Welcome back to The Further Adventures of Nick Vordanger, Barrayar’s only detective. This week: Nick Danger stumbles endlessly on through…Chapters Three and Four of Barrayar. Wherein I seem to be having as much trouble typing “Barrayar” as I ever did with “Droushnakovi”. And it’s not actually endless, even though the book is still increasing the tension somewhat slowly; compared to Shards of Honour, the pace is noticeably slower. (Or is it? At this point in Shards, weren’t they still tramping around in alien wilderness?) However, there is unarmed combat, assassination attempts, prejudice, and voting.
But let’s just get on with it, you say? On with it I shall get.
The next day Captain Lord Padma Vorpatril escorts Cordelia to the Joint Council session. Padma is Aral’s cousin, on his mother’s side, one of Aral’s few living relatives besides Count Piotr, and used to serve under Aral. Cordelia, Padma and Drou sit in the gallery overlooking the Council chamber, surrounded by a ring of empty seats; Gregor and Kareen are present as well, and Emperor Ezar watches over comlink, in his military uniform with his life-support concealed. Cordelia asks Padma about Aral’s past; Padma says that Aral used to be as conservative as his father, but started to “go strange” by the time he reached Captain. Padma wasn’t surprised that he accepted the Regency, that he was never fooled by Aral’s avowed attention to retire.
The Count and Ministers vote almost unanimously to accept Aral as Regent, even Vordarian voting yes, with only five dissenters. When Cordelia comments on it, Padma said that the Emperor had let it be known that he wanted unanimity. Those who voted no are the open opposition, which he says aren’t the ones to worry about; the ones who voted yes unwillingly are the more dangerous ones.
Two men arrive late, brothers, one a commander and the other a well-dressed civilian, and perforce sit in front of Cordelia. After locating their father, they begin gossiping about Aral, the inheritance tax measure he’s pushing through, his “Betan frill”, and what exactly happened with Vorrutyer, which amuses Cordelia, until they start in on Koudelka and talk about how he should have just killed himself rather than end up a cripple, which Padma is oblivious to, but makes Drou uncomfortable as well. Cordelia leans forward, apologizing for eavesdropping, but berates them for their insensitive comments about Koudelka. The brothers are put off by her comments, and Cordelia stops Padma from letting them know exactly who she is. The Commander apologizes for his comments, assuming that Koudelka is a relative, though Cordelia denies it. Cordelia warns him not to let such talk reach Aral’s ears, since it would pain him greatly.
As the session breaks for lunch, Padma takes Cordelia and Drou to meet with Aral, who is in company with his father and a man who is introduced as Count Vorhalas, brother of the Admiral Vorhalas who died with Prince Serg. Aral says they are shortly due at a lunch with Kareen and Gregor, but Vorhalas wanted to introduce his sons. The sons soon arrive, and turn out to be the brothers from the gallery, Commander Evon and his brother Lord Carl Vorhalas.
“But you’ve met,” said Vorkosigan. “I saw you talking in the gallery. What did you find to discuss so animatedly, Cordelia?”
“Oh . . . geology. Zoology. Courtesy. Much on courtesy. We had quite a wide-ranging discussion. We each of us taught the other something, I think.” She smiled, and did not flick an eyelid.
Commander Evon Vorhalas, looking rather ill, said, “Yes. I’ve . . . had a lesson I’ll never forget, Milady.”
Aral proceeds to introduce Koudelka as well.
Koudelka, loaded with plastic flimsys, disks, the baton of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces that had just been presented to Vorkosigan as Regent-elect, and his own stick, and uncertain whether to shake hands or salute, managed to drop them all and do neither. There was a general scramble to retrieve the load, and Koudelka went red, bending awkwardly after it. Droushnakovi and he put a hand on his stick at the same time.
“I don’t need your help, miss,” Koudelka snarled at her in a low voice, and she recoiled to go stand rigidly behind Cordelia.
Commander Vorhalas’s aid is accepted more graciously, and he admits to Koudelka that nerve disruptors scare the hell out of him, and says Koudelka is an example to them all. Cordelia tells Commander Evon that he’s likely to go far in his career.
Two weeks later, Emperor Ezar breathes his last, having spent the last week of his life in a coma. Cordelia and Aral are present, as well as a number of others, including Kareen and Gregor. After Ezar’s death, those present swear fealty to Gregor as the new Emperor of Barrayar.
Cordelia too was guided by Vorkosigan to kneel before the boy. The prince—Emperor—had his mother’s hair, but hazel eyes like Ezar and Serg, and Cordelia found herself wondering how much of his father, or his grandfather, was latent in him, its expression waiting on the power that would come with age. Do you bear curses in your chromosomes, child? she wondered as her hands were placed between his. Cursed or blessed, regardless, she gave him her oath. The words seemed to cut her last tie to Beta Colony; it parted with a ping! audible only to her.
I am a Barrayaran now. It had been a long strange journey, that began with a view of a pair of boots in the mud, and ended in these clean child’s hands. Do you know I helped kill your father, boy? Will you ever know? Pray not. She wondered if it was delicacy or oversight, that she had never been required to give oath to Ezar Vorbarra.
There follows five days of funeral ceremonies, though apparently Prince Serg’s had run for two whole weeks. Now that Ezar is dead, only four people living know the truth about Serg’s death; the official position is that he died a war hero. Gregor has no coronation as such, but he and Aral receive personal oaths from a number of important personages, and Cordelia begins to see how the Barrayaran government works, “pretended” into existence.
Aral begins to work long hours, which Cordelia tells herself will begin to get shorter as he gets the hang of his new job. Cordelia herself is mostly busy with the important task of “gestating”. It begins to sink in on her that, unlike Beta with its population control and strict reproductive licensing, she can have as large a family as she wants, now, though she considers whether or not to use the uterine replicator technology. There’s plenty of territory to expand into–terraforming a second continent, and the prospect of colonizing the recently discovered planet Sergyar.
She meets Padma’s wife, Lady Alys Vorpatril, also pregnant, and they compare notes; Cordelia concludes that she’s getting off easy in comparison. Still, she feels a vague unease about giving birth on Barrayar, and briefly considers going home to Beta for the birth, but considering she’s still probably a wanted criminal there, it doesn’t seem that likely.
I was trying to figure out who the people were who knew the secret of Prince Serg. Cordelia and Aral, certainly. Definitely Negri. Ezar’s dead, so he’s specifically excluded. Vortala didn’t know, and neither did Illyan. Bothari? Kareen? The nameless surgeon on Aral’s ship? Doesn’t seem right, but nobody else is coming to mind.
This chapter contains the first mention of Sergyar, and it seems obvious given the earler mentions that it’s probably named after Prince Serg. And yet it’s never commented on. It was also several books, as I recall, before I realized that Sergyar is the then-unnamed planet in Shards of Honour, where Aral and Cordelia first met, where the supply cache for the Escobar invasion was located, etc. Shouldn’t one or the other of them be thinking of the cosmic irony, which they can never tell anyone else, about the planet being named for the man whose death it was a part of? It bothers me a little bit. I don’t think we’ve had an actual scene set on Sergyar since Shards, though it is mentioned from time to time.
I keep forgetting exactly how the Vorhalases are introduced, though as soon as they are, I remember, more or less, the role they play in the book’s plot.
One term that Bujold keeps using throughout the series, which I never really got used to, was “plastic flimsy”. In context, it seems like, well, a sheet of paper, except made of plastic. Why would it be made of plastic, though? Barrayar is, as Cordelia keeps noticing, a planet where wood is common enough to be used for the walls of entire rooms. For a Betan, that’s a lot, so maybe in absolute terms it’s not, but still, Barrayarans shouldn’t feel a need to replace simple and easy-to-produce paper with plastic, should they? It can’t be for greater durability, either, because they’re still called “flimsies”. So unless they’re “smart paper” or something similar, I admit to being a bit baffled. I guess I’ll have to watch for further mentions to see if this is clarified.
With the Count in residence at Vorkosigan House for a while, they soon start up weekly unarmed combat competitions between the Count’s men and Illyan’s security men, with Koudelka as referee and Cordelia, Count Piotr, Drou, and occasionally Aral as spectators.
One afternoon, Cordelia asks Drou why she doesn’t participate as well, since ostensibly the competition is to keep everyone in fighting trim. Drou says that she wasn’t invited, though she patently wants to participate; Cordelia tells Drou that she can be Cordelia’s team, and if anyone doesn’t like it, they can take it up with Aral, who she soon persuades to support her.
He climbed back to his feet, and went to enter Droushnakovi on Koudelka’s list for the lists. Cordelia could not hear what they said to each other, across the garden, but supplied her own dialogue from gesture and expression, murmuring, “Aral: Cordelia wants Drou to play. Kou: Aw! Who wants gurls? Aral: Tough. Kou: They mess everything up, and besides, they cry a lot. Sergeant Bothari will squash her—hm, I do hope that’s what that gesture means, otherwise you’re getting obscene, Kou—wipe that smirk off your face, Vorkosigan—Aral: The little woman insists. You know how henpecked I am. Kou: Oh, all right. Phooey. Transaction complete: the rest is up to you, Drou.”
The Count joins them, and complains about Cordelia’s “Betan innovations”.
“You’ll be wanting women in the Service, next,” complained Piotr. “Where will it end? That’s what I’d like to know.”
“What’s wrong with women in the Service?” Cordelia asked, baiting him a little.
“It’s unmilitary,” snapped the old man.
” ‘Military’ is whatever wins the war, I should think.” She smiled blandly. A small friendly warning pinch from Vorkosigan restrained her from rubbing in the point any harder.
In her first match, Drou wins the first point mostly through surprise, and then loses the second. After a longer contest, she puts her opponent in a choke hold, where he seems more willing to go unconscious than admit defeat. After, Cordelia and Aral advise her not to restrain her killer instincts. In her next combat, her opponent takes his first point after goosing her. Cordelia is outraged, and Aral admits that it’s not forbidden, but… He calls Drou over, and advises her to deal with this insult to her, and her lady, by not leaving her opponent conscious. She proceeds to take out her opponent in the second round with three swift blows.
In the semifinal round, though, Drou comes up against Bothari, who has been winning his matches handily and efficiently. Cordelia worries if this is a good idea, given Bothari’s history, but Aral thinks that the training ring will constrain him sufficiently. In their first match, Koudelka accidentally sets off his sword-stick, and Drou takes advantage of it to take Bothari down, but Koudelka won’t give her the point because of the distraction. Cordelia complains to Aral, who thinks that Koudelka might be a little bit jealous of Drou’s progress. Bothari proceeds to take the next two points from Drou, and then defeat the other finalist.
Soon after, Koudelka comes over to ask Aral if he wants to do a demonstration bout with Bothari, for those men who haven’t seen the two of them fight. Aral lets himself be convinced, despite protesting that he’s out of shape.
The two men faced off in the arena and bowed formally. Koudelka backed hastily out of the way. The raucous good humor died away among the watchers, as the icy cold and concentrated stillness of the two players drew all eyes. They began to circle, lightly, then met in a blur. Cordelia did not quite see what happened, but when they parted Vorkosigan was spitting blood from a lacerated mouth, and Bothari was hunched over his belly.
In the next contact Bothari landed a kick to Vorkosigan’s back that echoed off the garden walls and propelled him completely out of the arena, to land rolling and running back in spite of disrupted breathing. The men in whose protection the Regent’s life was supposed to lie began to look worriedly at one another. At the next grappling Vorkosigan underwent a vicious fall, with Bothari landing atop him instantly for a follow-up choke. Cordelia thought she could see his ribs bend from the knees on his chest. A couple of the guards started forward, but Koudelka waved them back, and Vorkosigan, face dark and suffused, tapped out.
Aral agrees to go on, and this time he manages to throw Bothari and put him in an armlock, and Bothari is the one to tap out. The third pass results in Aral in the armlock, and when he tries to escape, Bothari dislocates his elbow. Aral taps out again, and at his request, Bothari puts the joint back in place.
Afterwards, while rubbing Aral down, she brings up the Koudelka/Drou problem. She says that Drou is unfailingly courteous, and almost certainly in love with him, and Koudelka treats her shabbily. Aral points out that Koudelka’s injuries may have affected his sexual performance, and he might be scared to try it. Aral says that Koudelka doesn’t seem to dislike her, but he envies her.
She tries to puzzle out how Barrayar’s double standard of sexual behaviour works. As a Betan, she’d thought the thing a logical impossibility, but now she realizes that the problem is that information on the subject is not freely disseminated. She tries writing out the list of rules she’s deduced, which amuses Aral, and they spend some time breaking the rules with each other.
One autumn evening, she is watching the sunset from the roof of Vorkosigan House, musing on the imminence of “snow”, and the interesting things one can do with above-ground architecture. She is disturbed by a distant sound, like a sonic grenade, and the guards on the roof are soon urging her inside, though she refuses to go until Drou comes to drag her in. Soon she discovers that someone has taken a shot at Aral’s car, and he’s being brought to the house. Cordelia takes comfort in the fact that the car is still drivable, at least.
When the car arrives, security guards swarm around it; Aral and Koudelka emerge, the latter with a bloodied face, and both of them mostly deaf. The sonic grenade had hit the street in front of them, leaving a large crater, but the driver had managed to swerve around it. Illyan arrives with a doctor and takes them inside. Koudelka wonders how they’d known their route, which they vary daily; Illyan wonders if it was inside information, and Aral says he was probably just watching one of their likely routes. Illyan said it was likely an lone man, with old, faulty ordnance, which Cordelia does not find reassuring.
“He only needed one shot. If he’d managed a direct hit on that sealed car, Aral’d have been emulsified. Your forensic team would be trying right now to sort out which molecules were his and which were Kou’s.”
Droushnakovi turned faintly green; Vorkosigan’s saturnine look was now firmly back in place.
“You want me to give you a precise resonance reflection amplitude calculation for that sealed passenger cabin, Simon?” Cordelia went on hotly. “Whoever chose that weapon was a competent military tech—if, fortunately, a poorish shot.” She bit back further words, recognizing, even if no one else did, the suppressed hysteria driving the speed of her speech.
Later that evening Cordelia asks Illyan who would want to kill Aral.
He ticked them off on his fingers. “The Cetagandans, always. They had counted on political chaos here, following Ezar’s death. They’re not above prodding it along. An assassination is cheap interference, compared to an invasion fleet. The Komarrans, for old revenge or new revolt. Some there still call the Admiral the Butcher of Komarr—”
Cordelia, knowing the whole story behind that loathed sobriquet, winced.
“The anti-Vor, because my lord Regent is too conservative for their tastes. The military right, who fear he is too progressive for theirs. Leftover members of Prince Serg and Vorrutyer’s old war party. Former operatives of the now-suppressed Ministry of Political Education, though I doubt one of them would have missed. Negri’s department used to train them. Some disgruntled Vor who thinks he came out short in the recent power-shift. Any lunatic with access to weapons and a desire for instant fame as a big-game hunter—shall I go on?”
Cordelia tries to keep her fear under control, understanding now why Barrayarans are so paranoid, and wonders when the next attempt will be.
The overall plot of the book, of course, deals with Cordelia and Aral, but Kou and Drou now definitely have their own subplot. My wife informs me that the secondary-character romance is a staple of romantic fiction, though I’m sure it turns up in other places as well. After all, the Cordelia-Aral romance is pretty much resolved. Their plot for this book is still building, and I can pinpoint the exact moment when it goes up to the next level…and that is not yet. The sonic grenade is only the opening salvo, so to speak, and I can’t quite remember at this point how it ties into the overall plot.
The rest of the chapter mostly focuses on Cordelia learning more about Barrayaran culture, and contrasting it with Betan. Sometimes I think that Barrayaran culture is more comprehensible to us than Betan, but perhaps we’re really more in the middle. Or perhaps the “liberals” are more Betan and the “conservatives” are more Barrayaran, so it depends on your part of the political spectrum. What does it say, then, that the Barrayarans are the most central to the series? I guess they do spend a lot of time on other planets, but almost all of my favourite scenes in the series are set on Barrayar. I suppose one of the main axes of progress in the series is the liberalization of Barrayar, whereas the conservatization of Beta Colony wouldn’t be as fun to read about, were it to happen. So that makes Bujold a somewhat left-wing writer, but one with a certain amount of sympathy and understanding for the right as well. Kind of like Aaron Sorkin on “The West Wing”, who did like to, every once in a while, throw in a perfectly intelligent and articulate person who just happened to be a Republican. (And who still felt like a token.)
And that’s it for another week. Once again I whipped this up on Sunday and Monday (and a bit of Tuesday); I need to stop doing that, or I’ll keep putting it off to Sunday every week, and one week I won’t be able to pull it together in time. We’ll see how that works out for me. Just took a brief look forward, and it looks like Chapter Ten is the signpost I’m looking for, where the tension really ramps up, though there’s plenty to happen in between. Until next time…