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"Well?" Xav asks him. Ezar had come to Xav's sickbed, feeling more ill himself than he had when Xav and Piotr had come to him with their peculiar proposition, and far more defeated than he ever has in his life. "Which of my grandsons have you come to tell me you're conscripting?"

"Padma," Ezar says. It had been, in the end, an easy decision. Padma is the disposable one. Padma is heir to nothing but Xav's legacy. If Ezar can't manage to sire a son, then Piotr certainly isn't managing to get another one himself. And so it can't be Aral, for all that Aral has glimmers of his father in his potential, and Padma has shown none of that. Padma's a cheerful boy, taller at his age than Aral had been, but he's a nonentity. If Ezar doesn't raise him up, he'll never be anything more than a footnote in the history of Yuri's war.

But Ezar has to raise him up. The doctors have given him little choice. Ezar and his wife have cordially despised each other for years and Ezar will not easily forgive her for forcing him to beg Xav to give up his grandfather's right. Ezar's heir cannot be beholden to any other. Ezar's heir must answer only to him, and never to Xav.

There's little Ezar likes less than giving the Imperium to a Vorpatril, even one the Vorpatrils have never been permitted to touch. They would use him to stage a revolt, if given the chance. Xav has refused them the chance, and now Ezar will take it away from them for good. But the boy, for all that Xav has raised him, isn't a Vorbarra. And it stings. The Vorbarras have ruled Barrayar for five hundred years, and for it to come to this. For it to come to the two of them at Xav's sickbed, being forced into this. Ezar has had failures in his life, but this is his worst defeat.

Damn you, Yuri, Ezar thinks. You reduced us to this. You reduced us to a choice between a Vorkosigan heir and a Vorpatril child.

Yuri would have laughed for weeks at this. It was exactly the kind of joke he loved. Ezar hates him all the more for it, hates him for the massacre, hates him for everything Yuri ever did, for everything Dorca ever did. Dorca had brought the Vorbarras in line and killed half of them doing it. Even the Cetagandans hadn't cut as much of a swath through the family as Dorca had. And then Yuri's death squads and Yuri's war had finished Dorca's work for him. The Vorbarras come now to Ezar and Xav and some fifth cousins who can barely claim the title of Lord. None of them will ever be Ezar's heir. The blood's far too diluted. It's that or Betan blood, and he's choosing Betan blood. It burns him, but he'll do it. He has little choice.

"You'll treat him well," Xav threatens.

"I'll treat him as a Crown Prince," Ezar retorts. "As will you."

Xav, damn him, laughs at him. "I know all about Crown Princes," he says. "You'll let me break the news to him."

It's not a request and Ezar has not taken orders from Xav since the moment Xav knelt to him. But Xav is dying slowly and Ezar is still mourning the children he will never have. He'll allow Xav some more time to mourn the children he did have and the grandson Ezar will take from him and make his own. "Very well. I'll be having him invested at Midsummer. Have him ready to make oath in front of the Counts." A ten year old boy might be scared of the Counts, Ezar thinks. Aral never was, but when Aral was ten years old, he'd still been the spare. Aral hadn't learned fear until later.

A child can't be confirmed in the Counts until he's old enough to make oath to the Emperor and mean it. At least Xav has raised Padma that far, to know what his oath means. The boy's honorable, if nothing else. Ezar's always ignored him in favor of Aral, but now he'll be taking him as his own son. A boy who is a quarter Betan, whose father was a Vorpatril so junior, his own Count probably hadn't recognized him until he'd impressed a Princess. This boy, to be Ezar's heir.

Ezar had fought Yuri for two years. He had turned traitor and then he had won. He won't let it be thrown away. The Imperium needs a Crown Prince. Ezar could not provide one, so Xav will. And Ezar will take the boy and he will mold him. He will give the boy the Vorbarra name.

But he won't forget. He's raising another Emperor, not a son.