Title: The Rule of Law
Length: 2100 words
Prompt: Count Vorhalas and his family during Barrayar, after things start going horribly wrong for them.
Summary: Count Vorhalas has an audience with the Regent after the soltoxin attack.
In the nineteen years since his father had died, Count Vorhalas had never missed a Council session: not for illness, not for the births of his children, not for any cause. His duty was to serve his District, and he knew his duty well. But today he had hesitated. ImpSec were still swarming at his house, chewing through every corner and file and interrogating each of his servants down to the lowliest scullery maid, and he had only just been released from his own repetitive and frustrating questioning. He had not been permitted to see Evon, and there was much to be done to restore order in his household and reassure his wife. Reason enough to stay away from the Council, good solid reasons that had nothing to do with his unwillingness to appear before his brother counts with this cloud over his House. But the shame that first made him hesitate finally drove him to attend. It would not restore his House's tattered honour to fail in his plain duties, and the business of the District continued with no care for his personal agonies.
It was everything that he had expected, everything he had feared. Throughout the session, not a single man spoke to him save in response to a direct question, and even those responses had been as close to monosyllabic as possible. No man would meet his eye. And in truth, Vorhalas could not blame his brother counts. What could anyone say to a man whose younger son was a convicted and executed criminal, and whose heir was under arrest by ImpSec for attempting to murder the Regent and his family? Vorhalas knew he would not have been able to find words had it been one of his brother counts faced with this nightmare, and would not have found it easy to believe the father innocent of his son's crimes.
After the session closed, having brought himself to attend Vorhalas did not yield to his impulse to flee the chamber at once. Instead he lingered as he usually would, to take part in the conversations and arguments afterwards, and if nobody addressed him he would not let that alter his behaviour. He would not flee as if he were the guilty one, and leave the others to gossip about him in peace.
Unexpectedly, after only a few minutes Count Vordarian approached him bearing two glasses of wine, and offered one to Vorhalas.
"A damnable business," he said softly. "Damnable. I hardly think a boy could be blamed for what he did in the extremity of grief. Such a tragedy for you, and for us all." He took a sip of wine and turned an affable expression on Vorhalas. "But our good Regent is still here with us, for which I am sure we are all thankful, and it will all blow over soon enough. In the meantime, my lord Count, perhaps--"
Vorhalas set down the wine untouched, the glass ringing against the desk. He said as forbiddingly as he knew how, "Good evening, Count Vordarian," and turned away. Damnable indeed, and doubly so that Vordarian would try to use this moment to draw him into some scheme or other. Without looking up at Vordarian again, he gathered his files and walked out of the Council chamber, ignoring the curious eyes that followed him. Better to leave than to be seen with Vordarian.
He was waiting in the antechamber for a footman to return his winter coat to him when an officer in dress greens hurried up. "Oh, good, I thought I'd missed you," he said a little breathlessly, and Vorhalas recognised Captain Vorpatril. "The Lord Regent wants to see you. Requests and requires, in fact."
Vorhalas flinched, involuntarily. Even Vordarian and his schemes and insinuations would be far better than this. He had faced the Regent across the Council chamber, but had studiously avoided looking at him and had seen no sign that Vorkosigan even acknowledged his presence. But it would do no good to refuse the summons. He stiffened his back, gave a silent nod and turned to follow Vorpatril. There was nothing more Vorkosigan could do to him that had not already been done.
The Regent was in a small office adjacent to the Council chamber, seated at a desk and looking rather pale and bluish about the lips. Vorpatril gave him a worried look before saying, "Do you want me to stay, Aral?"
"No." Vorkosigan's voice was harsher and more raspy than before. He looked at Vorhalas for a long time. "Sit down," he said at last, a wave of a needle-pierced hand at a chair opposite.
Vorhalas sat and waited.
"Cordelia would have me show mercy to Evon," Vorkosigan said. "And, strange though it may seem, the laws are less exacting for this assault than for the other. It is entirely possible that he would be sentenced to imprisonment rather than death."
"I ask nothing of you, my lord Regent," Vorhalas said, though the words fought him on his lips. But he had begged Vorkosigan once for mercy. Let that be enough.
"The baby lives yet," Vorkosigan said next, his voice even rougher. "And Cordelia. Did you know she nearly died three times from the surgery?" He stopped himself short, as if he hadn't intended to say that.
"I did not know that," was all Vorhalas could say in answer. "I am glad her condition is improved now."
"Yes," Vorkosigan said, "and she has been enquiring after Evon." He rubbed the back of his hand. "Rulf often spoke of him," he went on. "He took great pride in his career."
Vorhalas felt angry then, that Vorkosigan should dare to speak of Rulf after all that had passed. Did he think he would have Rulf's friendship still, if he had lived? But he had no power here, no right to deny Vorkosigan now.
"It's not people trying to kill me," Vorkosigan went on. "I'm used to that. But Cordelia and the baby... Illyan's fast-penta interrogations confirm that I was Evon's sole target. I thought you would wish to know that."
Vorhalas did not answer, would not admit to Vorkosigan that he had ever feared otherwise, had ever thus doubted Evon. That his son would try to murder the Regent was terrible and treasonous, but that he might make the same attempt on a pregnant woman was a dishonour of an older and darker kind.
"Illyan wants you questioned under fast-penta as well," Vorkosigan continued. "I said I wanted to speak to you myself first. He's outside somewhere going half out of his mind that you're going to stab me where I sit. But I do not doubt that you knew nothing of Evon's plans. You hate me, now, but you would not throw a grenade into my bedroom window."
There is no hatred more bitter than a broken friendship, Vorhalas thought. But what Vorkosigan said was quite true. It was a grave insult to his honour that Vorkosigan should say it aloud, but his honour was so badly scorched from his sons' deeds that he could do nothing but swallow the insult. But he would not pretend it was a compliment. Instead he merely said, "That is true."
Vorkosigan gave a snort that turned to a cough. "Very well, my lord Count," he said when he recovered. "But tell me now. Do you wish me to show mercy to Evon?"
Vorhalas glared then. The question was a trap: to say yes would be to ask protection for a self-confessed traitor, to say no would be to abandon his son and heir. Vorkosigan watched him, eyes half-lidded.
"You must obey the law," he said at last. Then, fiercely, his fury and pain leaking into his words despite himself: "You must obey the law now, or what was Carl's life worth?"
At that, Vorkosigan looked down. "I see. But nonetheless, as the injured party here my voice is heard twice, not only as Regent, and in that second voice, I may ask for clemency without violating the law. And it is Cordelia's firm wish."
Vorhalas had been happy to learn of Vorkosigan's wedding at the time, knowing it would have given Rulf pleasure, but he had known little of the Betan woman and had not attempted to find out, not wanting to cloud Aral's new-found happiness with his own loss. And there was no chance of getting to know her now.
"I do not wish," he said at last, "for you to consider," he had to concentrate to get the next few words out without choking, "for you to consider Carl's execution to be a mitigating circumstance for Evon. I did not raise him to cast blame for his own acts upon others. And," he added, forcing his tone to remain level, "if you would hear not excuses for Carl, why would you for Evon when you yourself were attacked?"
"Carl attacked me too," Vorkosigan said quietly, "when he defied that law in that way."
Vorhalas had heard all the stories around the first Lady Vorkosigan and her death and her lovers. The Emperor pronounced it a duel and a suicide, but many whispered of murders, three of them, at Vorkosigan's hands or even the Count's. He suspected that Rulf had known something of the truth, but he had never spoken of it. But it was a strange and bitter thing that Vorkosigan, who had been so wild and dissolute a boy when Vorhalas had been taking his father's seat like a man, should now sit in judgement over him. Vorhalas did not know whether to be more frightened that he would make bad decisions, or that he would make good ones.
"I ask nothing of you," he repeated. "House Vorhalas submits to the Emperor's Voice."
Vorkosigan coughed, as if that Emperor's Voice stuck in his throat. "Very well," he said. "Thank you, Count Vorhalas."
The Imperium, then, would be satisfied, but there was another honour to consider, here and now at this private interview. Vorhalas rose to his feet. Across the room, he saw Vorkosigan brace minutely, as if he thought perhaps Vorhalas was going to come at him with a knife after all. But when Vorhalas went to his knees before Vorkosigan, his enemy looked more stricken than if he had used a knife.
"Justin--" he began.
Vorhalas could not repress a small angry sound in his throat. Vorkosigan had not that right, not now. He spoke quickly, not giving Vorkosigan a chance to say more.
"House Vorhalas," he said, "sues for mercy from House Vorkosigan, for the blood-debt my House owes to yours." He extended his right hand, wrist uppermost. There was a small fresh scar there, from the first time he had done this only a few days ago, with the family of the boy Carl had killed. "Take what you are owed, Lord Vorkosigan."
The ritual was archaic, one of the many ways the old counts had tried to avoid feuding wars over just such acts as these. Vorhalas did not suppose there was any danger of such a war now, but the ritual had meaning nonetheless. Vorkosigan stared at him as if checking he was in earnest. Then he drew a military combat knife from a sheath Vorhalas had not noticed until this moment. His hand was cold as he took Vorhalas's wrist, but the steel was warm as it nicked his skin. A tiny cut, almost a scratch. A few drops of blood formed, and fell on the floor at Vorkosigan's feet.
"House Vorkosigan," he said, "declares the blood-debt paid." He extended a hand as if intending to help Vorhalas to his feet. Vorhalas did not take it, but stood back and pressed his handkerchief to his wrist. It stung, a small physical pain to distract him from the greater and less easily healed pain of his grief.
Vorkosigan was watching him with rather too much understanding in his eyes. Vorhalas stood stiffly, as if donning thick armour, and Vorkosigan looked away, then spoke with crisp parade-ground distance.
"Is there anything else you wish to discuss, my lord Count?"
"No, my lord."
Vorkosigan broke off to cough again, then said unexpectedly, "Have you been permitted to see Evon?"
"No." And he had not dared request it, with the Horus-eye of ImpSec so firmly fixed on his House.
"Do you want to?" Vorkosigan's eyes were slitted now, watching him intently for something. Another trap, but this one he could not escape. He would not disown his child, even if it angered Vorkosigan.
"Yes, my lord."
"Ah." Vorkosigan stood up with a grunt. "I see. I'm going to see my son next, at the hospital. I'll tell ImpSec to permit you to see yours."
It seemed he had answered correctly. Vorhalas considered what he knew of Vorkosigan's son. Very little, but he had learned exactly what soltoxin did over the past few days. Was Vorkosigan under pressure to disown his unborn, damaged son? The question had come up sometimes in Barrayaran drama: would you rather have a traitor for a son, or a mutie? In days past, Vorhalas would have answered as most Vor men would. A traitor could still be heroic, in a tragic way, but never a mutie. Now, though, he wondered whether Vorkosigan perhaps had the better part after all.
From the look on his face, Vorkosigan was considering the same question, and coming up with the same answer. He opened the door. "Illyan will sort it out for you. Good evening, Count Vorhalas."
Vorhalas paused on the threshold. "Thank you, my lord," he said.
Crossposted at http://philomytha.dreamwidth.org/10