I said that I wasn’t sure if I’d post on Tuesday or Thursday, so here I am posting on Wednesday instead (at least in some time zones). I was actually almost ready to post yesterday, thanks to my wife’s netbook, but I was on vacation with my family, and we spent far too much of the day tramping around Stanley Park, and I was bushed, so I only managed to finish the Chapter Eight summary. Here comes the rest of it right now.
One morning, Aral asks a serving man, one of his father’s, to fetch Koudelka. The man tells him that Koudelka is in the hospital, according to Illyan’s guard commander, having gotten beaten up the night before, and they’re waiting for a full report from Illyan. Aral angrily summons the guard commander and asks to be informed in the future if any of his staff are injured; the guard commander replies that they found out about it quite late at night, and by the time they had, Koudelka and Bothari, who was also involved, were already at the hospital and out of danger, so they decided to let Aral sleep.
Aral asks for more details of the incident. The guard commander says that Koudelka and Bothari went out for some “entertainment” at a rundown part of the capital called the caravanserai, a place where Bothari regularly goes when he has the chance.
Cordelia asks for a description, and is appalled to learn that these people have no electricity, and are thus deprived of comconsoles, which is unheard of on Beta Colony, as is poverty, for the most part. She is also upset to learn how cheap life is there, and argues with Count Piotr over how many potential geniuses they’re missing out on, an argument which Cordelia abandons after inadvertently implying that Vor ancestry contained a number of bastards (which seems obvious to her, and she can’t figure out how it offends everyone).
The guard commander returns to his story, and says that the two men were set upon by a gang of toughs, who beat them up, though four of them were killed. He is less sure of the precise injuries, but it sounds like Bothari had a broken arm, a concussion, and other injuries, while Koudelka had both legs broken and a number of shock burns; the assailants apparently discovered that Koudelka’s artificial nerves reacted oddly to the application of a shock stick.
Illyan’s report later adds more details. Koudelka “wanted to get laid”, and enlisted Bothari to help him. They went to Bothari’s favourite place, but Koudelka was apparently unable to perform, and Bothari waited longer and got drunker than usual; after an argument over cost, they left. Illyan says that his men had used fast-penta to interrogate everyone at the brothel, and found nothing suspicious. Bothari took a wrong turn and got them lost, and they were stalked by about a dozen men, who managed to get Bothari’s stunner away before he’d taken out more than three of them. Koudelka had only his sword-stick, and once he revealed the blade they took him for a Vor, and things got ugly; they broke his legs and started on the shock-stick.
Illyan notes that his own agent was late to catch up to them, because Koudelka had tickets for a musical performance and apparently changed his mind at the last minute. The agent eventually tracked them down to the caravanserai, but disappeared. It took hours for anyone to realize that Koudelka was missing, but when they did they immediately sent out patrols, and found the gang members before they got too far with Koudelka. Illyan also notes that while Koudelka and Bothari accounted for three of the deaths, a fourth was an allergic reaction to fast-penta, which is sometimes natural but also often implanted in secret agents to keep them from being interrogated.
Illyan says that he doesn’t know why Koudelka had the idea in the first place, and it makes him suspicious; Cordelia offers to clear his mind, off the record. She says he’s in love with somebody, and obviously wanted to see if he could still perform sexually before he went any further.
Bothari returns to Vorkosigan House after a few days, still in a cast and quite taciturn about the night’s events, and Drou is obviously worried about Koudelka’s continued absence; Cordelia wonders what garbled version of the story she has heard. It’s a month before Koudelka is back, and he deflects queries about what happened as well.
Aral seems to be busy a lot of the time, and quite worried about something, and Cordelia starts to worry for his safety again. She wonders if she’d be able to cope with Barrayar without him, and begins to miss the dry climate of Beta Colony as the weather turns rainy.
One wet afternoon she is reading quietly in the library when Koudelka comes in. Not noticing her, he picks up his swordstick, exposes the blade, and then puts it to his neck. Then he notices her there and he pulls the blade away, embarrassed. They commiserate, Koudelka about the scorn and pity that seems to be all he has to look forward to, and Cordelia about the danger that Aral is in, and the impending childbirth.
Cordelia went still, suddenly face-to-face with her tightly suppressed fears. “I don’t trust your doctors,” she admitted shakily.
He smiled in deep irony. “I can’t blame you.”
A laugh puffed from her, and she hugged him back, around the chest, and raised her hand to wipe away the tiny drops of blood from the side of his neck. “When you love someone, it’s like your skin covers theirs. Every hurt is doubled. And I do love you so, Kou. I wish you’d let me help you.”
“Therapy, Cordelia?” Vorkosigan’s voice was cold, and cut like a stinging spray of rattling hail. She looked up, surprised, to see him standing before them, his face frozen as his voice. “I realize you have a great deal of Betan . . . expertise, in such matters, but I beg you will leave the project to someone else.”
Aral glares at Koudelka and leaves; Cordelia says that he didn’t mean it, and Koudelka says that he sure isn’t a threat to anyone’s marriage in his condition, and says he has work to do, leaving Cordelia infuriated at Barrayaran men. Drou appears, and Cordelia lashes out at her for not being able to manage her own love life. She then goes in search of her husband.
When she finds him, she takes him to task for his remark; Aral asks how he was supposed to react, finding her “cuddling” with Koudelka, and tells her to think about what anyone else would have thought, what stories might have gotten out to give ammunition to his political enemies.
“How the devil did we get onto your damned politics? I’m talking about a friend. I doubt you could have come up with a more wounding remark if you’d funded a study project. That was foul, Aral! What’s the matter with you, anyway?”
Aral admits that the job is getting to him, but Cordelia warns him that Koudelka’s on the verge of suicide. Despite what happened with his wife, he needs to trust Cordelia not to be like her.
Cordelia asks if he can talk about his work problems. Aral says that they might be on the verge of another war; Cetaganda had been hoping to take advantage of a period of chaos after Ezar’s death, but Aral didn’t oblige, so they seem to have been trying to take him out. Either way, they will probably be probing in force at several disputed warp points.
Worse than that, though, Count Vorhalas approached him in private. One of his sons, Lord Carl, got into a drunken fight, which unfortunately involved two decorative swords and kitchen knives, and ended up with his opponent stabbed in the abdomen and bleeding to death. This legally makes it a murder committed as part of a duel, which is still a capital crime. Vorhalas asked for leniency, but Aral is afraid to take that step even for a friend, even when he should have been executed for dueling himself decades ago, because it will become a slippery slope away from the justice-for-everyone that Emperor Ezar had been so committed to. Cordelia urges him to do what he thinks right, though she is dismayed that that points him toward executing Carl Vorhalas.
The Koudelka and Bothari story is almost funny in places, but also sad and horrific, so maybe I’m just twisted. Koudelka’s torment is brutal to see, but hopefully he’ll be able to get past it soon. (If only I knew what was going to happen next! Oh, wait, I do.) The Carl Vorhalas story seems like the flipside of it, somehow–the man who wants to die and the man who’s going to die because of an awful mistake. And I do see Aral’s point about having to uphold the laws as they’re written, without personal exemptions for friends and their families, but don’t they have lawyers on Barrayar? Couldn’t someone make some kind of defense that it’s not really a duel, just to draw things out, or to at least push for a reform of the law? Does Barrayar really have that poor of a legal system? I guess that we don’t see any sign of lawyers in “The Mountains of Mourning”, but I don’t recall seeing many others in the series, not even in Komarr, apart from the Imperial Auditors. I’ll have to pay attention.
What did happen to Illyan’s missing man, anyway? I don’t remember if that becomes an important plot point later, or the guy who died from fast-penta. I also don’t remember if the Cetagandans were really to blame for the attack, but maybe they do get involved somehow in later events, even though I don’t recall it that way.
Three weeks later, Aral attends Carl Vorhalas’s public execution; Cordelia asks him if he has to go, and he says it’s not strictly mandatory, but he still has to go. He notes that he still thinks that it’s more civilized than Betan therapy for criminals, destroying you a little at a time instead of all at once. He says it’s to be beheading, which is supposed to be painless, though when Cordelia presses, he admits that they really don’t know.
After he returns from the execution, he sits in silence for a long time, before telling Cordelia how Carl had tried to be brave, but his mother broke him down, and the executioner did a bad job of it, requiring three cuts.
“It lacked nothing for perfect hideousness. His mother cursed me, too. Until Evon and Count Vorhalas took her away.” The dead-expressioned voice escaped him then. “Oh, Cordelia! It can’t have been the right decision! And yet . . . and yet . . . no other one was possible. Was it?”
He came to her then, and held her in silence. He seemed very close to weeping, and it almost frightened her more that he did not.
After that he regains his self-possession and goes on about his work, but he lies awake that night, and Cordelia couldn’t think of the words to comfort him. He speaks once, to wonder why this death, more than the others he holds himself responsible for, affects him like this, arresting his momentum when he needs to keep going forward.
Later that night Cordelia is awakened to a breaking of glass, and inhales an acrid gas. Aral awakens then and recognizes the gas as soltoxin, telling Cordelia not to breathe. He puts a pillow over her face and drags her out of the room just as she begins to vomit. He begins barking orders to men nearby, telling them to get Illyan, and get the antidote from the Imperial Residence, which will be closer than ImpMil.
Soon Aral and Cordelia are showering in cool water, Aral urging her to keep washing, including her mouth if possible. He recognized the odour of soltoxin, a poison gas, strictly controlled by the military; Cordelia says the nausea seems to be passing, but Aral says that it works slowly, eating away at soft tissues like the lungs if they don’t get the antidote. Cordelia asks if it will affect the baby, and Aral admits he doesn’t know.
One of the guards reports that they’ve contacted the Imperial Residence. Cordelia asks after Drou, and is told that she and Koudelka, who were together at the time, went after the assailant, even though Drou was supposed to check on Cordelia first. They seem to have caught somebody, though.
They emerge when the doctor from the Residence arrives to set up the antidote. He stops when he sees that Cordelia is pregnant, but Aral tells him to give her the antidote. Cordelia breathes in the gas, which she finds almost as nauseating as the soltoxin, until the doctor says she’s had enough, before Aral takes his own dose.
Cordelia asks what the soltoxin will do to the baby, and the doctor says that nobody knows what happens without the antidote. Cordelia notices the doctor’s look of pity and Aral’s pain and anger, and asks what the treatment does. The doctor is reluctant to say, but Aral forces him, so he tells Cordelia that the antidote destroys bone development; it won’t affect her much, but it will the fetus.
She opened her eyes to Vorkosigan, and they stared at each other.
“The look on your face . . .” he whispered. “It’s not . . . Weep. Rage! Do something!” His voice rose to hoarseness. “Hate me at least!”
“I can’t,” she whispered back, “feel anything yet. Tomorrow, maybe.” Every breath was fire.
Aral gets dressed and says that at least he can see what it was that Kou and Drou had caught. He tells Cordelia to stay behind but she refuses, and says that he won’t murder anyone in front of her; Aral isn’t so sure.
The entry hall is crowded with guards and medics; one of the guards lies on the floor with blood by his head, a medic attending him. Illyan is just arriving, and says he’s thankful that Aral is all right; Aral just growls. The prisoner is surrounded by guards; Drou stands nearby in a nightgown, holding a crossbow, obviously used to launch the soltoxin grenade, and Koudelka is in a uniform and bedroom slippers. Koudelka is saying that he’d have had the man if Drou hadn’t interfered, but Drou says that it seemed that Koudelka was flat on the ground, before they are shushed at Aral’s approach.
The prisoner is in black military fatigues, which surprises Aral; Illyan cautions him uneasily that they need him alive to interrogate. When they see his face, though, it turns out to be Evon Vorhalas, who lashes out at Aral for having his brother “cold-bloodedly” killed.
There was a long silence, then Vorkosigan leaned close to him, one arm extended past his head for support against the wall. He whispered hoarsely, “You missed me, Evon.”
Vorhalas spat in his face, spittle bloody from his injured mouth. Vorkosigan made no move to wipe it away. “You missed my wife,” he went on in a slow soft cadence. “But you got my son. Did you dream of sweet revenge? You have it. Look at her eyes, Evon. A man could drown in those sea-grey eyes. I’ll be looking at them every day for the rest of my life. So eat vengeance, Evon. Drink it. Fondle it. Wrap it round you in the night watch. It’s all yours. I will it all to you. For myself, I’ve gorged it to the gagging point, and have lost my stomach for it.”
Cordelia finds that she can’t hate Evon Vorhalas, since she can see exactly what brought him to his current state. She tells Evon that Aral didn’t enjoy it, and wondered what he expected; Evon said that he expected a little human mercy. Just before Aral and Cordelia leave for ImpMil, and Evon is taken away by Illyan’s men, Cordelia asks if Evon intended that particular effect when he used soltoxin. Evon said he just grabbed something that was available, and, he thought, obscure enough that they wouldn’t find the antidote in time. Aral says that he remembered the smell instantly, from the Karian mutiny, back when he was no older than Evon, and luckily the antidote was at the Imperial Residence instead of ImpMil.
Evon admits he hadn’t intended to catch her, didn’t even know that she would be in danger. He certainly didn’t intend harm to the baby, he says, breaking down and weeping. Aral is moved, but tells Illyan to send him a full report and takes Cordelia to the hospital.
At ImpMil they are separated, but soon given rooms across the hall from each other in the V.I.P. wing. Cordelia can still feel the baby moving inside her. Aral comes to visit, and they talk briefly, the doctors having warned them that their vocal cords are still in danger until the last of the soltoxin is cleared out. After they do, she is left alone with an uneaten breakfast until a group of doctors enter her room–her own physician, the one from the Resident who had administered the antidote, and a Captain Vaagen who is introduced as an expert in military poisons.
They tell Cordelia that they should schedule the abortion promptly, since it’s already almost too late for it. Cordelia asks if there is any hope, and two of them say that there is none, but Captain Vaagen brings up a calcium experiment that he read about; the other two try to shush him, asking him not to give her false hope.
Her world turned right-side-up again in a second, as she looked at the face of the man with ideas. She knew the type; half-right, half-cocked, half-successful, flitting from one monomania to another like a bee pollinating flowers, gathering little fruit but leaving seeds behind. She was nothing to him, personally, but the raw material for a monograph. The risks she took did not appall his imagination, she was not a person but a disease state. She smiled upon him, slowly, wildly, knowing him then for her ally in the enemy camp.
“How do you do, Dr. Vaagen? How would you like to write the paper of a lifetime?”
The other two doctors try to dissuade her, saying that the results have been grotesque, and even Vaagen admits the results are far from guaranteed, and may result in a “jellyfish”. He also says that the mothers may suffer from the treatment, and Cordelia asks if it can be done in vitro instead, using the uterine replicators; Vaagen says it has possibilities, and he is acquainted with Dr. Henri. Her doctor protests that Vaagen is only a biochemist, not a doctor, and Cordelia says that he can help Vaagen do the transfer to the replicator.
Her doctor refuses, saying that they can try again in a few months, assuming that there is no testicular scarring on Aral’s part; Cordelia says that she’s not even sure Aral will be alive in a few months. Her doctor still refuses to do the operation, so she fires him and puts Vaagen in charge of the case. Cordelia’s former doctor warns him that there is still the Regent himself to deal with.
“You shall have an institute, if you can bring this off. You tell him,” she jerked her head in the direction of the hall, toward Aral’s room, “I said so.”
Yet more nameless doctors! What does Bujold have against naming doctors? Or is it just obstructive ones who don’t look at their patients as people that she has issues with? Still.
This chapter’s events are among the most crucial in the entire series, because they determine a major part of the life of Miles Vorkosigan, the bone disorder that plagues him his whole life. Of course, if Aral and Cordelia had never met, or hadn’t survived to marry, then that would have also been significant, but given that, this is probably the next most important factor. Ms. Bujold has been quoted as saying that given the nature of Barrayar, the crippling of Aral’s son is about the worst thing that could happen to him, and so, as an author, she was obligated to do it. Well, not obligated, but it seemed a logical step. Didn’t Cordelia say at the end of Shards of Honour that great challenges were a great gift? So.
And yet they don’t really follow logically from the earlier plot. Evon Vorhalas admits that his choice of weapon was mostly by chance, and the “duel” that led to his brother Carl’s death was the worst sort of bad luck, too. At no point does it seem like an outlandish coincidence, but it’s not tied to the rest of the plot, Vordarian or the Cetagandans or anything else that may be bubbling under the surface. It’s just random chance, an act of God, bad luck. And yet, somehow, Cordelia would probably admit that just living on Barrayar, with one of the most powerful men on the planet, the chances of something of the sort happening, if not this exact thing, are far too high to be neglected, so it still feels inevitable.
This coming weekend will also be busy, so it is once again possible that I’ll be a little late, or just do one chapter, or something, but I will try to at least keep to Wednesday next week, if not Tuesday, and hopefully by the week after that I can be back on track, as my schedule settles down. Stranger things have happened.