Happy birthday, thought Cordelia. Good color …

Unfortunately, that was about all that was really good. The contrast with baby Ivan was overwhelming. Despite the extra weeks of gestation, ten months to Ivan’s nine-and-a-half, Miles was barely half Ivan’s size at birth, and far more wizened and wrinkled. His spine was noticeably deformed, and his legs were drawn up and locked in a tight bend. He was definitely a male heir, though, no question about that. His first cry was thin, weak, nothing at all like Ivan’s angry, hungry bellow. Behind her, she heard Piotr hiss with disappointment.

“Has he been getting enough nutrition?” she asked Vaagen. It was hard to keep the accusation out of her tone.

Vaagen shrugged helplessly. “All he would absorb.”

The pediatrician and his colleague laid Miles out under a warming light, and began their examination, Cordelia and Aral on either side.

“This bend will straighten out on its own, Milady,” the pediatrician pointed. “But the lower spine should have surgical correction as early as possible. You were right, Vaagen, the treatment to optimize skull development also fused the hip sockets. That’s why the legs are locked in that strange position, m’lord. He’ll require surgery to crack those bones loose and turn them around before he can start to crawl or walk. I don’t recommend that in the first year, on top of the spinal work, let him gain strength and weight first—”

The surgeon, testing the infant’s arms, swore suddenly and snatched up his diagnostic viewer. Miles mewed. Aral’s hand clenched, by his trouser seam. Cordelia’s stomach sank. “Hell!” said the surgeon. “His humerus just snapped. You’re right, Vaagen, the bones are abnormally brittle.”

“At least he has bones,” sighed Vaagen. “He almost didn’t, at one point.”

“Be careful,” said the surgeon, “especially of the head and spine. If the rest are as bad as the long bones, we’re going to have to come up with some kind of reinforcement. …”

Piotr stamped toward the door. Aral glanced up, his lips thinning to a frown, and excused himself to follow. Cordelia was torn, but once observation assured her that the bone-setting was under way and the doctors’ new caution would protect Miles from further damage today, she left their ingenious heads bent over him and followed Aral.

In the corridor, Piotr was stalking up and down. Aral stood at parade rest, unmoved and unmoving. Bothari was a silent witness in the background.

Piotr turned and saw her. “You! You’ve strung me along. This is what you call ’great repairs’? Gah!”

“They are great repairs. Miles is unquestionably much better than he was. Nobody promised perfection.”

“You lied. Vaagen lied.”

“We did not,” denied Cordelia. “I tried to give you accurate summaries of Vaagen’s experiments all the way along. What he’s delivered is about what his reports led us to expect. Check your ears.”

“I see what you’re trying, and it won’t work. I’ve just told him,” he pointed at Aral, “this is where I stop. I don’t want to see that mutant again. Ever. While it lives, if it lives, and it looks pretty damned sickly to me, don’t bring it around my door. As God is my judge, woman, you won’t make a fool of me.”

“That would be redundant,” snapped Cordelia.

Piotr’s lips curled in a silent snarl. Cheated of a cooperative target, he turned on Aral. “And you, you spineless, skirt-smothered—if your elder brother had lived—” Piotr’s mouth clamped shut abruptly, too late.

Aral’s face drained to a grey hue Cordelia had seen but twice before; both times he’d been a breath and a chance away from committing murder. Piotr had joked about Aral’s famous rages. Only now did Cordelia realize Piotr, though he may have witnessed his son in irritation, had never seen the real thing. Piotr seemed to realize it, too, dimly. His brows lowered; he stared, off-balanced.

Aral’s hands locked to each other, behind his back. Cordelia could see them shake, white-knuckled. His chin lifted, and he spoke in a whisper.

“If my brother had lived, he would have been perfect. You thought so; I thought so; Emperor Yuri thought so, too. So ever after you’ve had to make do with the leftovers from that bloody banquet, the son Mad Yuri’s death squad overlooked. We Vorkosigans, we can make do.” His voice fell still further. “But my firstborn will live. I will not fail him.”

The icy statement was a near-lethal cut across the belly, as fine a slash as Bothari could have delivered with Koudelka’s swordstick, and very accurately placed. Truly, Piotr should not have lowered the tone of this discussion. The breath huffed from him in disbelief and pain.

Aral’s expression grew inward. “I will not fail him again,” he corrected himself lowly. “A second chance you were never given, sir.” Behind his back his hands unclenched. A small jerk of his head dismissed Piotr and all Piotr might say.

Blocked twice, visibly suffering from his profound misstep, Piotr looked around for a target of opportunity upon which to vent his frustration. His eye fell on Bothari, watching blank-faced.

“And you. Your hand was in this from beginning to end. Did my son place you as a spy in my household? Where do your loyalties lie? Do you obey me, or him?”

An odd gleam flared in Bothari’s eye. He tilted his head toward Cordelia. “Her.”

Piotr was so taken aback, it took him several seconds to regain his speech. “Fine,” he sputtered at last. “She can have you. I don’t want to see your ugly face again. Don’t come back to Vorkosigan House. Esterhazy will deliver your things before nightfall.”

He wheeled and marched away. His grand exit, already weak, was spoiled when he looked back over his shoulder before he rounded the corner.

Aral vented a very weary sigh.

“Do you think he means it this time?” Cordelia asked. “All that never-ever stuff?”

“Government concerns will require us to communicate. He knows that. Let him go home and listen to the silence for a bit. Then we’ll see.” He smiled bleakly. “While we live, we cannot disengage.”

She thought of the child whose blood now bound them, her to Aral, Aral to Piotr, and Piotr to herself. “So it seems.” She looked an apology to Bothari. “I’m sorry, Sergeant. I didn’t know Piotr could fire an oath- armsman.”

“Well, technically, he can’t,” Aral explained. “Bothari was just reassigned to another branch of the household. You.”

“Oh.” Just what I always wanted, my very own monster. What am I supposed to do, keep him in my closet? She rubbed the bridge of her nose, then regarded her hand. The hand that had encompassed Bothari’s on the swordstick. So. And so. “Lord Miles will need a bodyguard, won’t he?”

Aral tilted his head in interest. “Indeed.”

Bothari looked suddenly so intently hopeful, it made Cordelia catch her breath. “A bodyguard,” he said, “and backup. No raff could give him a hard time if … let me help, Milady.”

Let me help. Rhymes with I love you, right? “It would be …” impossible, crazy, dangerous, irresponsible, “my pleasure, Sergeant.”

His face lit like a torch. “Can I start now?”

“Why not?”

“I’ll wait for you in there, then.” He nodded toward Vaagen’s lab. He slipped back through the door. Cordelia could just picture him, leaning watchfully against the wall—she trusted that malevolent presence wouldn’t make the doctors so nervous they would drop their fragile charge.

Aral blew out his breath, and took her in his arms. “Do you Betans have any nursery tales about the witch’s name-day gifts?”

“The good and bad fairies seem to all be out in force for this one, don’t they?” She leaned against the scratchy fabric of his uniformed shoulder. “I don’t know if Piotr meant Bothari for a blessing or a curse. But I bet he really will keep the raff off. Whatever the raff turns out to be. It’s a strange list of birthday presents we’ve given our boychick.”

They returned to the lab, to listen attentively to the rest of the doctors’ lecture on Miles’s special needs and vulnerabilities, arrange the first round of treatment schedules, and wrap him warmly for the trip home. He was so small, a scrap of flesh, lighter than a cat, Cordelia found when she at last took him up in her arms, skin to skin for the first time since he’d been cut from her body. She had a moment’s panic. Put him back in the vat for about eighteen years, I can’t handle this… . Children might or might not be a blessing, but to create them and then fail

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