The Use of Negative Space
a Vorkosigan Saga fanfic
Notes: Written for yhlee in the Yuletide 2014 challenge.
Aral cannot remember the first time he picked up a pen.
He thinks it was before he even knew how to write. His mother composes letters at her desk in the library of Vorkosigan House, her dip pen moving between inkwell and paper. He and his brother sprawl on the carpet behind her, leafing through the folio volume of A History of Arms and Armour. His brother reads out the names of fifty kinds of blades, while Aral stares fascinated at the woodcuts, trying to copy them with his childish scribbles.
There are no sabres or scimitars at hand the night Yuri's death squad bursts into the formal dining hall. All Aral can reach for is a table knife, to flail at the soldier aiming the sonic grenade at his mother.
Aral will never forget the first time he picked up a weapon.
Aral is thirteen when they win the civil war. His father lays the sword in his hands and tells him he has the honour of the first cut. "For your mother. For your brother."
Rain is falling on the parapets of Vorhartung Castle, the scene of execution. Flagstones, he later understands, are easier to clean.
Aral grips the sword in shaking hands, rage choking his throat. Yuri is held between two guards. Stripped of his crown, his insignia, his uniform, he looks like any other man. Rain makes him out of focus, pale and soft. Emperor Ezar and Prince Xav are waiting, all the generals and the counts are waiting. What justice demands. What honour commands.
Five minutes later, Aral is sick in the rain, while the death of a thousand cuts proceeds behind him.
"Do you think you're that good?" is the first thing Ges says to him.
Aral sits in the east courtyard of the Imperial Military Academy, sketching the old clock tower. He must work swiftly, because the shadows move. "Hmm?" He glances up, and is caught by eyes that he desires to draw. That sweep of lash, that liquid gleam, that hint of laughter.
"Ink instead of pencil. Are you so sure you'll never make a mistake?"
"No one is that good. You have to make your mistakes part of the drawing. Or else start over."
After Ges leaves, Aral turns the page. His pen idly traces the outline of a jaw.
Aral is nineteen when his father tells him, "I have found you a bride."
"You deserve to know," Ges tells him, three years later. "The whole town already does." He lists the names, while Aral bites his lip until he tastes iron.
Ges lays a hand on his shoulder. "I know you want to challenge them. But you know the penalties for duelling."
Aral knocks his hand aside. His wife may have cast away their oaths, but Aral will defend them to the death. "Tell me where to find these men."
The first time Aral drew her, she had eyed the fluid lines with pleasure and doubt. "Is that really how I look to you?"
"I only draw the truth," he said, smiling back.
She really had the most beautiful imaginable face.
Aral will never forget their last argument, no matter how much he drinks. He cannot erase a single word of what he said to her. "Do what you like. I no longer care."
So she did. But he did.
Sometimes Aral thinks love and death are twin faces of a coin, spinning until the two halves blur into one.
Aral cannot remember the first time he reached for Ges. There were many nights he could not remember, after his wife widowed him, only the aftermath of blinding headaches and stinking breath. He remembers waking, not alone, Ges already watching him from one elbow, that familiar smirk on his lips.
"It was all your idea," Ges tells him, and Aral believes it. Ges has seen him looking.
His father possesses an heirloom dagger, watermark shimmering sinuous. A blade fashioned in the traditional way, by a smith who can hammer a thousand layers into a slim leaf of steel. The edge is near invisible, so you have to touch it with your finger to test it is there, to prove it will cut you.
Then you bleed.
"We are Vor," Ges tells him. "We make our own law."
But Aral knows better. Even an emperor can die, if he transgresses.
They are falling together, from a great height, reckless, burning. They will spark a great cataclysm when they hit the ground.
"Even your hero Vorthalia was not so heroic as that," Ges tells him. "Read your histories. A man does not need to be good to be great."
Aral tilts his head. "Are you saying I'll be great?"
Ges trails a finger down his spine. "You certainly aren't good."
Aral sharpens his reed pens with a scalpel. His hands are sure and do not slip, save when Ges enfolds him from behind. He always kisses it better, brushing his lips over the wound, his tongue probing its edges.
Dawn over Karian Base streaks the steel sky with blood. Dirty snow is pocked with shadows, hidden hollows to snare unwary feet. Brutal wind cuts through coats.
The doctor climbs out of the bunker, shaking his head.
Ges calls HQ. "Bunker 4 secure. No survivors."
Aral steps down into the concrete vault, foot almost skidding on a soft red blob. He covers his mouth at the acrid taste in the air. Bright yellow canisters litter the floor. A dozen men slump against the walls, wracked with coughing, dark smears clotting their uniforms.
Aral turns his head at the hiss of steel. Ges has drawn his combat knife. He looks at Aral looking at him. "This is mercy. I would do the same for you."
Aral kneels by the closest man: eyes glazed, breath bubbling. He unsheathes his blade.
"Congratulate me on my promotion." Ges flicks at his shiny collar tabs.
Aral raises a glass, slouched in his chair. He started on the wine early, and will not try to stand. "Congratulations, Ges."
Ges sweeps the glass to the floor with a brittle smash. Shards tinkle under his boots as he leans over Aral. "I don't think so, lieutenant."
Aral looks up at him steadily. "Congratulations, sir."
Teeth graze the nape of his neck, hot breath stirring his hair.
Aral has sketched Ges so many times he already knows what lines his pen will make. His hand flows with sureness across the page, bold strokes creating a young man with laughter in his eyes.
"Are you done yet?"
Aral looks up at Ges.
The fundamental lesson of art is: draw what you see, not what you think you should see.
"It's no good." Aral crumples the paper into a ball, as though it is merely a lost hour. "It doesn't look like you."
Ges stretches lazily, with a smile Aral used to think was playful. "You can try again later."
Aral does not answer. He puts the pen down.
- fin -