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“Did Count Falco really say that?” Dono asked, immensely diverted.

“Really,” said Olivia. “I’ve got a school friend who’s a lawyer in Vorpatril’s District, and she was right there. She says she gave Ivan her card, afterward.”

“What a perfectly Ivan-ish scrape to get into. I suppose his mother put Count Falco up to it, and of course Ivan’s got no idea.”

“And of course Ivan’s going to lose the card,” said Olivia, “or forget that she gave it to him, because I don’t believe he actually wants a divorce at all. Tasha said they insisted on sitting together, and she thinks they were holding hands the whole time.”

Dono suppressed a thoroughly un-masculine giggle. “Poor Ivan! Self-knowledge is simply not his strong suit.”

“No,” said Olivia, “and I’m glad it isn’t, because if it were, he’d have married you years before we met, and then what would have become of the District?”

It was typical of Olivia, Dono thought, to think of the potential consequences for the District rather than for herself. Usually, he found it endearing; at the moment, it was perhaps a touch unflattering.

“Don’t let’s talk about the District tonight,” he said. “I’ve had enough of it just now.” They’d had their heads full of District issues for the past week, and Dono felt that he’d gotten as far as he could get with most of them. Modern ideas and good intentions could only go so far without cash flow, and in a rural district with low population, few industries to speak of, and not much in the way of natural resources, the cash flow was a perpetual difficulty.

“All right,” said Olivia. She went quiet for a moment, as if she were stumped for something to talk about that wasn’t the District, and then asked, unexpectedly, “How did you manage it? Getting out of your first two marriages, I mean.”

“Ah. With great difficulty, the first time around. Accusing Count Vorholland’s heir of homosexuality, in an open court, with his father presiding – well, it wouldn’t have been on. Not if I knew what was good for me.”

“No, I guess not,” said Olivia. “It’s a shame. I mean, if there’s ever a perfectly sensible, blame-free reason to get divorced, surely that’s it.”

“Oh, there was plenty of blame to go around. On both sides. There are certain circumstances under which I might be willing to tolerate my husband having an affair with one of his father’s armsmen, but they do not include his getting drunk on purpose so he can blurt out a confession every time he gets a guilty conscience about it, and then denying it again after he’s sober. People ought to have the courage of their convictions about that sort of thing.”

“Of course they should,” said Olivia, “and at the very least, he ought to have offered to let you watch.”

“I like the way you think, my dear.”

“So how did you get out of it?”

“Fortunately, Léonce and his father were just old-high-Vor enough to find a ‘you have your lover, and I’ll have mine’ arrangement unacceptable, but not old-high-Vor enough to regard murder as an appropriate solution. So I had a few very public love affairs, and they decided rather quickly that a quiet divorce would be the best option, after all. And that was the beginning of my career as a scarlet woman. Well, not absolutely the beginning, because I won’t pretend I was a virgin when I married, but I did go into it with every intention of being faithful. Or at any rate, being discreet.”

Olivia, he thought, was registering much more than he had spoken; what it had meant to be a girl in those days, handed over by your father to cement a political alliance, and how much it had truly cost to get free. Being a scarlet woman hadn’t been as glamourous as it sounded.

“And the second time?”

“The second time was easy. Georgy and I just weren’t right for each other, that’s all. And by then my brother Pierre was Count and we were living in the District, and he gave me a divorce, no fuss, no real argument. He did try to talk me out of it, because he was old-fashioned that way, but he didn’t like seeing me unhappy, so he didn’t try very hard.”

Oh!” said Olivia suddenly. “I’ve just had the best idea.”

“What, love?”

“Never mind. You said you didn’t want to talk about the District.”

“You can’t drop a hint like that and leave it hanging. What about the District?”

“I just figured out how we increase our tax base. Divorce. Easy, no-fault, no-questions-asked divorce. It doesn’t cost anything to manufacture, and an awful lot of people want it.”

“Huh,” said Dono. “With a residency requirement – let’s say three months, so we can be sure of collecting the quarterly taxes – and, of course, it should be popular enough that there’ll be a wait list to get on the docket after that. It could work.”

* * *

Divorce, as it turned out, was an exceedingly popular growth industry. The tax-paying population of Paridel, the capital of Vorrutyer’s District, burgeoned. So did the nightlife, since an entrepreneurial resident of the city figured out that what all of those soon-to-be-divorced people wanted was a nightclub where they could meet new partners, and after one or two Unfortunate Encounters between recent exes, it became evident that there really needed to be more than one such nightclub.

By the next session of the Council of Counts, Dono’s colleagues had started to take notice. All right, so Dono provoked them a little by suggesting that they reform the child custody laws (which were one of the key reasons why there wasn’t as much of a market for divorce as the Vorrutyer’s District court could bear).

Debate on the measure proved immensely entertaining. Dono found most of his private speculations confirmed about which of his colleagues were secretly afraid their wives would leave them, which ones were secretly looking for a way to liberate their mistresses from unwanted entanglements, and which ones were not-so-secretly envious of Dono’s expanded tax base. (None of these attributes fell along party lines, although of course the particular arguments used to justify the positions did.) Tomas Vormuir kept insisting, loudly and without evidence, that making divorce too easy would create a cadre of professional divorcées who would proceed to marry and abandon a new man every month in order to collect their dowry money over and over. Dono stepped heavily on his own foot, which was what he did when he was trying not to burst out laughing during a Council session, and resisted the temptation to step on Count Vormuir’s.

But then it turned out that Falco Vorpatril really did have passionate and principled views on the sanctity of marital vows, or else he felt obligated to develop some after what he’d done to Ivan, and Dono found himself having to lobby – hard – against Count Falco’s Prevention of Oathbreaking Act. That sort of thing was always annoying. If you didn’t nip it in the bud, it allowed your political enemies to pretend you were for oathbreaking; and there were just enough anxious husbands on the Progressive side that Dono couldn’t count on a majority.

Dono did a mental vote count, came up one short, and tried to calculate which of the undecided Conservatives could most easily be picked off at the next party at the Residence. Oh hell.

* * *

“Hello, Léonce.”

Count Vorholland wasn’t slurring his speech at all, but Dono knew he was drunk because he said “You look better than you did the day I married you,” which was the kind of thing Léonce always got drunk to say.

“I improve with age, like a fine wine,” said Dono, kicking off his shoes and becoming Lady Donna for a moment, just for the hell of it. This was quite easy to do, a trick of adjusting voice and mannerisms. Léonce looked slightly disturbed, poor man. What’s the matter, can’t you decide whether you’re attracted to me or not?

“About this new divorce policy of yours…”

“Ah. Were you and Countess Vorholland planning to avail yourselves ...? I’m not quite sure either of you can be oath-sworn to another Count, but I’ll have my attorney look into it, if you’d like.”

“Countess Vorholland,” said Léonce, rather defensively, “is a very accommodating woman.”

“Still. If she ever gets tired of being accommodating, I’d be happy to do what I can.” Donna looked up, a mischievous thought having occurred to her. “Adultery is always a quicker way, of course. Which one of you will it be? Or had I better sleep with both of you, just to make sure?”

“I am very happily married,” said Léonce, still more defensively.

“Oh, so am I. I was joking.” Granted, Olivia had occasionally hinted that she might be open to inviting a guest to join them in bed; it had fallen to Dono to say been there, done that, it’s a lot more awkward and uncomfortable than it sounds. Besides, Léonce was definitely not the right sort of guest.

He wondered about the present Countess Vorholland: how much she had known about what she was taking on, and for that matter, precisely what she had agreed to take on. The Betan doctors could make certain adjustments to one’s desires, Dono knew, as long as they were persuaded the patient wasn’t acting under coercion. He tried to remember whether Léonce had ever taken a long off-world holiday; recollected in time that it really wasn’t any of his business; and returned to the subject at hand. “So, you were saying about the divorce policy? I hope I may count on your vote against the Prevention of Oathbreaking Act, by the way.”

Léonce looked flustered. “Conservative Party leadership was rather relying – particularly since I’ve already voted against the party line three times this session…”

“So, they’ll be expecting it of you. And sometimes four times is the charm.”

“And, well, oathbreaking is a serious matter. Falco has a point about that.”

“Have you always thought so, I wonder?” That was Lady Donna speaking again; really, under the circumstances, it would have been criminal not to let her have her say.

Léonce reached for his drink and said, after a long moment, “Look, I’m not saying I’ve never done things that were wrong. But I don’t try to … to redefine them as right.”

“Pity,” said Dono, “it might have been easier on both of us if you had.”

Léonce did not look as if he had thought about the question in this light, nor as if the idea was entirely congenial to him. “There ought to be … principles, I think. Even if not always upheld.”

“Of course there ought. But I’m not sure this is one worth upholding. Or even that the law is the right place to uphold it, even if we grant that it is. What happens if you make a law to prevent oathbreaking and nobody follows it? Is it really preventing anything, or just making people more miserable than they need to be?”

This was getting perilously close to one of those eternal debates about the Nature And Purpose Of Law that Dono was perpetually getting sucked into, and perpetually regretting; but fortunately, Léonce was not really a man of abstract ideas. Instead, he asked, “What’s to stop people from getting married without having any intention of sticking with it?”

“I don’t really see this leading to an epidemic of sham marriages. At least, not more than we’ve seen in the past. In my experience, the circumstances leading to sham marriages are … rather different. And more complicated.” I’ve no doubt you can judge by your own experience, too, as it’s the flip side of mine. This thought had obviously occurred to Léonce as well; he looked more uncomfortable than ever. For his part, Dono found that he was thinking about these questions with less bitterness than he had ever done in the Lady Donna days. Say what you would about unearned advantages, knowing that you would never be powerless again did make it easier to be generous with other people. “Did you intend for things to turn out the way they did? Do you think I intended it?”

“I don’t know what you intended. I’m not sure I've ever understood how your mind works.” But there was, suddenly, a hint of a smile behind this last remark.

“Quite right,” said Dono cheerfully, “I’m not sure I understand how my mind works, half the time. Rather unfair to expect it of anyone else. Especially a twenty-year-old someone. But I don’t think I knew that, then.”

Léonce nodded; an acceptance, Dono thought, of the nearest thing he was likely to get to an apology. He didn’t offer one of his own, but then, he had reasonable grounds for seeing himself as the wronged party – at least, if you judged by the unwritten rules of a generation earlier, where failing to be discreet mattered more than breaking one’s vows, and men were permitted more lapses than women. It seemed, suddenly, to have been an awfully long time ago. How young they had been.

“Let me ask you to think of it like this. Would you and I have been better off with or without an easier way out?”

“Better,” Léonce conceded, “as individuals. But, you know, the social fabric…” He launched into a slightly incoherent explanation of the social fabric – which, Dono gathered, was somehow damaged by turning a sleepy provincial city into a hub for casual divorce and raucous nightlife.

“Well,” said Dono, “that’s my district’s problem, isn’t it? No one’s requiring you to have the same laws in yours.” A mischievous thought occurred to him. “You might even think of it as a public service, you know. Taking the people who are just plain hard to live with off the other Counts’ hands.”

Léonce did not seem overly impressed with this line of reasoning. But I don’t want their taxes taken off my hands! Dono could almost hear him protest. Well, Léonce, you’re going to have to pick one or the other, won’t you?

“I might,” Dono remarked, “suggest defaulting to the principle that how a Count chooses to run his District is his own business, all other things being equal.”

“That’s a fair point,” said Léonce, by which he meant that it was a point that more or less aligned with Conservative Party principles. Léonce was old-fashioned enough to think that the positions a Count took from moment to moment should have something to do with the principles he professed to value, which was one of the reasons Boriz Vormoncrief found him utterly unreliable as a party-line vote.

Dono nodded, feeling that he had most likely won, and ought not to jeopardize his chances by pressing harder; that was precisely when Léonce tended to balk. Marriage, however brief and unfortunate, did give you certain advantages at lobbying the other person forever afterward. He reached, instead, for the bottle of wine that one of the waiters had discreetly left in front of them, and topped up both of their glasses. “For old times’ sake. And for improving on old times for our childrens’ sake, hmm?”

“To our children,” Léonce echoed, relieved to have found some uncontroversial common ground. (It was remarkable how well talk of children always worked; having come to parenthood late in life, Dono often wondered what he’d ever done before.) “Maybe they’ll be better at it all than we were,” Léonce added unexpectedly.

“I hope so.”

“To hope,” said Léonce, because making vague and random toasts had always been another one of his habits once he reached a certain point of drunkenness. Long ago, a very young Donna had found it charming. Dono was prepared to find it so again.

“To hope.”