John wondered if the Emperor had had far too much to drink.
That was the only explanation he could come up with as to why Sherlock was sitting in the chair in front of him, grinning gleefully and holding a Lord Auditor's seal.
No one in a sober state of mind would ever give one to Sherlock.
He turned to Mycroft. "Was his Majesty…" John let his voice trail off. He couldn't think of a way to ask that wouldn't end with him being arrested for slander against the Emperor
"Drugged?" Mycroft finished smoothly. "No, he was not."
"Right," said John weakly.
"If it makes you feel any better, the decision was confirmed by the other Auditors."
"Really?" asked John, "Even Lord Auditor Vorthys?" From what he knew of the man, Vorthys was sensible, reliable, and not swayed to decision because there was a Vor in front of someone's name.
"Oh yes. Lord Auditor Vorkosigan indicated his support at once, and within five minutes had managed to convince all the others to do likewise."
John buried his face in his hands. "That's hardly reassuring."
Mycroft smiled. "Sherlock has assured me that he will refrain from bringing down any governments."
John just buried his face deeper into his hands.
Their first case came the week before Sherlock was to be ceremonially confirmed as a new Lord Auditor.
Sherlock was summoned to the Imperial Palace by his Majesty the Emperor. To John's surprise, he was also included in the summons.
After being greeted at the gate by an impeccably dressed footman in the Vorbarra livery, Sherlock and John were escorted through a maze of richly decorated corridors. John tried to look everyone at once, doing his best not to gape. Sherlock just looked bored.
Eventually they reached a dark wooden door with intricate carvings on the lintel. The footman knocked, cleared his throat, and announced, "Presenting Lord Sherlock Vorholmes and Dr. John Watson."
"Ah good. You're here," said a voice within, "Please come in, and sit down."
Nervously, John followed Sherlock into a richly decorated office.
To his left was a dark wood desk, covered in piles of flimsies. Across from that, on the left was a fireplace, with two comfortable looking chairs set in front of it. The walls were adorned with what John was sure must be masterpieces, but on a second glance he noticed that none were in a style of over fifty years old.
Emperor Gregor Vorbarra himself was stitting behind a small round table, set in front of a bay window. Standing next to him was General Allegre, head of Imperial Security. Sherlock, in his typical disregard for all authority, simply sat in one of chairs in front of the table.
Thankfully, the Emperor didn't seem to take any offense at this. "Lord Sherlock. It's good to see you."
Sherlock nodded. "Likewise."
John remained standing, not sure of quiet what to do. He had no clue of the civilian protocols when meeting the emperor, and Sherlock was hardly a good example. Eventually he gave a vague version of the ImpSec salute, even though he had retired a few years ago.
The Emperor accepted this with a smile and a nod. "Please sit," he said, and John took the seat next to Sherlock.
"It's good to finally meet you Doctor Watson. Captain Illyan has told me good things about you, and I have nothing but respect for someone who could put up with Sherlock for as long as you."
John felt his face heat briefly. "Sire."
To John's surprise, Sherlock didn't look even slightly bothered by this commentary. Instead he simply asked, "What's the case?"
"I want you to look into the deaths of these men." The Emperor pushed three files across the table to where Sherlock was sitting. "Colonel Kazimir Vorplade, Captain Anton Mulson and Commodore Maxim Plescat."
Sherlock absently flipped through the file. "All three found dead in a cabin in the woods, killed by the same unknown poison, believed to be Jacksonian in origin."
The Emperor nodded.
"How long have you believed there to be a leak in ImpSec?" asked Sherlock.
The Emperor raised an eyebrow. "I don't believe that was in the file." He looked sideways to General Allegre, who gave a brief nod of his head.
Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Really Gregor, it's obvious."
John froze in his seat in terror, unable to move. It was bad enough when Sherlock acted like that with ordinary people, but one did not patronize the Emperor of Barrayar. Or call him by his first name.
Out of the corner of his eye, John could see that General Allegre was also standing very still, with a blank expression on his face. His eyes were staring at some fixed point on the wall.
John waited for the Emperor to call for his guards, or to yell in rage, but nothing happened. Instead, the Emperor simply quirked up an eyebrow. "Go on", he said, sounding interested.
"Mulson worked for ImpSec. That alone would make it a case for them, and not the Municipal Guards, but Colonel Vorplade was the brother of the current Count. That's two reasons the case should go to ImpSec, but instead you decided to give it to me. Therefore, there is some reason you don't currently trust ImpSec."
The Emperor smiled. "Well done Sherlock. We have nothing confirmed on a leak yet, but given these deaths in somewhat mysterious circumstances, I find it prudent to be cautious."
Sherlock nodded. "Do you believe it has something to do with the situation on Pol?" he asked.
General Allegre's face dropped from its neutral mask into the odd mix of outrage and confusion that a lot of people seemed to get around Sherlock.
"How-that's highly classified!" he spluttered.
The Emperor held up a hand, and Allegre clamped his mouth shut. "It is not a difficult assumption to make. Lord Auditor Vorkosigan is the auditorial expert on ImpSec, and since I'm assigning the case to Sherlock instead, he must be busy elsewhere, presumably a galactic assignment, since that is his other area of expertise."
Sherlock nodded in approval.
"And Pol?" asked Allegre.
"You have the latest reports about Polian light bulb production on your desk," said Sherlock, ignoring Allegre completely and addressing the Emperor, "It is not one of our major trading concerns, nor is it a subject that generally interests you, unless you have decided to become an electrician since we last spoke."
The Emperor gave a dry smile at that. "Not at this time, no. Perhaps I will consider it after this visit to Komarr, if I have to sit through that many more general inspections."
"Then the conclusion is obvious," stated Sherlock, with his usual amount of arrogance. Strangely (thankfully), he did not give the Emperor the same look he usually gave people who questioned his deductions, a mix of pity, derision and his ever present superiority complex.
The Emperor gave a nod. "Then I hope you will find the solution to this problem equally as easily."
He stood up, and John and Sherlock followed suit. "Ask Lieutenant Colonel Lestrade to show you the bodies, and provide you with anything else you need."
They found Lestrade in the ImpSec cafeteria. John had wanted to call ahead to give the poor man some warning, but Sherlock, who was usually so derisive of tradition, was very supportive of the idea that an Auditor makes his first visit unannounced.
"I want to see the bodies of the men you found in the cabin in the woods- Mulson, Plescat and Vorplade," demanded Sherlock at once, cornering Lestrade against a table.
"How did you find out about-never mind," said Lestrade. He sighed. "Look, Sherlock, I can't just show you the bodies. They're classified, and you don't have the clearance."
Sherlock smiled. "I believe I do." He pulled his Auditor's Seal from the pocket of his coat, and threw it at Lestrade.
Lestrade caught it automatically, and then paled as he realized what he was holding. "Put that away! What were you thinking? The penalty for counterfeiting an Auditor's credentials is death, and I don't think even Mycroft could help you there."
John took pity on him. "I'm afraid it's real."
If anything, Lestrade just looked even more worried.
"Are you sure?" he asked. John nodded.
"The Emperor himself confirmed it in person. I was there."
Lestrade looked both impressed and worried at the same time, a difficult combination. He turned back to where Sherlock was leaning against the table, watching with amusement, and sighed. "Alright, I'll take you to the office, and give you all the documents we have so far. Then we can stop by the morgue if you want."
Sherlock indicated his accent, and Lestrade led them from the cafeteria through a maze of corridors, including several lift tubes until they reached Lestrade's office. In the large front room, one of his civilian consultants, Donovan, was typing at her comconsul.
She looked up when they entered the room. "Sir, Anderson has finished-" she began, before noticing Sherlock was there. "What's the fre- he doing here?" she demanded.
Lestrade sighed. "Donovan. Meet the newest Lord Auditor."
Donovan's face was a picture of shock and disbelief. "Sir," pulling Lestrade aside, "That can't be right. Are you sure the Emperor wasn't replaced a clone or something like that?"
"I think ImpSec would have noticed," said Lestrade, somewhat irritably. His face softened. "No, it's real alright."
Donovan did not look reassured.
They all walked down to the morgue, Donovan trailing. John was sure that she had work that she could be doing, but there was a certain morbid curiosity about being around an Imperial Auditor, once you were sure they weren't after you. Otherwise, there was stark terror.
Sherlock looked through the window in the morgue door and frowned. "Why is Anderson there? He's an idiot and incompetent. Get me someone I can actually work with."
Lestrade and Donovan looked at each other somewhat apprehensively.
"Be reasonable Sherlock," said John. "There's no one who you can work with except Molly, but she's over at ImpMil, and doesn't have the clearance for this."
"I could order-"
"Why don't we just see how this goes."
Anderson looked up as they entered the room. "What's he doing here?" he demanded, unknowingly echoing Donovan's earlier comment. "This is a classified area and he definitely doesn't have the clearance."
Sherlock smirked and held up his seal.
"That can't be real," said Anderson, but without much conviction.
"Why," said Sherlock irritably, "Does everyone doubt my authority?"
"Probably because no one in their right mind would give you the authority to speak in the voice of the ruler of a triplanetary empire," muttered Donovan under her breath. Privately, John agreed.
Sherlock ignore the comment, which was probably for the best. "What have you found so far?"
Anderson glared resentfully at Sherlock, but after a look from Lestrade, gave a brief summary. The men were all poisoned with the same unknown substance, which was the cause of death. None of them had any known underlying medical conditions.
"Is that it?" asked Sherlock. He sounded disappointed, but unsurprised.
"The bodies only came in a few hours ago," said Anderson, between clenched teeth. "My Lord Auditor."
"And if you had managed to do your job properly in that time, I could start to figure out who did it."
"Probably those Greekie language separatists," said Anderson.
"What? But all three were Russian speakers."
"Oh don't be ridiculous," demanded Sherlock. "It was obviously not language separatists. If it were, the bodies wouldn't have been found in a deserted location. They don't do subtle."
"Our next theory was it was the Cetagandans," offered Lestrade helpfully.
Sherlock rolled his eyes at this. "That theory's even worse. Imp Sec thinks everything is a Cetagandan plot."
"They are usually behind most of them," pointed out John, "Remember that case with the missing eye drops? Or the Glenmarkin incident?"
"Yes, but if it was the Cetagandan's we wouldn't have found the bodies. They," he said, with a glance around the room, "are not that incompetent."
Anderson looked furious at the implications, and Lestrade just sighed. "There's also the Komarans. We've been picking up a lot of increased activity from certain clandestine sectors."
Sherlock gave him a pitying look. "The Emperor is going there on a state visit tomorrow. What did you expect?"
Lestrade wisely chose not to respond to this.
"Right. All of you out except for John. I need to think."
Lestrade looked like he was going to protest, but must have remembered Sherlock's new status because he left, shepherding Donovan and Anderson in front of him.
"John, what can you tell me about the bodies?" asked Sherlock, once the three had cleared the room.
"I'm not a coroner," pointed out John, "Anderson could probably tell you more."
"I can't stand Anderson, and I can hardly trust his conclusions. The galactic stereotype of the Barrayarn idiot is confirmed every time he opens his mouth." Sherlock paused for a moment. "I'd much rather hear your opinions."
John went over and looked. The three men were lying out on separate examining tables, each still in their dress greens. Mulson had the silver Horus eyes of ImpSec on his collar, while Vorplade and Plescat had the bronze sigil of Ops.
They were all older men, with dark hair that had faded mostly to grey at this point, although Plescat retained more of his youthful coloring than the other two. Their faces were lined with wrinkles, and their skin had taken on the unnatural pallor of death.
"I agree with the initial report," said John after he examined the bodies for a moment, "It looks like they've all been poisoned. The bodies have no wounds, or any sign of a struggle."
Sherlock nodded. "Can you tell what type of poison was used?"
"Not without a toxicology report," said John. "Ah, wait a moment." He turned and flipped through the file of papers Anderson had left as he exited. "Anderson's already done it." He pulled out the relevant piece of paper and began to read.
"Anything useful?" asked Sherlock, in a tone that clearly assumed the answer would be no.
"Not really," said John, "It rules out a lot of poisons- arsenic, tavallette, heavy metal." He kept reading. "In fact, it pretty much rules out anything common Earth poison, or anything made with the native Barryaran flora or fauna."
"Hence the assumption of its Jacksonian origin I presume," said Sherlock, "Really though, they are not the only people who could make an unknown toxin. The Cetagandas have the most interesting arsenal of biologic weaponry, and there are others."
"I though you said you didn't think it was the Cetagandas," said John.
"Of course it's not. As if the Star Crèche would ever let their products be used for a minor assassination like this."
John wondered what the Star Crèche was, but decided to save that for another time.
"What can you tell me about the men themselves?"
John turned to Sherlock, an amused smile on his face. "Couldn't you just deduce it for yourself quicker?"
"Of course," said Sherlock, without a hint of humility. He paused. "But I am interested in what you can figure out."
John went back over to the bodies, and took a second look. "They're all older men, definitely career officers and probably well into to their second twenty years. They all took their job very seriously- their uniforms are impeccable, and even their pins are straight."
"Very good John. You only missed several important things."
John waved his hand in invitation for Sherlock to explain, not that his friend actually ever needed one to share his deductions.
"None of them were married. Their jobs were their life. Recently though, their jobs started getting more stressful, for all of them. Mulson looks rather gaunt, even considering he's dead, showing trouble eating and Plescat has bitten the nails down on his left hand."
He held up the hand in question so John could get a look. The nails were bitten down, nearly to the quick.
"Vorplade," he continued, "Started drinking. He has a flask concealed under his jacket, but not very well. This indicates that he only just started drinking, as an alcoholic as concerned about proper military appearance as Vorplade would make sure that his uniform was properly tailored so as to keep the flask unnoticed."
"Do you think it was same thing?" asked John. "Worrying them, I mean."
Sherlock frowned, a pensive look on his face. "It is likely," he admitted. "Considering all three were found dead in the same cabin in the woods. It appears that they all became more worried at the same time, but I cannot see a common event. Mulson worked in ImpSec, and Vorplade and Plescat were in different departments in Ops, so it was unlikely that it was some work related event."
"Some sort of cross departmental operation?" asked John.
"Perhaps. Bring those files with you," Sherlock.
"We're leaving? Already?" asked John. It seemed like they had only just arrived.
"Yes," said Sherlock, "Unless you think one of those bodies is going to wake up and tell you what happened, we're going somewhere we can actually get data."
"Ah. And where might that be?" asked John.
"The cabin where they were found of course," said Sherlock , as he swung out the door. "Come on John, do keep up."
They arrived at the cabin less than a half hour later, having procured a lightflyer from ImpSec with a wave of Sherlock's new authority. It was a small, two roomed construction that had probably been used as a summer home, although not any time recently. The garden was overgrown and full of weeds, and one of the back windows on the house seemed to be broken.
"How did they find the bodies here?" John asked. "It doesn't seem like a spot where anyone would just stumble across them." Or at least, not for a few years.
"Mulson apparently said something to his friend about going to the cottage," said Sherlock, "When he didn't come into work the next morning, his friend called the Municpal Guard, who sent a patrol to check."
They entered the cabin. The front room was a combination kitchen/living room. Most of the furniture had long been removed, except for a decrepit looking sofa on the far wall, and a dusty table surrounded by three uneven legged chairs. In the back was a door that John presumed led to the bedroom.
"Is there anything useful in their files? Anything mentions this place or anywhere nearby? " Sherlock asked, as he began to examine the cabin, starting with the cabinets that were clustered around an ancient looking sink. Apparently, the cabin had had some running water.
"I'm not sure," said John, "I'll take a look." He spread out the three files on the kitchen table and began to read. "Nothing useful about the cabin. Its just listed as one of Mulson's properties, along with a Vorbarr Sultana apartment."
"We already knew that- what else?"
"Let's see." John went through some more flimsies. "ImpSec got their comconsul records for the week before they died. Lestrade's preliminary analysis says nothing unusual." He scanned down the lists, family, friends and food delivery services seemed to be the only numbers dialed. "They didn't even call each other."
"Are there any contacts in common?" asked Sherlock. John compared their lists again.
"Only Manger-Chez-Vous, one of those home delivery services. Plescat and Mulson are apparently both rather partial to food from Vordelafoye's district."
"Irrelevent," discarded Sherlock, "The restaurant has been cleared, on the highest levels. Half the General Staff orders their lunches from there."
"Right," said John, turning back to the flimsies. "That's interesting. Vorplade tried calling your brother, two days ago. No answer."
"If my brother were involved in this mess," said Sherlock, somewhat testily, "Then he would not have been so careless as to let the bodies be found. He is far more efficient than that."
John sincerely hoped that was a general extrapolation of Mycroft's character, and not learned from expirence. With the Vorholmes brothers it was hard to tell sometimes.
"I guess that's everything from the comconsul records then." John compared some lists. "From what I can tell, they've never served together." He flipped through some more flimsies. "Mulson has the fastpenta allergy."
"That is hardly surprising. He was a Captain in our intelligence service." Sherlock sounded exasperated. "Isn't their anything useful in that file- I need data."
John turned back to the papers that had somehow already managed to become one confusing mass on the table. He flicked through them the best he could, briefly scanning Academy Records, Family Records, and Merits Awarded before his eyes fell on the medical records again.
"That's interesting," he said, slowly.
"What is?" asked Sherlock, his voice somewhat muffled by the fact that he was nearly halfway into one of the cupboards under the sink.
"Vorplade and Plescat. They have a fastpenta allergy too."
"Is that so unusual?" asked Sherlock, "They were rather high ranking in Ops." He continued his clattering and banging under the sink.
"It is," said John, "They've had the allergy for over thirty years. Since they were lieutenants."
The banging under the sink stopped, and Sherlock withdrew slowly. "That is interesting. Well done John."
Together, they studied the medical papers.
"At least we know they weren't ImpSec men," said John.
"Really? How can you be so sure," asked Sherlock.
"Look at the dates," said John, pointing at the paperwork, "When the allergy was induced, Vorplade was still his brother's heir. No one in direct line for a countship will ever be given the allergy- their person is deemed too valuable."
Sherlock nodded in acceptance of this new information. "Plescat and Vorplade were given the allergy at the same time and by the same people- look at this little notation here, the handwriting is identical on both."
John pulled out Mulson's medical sheet. "It's the same here too. I guess this rules out the idea of him being some hotshot prodigy."
"I think his service record already does that for him," said Sherlock. "So, who other than ImpSec would give someone a fastpenta allergy."
"Your brother?" suggested John, only half joking. Mycroft Vorholmes was well rumored to have the largest spy ring in the country after ImpSec.
"Unfortunately, my brother was still in school at the time," said Sherlock, "Although I have no doubts he had his own agents at that age. "Having met the man, John did not doubt it either.
"Right," said John, "So, who else could it be? Cetaganda?"
"Unlikely," said Sherlock, "The fact that the allergy is mentioned in their files at all means that it must have been with the consent, or at least knowledge of Barrayar."
"Maybe it was from a faction in ImpSec," said John, "One side or another, during Vordarian's pertendership." He checked the dates again, and sighed. "No, never mind, I'm a year off. They got the allergy when Ezar was still emperor."
Sherlock's eyes widened, as if struck by a sudden realization. "That's it!" he breathed. "The Ministry of Political Education."
"What?" began John, and then after a short pause, "That would actually make a lot of sense."
Sherlock nodded. "Yes, just think about it. Three relatively low ranking officers given the allergy, and then sent to infiltrate the various branches of the military. Deep cover agents passing along information, or sleeper agents, waiting to strike at the right time." He seemed almost gleeful at the idea.
"But then came Escobar," said John, "And with that, the riots and purges at home. The complete destruction of the Ministry of Political Education."
"But these three escaped." Sherlock looked contemplative. "That seems almost unlikely, given Negri's efficiency."
"It was probably because they were so new," said John, "Look at the dates."
"What am I supposed to see?" asked Sherlock. This, in Johns, opinion was not a good sign, and was probably leading into another discussion on what was worth deleting from his brain, and what wasn't.
"Do you not know the dates of the Escobar invasion?" asked John, somewhat rhetorically. He didn't give Sherlock any time to answer, and instead continued. "These men were only inducted five days before the invasion, probably in preparation for…ah… the expansion of the Ministry of Political influence back home."
Sherlock nodded in comprehension. "And since they were not technically part of the department, and so new, it is possible they could have escaped Negri's lists. Which only leaves one question. What were they doing out here in the first place?"
To that, John had no answer. He turned back to the stacks of paperwork, and Sherlock returned to examining the cabinets. After a few more frustrating minutes of not finding anything, John went over to join him.
"What exactly are you looking for?" he asked.
"This," replied Sherlock, pulling out a cabinet back that he had somehow managed to detach. John looked at it curiously, until Sherlock flipped it over, revealing a wad of bills tapped to the back. "Mulson was obviously the ImpSec leak that Gregor mentioned, and was passing the information along to someone who paid well."
"There must be over a hundred thousand marks here," said John as he bent down to look. He turned to Sherlock. "How did you know that would be here?"
"Mulson rents his apartment, and someone who has been in ImpSec as long as he would propbably be far to paranoid to acutally hide anything there, especially evidence of betrayl."
As someone who had been part of ImpSec for several years, John could confirm this sort of paranoia. "But how did you know it was hidden here, and not, buried in the yard or something?"
"Mulson had splinters on his hands. He is hardly the type to do any sort of manual labor -no calluses on his hands- so he did not get them from any sort of yard work or home repair." John thought that that was fairly evident by the state of the cabin, which looked like it had been in disarray since the end of the Regency.
"There are few other places where a man with his job, a lack of a social life, could get splinters, so I concluded he probably had something concealed here in the cabin. The cabinets are the most intact part left, and one of the few good hiding places. Additionally, a man of Mulson's age would likely have been subjected to "La Resistance!" when he was young, where there is an episode where the main character conceals information in the same way."
John remembered that show, it had been one of his favorites. He used to spend all day trying to persuade Harry to reenact scenes from the show with him. She would usually only agree if she didn't have to be an evil Cetagandan oppressor, so they would both pretend to be daring heroes of the resistance together.
"How can you remember something like but not know who the Prime Minister is?" asked John. Sherlock declined to comment, and instead started to inspect the cabinets again.
There was a knock on the cabin door.
"I'll get that," said John, loosening his stunner in his belt as he walked over to the window to see who it was. He immediately wished he hadn't.
He rubbed his eyes and blinked, desperately hoping the image in front of them would go away.
He had known this moment was inevitable ever since Sherlock had received his Auditor's Appointment, but he had been hoping it would come at a different time. Preferably not when they were in the middle of an important case.
Lord Auditor Vorkosigan was still standing outside the cabin door.
"Hurry and tell who ever it is to go away" yelled Sherlock from the other room, "I need you back here."
"Sherlock," said John, "Its Lord Auditor Vorkosigan."
There was a pause. Then "Really? Let him in then."
John forced back a grimace, gritted his teeth and opened the door. "My Lord Auditor."
The short man standing on the porch smiled. "Doctor Watson. Is Lord Auditor Vorholmes here?"
John stepped aside so the other man could enter. "He's in the back."
To John's surprise (and growing dread) Sherlock not only looked up from his work when they entered, but walked over and shook Vorkosigan's hand.
"It's good to finally meet you Lord Auditor Vorholmes."
The two exchanged a nod.
"So it was the Polians Vorplade and the rest were passing the information to?" Sherlock asked, rhetorically.
To his credit, Vorkosigan didn't gape or even blink at this deduction. He simply nodded. "Yes, I was talking to the Polian Minister for Trade when I managed to find-" he coughed "-some interesting communications."
This, John took to mean that the Auditor had been snooping around the other man's office while the latter was occupied, most likely by a purpose built distraction. The smile Sherlock gave indicated the same comprehension, which wasn't surprising given that he would probably do the same thing if he could.
"I presume these communications gave information on the Emperor's security detail?"
"Yes how…" his voice trailed off, "You've managed to find evidence of a conspiracy here I take it. Did they have a new Emperor in mind, or were they hoping to take advantage of the political chaos? Either would work for their aims."
"The tarrif reductions and trade concessions, yes," Sherlock paused in contemplation.
"What if it was both?" said John, "I mean what if the Barrayarans had a candidate, and the Polians just wanted chaos, so they killed them."
"Who would this candidate be?" asked Sherlock, "He would have to be powerful enough to take control, have at least some degree of legitimacy, and fit with the Political Education men's conservative ideals."
"That rules out my father then," said Vorkosigan, looking relived.
"Yes, I don't think Political Education men would ever conspire to put him on the throne."
"Vorplade's brother perhaps? The Count, not the drunk."
"They are both drunks, as it happens," said Sherlock, loftily. John winced a little on the inside, but Vorkosigan seemed not to be bothered. "But no. He could never unite the Council of Counts."
"I think," said John slowly, "It was meant to be Mycroft."
Sherlock's face was such a mixture of puzzlement, disgust and indignation that John was immediately regretful he hadn't brought his holocam.
"What?" Sherlock finally spluttered, as if the idea was practically unthinkable.
To him, it probably was, reflected John.
"Someone would actually want Mycroft as Emperor of Barrayar?"
"He fits all the required categories," said Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, "He's more conservative in his politics, and has a strong claim to the Imperium in his own right. Along with my family, Ivan, Count Vorbechaux and the late Count Vordarian, the Vorholmes are one of the five families that would have a strong claim to the throne if we allowed Salic decent."
"And Vorplade tried to call him a few days before he was killed," added John.
Sherlock nodded absently. "Yes, yes, but its Mycroft," he said, as if that explained everything. To him, it probably did.
John sighed. "Not everyone feels the same way about your brother as you do, Sherlock. He is rather well known to be capable and commanding."
Vorkosigan nodded in agreement. "Mycroft Vorholmes is to the Council of Ministers as Simon Illyan was to ImpSec,"he said, quoting a popular phrase from Imperial HQ, albeit one that was never repeated when either of the two men were around, although they had both doubtlessly heard it.
"Mycroft would never accept though," said Sherlock, "He much prefers to be the spider with the flies than the man on the horse. The same power with much fewer risks."
John opened his mouth to comment on this, and then though better of it. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Vorkosigan do the same. The two shared a knowing look.
"That's exactly it though," said Sherlock slowly, as if a revelation had suddenly come to him.
"What? The spiders?" asked John, only half joking.
"No, no." Sherlock shot him a look that could only be described as pity. "He would never accept."
"And the Polians knew this," said Vorkosigan, catching on at once, "or at least strongly suspected. So when men reported to their handlers, and mentioned their candidates name…"
"They panicked. They knew Mycroft couldn't be brought into the conspiracy. He'd betray them."
"But the Political Education men refused to believe that. So…" Vorkosigan made a cutting motion across his throat with his hand, complete with a sound effect.
Sherlock nodded. "So they were lured here, to an isolated cabin, and poisoned, thus eliminating the problem. The Polian's already had the information they needed, so it was no great loss to their plan."
"If they were so expendable, why weren't they killed earlier then?" asked John. "It seems a bit odd to leave them alive when they could betray everything."
"Oh no, they would have made great scapegoats," said Vorkosigan, almost admiringly. "They had excellent motivations on their own, and with all the chaos following Gregor's death, people might not have looked much farther."
"Yes, very clever," said Sherlock approvingly, "Especially if they managed to take out Allegre as well."
The two men shared a look of triumph and satisfaction from having solved the case. It was rather scary, John reflected, how similar that look made them seem, especially since one was tall and lanky and the other was…not. Still, he smiled too.
Then something occurred to him.
"Hold on. If this conspiracy was as smart as you two think, then what were the bodies doing out here, and not... disposed of?"
The identical looks of self-congratulation and glee on Sherlock and Miles' faces quickly shifted to ones of thought and disquiet.
"That," said Vorkosigan, "Is a very good point."
It was at that moment that the door burst open, in the kind of serendipitous timing John had previously though only existed in holovids or books.
Three men, each with nerve disrupters in their hands and a variety of other weapons holstered to their belts stepped inside, looking somewhat confused to see people in the house. The Polian clean up crew, a little late.
Vorkosigan and Sherlock shared a look, and then the shorter Lord Auditor stepped forward. "Ah good, we've being waiting to see you gentlemen."
One of the men leveled his nerve disrupter at Vorkosigan's chest, looking as confused as John felt. "Who the hell are you?" he asked.
"This is Count Vorplade," said Vorkosigan, indicating Sherlock and pretending to misunderstand the question. He suddenly looked worried. "You are the …ah…team we called for?"
John had no idea where Vorkosigan was going with this, so he schooled his face to be as impassive as possible. Glancing over at Sherlock, he could see that his friend was doing his best to hide a gleeful grin.
The thugs, on the other hand, did not seem as happy. "Who. Are. You?" the leader repeated through clenched teeth. He jabbed his nerve disruptor towards Vorkosigan again.
"I am," Vorkosigan paused, either for dramatic effect or to quickly make up an answer, "Admiral Naismith, Dendarii free mercenaries."
Well, thought John, if these men didn't kill them, Simon Illyan or General Allegre certinetly would.
"The crazy manic?" asked one of the men, who had obviously heard of Naismith before. He looked at Vorkosigan suspiciously. "I thought he retired."
"I prefer creative genius," said Vorkosigan, "And I only retired from fleet command. I am still in charge of the operation as a whole."
This, as far as John knew (and desperately hoped) was a barefaced lie, but the men seemed to be buying it. They might get out of this after all.
"Who's he?" asked the leader, turning to point the nerve disputer at John, "Is he one of those guardsmen thingys?"
"One of my armsmen? With that limp? Don't be ridiculous," sneered Sherlock, clearly relishing his role as Vorplade. "He's one of Naismith's men, a specialist of some sort."
"I though they all wore white and grey," mumbled one of the men under his breath.
"We are," said Vorkosigan, letting his voice become dangerously acerb, "undercover."
"And what a success that's been," drawled-Sherlock-as-Vorplade, "You promised me results, Naismith, and I still don't see them. Instead, I have a nerve disrupter pointed in my face."
"I just need a little more time," wheedled Vorkosigan, "That, and another ten thousand Betan dollars."
Sherlock's eyebrows went up. "More money? I already paid you once for this job. I can't withdraw any more money from my estate without anyone getting suspicious."
Vorkosigan shrugged. "Hey, that's not my problem. Do you want your brother dead or not?" John sincerely hoped that if Sherlock answered yes, it was only because he was in character.
"You don't need to pay him," said the lead thug. Everyone turned to look at him. "You're Anton Vorplade's brother right?"
"Unfortunately," said Sherlock, "His existence is a blight on the family tree." Had the situation not been so serious, John would have laughed at Sherlock's spot on imitation of some of the more pretentious Vor they had met.
"Well, there's no need to pay Mr. Naismith here to… act as a gardener and prune the family tree. Your brother's already dead."
"Are you sure?" asked Sherlock, " I would be very…appreciative if I had proof."
The leader smiled and lowered his nerve disruptor. "Alright," he laughed, "I'm sure we can work something out. Chadlem, Leo, go into the back and see if you can find where Gamma Team buried the bodies."
The two men nodded and left the room, which was exactly what John had been waiting for. In one fluid motion, he pulled his stunner from his belt, and the shot the leader in the middle of his chest. The other man didn't even have time to react. He just fell to the floor with a loud thump.
"The other two will have heard that," said Sherlock.
"Yes, well we'll be ready," said John. He walked over to the leader's stunned form and pulled the man's stunner out of his belt holster. He threw it to Vorkosigan. "I hope you're not too out of practice."
He was immediately proven right when Chadlem and Leo rentered the building and were both instantly stunned.
"So how did you know the men weren't Barrayaran?" asked John as they dragged the men out of the middle of the floor. No Barrayarn would have been fooled by two of the most prominent High Vor on the planet pretending to be someone else.
"Well for one thing, they didn't immediately blanche upon seeing two Imperial Auditors in the same room," said Vorkosigan.
"Didn't you even get a look at their shoes John?" asked Sherlock, "Nowhere in Barrayar has the type of plant spores that were caught in their laces. They're from the mesalith plant, native to Pol."
"Which has never been introduced to Barrayar for ecologic reasons," finished Vorkosigan. "You should really come to dinner sometime. Ekaterin would love to meet you."
To John's surprise, Sherlock actually nodded, and said "Yes, that would be quiet nice."
"What do we do about them?" asked John, indicating the three men who were now propped against the wall.
"Unless you have a supply of fastpenta on you, I doubt they'll be very inclined to answer our questions."
"I have some," said Sherlock.
"Sherlock. That is illegal," ground out John.
"Hardly. Its only illegal to use it on someone else, not to dose yourself." Sherlock smiled. "And really John, I'm an Imperial Auditor now. No one is going to arrest me."
John sincerely hoped that the Emperor had really thought about what he was doing before he made Sherlock his Voice.
"You dose yourself?" asked Vorkosigan interestedly, "I once met an engineer that did something similar, said it provided some interesting perspectives."
John was fairly sure that Sherlock used it less to stimulate his thinking than to stave off his near perpetual boredom. Then again, as quasi-illegal as his fastpenta use might be, it was highly preferable to Sherlock using a very illegal military issue plasma arc to draw a smiley face on the wall of the living room.
"I don't mean to interrupt," said John, somewhat testily, "But perhaps now isn't the best time for this conversation." He looked pointedly at their prisoners, lying slumped against the wall.
"Later, then," said Sherlock, and Vorkosigan agree with a short nod. Sherlock then slipped out the door, presumably to fetch the fastpenta.
John was very glad that he had retired from ImpSec at the same time Illyan left, or now he would be expected to make a report on the incident. He could see it now. "Yes sir. Vorholmes and Vorkosigan met and started conspiring together. Then, Vorkosigan reactivated his Naismith identity, and Vorholmes produced personal stash of fastpenta. Oh yes, and they made dinner plans."
Sherlock returned, carrying both John's medkit, and what must be his cache of fastpenta. He handed both over to John.
"Who do you want to start with?" asked John, now resigned to this course of action.
"The leader, I think," said Vorkosigan, and Sherlock nodded.
John reached into his medkit and pulled out a shot of synergine, which he deposited into the man's upper arm. The man gave a weak groan.
He also found a set of fastpenta test strips, which he did not remember adding to the kit. It would be just like Sherlock, to have put them in incase they needed to illegally interrogate a subject. John stifled an irritated sigh, grabbed a strip and tested it aginst the man's left forearm.
"You do realize this probably isn't going to work?" said John conversationally, "I sincerely doubt a cleanup team, even one from Pol, would be set lose on the surface of Barrayar, ready to spill details to the waiting arms of ImpSec if captured."
Vorkosigan shrugged. "Maybe. But if I were in charge, I might have fed them with false information, then let them get captured on purpose just to spread confusion. Then, while ImpSec's looking in the wrong direction, I carry out my real plan with no problems."
"You're not exactly helping your case here," said John.
Sherlock looked at him with a hint of exasperation. "Even false information can be revealing. Don't you remember the case of the jumpstation clerk? You wrote about it-"
"I remember Sherlock," grit out John, "That was where you nearly got me and Aurelia killed."
"Yes. And then she broke up with me. Publicly. And loudly."
"She was the one with the annoying laugh from Hassadar wasn't she? Really John, you could have done much better."
"That," spat out John, "Is not the point. I-"
"The test results are back," cut in Vorkosigan. John was suddenly reminded that they had an audience, especially if he counted the man on the ground, who was just beginning to come out of his stunner induced haze.
"And?" asked Sherlock, peering over Johns shoulder.
"Negative," said John. "We can proceed." He took a hypospray of fast penta from Sherlock, and injected it into the leader's arm. The mans face glazed over, going from a look of rage and confusion, to the dreamlike state of someone under the drug.
"What is your name?" asked Sherlock.
"Hunter Knett," shlured the man.
"Really?" muttered Vorkosigan, "How appropriate."
Knett nodded vigorously. "Yup. My mama chose it for me. She thought I'd be big and strong and like-"
"What are you doing here?" asked Sherlock, cutting the other man off. People under fastpenta tended to wandered, and clearly Knett was no exception.
"We're a clean up crew, " said Knett, smiling proudly. "Me and my boys. Come to make sure the idiots on Gamma team didn't leave any evidence. Can't let the Barrayarans be seeing them."
"Why?" prompted Vorkosigan.
Knett looked at him as if here were stupid, which was not an easy task under fast penta. "Cause then they'd know that something's up."
"But they already know. You must have realized that."
"Yes," said Knett, drawing the word out, and all the while smiling like he had a secret, "But they don't know that the Ministry of Political Education's involved. Wont that be a surprise?" He broke off, giggling to himself.
Sherlock and Vorkosigan turned to face each other. "Does ImpSec know?"
"There were no signs of it on Pol, so it wasn't in my preliminary report," said Vorkosigan, "As far as they know, this is a purely galactic conspiracy. You?"
Sherlock actually looked a little embarrassed. "We only made the connection a few minutes before you arrived."
"This is bad," said John.
"Really, really bad," giggled Knett, echoing John's words back.
"The plot's still on," said John, "Or else there would be no reason to bother sending another clean up team"6
Knett nodded "Yep! And soon!"
"Where? When?" Vorkosigan demanded.
"I don't know," said Knett, sounding a little put out, "No one ever tells me anything. They all say I'm stupid…"
John tuned out the rest of Knett's babbling.
"Right," said Sherlock, "We need to move fast. John- you need to go to General Allegre. He'll be at the Palace. Report to him -and only him- what we've discovered. There could still be some conspirators in ImpSec."
"Me?" said John, "Wouldn't it be better if one of you two went?"
Sherlock shook his head. "No. If the plan is as imminent as we think, than the Polians will be watching Gregor and Allegre. If either of us go, it might spook them into acting early."
"And how do I get in Sherlock?" asked John. "If you haven't noticed, I'm retired. And even if I wasn't, I could just waltz in to the Imperial Palace."
"I'm sure you can figure something out. I have faith in your abilities. Meanwhile, Vorkosigan and I will proceed to ImpSec, to try and contact Allegre on a secured com there, and to see if we can find any more information in Vorplade's things."
John wanted to protest, to say it was a stupid idea, (which it was) but they were running out of time, and he couldn't see any other options.
"Right. Let's go."
This John thought, as the comconsul rang, is a really stupid idea. But he couldn't think of any other way to get into the Imperial Palace.
"Hello?" said a groggy voice, as the vid feed finally flickered to life. "Who is this? I don't recognize the number."
"Captain Vorpatril sir, my name is John Watson."
Vorpatril blinked tiredly a few times, but then grimaced. "Oh God, you're his friend. What have I done to deserve this?"
Normally John would have taken offense at someone talking about Sherlock like that, but after meeting Vorkosigan, John saw a certain kindred spirit in Vorpatil, as a fellow sane man.
"I need to speak with General Allegre of His Majesty in person, or at least through a secured comconsul."
At this, Vorpatril straightened. "You need to do what?"
"Sherl- Lord Auditor Vorholmes and Lord Auditor Vorkosigan have uncovered some important information in the course of their investigation that must be relayed at once."
"They're working together?" A look of horror came over Ivan's face. "Please tell me Mark isn't there too- or even worse- Mycroft."
At this John smiled. "I can at least assure you of that." He felt a sudden outpouring of sympathy for Ivan, with not one, but two separate sets of eccentric cousins to deal with.
"It's important, you say?" Vorpatil eyed the screen warily.
Ivan sighed. "Alright, I can get you into the palace. But Miles owes me for this."
A few minutes later, Vorpatril arrived in a rather fancy looking ground car. John didn't even want to think about how fast he must have driven to get to John's apartment that quickly. He very quickly found out, as Vorpartil started driving down the streets of Vorbarr Sultana like a madman, going far above the speed limit, and making several dangerously sharp turns.
He didn't comment on this though, as because of it, they arrived at the Imperial Palace far quicker than John ever thought possible.
Using his Vorish connections, charm and sheer pleading Vorpatil got them through the gates. He deposited John with a Vorbarra footman, before heading off, ostensibly to formally record their presence with a night guard, although John suspected a drink was more likely.
"Please wait here," said the footman as he opened the doors to a small elaborately furnished room just off the main corridor. "I will speak to my superior about your request."
"Will this take long?" John demanded. "It's an emergency."
The footman gave him an annoyed look. "I will move with all due speed, Doctor Watson." He looked pointedly at the chairs. John took the hint, and sat down.
As soon as the footman left the room, he got up and started pacing. There was no reason to panic, at least not yet anyway. While there was definitely a planned attack, the Emperor was currently safe, tucked away in his room in the palace.
The real danger wouldn't begin until tomorrow, when he was due to head to Komarr, where he would not only be meeting up with his wife, but also conducting several visits to military bases and terraforming centers. Although, John reflected, with the potential severity of this threat, the trip might need to be postponed again.
Suddenly, something occurred to him. He pulled out his comlink, and called Sherlock.
"Where are you?" he demanded, "Are you still at the cabin?"
"No," Sherlock replied, "Vorkosigan and I have just reached ImpSec, but Allegre's not here, or picking up his comconsul.8 Have you been able to reach him yet?"
"No, not yet. But I've just realized something important. Knett thought that Gamma team had buried the bodies. So what was his clean up team doing there in the first place?"
"But that doesn't make any sense. Unless…" Vorkosigan's voice trailed off, as if suddenly struck but a horrible idea.
"Unless the Polians wanted his team to be caught, and interrogated," Sherlock's voice came over the com, crackly and tinged with urgency. "We've fallen into their trap. They wanted us to realize something was happening, and keep Gregor in the palace, 'safe' in ImpSec protection."
"And then they send their assassin," said Vorkosigan slowly, his voice an odd mixture of admiration and worry. "Probably another former Political Education man, but we can't be sure. It's definitely someone within the Service though."
"John," said Sherlock, "Go tell Allegre-"
"I'm already on my way," John interrupted. He had been running since Sherlock mentioned a trap.
At the end of the corridor, he ran into Vorpatril. "Captain Vorpatil Sir." He saluted out of reflex, even though though it had been nearly ten years since his discharge from the Service, and three since his retirement from ImpSec. "DO you know where I can find General Allegre? Its urgent."
Vorpatril must have gathered the severity of the situation, because his face lost its easy smile and went serious. "Allegre's just left. Kaserton at the guard post just told me."
John swore. This was bad-no this was very bad. Now would be the perfect time for an assassin to strike.
"Is it really that-" asked Vorpatril.
"Yes," John interrupted . "It is."
"Right," said Vorpatril, "I'll take you to Gregor then."
He led John down a twisting path of lavishly decorated corridors, lined with dark wood paneling and what John was sure must be priceless masterpieces. There was a landscape he recognized from a class in university, a remarkably ugly still life, a Vor Lord leading a cavalry charge, a black square…
It took John's tired brain a moment to realize what he was seeing, but as soon as he understood, he swore. Beside him, he heard Ivan mutter something that was either a curse or a prayer. The two started sprinting almost in unison, Ivan leading, but John hard on his heels.
A secret passage. The perfect way to sneak in an assassin. The irony was not lost on John, with the assassin using one of the secret escape routes that should have been the Emperor's lifeline.
It was a rather clever, if also complicated plot. Kill your own spies, but make it clear they were part of a larger plot, so the target would be moved to "safety", where the assassin could easily strike. Despite Sherlock's earlier dismissal of the idea, John wondered if the Cetagandas were behind the plot- it was certainty complicated enough for them.
John and Ivan rounded the corner to reach the Emperor's Bedroom to find the ImpSec guards lying on the ground. There was no blood, so John couldn't tell if they had taken nerve disrupter fire or were just stunned. He didn't stop to check.
The door was slightly ajar, so John shouldered it open, grabbing his nerve disrupter from the holster on his belt as he did so.
The Emperor was sitting in a green chair next to the fireplace. His face was calm, and he seemed only slightly concerned about the fact that there was a young man in an ImpSec uniform pointing a nerve disruptor at his head.
The man was standing with his back to the door, but he started to turn round at the sound of John's entry.
John didn't hesitate. The nerve disruptor blast took the assassin squarely to the head. He made a brief strangled sound as his body convulsed, and then fell to the floor, dead.
Two weeks later, John was back at the Imperial Palace, in the same room where the Emperor had first given Sherlock his assignment. Upon his arrival back from Komarr, the Emperor had invited John to come see him, on the day Sherlock and Vorkosigan were due to give in their reports.
It was all a bit surreal, really, to be sitting there having tea and pastries with the Emperor of Barrayar. John did his best to ignore the ImpSec guard standing not so subtly by the fireplace.
"I wanted to personally thank you for you for saving my life," said the Emperor, "Before the award ceremony next month. I also wanted to give you this."
The Emperor reached into a draw in his desk, and pulled out a small unmarked square bit of plastic. He handed it to John.
"This is my personal comconsul number. If you ever need to speak with me, no matter what the reason, use it, and tell the person who answers your name. They will put you through to me."
John felt slightly uncomfortable. "Really, Your Majesty, there's no need. I was just doing my duty."
"Then accept this as a reward for a job well done." The Emperor smiled. "Besides, you're friends with Sherlock. I have a feeling that this could be very useful in the months ahead."
John pocketed the card. Apparently the Emperor knew Sherlock, and his propensity for trouble, as well as John did.
"Ah, here he is now," said the Emperor, as the door opened, and Sherlock and Lord Auditor Vorkosigan stepped inside. They presented their reports to the Empeors, and then took seats next to John.
"How are things at ImpSec?" asked the Emperor.
"Good, good," Vorkosigan seemed almost nervous, "Everything there is fine."
"Miles," said the Emperor in a warning tone.
"Allegre could probably fill you in-" he began, the stopped at Gregor's look. "Well, Sherlock and I were exchanging messages with some people in Pol…um…informing them of the situation, nothing classified of course, and it turns out, well, we might have cause a coup."
"You brought down the government of Pol?" asked John, doing his best to keep his voice steady.
"Really John, I don't see why you're so upset. They deserved it."
"Have there been any indications of who was behind all this?"
"The Polians of course."
"The objectives maybe, but not the methods. Who?"
"Just whispers, a name on the wind. Nothing confirmed."
"Tell me anyway."