The Vortaines had been released, as had their staff and the eight Armsmen who'd escorted them into the safe room. The whole procession was retreating to the garage, where Kuzin intended to commandeer the Vortaines' vehicles for the return journey to Port Vortaine.
Or, the procession had been retreating, until they reached the dead Armsman.
Rounding the corner Ivan saw among the crowd, very distinctly, Lady Vortaine, face pale against her dark hair and the dressing gown--her husband's--wrapped over her nightdress. She'd been clutching her son's shoulder; now she lifted her hand to her mouth. The Armsmen on either side closed in for support.
Ivan introduced himself; the Armsmen parted before him. He was about to offer his hand when, thinking better of it, he took Lady Vortaine by the waist instead. With minimal hesitation she transferred her weight to him; she felt nice against him, soft, with a bit of heft to her, curvy in that way he liked. In reflex he looked for her husband: Lord Indris was several steps behind, his watery, washed-out face blank in what Ivan charitably interpreted as shock. The young Count Vortaine, on the other hand, had shrugged off his mother's grasp to continue onward, drawn to the body, bending over the Armsman as he reached him. Ivan was relieved his District responsibilities precluded a Service career: you really didn't want that kind in the military.
Catching Ivan's expression of disgust, By said dismissively, "You mustn't blame him; they can't help that gruesome stage."
Ivan was not entirely convinced. He'd certainly not gone through such a stage--but maybe Miles's various orthopedic mishaps had put him off the fascination with gruesomeness before it had the opportunity to develop.
"And at least he doesn't kill people for a living."
Ivan conceded the point. Some. "Nor, come to think of it, does he betray his friends for money."
"Or for the greater good of the Imperium--don't forget that." So saying, By extended the Count a mock bow, caught him by the shoulders with deceptive firmness, and steered him down the corridor.
Lady Vortaine was still leaning into Ivan as they walked. He held her waist more securely and took her hand in his. He made sure they were in full view of her husband, who was raising no objections, not asserting his claim. This was not theft, just a loan; Ivan was doing nothing wrong. He murmured assurances into Lady Vortaine's dark curls, braided for the night; she began to relax her desperate grip on his hand. In response Ivan felt the tension drain from himself; he'd wanted this, he'd wanted to have a woman to comfort since the shuttle exploded.
Kuzin insisted the Vortaines travel in separate vehicles, likely to prevent them from synchronizing alibis. Lord Indris went where he was led. Lady Vortaine became tearful when ImpSec took her son from her, but the Count only rolled his eyes before settling into his official groundcar beside By, champion and confidante of all unpleasant sorts. Ivan showed Lady Vortaine to the lightflyer. As the smallest vehicle, he hoped it would prevent unnecessary gawpage. He handed her into the rear compartment, pulling her close. She laid her head on his shoulder.
When they'd sat awhile in the soothing hum of the engines, "Lady Vortaine," Ivan began very gently, "do you understand why we're going to Port Vortaine?"
She shook her head against his chest, though Ivan guessed she had a fair idea. He put his other arm about her.
"Lieutenant Kuzin will want to know about your guests. He might ask you some questions--"
"I've done nothing wrong!"
"Hush," Ivan murmured, "to be sure. It doesn't mean anything. I expect Kuzin to treat you as well as he can, as a witness. He'll see everyone in your household as a possible witness."
Her breathing hadn't quite settled; he could feel the beating of her heart. He stroked her hair.
"Do you know how witnesses are interviewed?"
She nodded, but couldn't quite bring herself to speak.
"Yes, he'll use fast-penta. Just between you and me, it doesn’t deserve its reputation."
That got her attention. She peeked up at him under her lashes.
"It's difficult to cast a wide net," he explained. "If Kuzin asks an open question, you could reply with anything, anything at all. You have no inhibitions. I'm not suggesting you've anything to hide--only, there are some things no woman wishes to share with a strange man. It could take a long time, and various angles of questioning, to give him what he wants. It's much pleasanter to take the alternative."
"I suppose you'll tell me what that is?"
"You're safest to answer yes-no questions, to confirm for Kuzin what he already knows. If he's provided the right questions to ask, he might spare your husband and son the full experience, too."
"Does the Emperor know his security forces are so transparent?"
Ivan put on his inane grin, with a touch of rue in it for good measure. "I'm not one of them, Lady Vortaine." He pointed to the insignia on his collar. "I'm only being honest. Your cousin the Lord Vortaine has already admitted his part; I wish to spare you unnecessary unpleasantness. Kuzin--he's not Vor; he's not one of us. He doesn't understand."
Lady Vortaine wriggled out of Ivan's arms and slipped to the end of the seat. Ivan let her go.
"Is that how it's done in the training vid? Does it ever work in practice?"
"Lady Vortaine, I'm trying to help you."
She shook her head. "You'll not make me betray anyone."
"To be sure," Ivan replied automatically. Then his brain caught up. "How would you feel if you--if your family--were betrayed?"
"Who would betray us? We've never harmed anyone."
"Your houseguest, Ricia, threatened to kill your household tonight."
She shook her head again, decisively, all brave defiance. "You're lying. Even if he threatened it, he didn't do it. He'd never have done it. He was bluffing to convince you to leave."
So she wasn't in on that part. Good. "He killed your Armsmen with a mining bot."
"It was an accident." She kept shaking her head, and her voice was firm, but she was starting to look uncertain. "They fly all through the château: they're being tested, the circuits. Ducalcon wasn't careful enough. He ran into it."
"Lady Vortaine--Sonya--please. You saw your Armsman. Ducalcon. He was drilled into, deliberately." It was cruel to state the facts so plainly. "Two more Armsmen died on the ground floor; another two on the first floor landing. Five accidents? All at once?"
She was shaking her head, shaking all over, tearful, distraught. She had one arm wrapped around herself, the other brought to her throat. In the lightflyer's rear compartment there was no one to turn to, so when Ivan slid across and put his arms about her, she clutched at him blindly, burying her head in his chest. Ivan took a calming breath, vowing never to let By talk him into another scheme, no matter how innocent it seemed.
"Who? Who were they?"
"I don't know their names. I'm sorry, Lady Vortaine, I should have found out from Beauxis. Whatever their names, be proud of them. They died well: in the line of duty, weapons in their hands. No Armsman could wish for a finer end." He recalled the thing flying at him, its drill bit a spinning, whirring blur; imagined himself armed with an Armsman's stunner, firing, firing, the thing coming closer, making contact, ripping him apart, still conscious--watching it all, hearing it, feeling every moment, maybe even afterwards when it moved on to the next man, knowing he would suffer the same fate. Surely it was one of the less pleasant ways to go.
"Why did he do it?"
"No doubt he'll inform Kuzin as soon as he revives." Ivan made an effort to keep the edge off his voice.
"We've been so good to him, to both of them. They've lived with us for months. We thought they were happy here--quieter, lately, but happy. The Armsmen helped them test their gadgets."
"Gadgets? That seems an incongruously benign name."
"I didn't know what they could do. None of us did--it's not my husband's fault, nor Cyril's either."
"No, of course not." Ivan stroked her back with long, slow strokes. "It's not their fault."
After a while, when he pressed no more, she offered, "My husband--he's not a military man, you see?"
Ivan murmured assent, though he did not, in fact, see. He knew nothing about Lord Indris except that he was a nonentity, a cousin chosen for Lady Vortaine for three abilities: the ability to give the late Count's grandson the right surname; the ability to cut the next nearest cousin out of the succession; and the ability to appear so unpromising that he'd never garner the support to seize the Countship from his son.
"He's--always longed to make something of his life. He's an enthusiast. He's never had the opportunity, until my Claude--well, Count Claude. My husband's interested in this thing, this trade deficit."
"Ah, so the tourism project was Lord Indris's idea! It's doing well, I trust?"
She looked up at this shift in tone. "Yes, but--I don't know. Cyril runs it. He's good at running things. My husband isn't a military man. He's--he's more of an ideas person."
"Whose latest idea to reverse the District's trade deficit is to mine the Cairngorms?"
"Cheaper on an asteroid belt."
"Not for us. We don't own any asteroid belts."
Ivan shrugged, smiling reassuringly. "Of course Lord Indris must have it all worked out."
Lady Vortaine was silent, averting her gaze.
She clung closer, her lovely breasts pressed to him. He'd been wishing she'd stop talking about her husband so he could reach up to touch them without feeling guilty. They were driving him to distraction now.
"No, you're right, of course. I'm grateful you believe in him. You may be the only one; he doesn't even have the support of the Imperial Bureau of Mines. He had to go to Komarr to find engineers who'd help; customs isn't happy; and it's all turned into a--My husband is an idiot."
Reality shifted. In another universe, Lady Vortaine might be talking about Ivan. Or if things had been different there might be a Lady Vorpatril to defend Ivan to total strangers. She'd call him an idiot. While in the real world he was going home to an evil, yellow-eyed beastlet that used him as a scratching post. "His idiocy is debatable, I'm sure. What puzzles me is why he inventoried hazardous and explosive materials in your dungeon--and how he convinced Lord Vortaine to allow it. There's a rare piece of genius indeed."
"Cyril doesn't know, not the details. We'd no wish to worry him. He gets so worked up about things--it's from his time in the Fleet." Seeing Ivan's expression she added, "There are all kinds of measures preventing accidental detonations. My husband showed me."
Ivan was unconvinced, but let it pass. They would find out, soon enough, when the bomb disposal squad was through. "Funny you should mention worrying Lord Vortaine. I'm worried about him."
"What has he done?"
Ivan blinked his best blank blink. "What's he supposed to have done?"
"Nothing," said Lady Vortaine quickly. After a while, when the silence grew oppressive, she added, "He's taken a dislike to Commissioner Vorinnis. This latest problem with the Commissioner's customs officials--I was afraid Cyril might have overstepped his authority to get the gadgets through for my husband."
So Vortaine was fronting for Lord Indris. Now that Ivan had met both men, the arrangement didn't surprise him. But Vorinnis already suspected Vortaine of treason, of separatism at least; if Vortaine had smuggled weaponizable materials through his shuttleport, he'd not refrain from reporting it as evidence. So Vortaine must have imported everything perfectly legally. Had Vorinnis used his powers of search and seizure to inconvenience Vortaine? Was this the trigger that had escalated their feud?
This was too convoluted. Ivan's head was starting to hurt again. "Not that I've heard of. And Commissioner Vorinnis wouldn't be keeping quiet if he had, I've no doubt."
"Oh, do you know the Commissioner?"
Even in distress, she was too sharp. What to say? Ivan settled for a not-lie: "Not so well, these days. He used to work in Vorbarr Sultana."
"Do you like him?"
Ivan supposed the correct answer was "no". He couldn't bring himself to say it. "Yes, I do, actually."
Lady Vortaine turned away in his arms, distancing herself--or as if embarrassed. "Everyone hates him. I went to see him, once, when Cyril was getting nowhere with customs--well, that was the first time. He was nice. I liked him, despite myself, and I found I couldn't say any of the things I'd meant to. I liked him!"
"I'm not surprised: women generally do."
"Like they generally like you?"
Ivan blushed. Lady Vortaine was still looking away. Good.
"You see, when I left, I… Well, I resolved to go back to try again because the Commissioner seemed so reasonable. I felt sorry for him. I don't think a man could be so kind--and truly believe such terrible things."
"He's from a different generation; he's been through a lot." He'd grown up in Ezar's time, and deep down he could not unbelieve the things he grew up with. More to the point, he was not High Vor: he was raised to direct his sense of duty and loyalty upwards, not down. Ivan couldn't say this, though. Lady Vortaine was a woman, her loyalty given to her men; she wouldn't understand. Because a man's politics were determined by subconscious impulses, they were the product of upbringing, though he flattered himself that he came to them by a rational decision-making process. Multiply that phenomenon by sixty million, Ivan thought, and there you had the trouble with democracy.
He almost missed Lady Vortaine's reply: "So has Cyril; he's been through the same."
"Which is why," Ivan wanted to say, "he has his own problems."
The lightflyer, landing that moment, rescued him from insulting Lady Vortaine's cousin to her face. Then he was rescued permanently when a pair of ImpSec men, having greeted Lady Vortaine politely, escorted her away.
Ivan turned to the man who'd piloted the lightflyer. "You've made recordings?"
"Get a transcript to your lieutenant. Don't make him ask for it. Efficiency."
Ivan fervently hoped Lady Vortaine was too far away to have overheard this exchange. He liked her--he liked an accomplished woman uncorrupted by Vorbarr Sultana society. He hoped to meet her again one day, just as soon as the shine wore off her husband a little.