The library was one of Grandmother Cordelia's favorite places in Vorkosigan House, and she could often be found there during the intermittent three to four months of every year that she tended to spend on Barrayar. The Dowager Countess Vorkosigan was now a galactic in practice as well as by birth, dividing her time roughly equally between Barrayar, Sergyar and Beta Colony. Helen was grateful that this tactical problem had coincided with one of her visits, as it would have been awkward (not to mention much less private) to discuss it over a comconsole.
"Has Aral talked to you at all about it?" Sitting on the low ottoman at her grandmother's knee should have made her feel like a five-year-old again, Helen reflected, but somehow it didn't. Maybe it was the seriousness of the matter they were discussing. Or maybe it was just how seriously the Countess seemed to be taking it, and her.
"Not in any detail," her grandmother answered. "I get the impression he thought I would feel the need to discuss it with your father."
Sudden worry stung her. "Do you? I mean -- are you going to?"
"I don't plan on it," the Countess said equably. "Aral Alexander is old enough to make his own decisions and abide by the consequences; I'm not about to take any of them out of his hands. Not even the decision of whether or not to speak to your father about this."
"He doesn't want to disappoint him." Helen's voice was lower than she meant it to be. "But he's talking about running away to live with you or Uncle Mark on Beta Colony if, if Da -- and he's not joking, that's the thing. He wants me to think he's joking, but I know him."
"Mm." Cordelia frowned into her teacup. "Helen, tell me something."
She sat up straight and nodded.
Her grandmother looked her directly in the face, and that steel-grey gaze pinned her down like a bug at the business end of a microscope. "Let's be clear on this. Do you want to step into the Countship for your brother's sake, for the good of the District, or for yourself?"
Helen opened her mouth, and closed it. None of those, suddenly, seemed like sufficient reason; too personal, too altruistic to be believed, too selfish to be honorable. Wait --
"It can't be all three?" she demanded. "This is a solution that'll be good for everybody. For me, for Aral, for the District -- for all Barrayar, really, even if they don't know it themselves yet. But they will. I'll prove it. That's all I want: the chance to prove that I can serve."
The older woman studied her for another eternal moment, then dropped her eyes and rubbed her forehead as though to stave off an incipient headache, but she was smiling: ruefully at first, as though at a memory, then with greater certainty. "Well," she said, looking up; the fierce satisfaction in her eyes was unmistakable. "It's been a long time coming."
Helen exhaled, and felt a slow bubble of glee start forming somewhere south of her sternum. "Do you think it'll work?"
"Honestly? I have no idea. If by work you mean, will you get to keep the Countship in your own name. But it's long past time for Barrayar to start addressing the issue, and it was bound to be someone of this generation who first tried it." Her grandmother's eyes dwelt on hers, and crinkled at the edges. "And for the record ... I'm proud it's going to be you."
Oh. The glee dissipated in an instant, sublimated into something else entirely. For a moment Helen couldn't speak, both warmed and shaken by the words. Oh. I have to live up to that, now.
"Now," Cordelia said briskly, setting down her cup, "let's talk about who you need to speak to next, and how you plan to approach Gregor."