Welcome to the second post of my reread of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, in which I cover Chapters Three and Four of Shards of Honour. It’s too bad that she doesn’t have chapter titles and icons like Robert Jordan, but I suppose those can be a lot of work, and a pain to try to keep creative without giving away too much, so I’ll live with it in this case. At least she didn’t go the other extreme, like George R.R. Martin, who doesn’t number his chapters, just lists the viewpoint character, so it’s hard to even identify a particular chapter. Or Terry Pratchett, who often doesn’t even have chapters (or, I suppose, has only one chapter, with the same title as the book).
Be cautious about reading this if you haven’t read the series before and can’t bear to have the slightest thing given away; I try to avoid plot spoilers, but I will feel few compunctions about mentioning that such-and-such a character, or planet, or whatever, turns up later, or about mentioning cultural or setting notes that may not come up until later books. You can probably read the series faster than I do, so go out and buy a copy of Cordelia’s Honour and read ahead. Some of Bujold’s books are available online for free from Baen, but I can’t remember which ones, and it may change, so go and look for yourself. Anyway. On to the actual chapters.
Aral asks Cordelia to talk to him as they walk that morning, to keep his mind off his leg. They talk about leadership styles, and Cordelia says that if she has to use force, she’s already failed, and she wins mostly through keeping her temper longer than anyone else. She adds that civilization is mostly for the benefit of women, and mothers, and doesn’t know how she’d cope in a primitive situation. Aral says she could have handled it, and she’d be a fine “mother of warriors”. Cordelia doesn’t think much of the “warrior” part, though.
“Save me from that! To pour your life into sons for eighteen or twenty years, and then have the government take them away and waste them cleaning up after some failure of politics—no thanks.”
Aral asks if it would be different if they volunteered to fight, and Cordelia allowed it would be, but that it’s academic, since she has no children in any case. Aral asks if she’s glad about it, and she replies neutrally, despite it being a painful topic for her.
They cross a stretch of badlands, with some effort, Cordelia helping Dubauer through. Afterwards they take a break, and Aral examines the festering wound on his leg. He asks if Cordelia thinks she could drain the wound, but she says she’d be more likely to get it infected. She thinks that it must be bothering him to have mentioned it, and he takes a precious half-painkiller.
As the continue, Aral talks about his father, a former ground commander and friend of the current Emperor.
Cordelia caught a faint, faraway impression of a cold father whom a young son could never quite please, even with his best efforts, yet who shared with him a bond of underlying loyalty.
Cordelia describes her own family, and asks if Aral remembers his mother. Aral tells her how she died in Yuri Vorbarra’s Massacre. Emperor Yuri had become paranoid about his relatives, so he tried to have them all killed, including Aral’s grandfather Prince Xav, Aral’s mother, and Aral himself. Yuri left Aral’s father alone, but he turned against the Emperor after his wife was killed. Aral was there, and berates himself for having tried to take out his mother’s assassin with a mere table knife, when there were better knives to hand. Aral says he was thrown across the room, and stops short of describing the actual murder, though more details have surfaced than he thought he remembered. Cordelia notices that he seems to be feverish.
Cordelia describes her father’s death, in a shuttle accident, and how they were all blinded by the explosion for days afterward. Aral parallels this with the deafness after the sonic grenade that killed his mother.
“…I couldn’t hear anything after that for quite some time. As if all sound had gone off the scale of human reception. Total noise, emptier of meaning than silence.”
“Yes . . .” How strange, that he should know exactly what I felt—he says it better, though. . . .
He says the experience, the helplessness, is what made him want to become a soldier, so he’d be better prepared in future. Cordelia asks him about combat, and he says that space combat is very clean, unless your ship is hit. Different from murder, like when he killed his Political Officer on Komarr; he saw his own death in the face of the corpse, but he’d had to protect his honour. He tells Cordelia that anger seems to make her stronger, not weaker like it does him, and Cordelia isn’t sure how to react to the odd compliment.
They see a contrail in the sky, of a shuttle coming down for the cache. Cordelia wonders if they should try to attract its attention, but Aral says, “My best friends and my deadliest enemies all wear the same uniform. I prefer to make my presence known as selectively as possible.” He wonders if had Gottyan found his hidden sealed orders, but doubts it, since the Political Officer Radnov hadn’t found them yet.
Cordelia describes the man who shot Dubauer and asks if that was Radnov, but Aral says it was probably Bothari, which would explain matters. Bothari is odd, hating Aral and having been recently disciplined by him, but unlikely to shoot him in the back; Radnov may have tried to recruit him in any case. Aral enjoys sparring with him because he doesn’t pull his punches. Cordelia points out that Bothari nearly killed her, but Aral insists that in his own way, he’s honourable.
The ground rises and vegetation becomes thicker as they approach the mountain, and Cordelia finds the going increasingly difficult for Dubauer, and eventually she berates Aral for the Barrayarans’ choice of weapons. He agrees that stunners are more civilized, but they’re not threatening enough, and people don’t mind risking getting hit by them. Cordelia says that she’d rather have a stunner, because she couldn’t even bring herself to fire a nerve disruptor.
As they continue, Aral tries to help with Dubauer, but Dubauer shies away from him, and he gives up. He pushed himself onward with increasing determination, making Cordelia wonder if he’ll make it to their destination, or leave her to try to pick the right side of Barrayarans without his help. They reach a waterfall close to sunset, and Aral decides they should stop there, rather than try to push on the cache during the night. He offers his Barrayaran rations, which Cordelia compares unfavourably to boot leather, and even to the porridge and blue cheese they are by now heartily tired of.
Cordelia offers to take the longer shift on watch, pointing out that Aral is obviously exhausted, and she and Dubauer won’t make it without him. Aral says she’s not what he expected a female officer to be–less of an “imitation man”, but still professional. Cordelia says she’s really not that unusual for Beta Colony.
Aral asks about arranged marriages, and Cordelia finds the whole idea bizarre. Aral says that among his caste on Barrayar, almost all marriages are arranged–not forced, but arranged by parents, and it seems to work. He finds the Betan concept of just arranging things among yourselves, with no go-betweens, to be awkward, but Cordelia says that lovers can generally work it out. Aral tells her that in the Time of Isolation, it was considered dishonourable to take a military woman for a lover, which made it a popular topic for fiction if nothing else. He asks what she had expected being taken prisoner by Barrayarans, and Cordelia says, “Something criminal” (i.e. rape). Aral doesn’t deny it happens, but considers it a sickness, and only the “scum of the service” would sink to it.
Cordelia tells the story of “a friend of hers”:
“…She was rather—socially inept. Everyone around her seemed to be finding their soul-mates, and the older she grew, the more panicky she got about being left out. Quite pathetically anxious.
“She finally fell in with a man with the most astonishing talent for turning gold into lead. She couldn’t use a word like love, or trust, or honor in his presence without eliciting clever mockery. Pornography was permitted; poetry, never.
“They were, as it happened, of equal rank when the captaincy of their ship fell open. She’d sweated blood for this command, worked her tail off—well, I’m sure you know what it’s like. Commands are few, and everybody wants one. Her lover persuaded her, partly by promise that turned out to be lies, later—children, in fact—to stand down in his favor, and he got the command. Quite the strategist. It ended soon after. Thoroughly dry.
“She had no stomach for another lover, after that. So you see, I think your old Barrayarans may have been on to something, after all. The inept—need rules, for their own protection.”
Aral tells a story of his own “friend”, in an arranged marriage at twenty. He was often away on duty, and she found herself in a society where it was expected that she take lovers. The friend arranged duels with her lovers. He killed the first in a swordfight (Aral makes a slip here which convinces Cordelia that the story is about him, the same way her story was really about her), and the second wouldn’t even fight; Aral’s “friend” killed him anyway in disgust. The wife, distraught over losing her lovers, killed herself with a plasma arc. The “friend”, ready to give himself up to justice, found that the authorities believed the two lovers killed each other, and that he was entirely blameless. Somehow he carried on, though the memories don’t go away.
After Aral goes to sleep, shivering in his fever, Cordelia covers him up with one of Dubauer’s bedrolls.
The chapters that are mostly dialogue are the hardest to summarize. All I end up doing is paraphrasing the dialogue as reported speech, trying not to copy too many actual phrasings, so you should really read the original instead. I’ve probably left out a few points about Beta Colony vs. Barrayar that came up in the dialogue, too. So far, Beta Colony seems to be the more futuristic, while Barrayar is stuck in the past, but of course Barrayar seems to be more acquainted with the virtues of “principle” and “honour”. It’s telling, in Cordelia’s story, that there doesn’t seem to be any way for her to take reprisal, where a Barrayaran who was betrayed the same way would doubtless do something, albeit probably something rash.
Aral isn’t doing a good job of selling Cordelia on Barrayar, with Yuri’s Massacre, the death of his wife, and even Bothari. And yes, okay, Bothari was the shooter back in Chapter One with the nerve disruptor. I just wish Bujold had made it a little clearer, so I wouldn’t have made such a fool of myself missing it the first time. (All the other times I read it, of course, I continued on to Chapter Three a little quicker, so I figured it out in less time.) I don’t know if Aral has formed his intentions towards Cordelia by this point, and if he’s intentionally testing her to see how badly she recoils, or if he’s perhaps letting slip more than he means to because of his fever.
I should also perhaps mention that while I consistently refer to him as “Aral”, in the actual text of the book he is pretty much always “Vorkosigan”. Cordelia doesn’t feel that intimate with him yet, perhaps, but I find “Aral” to be, not to put too fine a point on it, shorter and easier to type, so I’ll continue that way. I thought about referring to Aral’s father by his name, Pyotr, but there’ll be time enough for that later when the name is actually mentioned. (There’s also a bad joke somewhere about how Aral must be Prince Caspian’s younger brother…)
Aral wakes up a couple of hours before dawn and sends Cordelia to get a couple of hours’ sleep; she awakens to find him washed and depilated. He asks her to help drain the wound on his leg, to hold him until they get to the cache. Cordelia cuts it open, and they wash it out at the edge of the waterfall. Afterwards, Aral has trouble walking on the leg, so he uses his last painkiller, plus a precious stimulant pill which he says will give him sixteen hours before he collapses.
They arc around the base of the mountain and examine the cache from an outcrop through a field scope, Dubauer asleep in a sheltered spot. Aral spots two men–Koudelka, who he can trust, and Darobey, who is one of Radnov’s spies, and then Radnov himself. Aral anticipates taking Radnov’s superiors to task after the man’s act of outright mutiny. Then he spots Gottyan himself, armed and in charge. As they return to shelter, they discover Dubauer missing; they make a quick search, but don’t find him. Aral convinces Cordelia that by this point it’ll be quicker for him to take his command back and then send out a proper search party.
They sneak up on the cache, Aral not being sure why the shuttle returned and not wanting to just walk in until he does. They lie down in the grass; Aral gives Cordelia back her stunner and keeps his knife. When Gottyan passes by, Aral steps out and greets him. Gottyan pulls out a nerve disruptor in reflex, and doesn’t lower it even when he sees who it is. Aral asks if he was in on Radnov’s plan; Gottyan says no, but the opportunity for his own command was too good to pass up. He asks Aral about the sealed orders, but Aral doesn’t tell him. Gottyan says that Bothari told him what really happened at the camp, which is why they came back, to wait for Vorkosigan to turn up, though Bothari is in solitary confinement, and he hasn’t told anyone else that Aral is still alive. Aral comments that there’s still time to change his mind; Gottyan doesn’t believe that Aral could forgive him this, though. Cordelia sees him crying tears for Aral and realizes he’s about to shoot, so she shoots him with the stunner. It doesn’t knock him out completely, but Aral takes the opportunity to disarm him. Aral asks Gottyan about the pickets, and he says Koudelka is to the south, Sens to the north; as Aral ties him up, he tells Cordelia that Sens is one of Radnov’s.
They debate whether to believe Gottyan, and eventually decide to go north. Aral tells Cordelia to fall back and “use her initiative” as he approaches the guard post; he finds Koudelka there, who is honestly happy to see him.
She leaned against a tree, suddenly weak. And just when was it, she asked herself, that you stopped being afraid of him and started being afraid for him? And why is this new fear so much more gut-wrenching than the first? You don’t seem to have come out ahead on the trade, have you?
Aral calls Cordelia out of concealment, which puzzles Koudelka and his companion guard, who thought the Betans had killed him.
“Your funeral was splendid,” said Koudelka. “You should have been there.”
“Next time, perhaps,” Vorkosigan grinned.
“Oh. You know I didn’t mean it that way, sir. Lieutenant Radnov made the best speech.”
“I’m sure. He’d probably been working on it for months.”
Koudelka, a little quicker on the uptake than his companion, said “Oh.” His fellow merely looked puzzled.
Vorkosigan went on. “Permit me to introduce Commander Cordelia Naismith, of the Betan Astronomical Survey. She is . . .” he paused, and Cordelia waited interestedly to hear what status she was to be assigned, “ah . . .”
“Sounds like?” she murmured helpfully.
Vorkosigan closed his lips firmly, pressing a smile out straight. “My prisoner,” he chose finally. “On parole. Except for access to classified areas, she is to be extended every courtesy.”
He asks Koudelka who’s in the landing party, and when Koudelka tells him, he orders the arrest of Radnov, Darobey, Sens, and Tafas. Koudelka asks if he’s sure about Tafas, and Aral reminds him that there will be a trial, to separate the guilty from the innocent. They head off toward the entrance to the cache cavern, Aral trying to disguise how much he’s leaning on Cordelia.
In front of the entrance, there’s a cluster of Barrayarans; Cordelia realizes that two of them are hauling Dubauer’s face out of the water. Aral orders them to release him, and they explain that he was captured, but “refused” to talk, and they were trying to interrogate him. Aral explains about the disruptor damage, and Cordelia castigates them all as “barbarians, scoundrels, and assassins!” Aral formally apologizes to her, which Cordelia accepts with poor grace. Aral orders the ranking officer, Ensign Buffa, to take command, relieves Tafas of his weapon, and tells Buffa to take his prisoners, Dubauer and Cordelia, to the cave and them whatever they require. He heads off to deal with Gottyan himself, and Cordelia reminds him obliquely to be careful.
Koudelka asks him what happened to Aral, and Cordelia downplays the leg injury, but says he should get medical attention for it as soon as they can get him to slow down. Koudelka says he’s never seen anyone with as much energy as “the old man”, which puzzles Cordelia as he doesn’t seem old to her, Betan lifespans being longer.
As they go through the tunnels, Cordelia realizes that this is more than just a cache, with extensive tunnels carved by plasma arc, and stuffed with supplies. She is troubled by the implications. Koudelka takes them a mess hall and fills in the cook there, Yeoman Nilesa, about Dubauer and Cordelia’s status. Cordelia asks for anything but oatmeal or blue cheese, and is delighted with the simple but tasty food he brings. She has soon won Nilesa over, and he even offers to help feed Dubauer.
Aral arrives and makes a similar request for food. Cordelia asks what happened with Gottyan, and Aral says he gave Gottyan his plasma arc and turned his back, saying he was tired of working with someone who made his shoulder blades itch. After ten minutes, Gottyan gave it back and they returned to the camp. Aral and Cordelia both sit tiredly at the table until Koudelka returns to tell them that they collared all of the mutineers except Radnov and Darobey, who got away. Aral tells him that he will leave them on the planet and they will return to the ship in orbit.
They ride up in the shuttle with the rest of the Barrayarans, including the prisoners. The soldiers seem to be speculating on what Cordelia and Aral got up to on the planet, which amuses her somewhat. Aral goes forward as they near orbit, and Cordelia senses him drawing apart, back into his duties. She anticipates some quiet times with him over the next few months, which she resolves to consider a holiday spent studying Barrayaran culture.
Once they dock with the ship, Koudelka takes them to the sickbay to drop off Dubauer. Cordelia tells the surgeon about Aral’s leg, and the stimulant pill he took. She waits around for Aral, who is close to the end of his energy, but still trying to give orders, to get Bothari released from custody and Cordelia given what she needs; they manage to get him to lie down, and the surgeon reassures her that he’ll be all right once it wears off. Koudelka gets her some clothing from stores, and recharges her stunner, as Aral had ordered, even though she is a prisoner; Cordelia points out that technically she’s merely a detainee, since they’re not at war. Koudelka takes her to the Visiting Officer’s Quarters.
A bit of an abrupt end for the chapter, really. A lot of new people, some of which doubtless turn up later in the book, so I’ve been trying not to stint on names, though Koudelka is the only one I remember from later books. The Political Officer thing seems very Soviet, which was current at the time Bujold was writing, I guess; that whole system seems to be gone in later books, even in The Warrior’s Apprentice, set a generation later, but published the same year… I think that comes about as a result of events in this book, but I can’t remember. Aral’s method of winning Gottyan back over is admirable, judging him to have enough honour left not to shoot him in cold blood. Or maybe he just knew that Aral’s survival was already established, and he couldn’t escape blame for the murder without a lot more deaths. Don’t remember yet what happens to him, either.
I love the little scene with Aral, Cordelia and Koudelka that I quoted above. I giggle every time Cordelia says, “Sounds like?” I also mostly forget the significance of the size of the cache, though I suspect it’s explained in the second half of the book somewhere. It’s always like this on rereads of a series–I’ll remember the things that carry over into later books, but I’ll often forget about the details and characters that bear on that book’s particular plot.
I just suddenly realized that, for some reason, Ms. Bujold reuses a character name–there’s a Dubauer in Diplomatic Immunity–but in such a way that it’s highly unlikely that there’s any relationship between the two. Since Dubauer is an assumed name in the later book, it would have to be some kind of cryptic reference to Cordelia’s past that would go right over Miles’s head…so it’s probably not a conscious reuse. Just struck me, though.
Week Two–so far, so good. Two chapters seems to be about the right pace; I could potentially manage three, but I like the slightly lower pressure. And hopefully there are fewer dialogue chapters to come.