Welcome back for another installment of the adventures of Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, Barrayar’s only Betan Countess! This week…Cordelia stumbles on into the wilderness around Vorkosigan Surleau as things get real.
As ImpSec medics try fruitlessly to resuscitate Negri, Koudelka tells Aral that the comconsole was sabotaged, like somebody had just smashed it up. The guard who had been outside the room, now in custody, tries to finger Drou as the culprit; impatiently Aral orders them both arrested.
Aral orders them to begin evacuating, and warn the people in the nearby village. Count Piotr asks his son, mildly, if he’s going to Hassadar; Aral says it will be his first gift to Vordarian. He tells Piotr to take Gregor somewhere, and contact him later to arrange a rendezvous; he doesn’t want to know where they are. He also asks Piotr to take Cordelia, and Bothari to guard her. Piotr sends off his Armsman Esterhazy, and another man off to create a false trail with his groundcar. Aral and Piotr decide to arrange something with Negri’s body and the lightflyer. As they do, Cordelia asks if anyone but her was surprised. Aral tells her that they had found out about Vordarian’s conspiracy, but they had still been gathering evidence. Negri had just called him to get an Imperial warrant to arrest Vordarian, and Vordarian apparently found out about it and moved first, a month earlier than he had been planning.
Cordelia bids a quick but heartfelt farewell to Aral, and gets into the lightflyer with Piotr, Gregor and Bothari. Bothari flies the ailing vehicle at a low altitude, at Piotr’s direction, over a ridge and along a creek, until Piotr tells him to land. The Count then tells them all to get rid of any powered items, including weapons, which show up well on scans; Bothari keeps his steel knife. Esterhazy arrives then with four horses, as Piotr and Aral strap Negri into the lightflyer’s pilot seat and program it to crash into the deepest part of the lake. Piotr then orders them to mount up. Bothari gets on his horse easily enough and Piotr sends him off as point-man.
Supposedly-creaky Piotr swung up into his saddle in one fluid motion; Esterhazy handed Gregor up to him, and Piotr held the boy in front of him. Gregor had actually seemed to cheer up at the sight of the horses, Cordelia could not imagine why. Piotr appeared to do nothing at all, but his horse arranged itself neatly ready to start up the trail—telepathy, Cordelia decided wildly. They’ve mutated into telepaths here and never told me . . . or maybe it was the horse that was telepathic.
Cordelia fails on her first attempt to mount, and Esterhazy hurries over to help her, and she admits to never having ridden before, to Count Piotr’s audible disdain for the “useless Betan frill”. She manages to get aboard, and clings for dear life as they canter off, Piotr taking her horse’s reins.
They ride to a vantage point overlooking the lake, where Bothari is waiting; he helps Cordelia dismount, and she gasps for breath. Flyers are beginning to arrive at the house they left behind, and as soldiers disembark, Cordelia wonders how they’ll tell the good guys from the bad guys, when they wear the same uniform. Esterhazy says that he let all the horses loose to try to muddy their trail, though Piotr says half of them will still just hang around waiting to be fed. More soldiers head into the village, where Esterhazy says they’ll be looking for hostages from the armsmen’s families. Piotr says they need to get under cover before the air search. He heads off into the brush as Bothari and Esterhazy help Cordelia back onto her horse. They walk more slowly, for the horses’ sake.
They rode among trees and scrub, along a ravine, over a ridge, the horses’ hooves scraping over stone. Her ears strained for the whine of flyers overhead. When one came, Bothari led her on a wild and head-spinning slide down into a ravine, where they dismounted and cowered under a rock ledge for minutes, until the whine faded. Getting back out of the ravine was even more difficult. They had to lead the horses up, Bothari practically seeming to hoist his along the precarious scrubby slope.
They ride into the night, until close to midnight, when they reach a clearing. Cordelia sits exhausted with Gregor on her lap; Bothari splits a ration-bar, their only food, between them, and Gregor goes to sleep. Cordelia wonders where Aral is, and asks Piotr if he’d be in Hassadar. Piotr says he’d have gone there, but only to disperse his garrison, trying to throw them off Gregor’s trail. With luck, Vordarian will try to hold Hassadar, which has little strategic value, but will drain off his troops. Also, by holding Count Vorkosigan’s seat, Vordarian may give some of the other Counts reason to worry about him. Aral will be heading for Tanery Base Shuttleport to try to make contact with the spacebound troops.
Piotr says that Vordarian has been moving quickly; when he was up at Vorbarr Sultana that morning, he didn’t see any signs of trouble. The capital itself won’t be that great of an advantage to Vordarian, because the real battle is to win over the people. Even though he holds ImpMil, many people will have fled their posts, and a lot of those that remain will be secretly working to sabotage one side or the other. Cordelia asks about the Vorpatrils, and Piotr tells her that Padma and the unborn child are in definite danger, as other descendants of Prince Xav.
Cordelia worries that their own heat, and that of the horses, will show up once they start scanning the hills, but Piotr says that there are plenty of other people living in these hills, even if Cordelia hasn’t seen them. Still, he has a few ideas, and they’ll probably split up soon to confuse things even more.
They start moving again before dawn, heading up a long slope. They stop in a hollow with a stream, where Piotr and Esterhazy go to try to find help. Gregor tries to feed some of the native Barrayaran plants to the horses, but they won’t eat them, and Cordelia warns him not to try himself. Esterhazy returns and takes them over a pass to where Piotr waits with another man wearing a Postal Service uniform. He gives them some rations, and Piotr tells Bothari to go with “The Major” and take Cordelia and Gregor with him. Piotr takes some gum-leaf, a mild stimulant, and heads off with Esterhazy back down the trail.
Another traveling chapter, like some of those near the beginning of Shards of Honour. A little more urgency, at least at the beginning, but it’s hard to maintain that tension when you’re moving through the wilderness at low speed, without the enemy visibly in hot pursuit on your trail. So this is where the action flags slightly. Cordelia’s humorous (and undoubtedly quite realistic) trepidation and lack of skill with the horses also breaks the tension a bit.
It’s nice to see Aral and his father, at each other’s throats, exchanging barbed words and disowning each other not too long ago, putting all that aside and working together when it’s the Emperor’s life at stake. They know when higher duty takes over.
The Major, who introduces himself as Amor Klyeuvi, or “Kly”, tells Cordelia that he’s the Imperial Mail for the area. He’s done it for eighteen years, and has two more, if he doesn’t get phased out by lightflyers, before he can retire with 60 years Imperial service, as a “triple-twenty-years man”; he spent forty years in the Imperial Rangers, starting during the Cetagandan War. He tells Cordelia and Bothari that they’ll stick out, Bothari in his livery, and Cordelia in Aral’s fatigue shirt, but he’ll see what he can do. Cordelia asks to try some of his gum-leaf, once she convinces him that she’s “not a real lady”.
Kly regarded her with bemusement. “So what are you, off-worlder not-a-lady?”
“I was an astrocartographer. Then a Survey captain. Then a soldier, then a POW, then a refugee. And then I was a wife, and then I was a mother. I don’t know what I’m going to be next,” she answered honestly, around the gum-leaf. Pray not widow.
Kly is puzzled about “mother”, and she tells him that her baby was born prematurely and is at ImpMil hospital; Kly assures her that the hospital should be safe. They ride up the road, Kly making periodic side trips to deliver mail. He returns from one with some replacement clothes, which they put on, hiding the revealing ones; Gregor, they remove his mismatched shoe and cover him with a men’s shirt. They continue over the pass; some of Kly’s message recipients come to meet them, and some messages Kly delivers orally. Kly promises to take them to his sister’s place, where they can sleep, but Bothari’s horse goes lame and he has to walk, and it takes hours longer before they cross another ridge into a concealed vale and into a tiny shack. Cordelia curls up with Gregor under a blanket and is asleep in minutes.
Cordelia wakes up to find Gregor awake as well. The shack has only one room, with a kettle over the embers of a wood fire. Footsteps outside prove to be Bothari’s, and he tells them there is breakfast. Cordelia takes Gregor to the outhouse, then back to the shack for tea and groats, and then Cordelia tells Bothari to get some sleep. She also asks if Kly had any plans in case they had to hide before he got back, and Bothari mentions a nearby cave network whose entrance Kly had shown him, which they used to use when fighting the Cetagandans. Cordelia sits and listens in case she hears any vehicles coming closer; they can see the lake far below them, and aren’t really that far away. After checking on the horses, Cordelia asks Gregor what happened back in the capital.
“The soldiers came. The colonel told Mama and me to come with him. One of our liveried men came in. The colonel shot him.”
“Stunner, or nerve disruptor?”
“Nerve disruptor. Blue fire. He fell down. They took us to the Marble Courtyard. They had aircars. Then Captain Negri ran in, with some men. A soldier grabbed me, and Mama grabbed me back, and that’s what happened to my shoe. It came off in her hand. I should have . . . fastened it tighter, in the morning. Then Captain Negri shot the soldier who was carrying me, and some soldiers shot Captain Negri—”
“Plasma arc? Is that when he got that horrible burn?” Cordelia asked. She tried to keep her tone very calm.
Gregor nodded mutely. “Some soldiers took Mama, those other ones, not Negri’s ones. Captain Negri picked me up and ran. We went through the tunnels, under the Residence, and came out in a garage. We went in the lightflyer. They shot at us. Captain Negri kept telling me to shut up, to be quiet. We flew and flew, and he kept yelling at me to be quiet, but I was. And then we landed by the lake.” Gregor was trembling again.
Cordelia reassures Gregor that his mother will be okay, while her mind flashes on a vision of soldiers finding the uterine replicator and dashing little Miles on the floor.
When Kly hasn’t returned by suppertime, Cordelia asks Bothari to show her the cave. He gets a chemical cold-light and takes them to the opening, which is quite wide, as is the entrance cavern, which shows clear signs of previous occupancy, and has several exits leading out. Cordelia wonders if they should try to hide in the cave network, but decides it’s too risky. However, she decides they should stay there overnight, and leave signs to make any pursuers who find the cave think that they have gone into the caves. Bothari brings up their horses and tethers them outside. Cordelia leaves the fatigue shirt in a niche, and drops a cold-light deeper into the caves, then sends Bothari to find a real bolt-hole to hide in. After Bothari returns, they sleep.
When Cordelia awakens, Bothari says that he’s finding it hard to sleep without his medication, which helps suppress his dreams. After a cold breakfast, Cordelia is resting when Bothari says it’s time to move. As they leave the cave, Cordelia sees a lightflyer landing outside Kly’s sister’s shack, and soldiers emerging to kick the door open. Her horse tries to follow her and she shoos it back. Bothari leads them up to his hidey-hole, a narrow horizontal crack almost impossible to see into, where they watch the cave entrance through simple unpowered binoculars. They take turns watching as the cave entrance is discovered, and by nightfall dozens of men have disappeared into it.
They slip out and head back down the slope. Bothari stops at one point near a vent, where they can hear voices.
“Goddammit, I know we went left back at that third turn.”
“That wasn’t the third turn, that was the fourth.”
“We re-crossed the stream.”
“It wasn’t the same friggin’ stream, sabaki!”
“Lieutenant, you’re an idiot!”
“Corporal, you’re out of line!”
“This cold light’s not going to last the hour. See, it’s fading.”
“Well, don’t shake it up, you moron, when it glows brighter it goes faster.”
“Give me that—!”
Bothari salutes Cordelia and later wishes that they’d had a grenade to drop down there, which would have had them shooting each other for days.
That cave sequence is priceless. I’m glad Cordelia didn’t decide to go into the caves, first because she correctly surmises that it’s too dangerous, and second because extended cave sequences can get tedious, like extended mountain-climbing sequences. But luring the enemy into it, that’s awesome. Still, the book still feels like it’s close to dissipating the tension from Chapter Ten. Maybe that’s just because it’s a reread and I know what’s going to happen, and I’m looking forward to stuff that’s still several chapters ahead.
Gregor doesn’t get up to much, apart from telling Cordelia his story. I guess growing up as he did, he’s probably used to being quiet and staying out of the way and doing what he’s told, and his recent experiences have probably left him a little shell-shocked, but he’s very obedient and very quiet. Convenient for the characters, and the author, but is it realistic? Not sure.
And that’s it for this week; still managed to do two chapters, so far so good. It’ll probably be the first few weeks of fall TV season when I’ll start to fall behind, as I try to keep up with all the interesting-sounding shows until I decide to give up on them, or the networks do. (No space opera on TV these days, but I guess we’ll make do.)