The Vorkosigan Saga Reread returns again today to go through another couple of chapters from Lois McMaster Bujold’s amazing…Vorkosigan Saga. This week we cover two more chapters of Shards of Honour, in which a lot of things happen–one person gets killed, one person goes catatonic, and one person has an eidetic memory.
Cordelia–now a Captain in the Betan Expeditionary Force–commands a slow bulk freighter, which is preparing for a wormhole jump. The ship normally goes from Beta Colony to Escobar, but the Barrayaras have been blockading the wormhole for over sixty days. Last she heard, the Escobarans and Barrayarans space fleets were still manoeuvering. She hands the ship over to the pilot, who takes them through the wormhole, in what seems like only a few seconds for her but hours for him.
On the other side of the wormhole they find six Barrayaran ships, two of which are already moving, despite the fact that nothing’s been through the wormhole for a month. The Barrayarans begin to fire plasma; while the Betans’ shields absorb it, they ready the projection device in engineering. The projector creates a sensor image of a dreadnought as if it just came through the wormhole, drawing the Barrayarans’ attention. The projector drains energy from Cordelia’s ship, but the projected dreadnought draws the Barrayarans away from the wormhole. The engineer says they have enough power to keep it up for ten minutes, and Cordelia says they have orders to slag it when they’re done.
Three real Betan freighters, stripped down for cargo and speed, pop through the wormhole and evade the off-station Barrayarans, heading for Escobar, and the fake dreadnought explodes. Cordelia’s ship is now drained, and they drift, their artificial gravity failing. They board a lifeboat, disguised to look like a rock, and leave the ship. Cordelia destroys the projector remotely, and they gradually accelerate away. A warning light comes on, and Cordelia kills the thrust and internal power and adds a little artful tumble. Nonetheless, they are taken in tow by the Barrayarans. They open communications, and Cordelia identifies them as an unarmed lifeboat. The pilot, Parnell, says that he and the others are willing to blow up the shuttle rather than be captured, but Cordelia says that they were handpicked for their ignorance of any real information, and the Barrayarans aren’t all bad.
The Barrayarans pick them up in a fast courier and take them to the flagship, where the Betans are stripped and given shapeless orange pajamas; Cordelia is separated from her men, and brought to Vice-Admiral Vorrutyer, who instantly sparks fear and instant dislike in her. He orders her to identify herself and she complies; he orders the soldiers to strip her, and pronounces her “A little old, but she’ll do.” She dresses again, as slowly as possible, to vex her captors, and is led to a cell, where she is left for about an hour before she summoned before Vorrutyer again.
Vorrutyer’s quarters are large, three cabins’ merged together, and decorated sumptuously. Vorrutyer orders her guards to strap her to the bed and leave her.
She tried to string herself along; maybe he’s only a rapist. It might be possible to handle a simple rapist. Such direct, childlike souls, hardly offensive at all. Even vileness has a relative range. . . .
“I don’t know any military secrets worth a thing,” she fenced. “This isn’t really worth your time.”
“I didn’t think you did,” he replied easily. “Although you will undoubtedly insist on telling me everything you know over the next few weeks. Quite tedious, I’m not in the least interested. If I want your information, my medical staff can have it out of you in a trice.” He sipped his wine. “Although it’s curious you should bring up the subject—perhaps I will send you to sickbay, later today.”
Her stomach knotted. Fool, she shrieked silently at herself, did you just blow a chance of ducking interrogation? But no, it had to be standard operating procedure—he’s just working you over. Subtle. Calm . . .
He drank again. “Do you know, I think I shall enjoy having an older woman for a change. The young ones may look pretty, but they’re too easy. No sport. I can tell already, you’re going to be great sport. A very great fall requires a very great height, to fall from, not so?”
She sighed, and gazed up at the ceiling. “Well, I’m sure it will be educational.” She tried to remember how she’d occupied her mind during sex with her old lover, in the bad times before she’d finally shed him. This might well be no worse. . . .
Vorrutyer gets out a small knife and slices her pajamas away. He deliberately makes a small cut in her thigh, but since it’s in the spot where her nerves were deadened by the nerve disruptor, she doesn’t feel it. Vorrutyer tells her he’s not going to rape her, but he got an idea from an eighteenth-century book about having her raped by a diseased servant. In this case, only mentally diseased, a paranoid schizophrenic who hears voices, one he’s used before. There’s a knock on the door, and Vorrutyer lets in Sergant Bothari.
Her boiling imagination lurched to his body. His body—it was all wrong, somehow, hunched in his black uniform, not like the straight figure she had last seen demanding pride of place from Vorkosigan. Wrong, wrong, terribly wrong. A head taller than Vorrutyer, yet he seemed almost to creep before his master. His spine was coiled with tension as he glowered down at his—torturer? What, she wondered, might a mind molester like Vorrutyer do with the material presented by Bothari? God, Vorrutyer, do you imagine, in your amoral flashy freakiness, in your monstrous vanity, that you control this elemental? And you dare play games with that sullen madness in his eyes? Her thoughts kept time with her racing pulse. There are two victims in this room. There are two victims in this room. There are two . . .
Vorrutyer orders him to rape Cordelia; Cordelia is filled with fear and pity, and tells him, “I believe that the tormented are very close to God. I’m sorry, Sergeant.” Bothari, recognizing her, refuses to carry out the order, calling her “Vorkosigan’s prisoner”. Vorrutyer is surprised, but then recognizes her as “Vorkosigan’s Betan”. This fills him with glee, as he realizes he has a weapon to use on Aral, almost as good as the time he told him about his wife.
“Do you know, you have quite overwhelmed me. The possibilities you present—eighteen years were not too long to wait for so ideal a revenge. A woman soldier. Ha! He probably thought you the ideal solution to our mutual—difficulty. My perfect warrior, my dear hypocrite, Aral. You have much to learn of him, I wager. But do you know, I somehow feel quite certain he hasn’t mentioned me to you.”
“Not by name,” she agreed. “Possibly by category.”
“And what category was that?”
“I believe the term he used was ‘scum of the service.’ “
Vorrutyer tells her that her “puritan lover” Aral was quite a “merry widower”, and counted Vorrutyer himself among his lovers. He reflects out loud on the probable reaction if he were to take a lock of Cordelia’s hair and bring it out casually in front of Aral at some staff meeting. He cuts off a thick strand of her hair, and outlines more plans for torturing Aral with her. After that, he decides he’ll rape her after all.
Bothari has been muttering to himself and pacing around the room, but when Vorrutyer climbs on top of her, Bothari grabs the knife from where Vorrutyer has set it down and cuts Vorrutyer’s throat. Cordelia asks Bothari as politely as she can to unstrap her, and he undoes one buckle, allowing her to free herself from the rest. She searches through Vorrutyer’s cabinets, finding a number of unspeakable torture devices, and eventually finds some black fatigues to put on. Bothari is nearly catatonic, sitting curled up on the floor.
As she considers how to get him out of the cabin and where to hide him, the door opens and there stands Aral, plasma arc in hand.
Wow, a lot happens in this chapter. For one thing, we get to see this “projector” thing that was mentioned in passing in the last chapter. I’m not sure why it was on the Rene Magritte, if they were an exploration ship…or did they know more about the Barrayaran presence on the unnamed planet than Cordelia revealed to us? If not, why would they have it on their ship on a routine mission? Can’t remember if this is resolved later or not.
The transition is quite fast, though, from the ship to the lifeboat to capture to attempted rape. I would never have believed, if you’d asked me two weeks ago, that this was all in one chapter. Perhaps it would have worked better to stretch the timeline out, but maybe Bujold had to cut out something in her final draft so her book wouldn’t be too long for the publisher, and she decided to speed up this bit. The result is, too, that Vorrutyer gets less than a whole chapter onscreen before he gets killed. Which we’re all grateful for, I’m sure. It was enough to make me forgive Bothari for Dubauer and any other earlier crimes. It instantly adds layers to his character, anyway. This chapter plants the seeds for the odd rapport between Cordelia and Bothari.
Also, if people like Vorrutyer can be in high positions in the Barrayaran military, then maybe people are right to believe a lot of bad things about them. There is a partial explanation for that in the next chapter, and the sense that somebody (Aral, at least, in this case) is trying to do something about the problem. And it certainly never seems quite as bad in later books as it does right now, so there must been a major cleanup in there somewhere. A fair bit of venality, and the odd bit of corruption here and there, but not a Vice-Admiral raping prisoners, not even bothering to hide it from his crew.
I left out a lot of the repartee between Vorrutyer and Cordelia, as, for the most part, it consisted of her trying to put on a brave face despite her helplessness, and him trying to scare her even more. It is important from a character point of view, to show that he’s not just a physical sadist, but a little of it carries the flavour, I think.
Cordelia tells Aral to come in and close the door; seeing another officer behind him, she merely says that there’s been an accident. Aral tells the officer, a Lieutenant Illyan, to “witness this with the greatest attention”. The two of them go around the room, inspecting the situation.
“Been reading the Marquis again, have you?” he addressed the corpse with a sigh. He turned it over with the toe of his boot, and a little more blood ran out of the meaty slice in its neck. “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” He glanced up at Cordelia. “Which of you should I congratulate?”
She moistened her lips. “I’m not sure. How annoyed is everyone going to be about this?”
Aral tells her the Emperor will be delighted, but privately, and Cordelia tells him that Bothari did the honours, since she was tied up. Aral says he’s reminded of the scene in the engine room on the General Vorkraft–a day late, and a dollar short. Cordelia says that in fact, he came just in time, and Aral says that at least he can rescue his ship from her, if that wasn’t the rescue he was planning.
Examining Bothari, he says that Vorrutyer has almost ruined him again, after Aral had managed to almost make him well. He tries to get Bothari to move, then thinks better of it and asks Cordelia to try instead.
She got down into the line of his sight. “Bothari. Bothari, look at me. You’ve got to get up, and walk a little way.” She took his blood-coated hand, and tried to think of a line of reason, or more likely unreason, that might reach him. She tried a smile. “Look. See? You’re washed in blood. Blood washes away sin, right? You’re going to be all right now. Uh, the bad man is gone, and in a little while the bad voices will go away too. So you come along with me, and I’ll take you where you can rest.”
During this speech he gradually focused on her, and at the end he nodded, and stood. Still holding his hand, she followed Vorkosigan out, Illyan bringing up the rear. She hoped her psychological band-aid would hold; an alarm of any sort might touch him off like a bomb.
Aral’s quarters are just across the corridor, thankfully but surprisingly, and Cordelia asks if he’d been there the whole time. Aral (who is now a Commodore) says that he just got back in a fast courier and had been in conference with Admiral Vorhalas and Prince Serg. A guard told him about Vorrutyer’s newest prisoner, but he didn’t imagine that it would be Cordelia. They enter Aral’s quarters and lock the door. Cordelia expresses surprise that Aral would serve a man like Vorrutyer, and he protests that he serves the Emperor.
Cordelia worries that Aral will ask her about the freighters, but instead he introduces her to Simon Illyan, his “spy”–placed to keep an eye on him for the Emperor by Captain Negri, head of Imperial Security, as part of a compromise with the Ministry of Political Education. Illyan has an eidetic memory biochip.
Aral tries to think about how to present the murder scene. He wants to keep Bothari out of it, since the Prince won’t care that he’s insane. Instead, Cordelia will have to have killed Vorrutyer herself before escaping. He’ll get some sedatives and hide Bothari and Cordelia in his cabin. He and Illyan leave to go officially find the murder scene, leaving Cordelia to stay and keep an eye on Bothari.
She tries to sit Bothari down in a chair, but he soon gets up and paces, muttering to invisible companions. Illyan arrives with some sedatives; Bothari says “Servants of the beast are the beast’s hands. He feeds them on the wife’s blood. Bad servants.” Illyan gives the ampules to Cordelia and slips back out.
She set the bulk of the ampules aside, and approached him with a sunny smile. Its effect was diminished by her eyes, large with fear. Bothari’s eyes were flickering slits. “Commodore Vorkosigan wants you to rest now. He sent some medicine to help you.”
He backed warily before her, and she stopped, cautious of forcing him into a corner. “It’s just a sedative, see?”
“The beast’s drugs made the demons drunk. They sang and shouted. Bad medicine.”
“No, no. This is good medicine. It will make the demons go to sleep,” she promised. This was walking a tightrope in the dark. She tried another tack.
“Come to attention, soldier,” she said sharply. “Inspection.”
Bothari reacts badly to this, grabbing her arm and trying to knock the ampule out of her hand, but Cordelia manages to inject him just before he flings her across the room. She fetches up against the door, and goes limp when Bothari lunges after her, but that doesn’t stop him. He puts a knee to her ribs and his hands around her neck, but soon the sedatives take effect and he collapses, rolling off of her. She tries to lift him onto the bed, then gives up and shoves a pillow under his head.
Finally Aral and Illyan return.
“Well?” said Cordelia. “How did it go?”
“With machine-like precision, like a wormhole jump to hell,” Vorkosigan replied. He turned his hand palm upward in a familiar gesture that caught her heart like a hook.
He clarifies that he’s under arrest for suspicion of conspiracy, and confined to quarters, since the Prince suspects he and Bothari were working together. Cordelia asks for clarification, since this doesn’t sound “just fine” to her, but Illyan reminds Aral that he’s not supposed to incriminate himself. Aral says that he’s done everything the Emperor has asked him to, sacrificed everything, but he will be granted this. Illyan explains that a similar situation with a female prisoner occurred a few weeks earlier, and he persuaded Aral not to intervene, on the condition that he wouldn’t interfere the next time. Aral reassures Illyan that if their two guests are not found, then the Emperor can edit the reports as he wishes, and if they are found, that’ll be the least of their problems. Illyan points out that it won’t take them long to search Aral’s quarters, and Aral urges Illyan to redirect the search elsewhere, perhaps onto ships that may have departed the flagship in the interim, using all of his Imperial influence that he can muster, to give him 48 hours at least.
After Illyan departs, Cordelia apologizes for complicating matters, and Aral says that in fact she has simplified them enormously.
“East is west, up is down, and being falsely arrested for getting your C.O.’s throat cut is a simplification. I must be on Barrayar. I don’t suppose you’d care to explain what’s going on around here?”
“No. But at last I understand why there have been so many madmen in Barrayaran history. They are not its cause, they are its effect.” He sighed, and spoke so low it was almost a whisper. “Oh, Cordelia. You have no idea how much I need one sane clean person near me. You are water in the desert.”
He asks if Cordelia is tired, and she says she’d rather have a shower. Aral notices her leg wound, but Cordelia says she has no nerves there. She asks about a change of clothes, and Aral surprises her by pulling her old Betan Survey fatigues out of a drawer. Cordelia is surprised that he saved her clothes, and Aral says it was all she left except for the shuttle. Cordelia then admits she still has the Barrayaran fatigues she was wearing at home, too.
After her shower, she finds Aral working on his computer. It’s his job to work out contingency plans for a retreat from Escobar, as his punishment for doubting the invasion’s chance of success in the first place. Cordelia asks if he was ever charged with treason, and Aral says that the charges are in abeyance, with everyone being more interested in the invasion. Minister Grishnov, head of Political Security, and Prince Serg expect their power to outweigh the Emperor’s after they conquer Escobar. They even promoted Aral, but put him under Vorrutyer’s command.
Cordelia asks how long he’s known Vorrutyer, and Aral says since school, when he was just a voyeur, but he’s gotten worse since then, with Prince Serg’s influence. She tells him how Bothari fought the sedatives, and Aral says that Vorrutyer liked to drug his captives, and probably Bothari as well. He tells her about Captain Negri, head of Imperial Security, uninterested in a higher rank and utterly loyal to the Emperor.
Cordelia mentions her sore ribs from Bothari’s assault earlier, and Aral examines it, declaring two ribs to be cracked. While he tapes them up, Cordelia asks if he’s ever considered just leaving Barrayar behind and going someplace inconsequential, like Earth. He says he’d thought of looking her up on Beta Colony, but he doesn’t think he has many skills marketable on Beta.
“The only employment I can think of would be as a teacher of martial arts, for sport. Would you marry a judo instructor, dear Captain? But no,” he sighed. “Barrayar is bred in my bones. I cannot shake it, no matter how far I travel. This struggle, God knows, has no honor in it. But exile, for no other motive than ease—that would be to give up all hope of honor. The last defeat, with no seed of future victory in it.”
She thought of the deadly cargo she had convoyed, now safe on Escobar. Compared to all the lives that hung on it, her own and Vorkosigan’s weighed less than a feather. He misread the grief in her face, she thought, for fear.
“It isn’t exactly like waking from the nightmare, to see your face.” He touched it gently, fingertips on the curve of her jaw, thumb laid a moment across her lips, lighter than a kiss. “More like, knowing, while dreaming still, that beyond the dream there is a waking world. I mean to join you in that waking world, someday. You’ll see. You’ll see.” He squeezed her hand and smiled reassuringly.
Bothari stirs, and Aral sends Cordelia to go sleep while he looks after Bothari.
This is another talky chapter, mostly, except when Bothari is conscious. I was tempted to quote much more than I did. So, Simon Illyan’s first appearance, yay! And, I believe the first time Prince Serg is given a name…and a bit of personality, as another scumbag. How bad must he be, to have corrupted Vorrutyer into what he was?
Also interesting to think of the secrets between the two of them, since they are still enemy combatants, sort of–Cordelia and the cargo she helped sneak through to Barrayar, and…well, Aral’s secret plan as well, which we’ll find out more about later. For now, let’s just leave it that he is sacrificing his honour for a higher purpose.
Cordelia seems to be holding up quite well after being nearly raped, twice. Part of that may just be that her situation is desperate enough that she can’t afford to fall apart, and she’s disciplined enough to hold herself together. Perhaps she breaks down a bit later. Still, it’s not like she and Aral jump into bed together or anything. Of course, Bothari is there, albeit unconscious, and who knows what he’d do if woke up to find them having sex… It’d probably trigger something nasty, in his present state. Also, while Vorrutyer’s cabin is likely soundproofed (unless he doesn’t care who hears–he certainly doesn’t seem to care who knows what’s going on), Vorkosigan’s might not be, and so that’d be a bit of a giveaway.
I think that this is about halfway through the book. Looks like it has fifteen chapters, plus the little short story “Aftermaths” that Bujold decided to include with “Shards” for some reason. So…another month or so, and I’ll be done this one and onto Barrayar.