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Untitled (Day 3)

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"I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to legitimize inheritance through the female line." Helen clasped her hands carefully over her notes, and kept her voice steady when it wanted to wobble alarmingly. "I'm not laying any claim to primogeniture; I intend to claim the Countship through Count's choice of heir."

"Miles is on board with this?" Emperor Gregor's eyebrows went up.

"I've spoken to him," she said, a little too quickly; Gregor's gaze sharpened, and she steeled herself not to squirm under it. "He isn't convinced yet that it's the wisest course of action, but he hasn't forbidden me to pursue it."

"That's a long way from endorsing you as his heir," the Emperor observed mildly, glancing at the only other person seated at the table in the private conference room: his own heir, the Vorkosigan twins' foster-cousin and childhood playmate, Crown Prince Ezar Vorbarra.

"I know, Sire." Helen took a deep breath. Don't flinch. Don't act guilty. You're not a child begging your uncle for a treat your father won't buy you. You're a scion of the Vor petitioning your Emperor. "But I believe I can persuade him. If I have your leave to pursue this in Council, pending his approval."

Gregor was her uncle, yes, her Da's older foster-brother and dearest friend -- but also her Emperor, and the one man in all the universe to whom her father bent the knee. Which made her father's relationship with the Emperor very different from, say, her own with her adored but distant half-brother Nikki.

She'd actually seen the literal bending-of-the-knee for herself last fall, at the Emperor's Birthday. If all went well, someday it would be her in that line, in the brown and silver livery of a Count or a Count's heir, kneeling to present the Emperor with the formal bag of gold coins. Helen spared a moment to hope it would be as a Count's heir, as her father's recognized deputy; to hope that her father would be watching her as proudly as she had watched him.

"I've been collecting precedents," she continued, "including the lawsuit with the fifth Countess Vorluchev, who was legally declared a male in order to inherit. And of course the current Count Vorrutyer." She clamped her lips shut before she could babble out the rest of her arguments. You're not pleading your case right now. Just trying to convince him that you have one.

"You do understand," Gregor said, "I can't force the Council of Counts to accept you as your father's heir."

"But you can make them listen." Helen clasped her hands tighter. "Show them that you take this seriously. That's all I ask."

The Emperor nodded slowly, and turned to his son. "What do you think?"

Ezar's eyes widened slightly -- the equivalent, for him, of a jaw-dropped stare. After a moment he spoke, his voice carefully level: "Are you asking me to decide this, Sire?"

"I'm asking for your input," Gregor said quietly. "I know we all hope your coronation is a long time coming, but the strongest likelihood is that the next Count Vorkosigan will serve you for considerably longer than me. Which is to say: it's going to be your problem." The ghost of a smile lurked at one corner of his mouth. "Insofar as you consider it one."

Ezar frowned, and for a moment Helen's heart sank -- but it was consideration, not disapproval. "That depends," he said. "If Helen's an unfit Count --" He gave her a half-apologetic glance, but continued without a pause -- "then it'll be my problem for longer than yours. But if the problem's only the old Counts not wanting to let a girl in the clubhouse..." Ezar made a wry face; Gregor made it right back at him, and opened his hand to invite him to continue. "Then they might have gotten used to the idea by that time. The way you tell me they got used to Count Miles."

Helen sat still. This conversation was being held in front of her for a reason, she could guess that much. Why was harder -- or, no, why was simple: Gregor expected her to take a lesson from it. The nature of the lesson, now, that was the hard part. Helen was under no illusions that he would simply tell her what it was. A test. Everything's a test.

For a moment, she was fairly sure she could read a very similar thought passing behind Ezar's eyes.

Ezar studied his father's face, and then turned to Helen. "I think you could do it," he said at length. "If you can convince the other Counts you can."

"Then let me try," she said instantly.

Ezar glanced back at his father, who gave him a nod and a smile so small as to be nearly subliminal, and Helen felt her heart leap like a horse clearing a fence with the sudden certainty of what his next words would be.

"All right, Da," Ezar said. "Let's see what happens."