Greetings and felicitations, and welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread. Today we start on the second book chronologically (if far from the first published) in the series, Barrayar. Lois McMaster Bujold had a bit of a habit of naming books for planets, or at least political units (Cetaganda and Komarr), but she didn’t go overboard with it, at least. This book was one of her award-winners, too, Hugo and Locus Awards as Wikipedia tells me, and it definitely deserved it, because it’s a great book. But don’t just take my word for it–reread it with me!
It is the day after Aral accepted the Regency. Cordelia, looking out a window in Vorkosigan House, sees a groundcar pull up and Simon Illyan get out. Sergeant Bothari comes into the room and tells her that it’s time to go, and she follows him out of the room.
She must learn her way around this great pile of a residence as soon as possible. Embarrassing, to be lost in one’s own home, and have to ask some passing guard or servant to de-tangle one. In the middle of the night, wearing only a towel. I used to be a jumpship navigator. Really. If she could handle five dimensions upside, surely she ought to be able to manage a mere three downside.
On the ground floor they find Koudelka waiting. Cordelia asks after Aral and is told that he is in the library with Illyan, checking on the location for the new secured comconsole. They emerge shortly thereafter, and Cordelia, Aral, Koudelka and Illyan head out to the groundcar. The day’s plan is for an audience with Prince Gregor and his mother, Princess Kareen, as well as meeting with Captain Negri. After that, says Aral, they start setting up the Regency; he’s not sure what old protocol they’ll drag out for the first one in 120 years.
As the armored groundcar pulls away, Cordelia asks about her own duties. Aral tells her that it’s mostly ceremonies and public-relations work; at Cordelia’s appalled reaction, he says that she can do as much or as little of that as she wishes, particularly now that she’s pregnant. He says that he would particularly like her to be a liaison with Gregor and Kareen, to help ensure that Gregor doesn’t end up turning out like his father, the late Prince Serg. He also says that, as a foreigner and a war hero, Cordelia can help unite both the pro-galactic and pro-military factions. Aral says that he doesn’t want to just gut the opposition parties, either.
“What I want . . . what I want is to find some way of pulling the best men, from every class and language group and party, into the Emperor’s service. The Vor have simply too small a pool of talent. Make the government more like the military at its best, with ability promoted regardless of background. Emperor Ezar tried to do something like that, by strengthening the Ministries at the expense of the Counts, but it swung too far. The Counts are eviscerated and the Ministries are corrupt. There must be some way to strike a balance.”
Cordelia notes the gesture of trust the Emperor placed in Aral by appointing him Regent, but Aral brings her attention to the fact that Captain Negri is still attached to the Princess’s household. Negri still reports to Aral, but if Aral decides to go for the throne himself, Negri doubtless has orders to dispose of him. Cordelia assures him that she doesn’t want to be Empress.
As they enter the palace grounds, Illyan says he wishes Aral would reconsider living at Vorkosigan House and move into the Imperial Residence instead, which would make security much easier. Aral says he prefers Vorkosigan House, especially now that his father the Count spends most of him time at the country estate, Vorkosigan Surleau. Illyan lists off the security drawbacks of Vorkosigan House, and says that it’ll take at least six full-time patrols to cover them. Aral asks if he has the men, and Illyan admits he does. Aral says he will stay at Vorkosigan House, which will serve the purpose of making it seem less likely he’ll pull a palace coup.
And here they were at the very palace in question. As an architectural pile, the Imperial Residence made Vorkosigan House look small. Sprawling wings rose two to four stories high, accented with sporadic towers. Additions of different ages crisscrossed each other to create both vast and intimate courts, some justly proportioned, some rather accidental-looking. The east façade was of the most uniform style, heavy with stone carving. The north side was more cut-up, interlocking with elaborate formal gardens. The west was the oldest, the south the newest construction.
They climb a set of stairs, Koudelka painfully aware that he’s slowing the rest of them down with his awkward pace. Cordelia wonders why they don’t even have a lift tube. They meet with Captain Negri, who is with a blonde woman in civilian dress that he introduces merely as “Miss Droushnakovi”. When Cordelia asks her for more details, Droushnakovi says that she’s a “Servant of the Inner Chamber”, but really a “Bodyguard, Class One” assigned to the Princess.
In the next room they are introduced to the Princess, and to Prince Gregor (who has a talking robotic stegosaurus toy). Aral formally kneels in front of Gregor and introduces himself, trying to explain what he will be doing as Regent.
“That means I will do your grandfather’s job until you are old enough to do it yourself, when you turn twenty. The next sixteen years. I will look after you and your mother in your grandfather’s place, and see that you get the education and training to do a good job, like your grandfather did. Good government.”
Did the kid even know yet what a government was? Vorkosigan had been careful not to say, in your father’s place, Cordelia noted dryly. Careful not to mention Crown Prince Serg at all. Serg was well on his way to being disappeared from Barrayaran history, it seemed, as thoroughly as he had been vaporized in orbital battle.
Cordelia is impressed by the parental potential that Aral shows with the young heir. Once Aral is done, Negri asks if he can come down to Ops, and begins to list several issues that need his attention. Kareen invites Cordelia to stay and visit, and the men go off with Negri; Kareen said that she had hoped to be alone with Cordelia, as Gregor returns to his play.
Droushnakovi asks about Koudelka, and Cordelia explains about the nerve damage and the inadequate repairs done on Barrayar. Droushnakovi asks if it was in the Escobar war, and Cordelia admits that it was sort of at the beginning of the war. Kareen asks “Drou” to take Gregor to lunch, and once they are alone, Kareen kisses Cordelia’s hand.
“I swore,” said Kareen thickly, “that I would kiss the hand that slew Ges Vorrutyer. Thank you. Thank you.” Her voice was breathy, earnest, tear-caught, grateful emotion naked in her face. She sat up, her face growing reserved again, and nodded. “Thank you. Bless you.”
“Uh . . .” Cordelia rubbed at the kissed spot. “Um . . . I . . . this honor belongs to another, Milady. I was present, when Admiral Vorrutyer’s throat was cut, but it was not by my hand.”
Kareen thinks at first that it was Aral, but Cordelia says that it was Bothari, which surprises Kareen. She had thought that Bothari was Vorrutyer’s creature, but Cordelia tells her how he chose to be otherwise. She takes a chance and mentions Prince Serg, asking if Vorrutyer was responsible for corrupting him; Kareen says that they were like-minded, maybe from the start. She said that Emperor Ezar protected her from her husband after she became pregnant, and Cordelia hopes that Aral will do as well.
Kareen then orders them tea, and Drou and Gregor return. Kareen asks her what she thinks of her new home.
Cordelia thought it over. “The country place, south at Vorkosigan Surleau, is just beautiful. That wonderful lake—it’s bigger than any open body of water on the whole of Beta Colony, yet Aral just takes it for granted. Your planet is beautiful beyond measure.” Your planet. Not my planet? In a free-association test, “home” still triggered “Beta Colony” in Cordelia’s mind. Yet she could have rested in Vorkosigan’s arms by the lake forever.
She says that Vorkosigan House is a bit of an all-male barracks when the Count is in residence, not like the mixed barracks on Beta. Drou likes the sound of men and women both getting to serve in the military, and Cordelia agrees, missing the sister officers that she was used to “back home” on Beta.
That night, after they return home, Illyan brings Droushnakovi to Vorkosigan House, telling Cordelia she’s been assigned to her personal security.
Later, Droushnakovi handed Cordelia a sealed note, on thick cream paper. Brows rising, Cordelia broke it open. The handwriting was small and neat, the signature legible and without flourishes.
With my compliments, it read. She will suit you well. Kareen.
From now on I will try to refer to her exclusively as “Drou”, as the author does increasingly from now on, as I recall. Mostly for the sake of my fingers, which don’t seem to be able to produce “Droushnakovi” correctly on the first try. (Not that I’m afraid of longish, foreignish names in general. Djugashvili. Ramachandran. Brahmaputra. Targaryen. Rustaveli. But some of them are just harder to type than others.)
Our first sight of the princess (not mentioned in Shards, I don’t think), and the young heir. I elided most of the recap of the plot of the previous book, since I know you already know what happened there. And boy, I think that talking robot stegosaurus would be a hot seller. Like a dinosaur Furby…except better, one hopes, since I was never that impressed with Furby.
And also, the first time when Drou meets Koudelka, even if they don’t actually manage to talk to each other yet or anything. There does seem to be a certain amount of interest, at least on Drou’s side.
Aral is gone when Cordelia wakes up the next day, so she decides to go shopping, with Drou’s help, for something that had occurred to her watching Koudelka the day before. Drou is waiting right outside her room, and Cordelia thinks that Drou needs a uniform or livery, since her dress doesn’t flatter her that much. She asks Drou how she got into her line of work, and Drou said that her father and three brothers were in the military, and her brothers used to sneak her into their classes. She was all-Barrayar women’s judo champion twice, and after that Negri approached her about a job, since Princess Kareen had been asking for female guards, and there she got some weapon training as well.
Cordelia asks Drou to accompany her on a shopping trip, and Drou struggles to hide her disappointment, until Cordelia says she’s looking for a sword-stick for Koudelka. Drou says she knows just the place, where the Vors buy weapons for their liveried men–non-Vors are not allowed to own their own weapons.
One of Aral’s guards drives them to the shop, Drou watching the crowds alertly. They arrive at a place called simply “Siegling’s” on a quiet street, and go inside; Cordelia notices the wood paneling in the store, which is common on Barrayar but would cost a fortune on Beta. The clerk approaches them somewhat condescendingly, and the first sword-stick he brings out is elaborately carved and flashy. Drou isn’t sure about the quality of the blade, though, and when Cordelia tries it out, stabbing it into the wall, she is easily able to snap it.
“Madam,” said the clerk stiffly, “I must insist the damaged merchandise be paid for.”
Cordelia, thoroughly irritated, said, “Very well. Send the bill to my husband. Admiral Aral Vorkosigan, Vorkosigan House. While you’re about it you can explain why you tried to pass off sleaze on his wife—Yeoman.” This last was a guess, based on his age and walk, but she could tell from his eyes she’d struck home.
He goes into the back to fetch them another, much heavier; the spring that releases the cane does so with some force, making it almost a weapon in its own right. She stabs it into the wall again, but the clerk assures her she won’t be able to break it. Sure enough, it resists her attempts, and Drou calls it “worthy”; they buy it. The women browse the other weapons briefly, but Cordelia decides she doesn’t really want a weapon, and Drou admits that Sieglings’ are pretty, but Negri’s are better.
Aral and Koudelka return for dinner that night, having spent the day trying to convince various Counts to approve Aral for the Regency. Cordelia unwraps the swordstick and presents it to Koudelka; he is initially a little annoyed to be given a walking stick, but once he takes it he senses there’s more to it. He launches the cane accidentally at the window, luckily not breaking it, and is pleased by the blade. However, he returns it, crestfallen, informing her that he can’t own weapons, not being Vor.
Vorkosigan raised an eyebrow. “May I see that, Cordelia?” He looked it over, unsheathing it more cautiously. “Hm. Am I right in guessing I paid for this?”
“Well, you will, I suppose, when the bill arrives. Although I don’t think you should pay for the one I broke. I might as well take it back, though.”
“I see.” He smiled a little. “Lieutenant Koudelka, as your commanding officer and a vassal secundus to Ezar Vorbarra, I am officially issuing you this weapon of mine, to carry in the service of the Emperor, long may he rule.” The unavoidable irony of the formal phrase tightened his mouth, but he shook off the blackness, and handed the stick back to Koudelka, who bloomed again.
“Thank you, sir!”
Cordelia just shook her head. “I don’t believe I’ll ever understand this place.”
After supper Cordelia and Aral go to read, Aral on reports from Negri and Cordelia on child-care books. They are occasionally interrupted by loud thwacks from the library, where Koudelka is ostensibly putting the day’s notes in order. Cordelia worries that her gift has distracted him, but Aral assures her that he’ll settle down soon enough. Barrayar is hard on those who can’t keep up, and Aral tells her that the deformed and crippled often don’t survive long; Ensign Dubauer would have been euthanized. Koudelka will have a difficult path ahead of him.
“What about problems like Bothari’s?”
“It depends. He was a usable madman. For the unusable . . .” he trailed off, staring at his boots.
Cordelia felt cold. “I keep thinking I’m beginning to adjust to this place. Then I go around another corner and run headlong into something like that.”
“It’s only been eighty years since Barrayar made contact with the wider galactic civilization again. It wasn’t just technology we lost, in the Time of Isolation. That we put back on again quickly, like a borrowed coat. But underneath it . . . we’re still pretty damned naked in places. In forty-four years, I’ve only begun to see how naked.”
Vortala had a couple more voters to convince, and that evening he brings them over; they disappear into the library with Aral. Aral’s father, Count Piotr, shows up shortly thereafter, since he’ll be casting his own vote the next day as well. Cordelia comments that at least Aral’s assured of one vote, but Piotr says that his son is getting too “radical”, and he’s lucky to get his father’s vote. Soon the Count turns the topic to the baby, since he’s passionately interested in the continuation of his family line.
Cordelia remembers the day she’d confirmed the pregnancy and told Aral it would be a boy, out at Vorkosigan Surleau. Aral said that the Count would be ecstatic, since he’d almost given up on Aral ever having any children, and he wouldn’t even care if their mother is a Betan. Cordelia asked about names, and Aral said that, by tradition, the firstborn son is named after his grandfathers, so he will be Piotr Miles. After a brief tickling match, Cordelia waved to Negri’s watchers, wondering if she should invite them to lunch, and Aral told her that they wouldn’t be allowed.
After the Count has supper, they are walking through the foyer when they hear raised voices in the library, and soon a man stalks out. He greets the Count, and the Count greets him as “Vordarian”.
Vordarian’s lips were tight, his hands clenching in unconscious rhythm with his jaw. “Mark my words,” he ground out, “you, and I, and every other man of worth on Barrayar will live to regret tomorrow.”
Piotr pursed his lips, wariness in the crow’s-feet corners of his eyes. “My son will not betray his class, Vordarian.”
“You blind yourself.”
Aral and Vortala emerge after Vordarian leaves, Vortala saying that they can live without Vordarian’s vote. Aral explains that Commodore Count Vidal Vordarian is of a very conservative stripe, unable to imagine any change as an improvement, and Vortala adds that he was a potential candidate for the Regency, having spent some time cultivating Princess Kareen.
The flashback scene in this chapter doesn’t quite fit, somehow. It reads like an outtake from the previous book, in some ways, and perhaps it was, for all I know. Except for the complete lack of mention anywhere at the end of Shards of Honour that Cordelia was pregnant, which makes me think that it was really a retcon, backfilling Cordelia’s pregnancy so that it will be on the right schedule for the events of this book. I can’t quite convince myself that she knew, for instance, that Cordelia was pregnant in the last chapter of Shards, because in the whole discussion of whether Aral should accept the Regency, Cordelia never brings it up or even thinks about it. The closest they come is Aral mentioning that he now has a future and something to lose. Oh, well, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I’ve started to become more sensitized, as I reread certain series over and over, to things that are first mentioned in later books, and wondering if the author had them in mind all the time or just thought of them as he or she was writing this one.
Apart from that, the Siegling’s scene is great, and the sword-stick in general. Vordarian (who was mentioned, at least, in Shards, as a potential Regent) also appears, with a little bit of mustache-twirling…I can’t help but picture Lucius Malfoy telling Harry Potter he might come to “the same sticky end” as his parents. (Dun dun dun!) At the moment he and his political views are a bit of a caricature. I suppose you could say that Cordelia has a bit of a pro-liberal bias, especially compared to the rest of Barrayar, though I suppose on Beta Colony she might be considered a moderate, so our perception of him might be a bit skewed–I tend to notice that liberals and conservatives can’t really see each other a lot of the time except as caricatures and straw men.
I almost took a week off before starting Barrayar, mostly because I was falling behind, but luckily I managed to pull this together in the last couple of days. Summer heat and mosquitos seems to be wreaking havoc with my sleep schedule, which combined with “work stuff” seems to be depriving me of energy to work on much in the evenings. I anticipated this would be a challenge, though, and I’m curious to see how much I can push myself before I start to slack off.
Until next week, then, with any luck…