey." In the mind at least. The mental switch coming back would entail would be too much to bear. Unlike her sons, she had little experience in changing personalities like a set of clothes. "Though you'll have me in the end, anyway."
"How do you mean?" Laisa asked.
"Aral is buried here, by our house in Vorkosigan Surleau, as is our Armsman, Sergeant Bothari. The sergeant died..." Committed suicide, from what she'd learned from Miles. "... in my son's service. Before that happened, he'd begged a pledge from Miles to be buried at my feet." Cordelia cleared her throat uncomfortably. "He was not..." sane, her mind provided. "... strong willed, in some ways. But he was beyond loyal." He was my faithful dog. A rapist. The monster that guarded my son. A hero. All that was beautiful and mad about Barrayar wrapped up in one ugly package. "And I won't deny him that request. Besides, I'll be next to Aral, as well."
"Forgive me, but I pray I'll see you before then," Gregor said.
Cordelia could only nod.
From there it was back to Vorkosigan House, where the few final details of her leave-taking remained. It was empty save for the permanent staff. Miles' wish to either see her off to Beta Colony or convince her to stay had been thwarted by the Dendarii Mercenaries. After getting caught up in some horrific political/military entanglement around Vervain, ImpSec's private fleet had to be disengaged by no less than an Imperial Auditor. Miles had left with profuse apologies and many sotto voce curses directed at the center of the problem, which seemed to be some mercenary captain named Danio. He had begged Ekaterine to come along as an advisor, though what a botanist specializing in terraforming could bring to the problem Cordelia had not asked. Their children had been unceremoniously dropped into Ivan and his family's lap, who were likely spoiling them rotten at this very moment.
Mark and Kareen had their own residence in the city, and had been generous in their aid, though Mark had to fight pull himself free from the demands of his galactic investments. Today he had begged off from visiting, insisting that he had to review the latest results from the Durona Group's cellular regeneration project. But Kareen had come over, and was waiting for Cordelia when she arrived.
"Countess..." Kareen greeted, when Cordelia stepped into the Yellow Parlor. The slight bulge of her belly was barely visible through her Vor lady's dress. Against Cordelia's better judgment, the young woman had opted to carry her third child naturally, having grown the first two in a uterine replicator. So far the pregnancy had been normal.
"Not anymore," Cordelia corrected. "Gregor gave me my release."
"He did? So you're no longer a Vor?" Kareen asked, looking doubtful.
Yes, they removed the ID tattoo right there at the palace, Cordelia thought facetiously. A deleted syllable doesn't change who I am, kiddo. Instead, she said. "Yes. Well, with Miles taking up the Countship, I didn't want there to be any ambiguity from having a dowager countess hanging about."
"That makes sense, though I can't see you two arguing about bloodlines," Kareen finally agreed.
It's not Miles, or Mark for that matter, that I'm worried about. Unconsciously, Cordelia touched at the small phial at her throat, hanging from a light golden chain. The contents within, unique and more precious to her than gold, were sealed behind within a vacuum shell chilled past freezing by a tiny refrigeration coil. It was cold against her throat, but the contents would bring warmth back into her heart. I hope, I hope, I hope...
"Care to help me with the final details?" she asked Kareen. At her nod, Cordelia led Kareen up the lift tube, to the personal chambers she and Aral had shared. The furniture within had either been packed away or covered in protective sheeting, to be dealt with whenever Miles could bring himself to it. Only the bedchamber, and Cordelia's adjoining dressing room, had not been touched.
The dressing room's contents consisted mostly of Vor-lady dresses, with a scattering of more casual clothes suitable for Vorkosigan Surleau. As she sorted through the collection, Cordelia could only look and wonder where she had accumulated them all. Most of them could be left here on Barrayar, to be worn by some worthy lady, or put on display in a museum, or burned.
Stop that, she told herself. Think practically. She decided to donate the lot of them, save for one dress in the Vorkosigan House colors. Maybe she could wear it to a costume party on Beta Colony.
The casual clothes were harder to be rid of, and she found herself pausing frequently as a blouse or a tatty pair of pants brought up memories of the happy vacations she and Aral had shared in Vorkosigan Surleau. Some were obvious keepsakes, like her tan survey fatigues, worn almost white after repeated washings, and a well worn black fatigue jacket with VORKOSIGAN, A. stenciled in block letters above the breast pocket.
"That was the Count's?" Kareen asked her when she pulled it out.
"Yes," Cordelia said. "I was wearing it when Captain Negri's flyer crashed at the lake house, after he had rescued Gregor from Vordarian's troops. I had to shed it when Piotr, Gregor and I went into hiding in the mountains, but old Kly made sure it came back to me after everything was over."
"Oh, my," Kareen said, handling the worn cloth like it was precious glass.
"Put it in my bags," Cordelia said. A field jacket wasn't much use in Beta Colony's climate controlled domes. Impractical. Slightly tacky, with its obvious military cut.
But it was once Aral's.
The rest didn't take long. They were just clothes, with little memory attached to them.
Two days later Cordelia found herself walking through the orbital transfer station above Barrayar, Sgt. Pouncer keeping pace beside her. Her final leave-taking had just been a few hours ago, a blessedly low key ceremony attended by Gregor, Ivan, Mark, and their families. Her head was still spinning slightly from the rounds of toasts, and she was glad Pouncer had automatically taken charge of the float pallet with her small amount of luggage.
Dressed Komarran style tunic and pants, and with Pouncer clad in civilian clothes, she didn't even attract any notice from the crowds in the corridors. Even the customs agent at the dock had only given her travel papers a cursory glance. Which was just the way she preferred it. God, spare me from long good-byes.
"Milady, are you certain we're in the right direction?" Pouncer asked cautiously. They turned off into a narrow, utilitarian passageway, lit with harsh flourescents. It was a far cry from the carpeted corridors of the station's passenger lounge.
"Dock C15," Cordelia confirmed, checking the note Mark had given her. He had said that Miles had arranged her flight back to Beta Colony. She had assumed that meant a government fast-courier ship, or a private yacht. Neither of which would normally be docked in a section reserved for small freighters.
Well, her curiosity wasn't going to be satisfied merely by standing outside. May as well knock, she thought.
She touched the comm pad beside the door. "Hello?" she said into the enunciator panel. "This is Cordelia Vor--, I mean, Cordelia Kosigan. May I speak to the Officer of the Watch?"
"One minute, Ma'am", a female voice answered shortly. "The captain is coming to meet you at the airlock."
"Thank you," Cordelia said. A half minute passed, and the hatch slid open to reveal the ship's captain. He was a man in his early sixties, dressed in clean gray ship knits, with the silver disks of a jump pilot dotting his forehead. Cordelia got a dizzy sense of déjè vu as the man favored her with a boyish grin. Oh, hell, I know him, she thought. And he knows me. From where, though? She had traveled on a jump freighter exactly once in her life, and that particular pilot wasn't likely to welcome a charter from her again.
"Milady? Pleasure to meet you again," the man said, holding out his hand. His voice had a familiar Betan twang to it, which set her internal alarms buzzing even more loudly. He couldn't be. Surely all those ships went out of service when the color drive went obsolete.
"Ah... A pleasure to meet you again as well, Pilot-Officer Mayhew," Cordelia finally said.
"You too, Milady Kosigan," Mayhew said, pumping her hand briefly in greeting. "I wasn't sure you'd remember me."
"It took me a minute," Cordelia motioned to Pouncer, who gave her a raised eyebrow and obediently carried her bags onboard to be stowed. "I thought... well, I figured all the RG series ships would be out of service by now."
"They are, except this one." Mayhew patted the interior hatch fondly. "Got her Necklin rods banged up about twenty years ago, around the time I met your son, Miles. Only had them replaced a few years ago."
"You met Miles?" Cordelia asked, feeling dizzy again. She had definitely drank too much ethanol at that party. My, what a small galaxy, isn't it?
"He's my sworn liege-lord, Milady," Mayhew told her.
Oh, god. "You're the freighter captain Miles ran into on Beta Colony?" she said. You're the poor fool that took my lunatic son gun running and helped him steal a mercenary fleet?
"Yes, Ma'am," Arde said, his grin growing wider. "Didn't realize who's son he was, until after the whole mess with his clone, I mean his brother, was cleared up. We got to talking afterward, and when he mentioned that his mom had originally run off from Beta Colony in a rush... Well, sometimes it takes me a while to put two and two together, but I figured it out. Kinda funny, in a way."
"Kinda," Cordelia agreed faintly. She cleared her throat uncomfortably. "I'm sorry I tricked you all those years ago. I was in a bit of a rush to leave."
"I figured that out when the BIS caught up with me later," Mayhew said. "Getting fast-pentaed wasn't any fun, but after they realized you'd snowed me, they decided not to file any charges."
"Oh, I'm glad for that," Cordelia said, he face flushing with suppressed guilt. I hadn't even figured you'd be might charged for anything. Then again, I was only thinking fifteen minutes ahead at the time.
Pouncer emerged from the ship's hatch, a faintly disapproving look on his face. "Milady, are you certain this is the ship Count Miles hired for you?" he said. "It's very small."
"I know, Sergeant," Cordelia told him.
"There's no interior gravity."
"It's cheaper to run that way, Sergeant."
"And there's this very odd... woman on board."
Cordelia raised an eyebrow at Mayhew.
"He means Gold," Mayhew said. "I'll introduce you two, later."
"It's all right, Sergeant," Cordelia told him. "I believe this is my son's way of bringing things full circle." A speculative look came into her eye. "Speaking of which, could you bring my small bag back to me, Sergeant? There's something I need from it."
Poor Pouncer looked terribly confused, but he followed her orders with a simple, "Yes, Milady."
A quick trip to a nearby restroom gave her the privacy she needed to change. The tan fatigues were a bit tighter around her hips than she recalled, and her footwear were a replacement for the long since disintegrated originals, but the effect was the same. It was certainly worth it for the look of delighted surprise on Mayhew's face when she reappeared down the corridor.
Pouncer's look of confusion remained. "Milady," he pleaded, as Mayhew suppressed a laugh. "Why are you wearing slippers?"
"That's classified," Cordelia told him, and stepped aboard.
© 1999 by Royce Day (Royce_Day@choicehotels.com)
Current version by Michael Bernardi, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Last updated: July 13th 2001