“What’s with you today, Vorrutyer?” Count Vorhalas inquired jovially after a long, contentious legislative session finally dragged to a close. “You were far too quiet.”
“Sorry, lots on my mind,” Count Dono Vorrutyer apologized. “I’m hearing a nasty case on Monday. Out of control carpenter beat his daughter for sneaking out to meet a boy. When his wife protested, he beat her, too. Cracked several vertebrae and damaged her spinal cord. She’s paralyzed.”
“What did he use?” Rene Vorbretton gasped, looking at holos of two women with huge welts all over their bodies. “A table leg?”
“Supposedly, a switch no wider than his thumb,” Dono answered, showing a holo of a burly man with huge hands. “His attorney’s arguing it’s all perfectly legal. Olivia and I are sick about it.”
“That’s bullshit!” Miles spat. “Dono, we need to talk,” he ordered. “How about tea at Vorkosigan House? Rene, Count Vorhalas, you’re welcome to join us.”
As expected, Count Vorhalas declined to set foot in Aral Vorkosigan’s house. The other two accepted, as did several other counts who said they’d heard similar cases in their Districts. After a long discussion fortified by Ma Kosti’s delicious sandwiches and pastries, Dono was feeling much more confident. So was Miles, who’d ducked out for a quick consultation with the Emperor.
Tomas Dubois’ attorney was perturbed to see a small, gray-clad figure sitting beside Count Vorrutyer on the bench when she entered the courtroom with her client. She wasn’t particularly happy to see Countess Vorrutyer in the gallery, either.
Count Vorrutyer made no reference to his companion as the bailiff called the case and the proceedings began with evidence from the daughter and her beau. Both were nervous as they confessed to sneaking about for more than six months before being caught. The sneaking wasn’t due to age, but to Da Dubois’ feud with the beau’s father, the town cooper.
The carpenter’s other children testified that Da beat them all frequently, especially Ma. Their words were consistent with their mother’s scars. Still, Tomas DuBois remained confident as his attorney called him to the stand to begin his defense. They were only a few questions in when the small figure interrupted.
“I’d like to see the weapon, please,” he requested politely.
“Ain’t no weapon, just a switch,” the defendant growled.
“We’ve heard testimony that you use the same switch every time you assault your family. I’d like to see it. As would Count Vorrutyer.”
After Dono overruled the attorney’s objections, there was a pause as one of the DuBois sons went home to retrieve his father’s switch. During that recess, Ma DuBois was wheeled into another room to answer some questions from His Lordship’s companion. She looked relieved when court was reconvened.
“As you see, my lords, my client’s switch conforms with Barrayaran law,” the attorney began when the branch was laid on the desk in front of Dono and Miles.
“No, ma’am, it doesn’t,” Count Vorrutyer disagreed, looking at barkless wood that was polished smooth from repeated use. “A switch is a flexible twig, fresh-cut from a nearby tree. This is a cudgel.”
“It’s also far too wide,” Miles added. “The law calls for the switch to be no wider than a man’s thumb.”
“It ain’t no wider than me thumb!” the defendant protested.
“And there’s the rub,” Dono agreed pleasantly. “Though not a switch, your cudgel is no wider than YOUR thumb. It’s certainly far wider than mine. Or Lord Auditor Vorkosigan’s.”
“A discrepancy I discussed with the Emperor last week,” Miles continued, ignoring the gasps at a Lord Auditor appearing at a District Court session. “He agreed that until such time as this archaic law can be struck off the books, a universal definition of the width of a man’s thumb is required. And unluckily for you, since I’m the Lord Auditor charged with deciding this issue, the thumb width in question will be mine. Effective immediately, no man in Barrayar may discipline his family with a switch wider than MY thumb.”
“You can’t hold my client to standards not enacted at the time he disciplined his family,” the attorney protested.
“And I won’t,” Count Vorrutyer promised. “I don’t need to. Not when your client repeatedly beat his family with a cudgel, not a switch. Bailiff, please summon Armsman Clarkson.”
The armsman entered with a cart of produce. The courtroom watched attentively as he lined up everything on a long table. He then, under his liege-lord’s direction, took one swing at one of each pair with the defendant’s ‘switch.’ It wasn’t until Clarkson got to the larger cabbages and melons that the items didn’t immediately splat all over him. A switch of equal width and length cut from a tree outside the courthouse did similar damage to the tomatoes and softer items, but created far less mess with the larger items.
“That’s enough, thank you, Clarkson,” Dono dismissed his filthy armsman. “Now, DuBois, would you like to reconsider your plea?”
“Ain’t done nothing wrong,” DuBois insisted. “Not pleading guilty to something I ain’t done.”
“That’s too bad, because I find differently. Please stand.”
There were repeated gasps from the gallery as the defendant was found guilty of criminally assaulting his wife and daughter and charged with a year in jail. Count Vorrutyer then granted Ma DuBois’ request for a divorce. Based on the history of abuse, he gave her custody of the two minor boys as well as the 18-year-old battered daughter. Dono also gave Ma Dubois the house in which she’d spent her married life, granted her their joint savings, and charged her ex-husband with supporting her and their children financially for her lifetime.
“Let this be a lesson,” Count Vorrutyer finished coldly. “Families are not defenseless in my District. Abusers will be held accountable for their actions.”
And with that, Dono called a recess so the courtroom could be cleaned while the young lovers prepared to enter the groat circle.