“I thought,” said Miles Vorkosigan, “that we might try something a little different tonight.”
“I wondered why you hadn’t sent us any of the old files this time,” said his fellow Imperial Auditor, Professor Georg Vorthys. “I was thinking I might have missed a message. Those mushroom tarts look delightful, by the way. Tell Ma Kosti how much we all appreciate her.”
“I haven’t seen the files on this one,” said Vorkosigan. “Only Admiral Valentine has.”
“Ah. I wondered why he was here.” Admiral Valentine was mostly retired, and had not joined the active Auditors for any of their previous gatherings.
Vorkosigan explained, “The way this will work is, Admiral Valentine will describe a case from the archives, and the rest of us will ask the questions we would ask if we were assigned to the case. The Admiral will answer them to the best of his ability. If there is anything he doesn’t know, presumably because the Auditor or Auditors assigned to the case at the time never asked about it, that information should be assumed to be immaterial to the solution – That is right, isn’t it? You did pick a case the Auditors were able to solve at the time?”
“Oh, yes,” said Valentine, “all of the pertinent information is in the files. Along with a great deal of impertinent information, of course, so just because I can answer something, that doesn’t mean it is relevant.”
“This sounds like great fun,” said Vorthys, helping himself to another mushroom tart.
“Our story,” Valentine began, “concerns an ancient and honorable family, who are referred to in the records by the pseudonym of Vormontaigne, as the Auditor who filed the report preferred to respect their privacy. As was often the case in those days, we begin with an ordinary audit of the financial type. Lord Vormontaigne, the only son of the Count and a captain of cavalry in Emperor Dorca’s army, had written several letters to the Emperor over the course of a year, requesting an inquisition into his father’s finances and investments. He believed that his father – who had, for the last few years, been increasingly forgetful, irritable, and erratic in his judgment – was being defrauded. The Count was an old friend and staunch ally of Dorca’s, and the Emperor appears to have been reluctant to act. Count Vormontaigne was an old-time Vor lord, perhaps even more passionate than most about personal and family honor, and he would have seen an inquiry into his affairs as a mortal insult. However, after the Count had missed several key votes in Council, Dorca finally assigned an Imperial Auditor to the case.
“Well, by the time the Auditor arrived at the Vormontaignes’ country house, the Count had suddenly died. The Auditor’s investigation revealed that the late Count had, in fact, made a number of reckless investments in worthless or fraudulent enterprises, and that his estate was seriously depleted, although not so badly as to be unrecoverable with careful management. This Auditor, as it happened, also had some medical training, and he came to believe that the Count’s death – which the Count’s own doctor had written off as a case of heart failure – showed unmistakable signs of poisoning with a native Barrayaran plant called redbane.”
“In order to distinguish it from all the other native Barrayaran plants that are both red and baneful,” said Vorkosigan.
“Indeed. Well, redbane has a floral odor and a slightly acidic taste. The best vehicle for concealing it would be a strongly flavored fruit drink of some sort – juice, or cider, or one of those fruit brandies that were so popular during the Time of Isolation.”
“I always wonder,” remarked Vorkosigan, “how we know how poisons taste. Do they go looking for poisoning victims and ask them to describe what it tasted like, quickly, before they expire, or does someone heroically volunteer to be a guinea pig?”
“Unknown,” said Valentine, “and irrelevant. What is relevant is that death by redbane poisoning is swift, usually occurring within three to five hours of ingestion. The Count took dinner with several members of his household between seven and eight, retired to bed at ten-thirty in apparently good health, and was found dead by his senior armsman in the morning. It may be taken as certain that he ingested the poison at dinner or at some time shortly afterward; which considerably cuts down our list of possible suspects.”
“Convenient,” remarked Lord Vorhovis.
“Yes. The Auditor must have been relieved to discover he didn’t have to worry about the movements of twenty armsmen. For one thing, a number of them were away. One of them had been assigned to the personal service of Lord Vormontaigne, who was five hundred kilometers away with his regiment, and several others had been left to look after the Count’s town house. Four more were on guard duty outside the house throughout the time period when the poisoning occurred, and most of the rest were off duty and at home with their families. The ones who remained inside the house were all bachelors. There were three of them – Tomas Archer, Kos Stavros, and Stefan Melnikov – and they were all present at dinner. The Count disliked eating alone, and when no company was present, he was in the habit of taking his meals with his off-duty armsmen and another old family retainer, Alys Bogdanov. Mind you, the Count was no egalitarian; it was one of those arrangements that worked because everybody in the household knew their place. Anyway, these four people, and the cook, Vera Kumon, would have been in the best position to poison him.”
“There was no Countess Vormontaigne, I take it?” said Vorthys.
“No. She had died many years earlier, giving birth to Lord Vormontaigne. The Count never remarried.”
“Any chance of suicide?” suggested Vann Vorgustafson, the wealthy industrialist. “Either because of his financial troubles, or because he knew his mind was going?”
“Not impossible, but not likely. Redbane grows up on the slopes, and the Count was seventy years old and had a bad knee that would have made it hard for him to climb. Besides, he had a pistol in his room. No obvious reason why he’d go to considerable trouble to poison himself instead of shooting himself.”
“Trying to make the death look natural?”
“Possible,” said Valentine, “but again, it’s difficult to see why. No particular stigma to suicide among Time of Isolation Vor lords. If he was lucid enough to be aware of his mental decline, a lot of his peers would see it as an honorable way out. So: the Auditor concluded that it was likely a case of murder, and I don’t think it will give away too much if I say that subsequent events bore out his instincts. Gentlemen, where would you start your investigation?”
“I’ll lead off with the obvious,” said Vorhovis. “Give us a quick background check on our five suspects.”
“Four of them were in their fifties and sixties, had been in the Count’s service for decades, and seemed quite unexceptionable. Archer, the senior armsman, had been the Count’s closest confidant for some forty years. As far as we know, they were on excellent terms. Stavros had been an armsman for nearly as long, but he’d spent some fourteen years away from the household – from the beginning of Lord Vormontaigne’s military apprenticeship until Lord Vormontaigne’s last visit to his father, about a year earlier. The Count had apparently taken a dislike to one of his other armsmen, a man named Kislovic, and had threatened to have him sacked. Well, Lord Vormontaigne and Stavros both thought this was unfair; Stavros offered to take Kislovic’s place in the household, and Kislovic left with Lord Vormontaigne.”
“Interesting,” remarked Vorkosigan. “Was the Count in the habit of taking a dislike to people?”
“In his last few years, yes, and he got especially infuriated when he thought the armsmen seemed to be questioning his judgment. Kislovic had apparently told the Count point blank that he was running the estate into the ground.”
“So, I suppose, no one dared to say take it up with the Count afterwards, but they were all thinking it. What about the other fellow, Melnikov?”
“He was young, around thirty. He’d left the army after serving his ten years and fetched up in the Count’s service a couple of years earlier. No one really seemed to know how that had happened, but he was rather a charming young man, all the girls in the village were wild about him, and the Count had been taken with him at once. He was good at talking the Count down when he was in a bad mood and persuading him not to act on all of his impulses, and the others came to rely on him for that.”
“Hmm-mm,” said Vorthys. “And the women?”
“Alys Bogdanov had been with the family for thirty-two years – ever since the day young Vormontaigne was born, in fact. She’d been his nurse, and by the time he left for school she was sort of a fixture in the household. Ma Kumon, the cook, had been around for twenty years or so. A fine cook by all accounts, got on with the Count and knew how he liked things.”
“Still,” remarked Vorthys, “the cook would have had opportunity. What did the Count eat at his last meal?”
Valentine consulted his notes. “Vegetable soup to start with, served from a tureen on the sideboard. Then a roasted duck, carved at the table by the Count himself, and served with plum sauce. It was Stavros’s turn to do what serving there was, but that mostly meant bringing things up from the kitchen. It wasn’t a formal dinner at all, people just handed things about and helped themselves. There was a green salad, and mashed potatoes – both brought to the table in large bowls. Pretty damned difficult to poison the Count without poisoning everyone else. And, just in case anyone’s been reading too many twentieth-century mystery novels, there’s no such thing as building up a tolerance to redbane.”
“What was the Count drinking?” asked Vorhovis.
“Wine. Bottle opened at the table by Stavros, who also partook. Short of the poison somehow being introduced into the Count’s glass – in a quantity that would have had to be visible to the naked eye – it’s hard to see how there could have been anything wrong with the wine.”
“Dessert?” asked Vorthys.
“Sour-cherry tart with custard. But the Count didn’t have any. He didn’t care for sweets.”
“A pity,” said Vorthys. “I rather fancied the cherry tart. Plum sauce isn’t bad, either.”
“Are you speaking from a culinary perspective, or a murderous one?” asked Vorgustafson.
“Well, both, actually,” said Vorthys, finishing off his soup and settling back with a contented expression. “I don’t suppose anybody thought to save any leftovers after the Count died?”
“No,” said Valentine. “Ma Kumon and a girl servant had already finished them off in the kitchen, without any ill effects, long before the Count’s body was found. The girl’s likely out of it. She’d had the evening off and had been visiting her parents in the village, and she didn’t return until after the Count was in bed. No motive anyway, she’d had hardly any contact with the Count.”
“None that we know about,” said Vorhovis thoughtfully. “Young prole girl, elderly and powerful widower who had started to behave erratically in his dotage … Any chance he’d been harassing her?”
“Unknown,” said Valentine, “and in any case, she doesn’t seem to have had the opportunity.”
“Any women at all in the Count’s life, as a matter of interest?”
“None known since the Countess’s death.”
“He would seem,” remarked Vorthys, “to be singularly devoted to her memory. Was it a love match?”
“It was an arranged marriage,” said Valentine, “as was common in those days. She was nearly twenty years younger, and they didn’t meet until a week before the wedding. Still, he may have come to care for her before she died. Archer, who would have been in the best position to know, was unsure. The Count, he said, was not of a demonstrative temperament.”
“Any men in the Count’s life?” asked Vorkosigan. “Could he have been infatuated with Melnikov, for example?”
“None known. If he were infatuated with Melnikov, it’s unlikely that he would have acted on it, which rather lets it out as a motive for murder on Melnikov's side. His generation would have seen homosexuality as dishonorable, all the more so if it was with a prole, and as I’ve said, Count Vormontaigne had very strict notions of honor.”
“Let’s get back to the poisoning,” suggested Vorgustafson. “Did the Count take anything after dinner? Tea, medicine, midnight snack?”
“Ah. That was one of our Auditor’s first questions as well, and he found it impossible to establish for certain. He was able to learn that the Count often – but not always – took a glass of fruit brandy before bed. He didn’t have a bell-pull in his room; he was in the habit of going out and demanding it from any member of the household who he happened to meet. Most often this was Archer, the senior armsman, but not always. The Count could get quite testy if people brought him anything he hadn’t asked for – or that he didn’t remember asking for – so Archer didn’t try to anticipate his wants.”
“But, I take it, no one admitted bringing him a glass of brandy that night?”
“Precisely,” said Valentine. "And no glass was found, but there would have been nothing to stop the murderer from slipping into the Count's room in the wee hours and disposing of it."
“Was there anything about the Count’s health,” asked Vorhovis, “that might have made him particularly sensitive to redbane? Allergies, heart condition, that sort of thing?”
“No. There doesn’t seem to have been anything physically wrong with him at all, apart from the bad knee that I mentioned. That was one of the reasons the Auditor became suspicious enough to inquire into the death. In any case, even if he had been especially sensitive to redbane, it would have been rather difficult to ensure that he got enough to kill him while the rest of the household remained unharmed.”
“So, it’s looking like the brandy,” said Vorthys, “or else some especially clever sleight of hand at dinner. Tell us more about the bottle of brandy. Where did it come from, where was it kept, what happened to it?”
“Ah.” Valentine looked pleased to have been asked. “Well, it was kept in a cabinet in the hall that led to the Count’s bedroom, and there was only one bottle open at a time. The one that was currently open wasn’t the local variety that the Count usually drank. It came from the District where Lord Vormontaigne was posted, and it was apparently something rather special – Lord Vormontaigne had sent it about a month earlier as a gift. Since it wasn’t what the Count was used to, it’s quite plausible that he wouldn’t have noticed anything wrong with the taste if it had been spiked with redbane.”
“Very interesting,” remarked Vorgustafson, “a gift from the principal beneficiary of the Count’s death. One who had good reason to be concerned that his father might run through his inheritance if he lived much longer.”
“From a district where Dorca had sent cavalry,” Miles Vorkosigan added with interest, “which implies the locals weren’t over-friendly to Dorca’s rule. You did say Count Vormontaigne was a close ally of Dorca’s, right? Were his son’s politics any different, I wonder?”
“Substantially the same.”
“Well then, let’s say the son got convicted of killing the father. Who would be the next heir?”
“Lord Vormontaigne’s second cousin,” said Valentine. “Count Vormontaigne had several brothers and sisters, but the only one to survive infancy was a younger brother who was killed in the civil wars early in Dorca’s reign. He was unmarried and left no children.”
“Second cousin’s politics and whereabouts at the time of the death?”
“Which I suppose means irrelevant,” said Vorkosigan. “Darn. It was an awfully good theory.”
“I still want to know more about the bottle,” said Vorgustafson. “Dare we hope it was newly opened on the night of the Count’s death?”
“Not quite. Archer had opened it a couple of days earlier, after the Count finished the last bottle, and he’d poured the Count a drink then.”
Vorgustafson looked crestfallen for a moment, and then brightened. “Do we know for sure that the Count drank it then? Because sometimes people with dementia do things like putting their drink away in the medicine cabinet, or using it to water the plants.”
“Unknown. Archer did not witness him drinking it.”
“And what became of the bottle after the Count died?”
“Well,” said Valentine, “the very first thing that became of it, before anyone suspected the Count had been poisoned, was that Archer took a glass of it. He’d been the one to find the Count’s body, and he was terribly shaken. The women of the household fetched him a generous amount of brandy because he looked like he might faint, and insisted that he drink it all.”
Vorgustafson looked crestfallen again. “Are we absolutely certain Archer drank from the same bottle that young Vormontaigne had sent?”
“Archer and both women said so,” said Valentine, “but the Auditor seems to have had suspicions along the same lines as yours, because he ordered the bottle to be fetched and a little of it to be given to the village schoolmaster’s pet parrot. Apparently, parrots are quite fond of fruit brandy.”
“Do they get drunk?” asked Vorkosigan. “I wonder what they sound like when they get drunk. Pollawa’cracka!”
“Unknown and definitely irrelevant,” said Valentine, who clearly regarded imitations of drunken parrots as far beneath an Imperial Auditor’s proper level of dignity. “Anyway, the parrot survived. The Auditor then sampled the brandy himself, and also survived. He seems to have been something of a connoisseur, and could confirm that it really was the exotic stuff it was labeled as – so, no question of someone poisoning the bottle and then refilling it with something else before Archer found the body. So I think we can take it as certain that if the brandy was poisoned, it had to have been done by whoever poured the Count’s drink out that evening – which lets out everyone except our five suspects.”
“Did any of them benefit from the Count’s death?” asked Vorthys.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, the Count had left some small legacies to his armsmen and domestic servants, so everybody in the household benefitted a little. Archer stood to inherit the most, about 2,500 marks and a gold-and-enamel pin with the Vormontaigne sigil.”
“2,500 marks was worth a fair bit in those days,” said Vorgustafson.
“But, even then, it wasn’t the kind of money that would tempt an armsman to break his oath and murder his Count,” said Vorhovis.
Vorgustafson shook his head. “Any amount of money can tempt someone to murder; it’s only a question of how badly they need it.”
“Anybody else benefit besides the household and Lord Vormontaigne?” asked Vorthys. “That second cousin you mentioned, for example, or other relatives?”
“The only other person named in the will was Emperor Dorca. The Count left him a ring as a memento.”
“I think we can let Dorca out,” said Vorgustafson, “but I’d like to know about the finances of our five suspects. Were any of them in need?”
“Archer, Stavros, and Bogdanov all seem to have been comfortable enough. They lived frugally, and had their bit saved up for retirement. Ma Kumon, on the other hand, seems to have been genuinely hard up. She was a widow with two grown daughters, one of whom had also lately been widowed, and there were grandchildren to support and doctor bills from her son-in-law’s last illness. I suppose the 1,000 marks that the Count left her might have been a temptation under the circumstances – and, of course, she would not have been oath-sworn to protect the Count. On the other hand, she had a secure job for as long as the old Count lived, and she couldn’t know how long his son would keep her on. Lord Vormontaigne was engaged to be married, and it’s likely that his wife would have wanted to choose her own servants.”
“What about Ma Bogdanov’s family?” asked Vorkosigan. “The armsmen were all bachelors, you said, but she must have had a husband and at least one child. Any need for money there?”
Before Valentine could answer, Vorgustafson had jumped in. “Just a moment, Vorkosigan – I know you like having a reputation for pulling rabbits out of hats, but how the deuce are you figuring she had a husband and child?”
“Ohhh,” said Professor Vorthys softly. Vorthys had the advantage of being married to a Time of Isolation historian.
“She was hired on the day Lord Vormontaigne was born and his mother died in childbirth,” Miles explained for the benefit of the other three, “and then she brought him up and spent more than thirty years resident in the household. Well, if anyone had to care for a baby back then whose mother had died, their first priority would have been to hire a wet-nurse. The mother of a bastard might be hired in an emergency, but the Count wouldn’t have kept her on and entrusted her with the bringing-up of his son. So, Ma Bogdanov was a respectable married woman with a child Lord Vormontaigne’s age or a little older.”
Admiral Valentine began to look as if he were impressed against his will. “When the Auditor began making inquiries in the village, he learned that Ma Bogdanov had, indeed, had a husband and a child, but tragically, they were in no position to be a drain on her finances. Her baby had been born with severe deformities, and Ma Bogdanov had done what was generally understood to be a mother’s duty in those days. And then, more or less immediately, she’d been hustled away to the Count’s household and ordered to suckle the Count’s son.”
“It must have been terribly hard on the poor woman,” murmured Vorhovis.
“Rather harder on the baby,” said Vorkosigan.
“Ma Bogdanov’s husband petitioned for divorce at the Count’s next court session,” Valentine continued, “on the grounds that she’d given birth to a mutant. Well, even in the Time of Isolation, it was generally understood that these things were as likely to be the father’s fault as the mother’s, so Ma Bogdanov could have contested it, but she didn’t. By then she was settled in the Count’s household at a good salary, and she may have thought she was better off without her husband. He was a drunk, it seems, and he died a few months later after falling off a footbridge on his way home from the tavern.”
“Now, what about Melnikov’s finances?” asked Vorhovis. “I get the feeling you’ve been holding back on us about Melnikov.”
A slight twitch of Valentine’s lips acknowledged that he had, indeed, been holding back. “Melnikov had a brother, a smallholding farmer, who had supposedly discovered silver on his land. Over the last year or so, the pair of them had talked the Count into investing several thousand marks in mining and extraction. Needless to say, the Auditor found out that it was as worthless as most of the Count’s other investments. Melnikov had successfully touched the Count up for another five hundred just a few weeks before he died, claiming the brother had run into unexpected prospecting expenses.
“The Auditor discovered all of this by inspecting the Count’s personal papers, and then putting the fear of Dorca into the brother until he talked. Then he confronted Melnikov, who went white and confessed to the grifting at once, although he insisted it hadn’t started off as a scam – they’d both believed the brother was sitting on a massive vein of silver and only needed a bit of capital to make his fortune, and by the time they learned they were wrong, they were pretty deeply in debt. But Melnikov denied murdering the Count. He pointed out that he had no motive – you don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.”
“Unless the goose catches you robbing its nest,” pointed out Vorgustafson, “and it’s about to start honking its head off.”
“Ah. If you were investigating this case, would you say so to Melnikov?”
“You’re damned right I would.”
“Well, if you had done that – and that is precisely what our Auditor did – you would have got a rather interesting answer from Melnikov. He claimed that Lord Vormontaigne had sent a letter warning his father that Melnikov was defrauding him – not more than a day or so after the Count had given him that last five hundred – and that the Count had flat-out refused to believe it. In fact, he’d been angry enough when he received the letter to disinherit his own son.”
There was a collective murmur around the table.
“I say, Valentine,” said Vorhovis, “you haven’t been playing fair. If young Lord Vormontaigne had just been disinherited, that puts quite a different complexion on a lot of things. We ought to have learned about it at the beginning!”
“I think I’ve been playing very fair,” retorted Valentine, “I gave you the facts as they appeared when the Auditor began his investigation, and allowed you to discover additional information through your questioning, just as he would have had to do. But by way of atonement, I will correct one wrong assumption: Lord Vormontaigne hadn’t actually been disinherited. He’d been confirmed as heir before the Council when he came of age, so it would have taken another positive action by the Council to undo it. During the last few weeks of his life, Count Vormontaigne made no attempt to set that process in motion; and therefore, the Auditor had no way of knowing about it until Melnikov offered it up in his defense.”
“I’d like to know whether Melnikov was telling the truth,” said Vorgustafson. “Any of it corroborated by anybody else?”
“Archer and Ma Bogdanov both confirmed that Count Vormontaigne had received a letter in his son’s handwriting that made him furious, and that he’d said, ‘It’s none of that young fool’s business, he’s no son of mine’ or words to that general effect. But neither of them could confirm what the letter actually said. Melnikov had been panicked enough to read over the Count’s shoulder, but the others were horrified at the idea of spying on his private correspondence. They all agreed that Count had burned the letter, and then the other three held a hasty consultation and decided not to tell anyone else about what had happened and not to mention it again to the Count unless he brought it up. Their reasoning was that there was a good chance that the Count wouldn’t remember a thing about the letter in a few hours’ time, and no good could possibly come of reminding him. Melnikov may have done a bit to steer the others in that direction, but it seems to have been the right decision from the point of view of protecting young Vormontaigne. As I’ve said, the Count didn’t take any steps to formally disinherit him, and he doesn’t, in fact, seem to have remembered anything about the incident afterward.”
“So,” said Vorgustafson, “we’ve got only Melnikov’s word for it that the Count had chosen to trust Melnikov over his son.”
Vorthys shook his head. “Not quite. Are we allowed to inspect documents?”
“By all means,” said Valentine, “you have every power you’d have if you were assigned to the case. Of course, if you ask me for something the real Auditor overlooked, I may not be able to tell you; but since we’re given that the Auditor solved the case, you may trust that it isn’t important.”
“I would like to put in a request to inspect the records of Lord Vormontaigne’s correspondence with his father, let’s say beginning with the time that Melnikov went into the Count’s service.” Vorthys turned to the others and explained, “Innocent and trusting soul that Dorca was, he had his secret police examine and record the correspondence of everyone serving in his military, but particularly officers from powerful families. The files are an absolute treasure trove for historians.”
“Very well,” said Valentine. “Lord Vormontaigne’s last letter to his father said precisely what Melnikov claimed it did. It was never answered. He’d also sent two other letters to his father during the time period you asked about. One dated from about fourteen months before the Count’s death, to say that he’d got some leave and was planning to visit for a couple of weeks – that would be the visit where Kislovic and Stavros swapped places. And one dated from about six months before the death, announcing his engagement to the youngest daughter of Count Vorcassonne – that’s also a pseudonym, by the way. Count Vormontaigne wrote a short note back giving his consent to the marriage – which his son hadn’t actually asked him for. That’s the full extent of the correspondence between father and son. All of that’s courtesy of the summaries in Dorca’s files, by the way, neither of them had kept the originals.”
“Hmm-mm,” Vorthys mused, “Count Vormontaigne and his son don’t seem to have been particularly close.”
“The Auditor’s notes indicate that he also had that impression. But there had been no actual quarrel between them prior to that last letter, and the fact is that the Count doesn’t appear to have been close to anyone except Dorca and perhaps Archer. Auditor’s notes describe Archer as the only member of the household who seemed particularly grieved by his death.”
“Interesting,” said Vorthys. “May I ask for Lord Vormontaigne’s correspondence with other members of the household, same time range?”
“Yes. I should say that in some of those cases our Auditor was able to access the original letters, since they’d been kept by the recipients. No evidence of secret codes, ciphers, or invisible ink, by the way; he checked. Over the previous year, Lord Vormontaigne had received three very long letters from Armsman Stavros with particulars of his father’s behavior and business dealings, and he kept these. The last one, sent about two months prior to the Count’s death and received two weeks after that, detailed Stavros’s suspicions that Melnikov and his brother were crooks taking advantage of the Count. Lord Vormontaigne replied to all of Stavros’s letters, but in brief and general terms, simply thanking Stavros for his service to his father and telling him to keep it up. Likely he didn’t want to get Stavros in trouble if the letters fell into the Count’s hands.
“Ma Bogdanov wrote to Lord Vormontaigne regularly, fairly long letters with a good deal of household and village gossip. After he got engaged, she had quite a lot of questions about his young lady and the wedding plans. Lord Vormontaigne kept a few of her letters, but not by any means all of them. Specifically, he seems to have saved the ones with details about his father’s goings-on that looked like they would be helpful in building a case that the Count was mentally incompetent. Ma Bogdanov had kept all of her mail from Lord Vormontaigne, although he didn’t write to her nearly as often as she wrote to him; it was mostly birthday and holiday cards.
“Archer also kept the only letter Lord Vormontaigne had sent him during this time period, congratulating him on his sixty-sixth birthday – sixes are a lucky number in Vormontaigne’s District, so sixty-six is rather a milestone. There’s no record of any correspondence at all between Lord Vormontaigne and Melnikov, or Lord Vormontaigne and Ma Kumon. Finally, Armsman Kislovic – the one who ended up in Lord Vormontaigne’s personal service – had written to him about fifteen months before the Count’s death, expressing his concerns about the Count’s mental state. Lord Vormontaigne didn’t reply to this letter, but he kept it.”
“And this bottle of brandy, which we’ve established that Lord Vormontaigne couldn’t possibly have poisoned,” said Vorthys, “did that arrive before his letter with the accusations against Melnikov, or after?”
“With the letter. Young Vormontaigne said later that he’d thought it might put his father in a good mood and make him more inclined to listen to reason about Melnikov. It didn’t work.”
“Was he in the habit of sending gifts to his father?”
“All right,” said Vorgustafson, who had been taking notes, “I’ve been making a timeline, and I’d like to go through it and make sure there aren’t any errors. Two years ago, or thereabouts, Melnikov charms his way into the Count’s good graces. Around nine months after that, Kislovic writes to the Count’s son with concerns about the Count’s judgment – concerns that have likely been building for some time, because that isn’t the sort of thing a loyal armsman would do lightly. Well, given how long it took letters to reach their destination during the Time of Isolation, Lord Vormontaigne would seem to have made plans to visit his father shortly after receiving this letter. During this visit, a year prior to the Count's death, he observes Kislovic being sacked by the Count, intervenes, and offers to take Kislovic into his personal service. Melnikov and his brother would also have started their scam somewhere around this time, but Lord Vormontaigne doesn’t seem to have any particular suspicions of Melnikov at this point. Stavros takes Kislovic’s place in the household, apparently with instructions to keep Lord Vormontaigne informed about his father’s behavior. We can, I think, infer that Stavros felt more loyalty to young Vormontaigne than he did to the Count. And Lord Vormontaigne starts writing to Dorca – do we know if this began before or after his visit home?”
“And Dorca sits on the letters for a while, due to his reluctance to embarrass the Count. So, the next thing that happens, about six months later, is that Lord Vormontaigne gets engaged to Count Vorcassonne’s daughter. Do we know how he met his intended, by the way?”
Valentine checked his notes. “Friends with one of her brothers. Not the heir, a younger son who’d made his career in the cavalry.”
“So. Quite a suitable young lady by birth, but likely not one with a large dowry, not if she was the youngest daughter in a family with at least two sons. And a captain of cavalry in those days could expect to have more expenses than pay after he married, especially once the children started coming. All of that would tend to lend some urgency to his concerns about his inheritance. Two months before the Count dies, Stavros decides Melnikov is a rotter and sends Lord Vormontaigne a letter. Now, we've learned that it takes two weeks for post between Vormontaigne House and wherever the young lord was stationed at the time, and it seems most natural that he would have written to his father and sent the bottle of brandy right after he heard from Stavros – you don’t wait around if you think someone’s in the middle of scamming your father. So that would mean the Count got the letter and flew into a rage about a month before he died. Just enough time for someone in the household to send word, and for young Vormontaigne to communicate back with instructions.”
“But they didn’t,” said Valentine. “The only person who wrote to him after the incident was Ma Bogdanov, and she didn’t mention it. She and Archer and Melnikov had agreed not to say anything to anyone, and she always tended to soft-pedal the Count’s behavior in any case.”
Vorgustafson shook his head. “They needn’t have written directly to him. He would have known his letters were being read. But let’s say someone in the household wrote to Kislovic, and Kislovic told Lord Vormontaigne, and Lord Vormontaigne communicated to Stavros – again through Kislovic – that his father was getting too volatile to be left in charge of the District, and there wasn’t any way to remove him short of murder.”
“Are you offering that as your solution?” asked Valentine. “Because even though you didn’t ask, I feel honor-bound to tell you that there’s no evidence of any correspondence between Kislovic and Count Vormontaigne’s household before the Count’s death.”
“Well, somebody’s niece could have written to somebody else’s cousin in Lord Vormontaigne’s general vicinity. I don’t insist on Kislovic being the channel of communication, but I do think that if young Vormontaigne had sent Stavros back to his father’s household as a spy, they would have discussed what to do if the Count’s decline seemed to put his inheritance in immediate danger, and worked out some private channels of communication and signals between them. So yes, I guess I am offering that as my solution. Stavros at Lord Vormontaigne’s direction.”
“Relies on a lot of speculation about correspondence that hasn’t been shown to exist,” said Vorthys, “and anyway, I don’t think I fancy young Vormontaigne as a murderer. He seems to have had every hope of getting control of the District and his inheritance through legal channels – Dorca had finally responded to his request for an Auditor, and from the letters he saved, it looks like he was building a case to have his father declared incompetent by the Council. And, frankly, I’ve heard nothing yet that suggests he was anything other than an admirable young man trying to protect his da from predators, and getting little thanks for it.”
“Who’s your suspect, then?” asked Vorgustafson.
“I’m leaning toward the cook, Ma Kumon. She had a pressing need for money, and I think we’ve let ourselves get distracted by the brandy when there’s no evidence the Count even had any that night. She was the one choosing the menu and handling the food, so she’d have the opportunity. If I were going to guess at how, I’d say she injected some redbane extract under the skin of the duck and chose a fruity sauce for it that would cover up the taste.”
“But how would she keep from poisoning the wrong person?” objected Vorkosigan.
“She’d been in the family twenty years, and she knew Count Vormontaigne’s tastes. Maybe she knew he was especially fond of the wings, or what-have-you, and always kept them for himself.”
“Are you proposing that as your solution?” asked Valentine.
Vorthys shook his head. “Not enough evidence, only a hunch. But I’d want to question her closely if I were investigating.”
“What do you want to ask her?”
Vorthys shook his head again. “That’s the problem with trying to solve a case from a hundred years ago. It almost doesn’t matter what I’d ask her, I’d be wanting to observe demeanor and such, so it’s no good asking you.”
“I am a bit old-fashioned,” said Valentine, “but if I didn’t already know the solution, I should have focused my attention on Melnikov. If demeanor matters, character surely matters more, and he’s the only one of our suspects who has shown undeniable evidence of bad character.”
“But where’s his motive?” asked Vorgustafson. “He’s the one person who demonstrably didn’t benefit from the Count’s death. He might get a little from the will, but he knew he’d be thrown out on his ears as soon as Lord Vormontaigne arrived. If the old Count had lived, he might have hoped to keep his scam going for years.”
“Unless the Count was still lucid enough to recognize he was being taken for a fool,” said Vorkosigan, “in which case he might have turned on Melnikov. Any evidence he changed his mind about Melnikov over the last few weeks of his life?”
“None,” Valentine acknowledged.
“If we’re going by character, how about Ma Bogdanov?” suggested Vorhovis. “She’s the one person in the household who had actually committed a murder before.”
“Oh, come now, you can’t call it murder any more than you’d consider it murder when a soldier kills someone in battle,” objected Valentine. “She would have been taught from childhood that it was her duty.”
Vorthys turned toward Vorkosigan to see how he would respond to this, but he had abruptly taken on an abstracted look, as if far away in thought.
“Is Ma Bogdanov your suspect?” Valentine asked Vorhovis.
Vorhovis considered. “No, I don’t believe she is, although I wouldn’t absolutely rule out any of the old family retainers without further questioning. But my first, best choice would be Archer.”
“Why Archer?” asked Vorthys. “What motive could he have had?”
“Love, pure and simple,” said Vorhovis, “and an unwillingness to stand by while the Count slowly destroyed his estate, his legacy, and his honor. He was the one who knew the Count best, and he likely believed that if the Count had been in full possession of his faculties, he would have been appalled at what he was becoming. And, unlike Stavros, he doesn’t seem to have been in young Vormontaigne’s confidence, so he wouldn’t have had any reason to hope the young lord would be able to persuade Dorca to give him control of the District. All he knew is that the next time the Count decided to disinherit his son, he might stay lucid long enough to carry out his intentions.”
“Is that your solution?” asked Valentine.
“I think so. As near as I’m going to get to one without the ability to question suspects. But unless Archer confessed and showed signs of wanting to pay the penalty, I don’t think I’d put it in my Auditor’s report. What would be the point?”
“What do you think, Vorkosigan?” asked Vorgustafson. “You’ve gone quiet.”
“I was thinking there’s another witness I’d like to question before I offer a solution,” said Miles, “only it’s probably too much to hope that she’s still alive. Do we know what became of the midwife who delivered Lord Vormontaigne?”
Three of the other Imperial Auditors looked baffled. Valentine looked startled.
“She was dead,” said Valentine after a moment. “In fact, she had been dead since the night he was born. She blamed herself for the Countess’s death, it seems, and the Count had ordered her to be taken off to the kitchens and given a few stiff drinks. Well, whether it was suicide or an accident similar to the one Ma Bogdanov’s husband had some months later, she never made it home. She was found drowned in the creek on the following morning.”
“Of course it would be similar to Ma Bogdanov’s husband,” said Vorkosigan. “When you’ve found a murder method that works, there’s no sense changing it up.”
“Would you care to offer your solution, my lord?” said Valentine, lips twitching again.
“Please do,” said Vorthys, “because I don’t think I can take the suspense any longer. Are you arguing that Count Vormontaigne was killed by the same person who had killed the midwife and Bogdanov thirty-odd years ago?”
“No, certainly not,” said Vorkosigan. “Count Vormontaigne murdered the midwife and Bogdanov. Two may keep counsel when the third’s away – and the fourth, in this case. But he didn’t kill himself. Ma Bogdanov killed him.”
Vorhovis drew in his breath. “I see. Remarkable. And tragic.”
“I don’t,” said Vorgustafson. “How are you figuring any of this?”
“Because Count Vormontaigne never remarried,” said Vorkosigan, “despite having only one son and no other near relatives, and despite the fact that nearly half the children born during the Time of Isolation didn’t live to adulthood. And because Ma Bogdanov seems to have shown a good deal more parental interest in Lord Vormontaigne than the Count did. And because half the household heard Count Vormontaigne openly deny that Lord Vormontaigne was his son, even if they didn’t realize the import of what they were hearing. By the way, I’d be curious to know if he really said he’s no son of mine, which is the sort of thing you say when you disinherit someone, or just he isn’t my son, which is a simple statement of fact. Archer’s probably our most reliable witness on that; Melnikov would likely misremember, since he hadn’t the least idea of the significance of what he was hearing.”
Valentine checked his notes again. “The words Archer recalled were, indeed, it’s none of that young fool's business, he isn’t my son.”
“So – Lord Vormontaigne wasn’t Lord Vormontaigne,” said Vorgustafson.
“Well, legally I suppose he was,” said Vorkosigan, “since the Count had proclaimed him his heir in Council. It must have smarted, but a man of the Count’s character would prefer it to being known to be the father of a mutant. And, since he suspected the genetic damage was on his side – remember, he had several siblings who died in infancy – he wouldn’t have taken the risk of trying to father another child.”
“So the Count disposed of the midwife,” said Vorthys, “and adopted a newborn boy who was prole-born, but healthy.”
“Yes. No doubt the Bogdanovs were paid well to pretend the deformed child had been theirs, and Ma Bogdanov was promised that she’d be able to nurse and bring up her own son. She seems to have kept her end of the bargain; but perhaps her husband got loose-lipped when he’d been drinking, or perhaps he tried to blackmail the Count. Either way, the Count seems to have decided he couldn’t be trusted to keep silent.”
“And thirty-two years later,” said Vorgustafson, “Ma Bogdanov decided the Count couldn’t be trusted to keep silent. Fitting.”
“Yes,” said Vorkosigan, “like a lot of people with dementia, he had perfectly clear memories of things that had happened decades earlier, and it was only a matter of time before he blurted it out in front of someone who had a long enough memory to put the pieces together. Ma Bogdanov wasn’t about to let him spill the secret she’d spent half her life protecting and ruin her son’s chances of becoming a Count. Legally speaking, it would have taken more than that to remove Lord Vormontaigne as heir, but a prole woman with no legal training couldn’t have been expected to know that. So she waited until she had the opportunity – the next time the Count buttonholed her in the hallway and asked for his bedtime glass of brandy. Well, she hadn’t any choice but to use the brandy her son had sent, which can’t have been ideal from her point of view, but she did make sure Archer was seen to drink from the bottle afterward, so people knew it couldn’t have been poisoned at the source.”
“Very, very good,” said Valentine. “You’ve got it exactly, Vorkosigan. Down to the detail about the brandy.”
“What became of her?” asked Vorthys.
“Summary execution, of course,” said Valentine. “It couldn’t have been anything else in those days, not for a servant who had killed a Count. Domestic treason, you know. Ma Bogdanov did request one concession, which the Auditor granted: that the motive for her crime never be made public. It was at that point that he decided to use a pseudonym for the family in the official records of the case; and the people in the village seem, remarkably, to have accepted that she just did it out of general perversion. Before he left town, the Auditor overheard a number of remarks to the effect of ‘what could you expect from the mother of a mutie?’”
“And Lord Vormontaigne…?” asked Vorhovis.
“Inherited. As was his legal right.”
“So we’ve got a prole Count running around. Unless he didn’t leave descendants, and it passed to the cousins after all.”
“Early allies of Dorca, you said, and a Count who died at the age of seventy with a younger brother killed in the civil wars and a wife who died young leaving one child … in a district where redbane grows, where six is a lucky number, and where they make fruit brandy.” Vorkosigan reached for one of Ma Kosti’s chocolate puffs, with the expression of one enjoying a private joke. “Oh yes, I do believe I know the descendants. Deliciously ironic, if I’m right.”