The egg looked smaller out of the creche. It was still about two-thirds Miles's own height, but out of the close, warm room where Miles had always visited it before, it seemed much smaller. It was still warm to the touch, though. Warm, and moving. He could feel the dragon inside, shifting, restless. Ready.
Too bad I'm not.
Bothari and two other armsmen had brought the egg up to the house that morning. It would hatch here in the ballroom, in front of everyone Miles had ever met and a lot of people he hadn't. They were in the library having pre-hatching drinks, but they'd be here soon enough. He would have to name it in front of everyone. And if it decided it didn't like what it saw - and face it, who did, when they looked at Miles? - it'd reject him in front of everyone, too.
He glanced over his shoulder at the servants, setting up the long tables of food and wine at the other end of the ballroom. The count had brought out ten bottles of his very best in honor of the occasion. Miles wondered if he should go throw up while he had the chance. He tugged at the neck of his House uniform and swallowed hard.
"It'll be okay," Gregor said quietly from behind him.
Miles hadn't heard him come in, but then, that wasn't so unusual with Gregor. He turned. "Sire."
Gregor pulled a face. "Don't be stupid, Miles." He crouched down and laid his hand on the egg, like Miles had earlier. Whenever Ivan did that, Miles had to fight the urge to swat his hand away, but for some reason it didn't bother him with Gregor. Gregor had his own dragon, after all, great black and silver Alexander, and he knew what this meant.
After a minute he looked up at Miles - well, over at Miles. Gregor'd had a growth spurt last year and now he and Miles were almost the same height with him hunched down like this. "You feel like you're going to throw up?"
Miles nodded. "Did you?"
"Oh yeah." He straightened out of his crouch. "It's horrible the way we do this, everyone watching. Everyone's always watching."
"You and me both," Miles muttered. Gregor sighed in sympathy. "But after this, no one can say anything. No one can call me a mutie or tell me I'm not a Vor, as long as it doesn't -"
"It won't," Gregor said. He said it with an Imperial sort of certainty that Miles envied. He'd known Gregor all his life, and he knew Gregor didn't always feel as certain as he felt, but he was getting really good at pretending he did. Miles wished he knew how he did that.
"I didn't tell it," Miles said, so quietly he thought Gregor might not have heard.
"I don't think I would have either," Gregor admitted.
Miles shrugged. "I should've told it."
"Well." Gregor scuffed his feet on the polished ballroom floor for a moment, looking five years younger than he was and ten years younger than he'd looked only seconds earlier. "It'll know soon enough. And it won't care, Miles."
Miles shrugged. "It might. And then," he smiled bitterly, "then I think I'll be leaning on you, after all. Off-planet diplomatic position, please. Some place far, far away where no one expects me to come home very often."
"Ah," Gregor said, returning the smile in that sad, quiet way he had, that way that always reminded Miles that Gregor was an orphan and had had too many people leave him, "but then who will play pranks at my birthday party every year?"
"I'll tightbeam blueprints to Ivan," Miles assured him.
Gregor grinned, then glanced over his shoulder. "Here they come. You ready?"
"No." He should've thrown up after all. Now it was too late. A crowd of nearly fifty people trooped in, everyone from family like Miles's Aunt Alys to political allies of his father like Count Vorbretten. And then there were the decidedly less friendly faces - the last of the old guard counts, Miles's grandfather's friends. The ones who thought he should've never been born, or at least been offed at birth like any Dendarii Mountain baby with the cat's mouth.
Elena was there, too, beside Bothari. Gregor went and stood between her and Miles's mother, and everyone else arranged themselves in a semi-circle around the egg, jostling for a good position. Miles forced himself to straighten. He stood with his legs apart in a sort of parade rest that didn't draw too much attention to the braces. He could see the count out the corner of his eye, standing with his family and not with his cronies. Miles guessed that was a good sign - but then, he knew his grandfather wanted him to succeed at this. Back at the beginning, Miles hadn't been so sure; he'd thought, because he couldn't help himself, that maybe the count was only trying to finish what he'd started when Miles was a baby.
He knew now that he'd been wrong. He knew the count wanted him to show everyone that he was a true Vor, a true Vorkosigan, just as much as Miles himself did.
Which would only make it that much worse if he didn't.
The egg was wobbling now. Miles took a deep breath. He could smell the food from the back of the ball room - roast vat beef and rich spices. His parents had spared no expense. More faintly, he could smell the raw natural beef that waited in a refrigerated vat by the count for the hatchling's first meal. When Miles fed it himself from his own hands, that would be the end of the ceremony. That would be the moment he could relax and, possibly, pass out from sheer relief.
Everyone had gone quiet - not quiet enough for Miles to pretend they weren't there because they were still breathing, but at least they weren't muttering to each other. Miles's brain was too good at filling in the things they might be saying. Some of the count's old cronies were too stodgy to have staked money on the odds of his failure, but others weren't. He could hear them now: "Fifty Marks if the little mutie runt gets eaten."
Be fair, boy. No one would ever say that about a dragon. True enough. Muties were fair game, but the Vor considered it very bad form to be prejudiced against dragons. Making a comment like that was apt to get you labeled hopelessly prole. Still. Miles didn't think any of them would be very upset if it bit his hand off. The Vor always had liked blood sports, and they didn't much mind that dragons were dangerous and occasionally violent. So much the better, in fact.
Tiny fractures were forming all down the egg. Miles held his breath. He wanted to turn and catch his father's eye, but that would mean looking at the count. So instead he waited, frozen, hands clenched down at his sides, as the cracks widened and crept out across the broad speckled surface of the egg. Then suddenly there was a great crack - Miles heard someone behind him gasp - and the egg was gone, split straight down the center to reveal the hatchling within.
It was . . . it was beautiful. Miles felt his breath catch and the hatchling hadn't even looked up from picking pieces of egg off its hide yet. Dark, sleek, gleaming - all right, some of that was the egg slime, but even underneath that slick shine the hide glowed. He hadn't known it was possible for something so dark to glow.
He cleared his throat. "Hi - hello," he managed.
It looked up. "Hello," it said, uncurling itself from its hunched-over position. Its wings flopped out, splattering egg goo all over the ballroom floor. No, not it - she. The voice was strangely resonant, like all dragons' voices, but certainly female. "Are you Miles?"
Miles couldn't help but smile. "Yeah," he said, then amended, "Yes, I'm Miles. Miles Vorkosigan, your - your partner." If you'll have me. "What's your name?"
The dragon eyed him, turning her head as though to see him better. "I don't know yet. You have to give me one, don't you? I heard you talking about that once."
The crowd tittered. Miles flushed. "Right. I, um, if you like it - Ala." Short, he'd thought. Unusual. Pretty. Though never pretty enough for her, he realized now.
"Ala," the dragon said, cocking her head and stretching her neck all at once. "Yes, I like that. I am Ala."
Miles could have laughed - or possibly cried - out of relief that she'd accepted the name. But it wasn't over yet. The feeding was still to come, and he'd have been lying if he'd said it didn't make him nervous. He'd never fed a dragon by hand before, but he'd certainly seen Kashchei eat, tearing his meals limb from limb with fiendish glee. Ala was nowhere near Kashchei's size, of course, not even a tenth of it yet, but there was a glint of that same glee in her eyes as she sniffed the air and said, before Miles had the chance to ask, "I'm hungry."
Miles nodded. "Right. We've got, um, meat. Cow. Um. Beef." He flushed again. Hopefully no one had heard that. He hauled the vat over, still avoiding anyone's eye, even his mother's. Ala's eyes tracked him - or possibly the vat - until he was back in front of her. A tremor of eagerness ran through her wings and she leaned forward. "Let me," Miles said. "It's - there's a ceremony."
For the first time, Ala seemed to notice all the other people crowded into the room. Her eyes, which were large and black, fading to purple at the edges of the irises, widened a little. "Oh," she said, quelled.
It occurred to him then that they were in this together. "It's okay," he told her quietly, so no one else could hear. "Just . . . careful with your teeth."
The meat was, well, meat. Wet, squishy, smelly. Bloody. Dragons didn't eat vat beef; it didn't taste right to them. Without glancing over his shoulder, Miles knew his mother was trying not to look at it. Miles wasn't squeamish, but he was so nervous he felt sick, and the raw meat definitely didn't help. He hauled up a big chunk from the very bottom.
He barely had time to hold it out before it was gone, snatched up and swallowed at once. He stared at his hand.
It was over.
The crowd broke into applause. Because he was listening for it, Miles knew that some of the guests were clapping with less than genuine enthusiasm, but no one could say he hadn't done it well. He turned and smiled, then grinned. His parents grinned back, and Gregor and Elena, too. Ivan was clapping but looked a bit sulky. Jealous. That only made Miles grin harder.
The count wasn't grinning or clapping. But when Miles dared to look him in the eye, he gave a slow, solemn nod. Miles felt something in his heart ease.
"Hungry!" Ala said suddenly, thoroughly destroying the moment. The count did smile then, and he kept smiling as he helped Miles move Ala into an antechamber where they could finish their feeding in private while the guests fed themselves out in the ballroom. Ala was ungainly and awkward, dragging her wings along until the count sternly told her to carry them off the ground like any proud Vor dragon. She looked mutinous at first, then did her best. A lot like - well, a lot like Miles had felt at times.
Miles dragged the vat along behind them and tried to stop smiling. He'd been feeling sick inside for months, he realized now that the feeling was gone. He'd been absolutely terrified and now it was over and he wondered why he ever had been. It had been easy. Easy. Of all the words he'd used, in his head and aloud, to describe how he thought the ritual would go - among them, horrible, humiliating, and, in rare moments, perfect - easy had never been one of them.
The count didn't linger after he got them settled; there was a ballroom full of guests out there, after all. Miles sat on the floor next to Ala, his back up against the wall. She could have eaten the rest of her meal on her own, but he fed her by hand, piece by piece, and rested his clean hand on her long, slim neck. Her hide was soft. It would harden by the time she was a year old, but for now it was pliant under his fingers, almost vulnerable.
She slowed in her feeding, resting her head on his thigh in between bites for longer and longer each time. Finally she sighed in contentment and didn't ask for more. "You are mine now, is that right?" she asked.
Miles paused in the stroking of her neck and she gave a small rumble of protest. He smiled to himself and resumed. "Yes," he said, "if - if you want me."
"Why wouldn't I want you?"
Miles swallowed. "I - did you see the others outside? The other people?"
"Yes," she said, and paused, picking her head up to regard him thoughtfully. "They are much bigger than you are. Taller."
"Yeah," Miles said. "I'm sorta . . ." Brokenmutieruntwrong. "Different. It's not genetic," he added hastily, then realized with a start that Ala wouldn't care. Truly wouldn't care. At least, not about that. She wouldn't care why he was the way he was, but she had to care that she was stuck with such a tiny, fragile partner. He looked away. "I didn't tell you when you were in the egg. I'm sorry."
She tilted her head. "It is very strange in the egg. I might not have understood. But why?"
Miles took a deep breath. He hadn't actually told this story very often; everyone on Barrayar knew it, and the ones who didn't weren't often interested in hearing it. They didn't want to know that he wasn't a mutie. But Ala had to know, and so he told her everything: the soltoxin attack, his interrupted treatments in the replicator, the years of surgeries and therapies and broken bones, all just to be able to do what most people did without thinking about it - what she'd done straight out of the egg.
She was silent when he was done. They sat together, her head on his thigh. Miles rubbed his unbloodied hand over his face and said, through lips that felt numb, "If you don't want to - no one would blame you." It came out more bitter than he'd wanted, but he couldn't help it.
She said nothing. Miles felt his palms break out in a sweat. He'd thought that after the ceremony he'd be in the clear. Not so, it seemed. Because of course she hadn't really had a choice, had she? He'd been standing there when she broke the shell. She was hungry. She'd have accepted anyone who fed her. And now she was about to tell him -
"Can we fly?"
Miles blinked. "Now?"
"No, not now." She twitched her wings. "I am very tired, and anyway my wings are still wet. But can you fly with me?"
Miles nodded, then realized she couldn't see it. "Yeah. I've gone flying with my grandfather's dragon, Kachshei - he's your sire," he added, in case she was interested.
She wasn't. "Oh. Well, that is all right, then."
Miles blinked. "It is?"
"I think so. You are small, but then, so am I."
"You won't be," Miles told her. "You won't be small forever. But I will."
"Does it matter when you fly?"
Miles leaned his head back against the wall. "No," he said quietly, "it doesn't. It doesn't matter at all."
"Good," she said, and promptly fell asleep, her head heavy in Miles's lap. Miles blinked down at her, then rested his hand on her neck. Well. And so?
Miles was just beginning to wonder if anyone would think to bring him some of that roast vat beef he'd been smelling all day when the door to the antechamber eased open. To his surprise it was not either of his parents, or Elena, or even (thank God) Ivan, but Gregor again, bearing a plate piled with Miles's body weight in food.
Miles gaped up at him, then looked down at Ala, momentarily panicked by his inability to stand for his liege lord. Gregor, fortunately, gave him a look that echoed his earlier command - Don't be stupid, Miles - and waved for him to stay seated. To Miles's shock, Gregor sat down crosslegged across from him on the floor. He passed him some antiseptic wipes first for his bloody hands, followed by the plate. Miles balanced it on one hand and tried not to drip gravy on Ala's head.
"What did I tell you?" Gregor said, filching an apricot tart he'd obviously balanced on the edge of the plate for that very purpose. "She didn't care."
Miles grinned out of sheer, unadulterated relief. "Not as long as I can fly with her." He nodded towards the door. "What's it like out there?"
Gregor grimaced and swallowed a bite of tart. "Why do you think I'm in here?"
Miles sighed, slumping. "Yeah."
"Don't worry about it. Your parents will corral all of them, and your grandfather has a look in his eye like a mother bear protecting a cub."
Miles felt his eyebrows climb. "He does?"
Gregor nodded. "I've never seen anything like it. He's just daring that whole faction of vultures to say something. Not that they will."
"They have before," Miles muttered.
"Yes, but that was before," Gregor said, with admirable succinctness. "It's like you said, Miles - it doesn't matter -"
"- as long as I can fly." Miles looked down at Ala, beautiful, elegant Ala, who would not be small for very long and who wanted to fly with him. Then he looked up at Gregor, tall, handsome Gregor, who had never made him feel short if he didn't have to, who'd never called him a runt or even used the word little to describe him. If the two of them believed it, Miles thought, with a sudden burst of optimism that threatened to send the plate sliding right off his hand, then it must be true.
"It's what I like, too, you know," Gregor said at last, tearing his gaze away from Ala. "That none of it matters when I'm flying. I'm not the emperor then - Alex doesn't care about any of that. It's just the air under his wings and my weight on his back. I could be anyone then. Anything."
"We should go sometime," Miles said, a bit impulsively. "When Ala is bigger, I mean. The Dendarii Gorge makes for incredible flying." ImpSec wouldn't be far away, of course, not if Gregor was there, but they'd probably be allowed the illusion that they were on their own. The illusion that none of it mattered, if only for the span of an afternoon. That was long enough to forget.
Gregor nodded. "I'd like that."