Chapter 1 - A Vor in Provence by A.J. Hall
“Vanessa, where the devil have you got to?”
Miss Harriet Vane, the celebrated (notorious) writer of the Robert Templeton detective novels, addressed her question to the gargoyles above the West Door of the church of Saint Theodoritus. The gargoyles, whether or not they had seen Vanessa, returned no answer.
“You see, he insisted on signing his name Geo Goyles — my mother could never hear that as anything other than ‘Gargoyles’ and it sort of put her against him from the first, what? Very perceptive woman, the Mater; as it turned out, he was no end of a wart really.”
One of Lord Peter’s stories, half-heard through a fog of guilt, shame, self-recrimination and, always and forever, obligation. Why on earth was she thinking about Lord Peter now? Harriet’s main aim during the months spent wandering here and there across Europe had been to forget Lord Peter.
Though, she had to admit, having a sleuth on call might assist in locating Vanessa.
As a single woman, one could not go wandering erratically across Europe completely alone, for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, being charged with the murder of one’s lover at the Old Bailey left scars carved deeply into character, body, and soul, even if one had left the dock without an (official) stain on one’s character. Scars, though, were the signifier of past hurts. Vanessa was her shield against future harm. Through all their travels so far, her companion’s robust and cheerful common sense had prevented Harriet from brooding overmuch, and had kept them out of all the more obvious scrapes, thus amply justifying Vanessa’s salary.
So why had Vanessa chosen now, of all times, to go missing? She should have joined Harriet at the church an hour ago, after dropping in to the post office to enquire whether any letters had been left for them post restante and acquiring some necessities from the pharmacy. But now shutters were going up for the long afternoon break, so Vanessa could not still be shopping. Where on Earth was she?
A fat drop of rain fell on her hand. The dark clouds had been massing over the church for some time; she had been eying them all the time she had been waiting. They were in for a storm.
Harriet reached the small hotel on the corner of the square just as the first great violet flash of lightning split the indigo skies. Sparing no thought for the proper behaviour of single English ladies abroad, she pushed open the door to the hotel bar. As she crossed the threshold she had the elusive sense of someone hard on her heels, but when she turned to hold the door for them, no-one was there.
The bar was a dim, L-shaped space, full of tarnished mirrors and sepia portraits. It exuded a reassuring air of bourgeois respectability. As she could have expected at this time of day, it was almost deserted. There might have been other patrons hidden round the corner of the L, but the only ones visible were two locals playing backgammon in a table in the window angle, the elder with a pinned up sleeve, and a thin, dark man sitting at the bar frowning over the headlines in Le Figaro as if he could hardly believe any of them. Given the state of European affairs at present, that was something with which Harriet could not but sympathise.
As was the novelist’s habit, she started to wonder who he was, and what could have brought him to this small town deep in the Languedoc. Not a journalist: that impeccably-cut if ineffably foreign-looking suit had never been exposed to Fleet Street’s rough and tumble. Nor, though Avignon, Nîmes and the Pont du Gard were no more than a short drive away, did he strike Harriet as an archaeologist or historian. The unworldliness — the carelessness about externals — which, in Harriet’s experience, marked the scholar was wholly lacking. He bore himself with the poise of a man who can never allow himself to forget that others may be watching and drawing conclusions. Someone in a position of authority, then, and habitual authority, at that. Though he could be no older than Harriet herself, his face was marked with lines of strain around mouth and eyes, giving him more than a slight resemblance to the portrait of Richard III in the National Portrait Gallery.
The thunderstorm was going great guns outside, the gutters and drains rushing with storm water. She was plainly destined to be marooned here for some time.
With a sigh, Harriet seated herself at one of the little round tables. The waiter appeared at her elbow and she ordered a Dubonnet with bitter lemon. She fumbled into her bag for cigarette case and matches, and caught an expression of fascination bordering on horror from the man at the bar as she lit up. She let it wash over her. Whether he was a health fanatic, or simply disapproved of women smokers was all one to her. She envied him his newspaper, though. The only reading material she had to hand was her well-thumbed Baedeker, and its charms were wearing thin. Besides, there had been that billboard on the station platform, when they descended from the night train. Vanessa, intent on summoning porters and taxis, and focussed on getting their weary, sticky selves to the comforts of hot baths, coffee and rolls at the hotel, had refused to let her stop for frivolities like newspapers. Still, the headline nagged at her: Le désarmement: Les débats marchent. No doubt, but in what direction?
“March on, join bravely, let us to it pell mell. If not to heaven, then hand in hand to Hell,” she murmured. She was not aware she had spoken aloud until the man at the bar looked up and said, “Shakespeare?”
Harriet gaped, inelegantly, and then recovered herself. “Er, yes. Richard III.”
“Ah. Yes. Richard III. Of course. What else could it be?” His English was fluent, but his accent hard to place: could he be American? Or Australian? From somewhere very far away, surely.
Harriet gestured to the second chair at her table. “Please, do join me.”
For a moment, she thought he looked disconcerted, as if at an impertinence. But they could hardly bawl their opinions of English literature at each other across the bar, and with the thunderstorm still raging outside they would be forced into each other’s company for some time to come. Furthermore, if he thought she was trying to vamp him, given how she looked and felt after her overnight journey, he must have a very low opinion of her technique. (For a moment, the shade of Henry Weldon hovered queasily by her left ear.)
He picked up his drink and his newspaper, and moved across from the bar. “Thank you.” He extended a hand. “Greg Bleakman.”
He betrayed not the smallest flicker of recognition at her name.
“So, is Richard III a favourite play of yours?” Blessed Shakespeare: a safe topic of conversation in almost all circumstances.
Bleakman considered this for a moment. “Not precisely. But one of my cousins is obsessed with it. He memorised it. From end to end. He would keep practising the soliloquies on us, every chance he got. And all the ghosts, with different vocal effects for each one.”
Harriet was unable to keep a straight face. “Good heavens. What dedication!”
His own smile transformed his face. “Miles’ motto is ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.’”
“How tiring for all the rest of you.” Feeling she had, perhaps, gone a little far, she added, “But you have to applaud the effort he must have gone to.”
Bleakman looked thoughtful. “Perhaps he had little choice. Miles had some — ah — health problems, growing up. He spent a lot of time confined to bed. All that energy pent up with nowhere to go. I suppose things like learning Richard III helped. A little.”
He avoided meeting her eyes, staring at the wall behind her head with an abstracted expression, as if the topic was one on which he did not wish to dwell. Harriet, a doctor’s daughter, had seen too much of the strains a sick child could place on a family; especially the brothers and sisters, who felt that their own good health was a constant reproach to the invalid, and who often resented them for absorbing so much of their parents’ time and attention.
“My cousin”, Bleakman had said, but cousins could be almost as close as brothers, especially if each was an only child. Close in the best and worst senses, too. Normally, Harriet tried not to think about Norman Urquhart, now rotting in quicklime beneath Pentonville Prison. But surely Urquhart’s murder of his cousin, her former lover Philip Boyes, had been motivated as much by perverted family jealousy as by greed or fear of exposure? Jacob and Esau: the older brother, the loyal son, losing his birthright, the fortune for which he had worked all his adult life, because of the meretricious charm of the younger.
Harriet decided to move out of these dangerous waters.
“A playwright friend of mine said Richard III is very much an actor’s play. She said that actors — good actors — pride themselves on their naturalism: how true to life they can make their characters appear. But all the time they’re pining to tell the audience just how much effort that appearance of naturalism takes. With Richard, from the very beginning — Now is the winter of our discontent — you know you’re seeing an actor who letting the audience in on the secret. It’s a peep into the dressing room. He only goes off the rails in the last acts because he forgets he’s playing a part. He becomes his character, but without a script he’s constantly improvising and he’s lost the sense of who or what he really is. That’s when his fate finally catches up with him.”
Bleakman’s attention fixed on her with an intensity she found curiously flattering.
“Do you know, I think your friend may be onto something. I must make a note to tell Miles, whenever I get home.” He looked at her empty glass. “But in the meantime, please, allow me to buy you another drink.”
The thunderstorm seemed to be dying down, and she ought to be looking for Vanessa, but something about Bleakman intrigued her. There was a story there, surely, and the ostensible purpose of this trip was to compile “good copy”, was it not? It hardly hurt that he was a cultivated, well-bred young man, whose saturnine looks sat well on him.
“Thank you. That would be delightful.”
He raised his head, looking for the waiter, who seemed to have vanished again. Then — he froze. Harriet had watched cats prowl along hedgerows, and adopt precisely that poised, waiting stillness, just before they pounced.
“Miss Vane, do you have any reason to believe anyone might be following you?”
The disconnect between that and his easy, conversational tone shocked her more than outright screaming would have done.
“Following me? Why —?”
He glanced at the wall behind her head again, and then back to her face.
“Please trust me. My experience and training tells me there’s a Situation developing. I beg you: follow my lead, and don’t do anything to precipitate it.”
It said dreadful things for the influence of thriller-writing on the human psyche, but a mysterious stranger in a foreign hotel bar assuring her she was being followed seemed a scene so much out of her own style of literature it felt like coming home. She felt for her cigarette case, offered it to Bleakman, and, when he refused, lit up herself. Although he wrinkled his nose and lent away from the smoke, she thought she detected respect in his expression at this display of nonchalance.
She lent negligently back in her chair, for the benefit of anyone who might be watching. “Tell me, what have you seen?”
“From my position at the bar, I could see both parts of the room. When you arrived, the other part of the bar was quite empty. As the door opened, I thought I spotted someone behind you. However, you entered the bar alone.”
She nodded, recalling that sense of someone hard on her heels.
“About two minutes later, a man entered the bar through the far door, the one you can’t see from here. That door gives onto the hotel courtyard, though you can reach the outside world through a narrow alley leading to the lane behind. He could hardly have been sitting in the courtyard, not once the rain started, so he must have come round by way of the lane. Odd, don’t you think?”
“Experience and training” with a vengeance. Before Bleakman had entered the bar, he must have checked each means of escape from it. Harriet doubted it was a coincidence he had chosen as his initial seat the one place from which he could survey the whole room at once. If ‘Greg Bleakman’ is anything other than a ‘nom-de-guerre’ I’ll eat my hat.
Aloud, she said, “And where is he now?”
“Sitting at one of the tables just round the corner of the bar. I can just see his reflection in the big mirror over the bar; he’s using it to spy on us, but that cuts both ways. That’s how I first spotted what he was up to.”
Harriet frowned. “But you aren’t facing the bar. I am.”
“As is the second mirror on the wall behind your head.”
It says much for the novelist’s habits of thought that Harriet’s first thought was, “I’ll have to make use of that one sometime.”
Her second thought was more practical. “Can you describe him?”
“My age, or perhaps slightly older. Very tall. Very thin. A little — no, more than a little —” Bleakman moved his hand from side to side, indicating a swaying motion. “The waiter brought him a brandy, but I believe it was somewhat against his better judgement. I wouldn’t back his chances if he orders another.”
Dread clutched at her guts. “When you said, ‘tall and thin’ did you mean like —like yourself, for example — or more like a stick of rhubarb?”
“‘Rhubarb’?” Bleakman enquired carefully.
Harriet almost hissed in frustration.
“Surely you know rhubarb? Pink stalks, with big green leaves like umbrellas. You stew the stalks and make them into puddings, with cream. You have to use a lot of sugar, though, because it’s very sour —”
His brow cleared. “Oh, you mean ревень. Yes, we have that. There’s an early sort, we force it under glass. Now you mention it, the man you mention is exactly like forced ревень. It can’t stand up without help, either. You do know him, then? Is he likely to be armed, do you think?”
There was something, Harriet thought, blissfully relaxing about a man who cut straight from “Do you know this man?” to “How effective an assassin would be make, in your opinion?”
She brought to mind everything she had seen and heard of Ryland Vaughn during that hot, unhappy year with Phil, and felt a warm fury start to pulse within her. How dare he pursue her here, ruining her attempts at finding a fragile serenity away from London and its memories.
“”He’s called Ryland Vaughn. I should imagine that if there’s something idiotic and melodramatic he could do, he can be relied upon to attempt it. I don’t know where he might have got a gun, but I suppose it wouldn’t be that difficult to pick one up from some ex-soldier down on his luck. Whether he could hit anything he aimed at —”
Bleakman grinned; it occurred to Harriet that someone who got more cheerful as the news got worse was probably no more stable than Ryland Vaughn, if a lot less self-pitying about it.
“Speaking strictly for me, I’m more worried about his hitting things he’s not aiming at. Anyway, it gives us a plan. We get up and walk out now. No warning. He won’t be expecting that, but he’ll come rushing out after us. With any luck, I’ll be able to jump him and disarm him.”
“Jump him? Can you?”
Bleakman’s expression became even more fey. “If not, my old nursemaid Drou will kill me. She taught me self defence for years. So, Harriet. Now.”
Harriet took a deep breath, like one did on the edge of a diving board. Then she summoned every bit of vamp into her expression. “But Greg, how too, too fabulous! Can we go right this very minute?”
“Oh, yes,” Bleakman purred. They were through the door in seconds.
“Harriet! You’re safe!”
Vanessa’s shout seemed to split the air. Harriet spun, to see her friend practically pulling a gendarme along behind her. She made a frantic “ssh!” gesture at both of them, and pointed at the hotel door.
Vaughan came barrelling out, waving a service revolver about his head.
“Come and face me, you murdering whore!” he yelled. “I’ll have justice for Phil if it’s the last thing I do!”
Bleakman’s scything kick took Vaughan’s legs from under him and sent him crashing down. His gun went skittering across the polished flags of the square; Harriet, reflexively, trapped it with her foot. Vaughan, on his knees, flailed towards her, grabbing for the gun. With a yell of berserker fury, Bleakman flung himself on Vaughan’s back, pinning him down, and put pressure on his carotid artery with his thumbs. Vaughan went limp; the gendarme succeeded in cuffing him, Bleakman rolled away, and it was all over.
“Pardonnez moi, mademoiselle,” the gendarme said. Harriet looked down, and realised she was still standing on the gun. The gendarme retrieved it, ejected six bullets from it with an expression of disapproval, and dropped gun and ammunition, separately, into two mesh bags he retrieved from his pockets.
In the hotel doorway Harriet could see, out of the corner of her eye, a waiter, standing irresolutely waving a white piece of paper which she realised, belatedly and hilariously, must be the bill for their drinks. She signalled back, pointing at Vaughan (who was now sitting up and becoming lacrymose) at the gendarme and at her handbag. The waiter, taking this pantomime as sufficient assurance that the bill would be attended to once the claims of officialdom had been satisfied, vanished back inside.
“Well,” Vanessa said, “that really was a spectacular come-uppance. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a neater K.O. Not even on the talkies.”
Reaction was threatening to undo her, but Harriet was damned if she’d fall apart before Vaughn was off the scene.
“His nursemaid taught him. Apparently.”
Vanessa blinked. “Well, I hope they gave her a wonderful character when he grew up and she left. Harriet, please do introduce me to your lovely friend.”
Bleakman, however, was engaged in a low-voiced conversation with the gendarme, in which he seemed to be being forceful about the events leading up to Vaughan’s outburst.
“While they’re sorting that out, why don’t you tell me where you got to, and how you managed to turn up in the nick of time with a gendarme?” Harriet suggested, catching Vanessa’s elbow and moving them to a bench under a stand of plane trees, so she didn’t have to look at Vaughan.
“Well, I went to the post office as we arranged, and there was a letter from Eiluned, addressed to both of us and marked URGENT! in five different coloured inks. So I opened it, and she said that one of the Kropotsky crowd had been running their mouth off at a studio party about Ryland Vaughan, and how he’d never been satisfied with the second verdict — Eiluned said she’d always had him pegged as a complete woman-hater, so it came as no surprise to her — and just when he’d started settling down about it, the Wilvercombe business set him off again. He’d been drinking a lot, of course, and from what we can gather doping as well, and I’m afraid you’d become a sort of idée fixe of his.”
Harriet nodded. It was no more than she might have expected, but it came as a blow to hear it, nontheless.
“The other thing they said was that Vaughan had come into money, absolutely pots of it,” Vanessa said.
“Phil left everything to him. I don’t think it would originally have been much, but all the books did very well after the trials. Also, I always got the impression that there was some sort of wealth in the background; that’s one of the reasons I never got on with him. We were living on a shoestring, and he’d do things like leaving our last teatowel on the hob and letting it char, or drinking the last of the gin and not replacing it. And he’d just laugh and accuse me of being petit-bourgeois if I objected.”
Vanessa laid a sympathetic hand on her elbow.
“Anyway — look, don’t explode — but it seems as if he’s been spending some of that money on private detectives trying to find where you’d gone. And the thing that got Eiluned round to sending the letter — there was a telegram, too — was that she got onto your publisher — you know I’ve been keeping them updated with where we were going to be next, in case something urgent came in — and they seem to have been careless. And then, as soon as I read that, I was reminded of something odd that happened in Paris.”
She drew a deep breath. “I’d just got back to our hotel room with our reservations for the train here, and then someone called me down to reception because of some muddle about our trunks. While I know I locked up the room, when I got back, our tickets seemed to have been moved from where I’d put them. I checked everything, but nothing had been taken, so I put it down to a memory blip. Anyway, I thought it was as well to let the gendamerie know about everything, and it turned out that they’d already been put on alert because of an incident earlier today, when a woman had been followed in the town, and frightened, by an Englishman who sounded the spitting image of Ryland Vaughan. I showed them a photograph of you, and this other woman could easily have been your twin. So they started taking it seriously, and we started looking for you — and here we are.”
The gendarme came over, and informed them stiffly that while they would, of course, be required to give statements at the gendarmerie whenever it might be least discommoding to them, the eye-witness account of Mr Bleakman and the admissions made by Vaughan himself made it unlikely that the juge d’instruction would find his investigation a strenuous one.
Bleakman looked at them both, and smiled. “The sun’s come out. If you will permit me, may I buy you both lunch?”
The waiter shepherded them all to a table in a sunwarmed corner of the square, the puddles already drying beneath the hot sun of the Midi. He brought bread, a carafe of rosé and bottles of Vichy water and, at Vanessa’s insistence, took her camera and photographed the three of them, glasses raised in a toast to who-knew-what, though “survival” certainly came near the top of Harriet’s list.
“There,” Vanessa said, retrieving her camera with satisfaction. “All’s well that ends well.”
“How extraordinarily odd,” Gregor said aloud. The Imperial office in Vorhartung Castle was not a place designed to encourage flights of fancy of any sort, let alone the prolonged waking dream from which he had just roused himself. He supposed that his mind must have been running on Earth because of Illyan’s report this morning (what could have possessed Miles to end up there, of all places, and what malignant spirit had driven Miles to drag Ivan into the multi-planet chaos which followed him perpetually around? The thought of how narrow a shave it had been, and how close he, Gregor, had come to having to break that news to Alys, Aral and Cordelia still made him shudder.)
Nonetheless, why Earth so long ago? Why France? Why a small and remote town deep in rural France, if, indeed, such a town had ever existed?
That latter point, at least, was checkable. The town’s coat of arms had been prominently displayed around the main square, and if there was one thing Alys had trained him to do, it was to memorise and recall banners and liveries. iIn detail.
Before he knew he was doing so, he found himself out of his seat and heading for the library. It was absurd to break his schedule because of a dream, but it would be more disruptive to sit at his desk fretting about it. One of the holodisks there would prove to him that those extraordinarily vivid images were simply the product of an overheated imagination, and had no basis in any historical country.
And if they don’t? a small voice nagged at the back of his mind, all the way down three flights of stairs.
The Librarian was away from his post, but the library was occupied, nonetheless. That grey coronet of hair, bent over some treasure from the Imperial archives, could only belong to Professora Helen Vorthys, one of the foremost scholars of the Time of Isolation. Besides her, another scholar, dark-haired and younger, looked up and emitted a squeak of shocked recognition.
Gregor slipped into ‘reassurance of the croggled public’ mode, and was rewarded by a comradely eye-roll from the Professora.
“Ladies, please don’t get up. This is not an official visitation; I merely came to check a reference.”
The Professora inclined her head. “Sire, may I present my esteemed colleague and long-time correspondent, Doctor Sameena Mehta? This is the first time we have had the pleasure of meeting in person. Dr Mehta has travelled here from Earth.”
“Earth!” That came out with far more force than he had intended; the ladies recoiled. He extended a placating hand. “Forgive me, but Earth has been rather in my thoughts this morning. My cousin is posted to our Embassy there.”
The Professora eyed him speculatively. “I trust Lord Vorpatril is well?”
Her husband was Gregor’s newest Lord Auditor and the Professora herself had had the run of the Residence’s and Vorhartung Castle’s archives for years: no wonder she was up on High Vor gossip. Especially about Ivan’s activities, which were, fortunately, so much easier to explain than those of Gregor’s other cousin.
“Thank you, yes.” His mouth quirked despite himself. “Despite his best efforts to the contrary. Ah — Dr Mehta, I shall ask my secretary to let you have a letter of introduction to him, so you can exchange your respective impressions of our planets on your return to Earth. Provided, of course, Ivan’s still there.”
And provided our Embassy still is.
Dr Mehta was still goggling speechlessly at him. The Professora sailed effortlessly into the breach. “That will be most appreciated, Sire. So far, I think we can venture to say that Dr Mehta’s visit has been very successful. This document we are examining, for example —”
Dr Mehta murmured, “For years, I hoped I might find secondary evidence of its contents. I had not dared hope I might read the memoir itself.”
Intrigued, Gregor craned his head over the desk.
“Please, Dr Mehta, tell me what is so important that it could be worth travelling so far?”
The question seemed to put her more at her ease. “To understand that, I shall have to give you a little background. As the Professora knows, I am a fellow in history at Shrewsbury College, Oxford. Our college will celebrate its millennium in three years time: as you can imagine, we are planning an enormous celebration. My own special period, as it happens, is the 20th century, so I am working on an holo-exhibition focusing on the first century of the college, and the women — it remained a single-gender institution until 1988 CE — who were instrumental in founding it and preserving it during that difficult early period.”
Gregor nodded. “I see. And this?” He gestured towards the document on the table, which he now saw was an old-style bound book, its pages yellow with age, sitting within its own protective stasis field.
The Professora took up the story. “This is where I come in. Reconstructing the early years of Barrayar is a complex matter, and the subject of much speculation, some of it very ill-informed indeed.”
Ah. Yes. Gentle as the Professora might appear, her professional feuds, like those of all academics, were the stuff of legend.
“But, the better view —?” Gregor prompted.
“The Fifty Thousand Firsters were, as you might imagine, very severely restricted in what they were allowed to bring to Barrayar from Earth. That we do know. As a colony ship, everything in the hold must have been selected by the governing minds behind the venture, although the reasoning behind bringing horses, rather than, say, buffalo, has been very hotly debated. Where, however, opinions differ is about the degree to which the Firsters would have been permitted to bring personal items in their baggage. My theory, based on the documented practice of other colony ships, is that each settler would have been allowed a small cubage of strictly personal items, but that many — perhaps a majority — used that on holocubes and so forth, so they rapidly degraded following the closure of the wormhole and the consequential loss of technological infrastructure.”
She gestured so emphatically her hair began to come down at the back. Unobtrusively, Dr Mehta tucked it back into place for her. She acknowledged the assistance, but continued with barely a pause.
“As a result, the nature of the very few items which have come down to us as Firster imports does not betoken a hierarchical class structure among colonists, with only those at the top of the pyramid entitled to personal importation, but simply the natural weeding out by time of the more ephemeral objects, assuming universal but restricted personal importation. Also, our analysis of the artefacts themselves has always been, in my view, perverse. We should attribute value to them because they survived, not assume they survived because they were intrinsically valuable. The Vorgeraint necklace, for example —”
Gregor cleared his throat. The Professora stopped mid-flow, and twinkled at him.
“My pardon, Sire. Anyway, in short, this book here is one of those artefacts; it only surfaced recently and has been subjected to the most rigorous authentication process, so this is the first chance I’ve had to examine it myself. It’s the most immense privilege. Quite apart from its importance to Barrayaran history, it also seems it has galactic significance.”
Dr Mehta’s eyes were bright with mischief. “Indeed it has. The rocket your footnote put under our governing body propelled me half across the galaxy.”
“But why?” Gregor had despatched covert ops teams across eight wormhole links to collect an eminent scientist, but no-one, except perhaps the Professora and a small cadre of her fellows, would argue that the humanities deserved the application of similar resources.
“Forgive me, Sire.” Dr Mehta had indeed regained her courage. “Let me explain. This is probably the only extant copy in the Nexus of a privately printed, limited edition memoir written by the wife of the seventeenth Duke of Denver as a gift for close friends and family, to commemorate the Duke and Duchess of Denver’s silver wedding anniversary in 1960. The Duchess was herself a graduate of Shrewsbury, and certainly some of the people who taught her and with whom she corresponded were among the very first students of the College. That alone would have given it immense value, especially in the context of the millennium celebrations. But, given who the Duchess was, it’s as if someone had found — oh, Excalibur, or Rustam’s helmet.”
Or Kladenets. The battered, leather-bound book inside the shimmering stasis field did not look much like a sacred relic, but Gregor had grown up surrounded by the things, and knew how little external appearance mattered when one viewed objects through the eye of faith. At this very moment, in the public part of the castle, there was doubtless someone standing in awe before a display case containing an empty shopping bag with an irregular brown stain on one corner.
“You said ‘Who the Duchess was’. Who was she?”
The lecturer was now foremost in Dr Mehta’s manner. “Financially, to begin with, the Duchess was a great patron of the College. Together with a valuable portrait of herself, she left us her copyrights in her Will. Since she was one of the foremost detective novelists of the 20th century, that was no small bequest. She shows, I think, some of her characteristic wit in how she phrased it:
For first-class coffee always, for bursaries large and small to students as needed, for turpentine and fuse wire in emergencies and, as for the rest, as the Warden and Fellows may see fit to apply the funds, in their generous discretion. Make of that what you will.”
Gregor, privately, made a mental note that the Duchess seemed to be a woman after his own heart. Especially with respect to coffee.
“But the financial side is the least part of it. When I was reviewing the College archives there are repeated, oblique references to some events in the decade before the Second World War which seems, at least in the minds of the Warden and Fellows at the time, to have posed a very great threat to the College as an institution. They refer, several times, to the Duchess having ‘saved’ the College; there’s a letter from the Warden of the day using that precise word. But everyone’s either too discreet to mention what they’re talking about, or assume their correspondent knows all the details anyway. You cannot imagine how frustrating it is!”
Since Gregor had a team of ImpSec analysts to fill all such gaping holes before reports ever reached his desk, he was forced to concede that no: he did not.
He gestured towards the book. “And you think the answer may lie in here?”
Dr Mehta nodded.
“We are very hopeful. You see, it’s based on the journals kept by the Duchess prior to her marriage, detailing her travels about Europe, literary life in London and so forth. Surely she would have mentioned something of the college mystery in there.”
Hairs rose on the back of his neck. Travels about Europe. The silver wedding anniversary was the twenty-fifth, was it not? Twenty five from sixty made thirty five. He felt that odd, dry inky paper under his fingers once more, and read the impossible date at its top. Just how long before her marriage had the Duchess gone travelling?
Using every last ounce of his self-control, he forced his features into an expression of intelligent interest.
“So, do we know how it ended up on Barrayar? Would it be possible to work out whether any of the original recipients had a descendant among Barrayar’s colonists?”
The Professora sounded very dry. “Possible but not easy, especially since we don’t know with precision who the original recipients were. In any event, if we assume that roughly three hundred copies were distributed in 1960 CE, we still have nine or ten generations until the fifty thousand colonists left Earth for Barrayar. In strict genealogical theory, every single one of those colonists could have been descended from one of the original recipients.”
Dr Mehta laughed. “The Colonists on the Orient Express.”
Both Gregor and the Professora turned baffled glances at her.
“Forgive me. A small private joke about my subject. Anyway, Sire, please would you do the honours? Helen and I have been almost frightened to touch the book, its meaning so much to both of us, for different reasons. We would treasure it were it you who opened it.”
He could hardly express his reluctance here. As the son of Prince Serg, as the great-nephew of Mad Emperor Yuri, the last thing he dared do was break into an irrational outburst in front of the wife of one of his Auditors and a visiting galactic. Furthermore, given that the lot of the Emperor was to open things, at least he had almost infinite experience in the ceremonial side of things.
The Professora adjusted the environmental settings of the room, and switched off the portable stasis field. Gregor picked up the hand tractor, precisely calibrated to protect the fragile pages from human sweat and human force. With infinite care, he manipulated the tractor to open the book precisely halfway through, where a line of differently coloured page edges broke the monotony of the yellow-white.
He looked down at a black-and-white illustration of three people in a sunlit courtyard: Harriet, Vanessa, and himself.