Welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, into the ninth installment of Barrayar, the second book in the Vorkosigan series chronologically. This week, chapters Seventeen and Eighteen bring the whole story to a head. (Heh.) No, seriously, this totally encompasses the climax of the book–this is the good stuff, right here.
They take Lady Alys, Bothari carrying her, to a three-storey building in the caravanserai, against Koudelka’s protests; Cordelia quickly determines that this is the brothel from Bothari and Koudelka’s previous adventure, though Koudelka tells Drou that it’s a historic building turned into “a kind of inn”. Inside, a woman leads them to a room on the top floor, and at Bothari’s insistence, changes the sheets before he lays Alys down there. Drou stays with Alys while she sleeps, while Koudelka goes to look for food, and Bothari and Cordelia sit at a table in the hall.
Bothari asks if they have prostitutes on Beta Colony, and Cordelia tells him about their Licensed Practical Sexuality Therapists, government-licensed psychotherapists who do teaching as well as sex. Bothari says that his mother was a whore, which Cordelia had already guessed, but adds that she used to sell him to her customers. He ran away at age twelve, and ran with the gangs for four years until he was able to lie his way into the military. Being a bastard on Barrayar is almost as bad as being a mutant, he says; Cordelia says that on Beta they barely even have a term for it.
When Koudelka returns with food and beer, Cordelia says that they have to change their strategy. She says that they can’t take Lady Vorpatril with them, and they should get her out of the city before they realize that she’s probably not pregnant any more. Cordelia needs to go because she’s in charge, Drou knows the way in, and Bothari is their muscle. That leaves Koudelka to take Alys and Ivan out of the city. Koudelka protests that it feels like he’s retreating, but Cordelia says that Alys and Ivan need his cleverness to get them out of the city.
Bothari goes to look for discarded clothing for Koudelka’s new role while Koudelka takes food in to Alys and Drou. Koudelka says that he knows why Drou was so worried about being pregnant. Cordelia says that things are not right between him and Drou yet, and says she wishes she’d been able to straighten things out between herself and Aral before she left.
She meditated a bit. “What have you tried besides ‘I’m sorry’? How about, ‘How do you feel? Are you all right? Can I help? I love you,’ there’s a classic. Words of one syllable. Mostly questions, now I think on it. Shows an interest in starting a conversation, y’know?”
He smiled sadly. “I don’t think she wants to talk to me anymore.”
Cordelia asks what he would have done if they hadn’t been interrupted by the soltoxin grenade attack. Koudelka says he’d have arranged for a go-between, who arranges things with the parents, and then he’d just have to show up at the wedding. But he doesn’t think that her parents would have approved of him, crippled as he is.
“A go-between. Huh.” She stood up.
“Where are you going?” he asked nervously.
“Between,” she said firmly. She marched down the hall to Lady Vorpatril’s door, and stuck her head in.
Drou is in a brown study, and when Cordelia asks, she says that it’s about the man she killed earlier. She blames herself and her hesitation for Lord Padma’s death, when Bothari didn’t hesitate. Cordelia asks her if she really wants to be a monster like Bothari (though he’s her monster, she admits). She says that no military or police force should be made up entirely of psychopathic killers; there should always be someone to question evil orders. Cordelia tells Drou she’s going to send Koudelka out with the Vorpatrils, since, bewildering as it is to her, Vordarian will still consider the infant Lord Vorpatril a threat.
Cordelia asks Drou if she still loves Koudelka, even though she now knows most of his flaws, though he does have a promising future ahead of him if they get out of this alive. Drou says that since she lost her virginity to him, she’s bound to him anyway, but Cordelia points that out that after this raid, she’ll be a hero and have men lining up for her hand. Drou admits she’s afraid Koudelka will hurt her again; Cordelia says that she and Aral hurt each other, that she hurt him badly by going on this mission against his wishes, but avoiding pain is not a good enough reason to choose not to do something.
“I’m not sure I follow that, Milady. But . . . I have a picture, in my head. Of me and Kou, on a beach, all alone. It’s so warm. And when he looks at me, he sees me, really sees me, and loves me. . . .”
Cordelia pursed her lips. “Yeah . . . that’ll do. Come with me.”
She leads Drou to the sofa at the end of the hall, sitting her down with Koudelka at the other end. She says that she will translate between the two of them, since they speak different languages.
Kou made an embarrassed negative motion over Cordelia’s head.
“That hand signal means, I’d rather blow up the rest of my life than look like a fool for five minutes. Ignore it,” Cordelia said. “Now, let me see. Who begins?”
There was a short silence. “Did I mention I’m also playing the parts of both your parents? I think I shall begin by being Kou’s Ma. Well, son, and have you met any nice girls yet? You’re almost twenty-six, you know. I saw that vid,” she added in her own voice as Kou choked. “I have her style, eh? And her content. And Kou says, Yes, Ma, there’s this gorgeous girl. Young, tall, smart—and Kou’s Ma says, Tee hee! And hires me, your friendly neighborhood go-between. And I go to your father, Drou, and say, there’s this young man. Imperial lieutenant, personal secretary to the Lord Regent, war hero, slated for the inside track at Imperial HQ—and he says, Say no more! We’ll take him. Tee-hee. And—”
Koudelka protests that her parents will have more to say than that, and Cordelia interprets this as referring to his disability. She tells him that a wise father, when presented with his daughter’s choice of husband, will just go along and say “Yes, dear,” if he knows what’s good for him. Her brothers may be harder to convince, but since Drou hasn’t complained to them yet, he has a chance.
“I said I was sorry,” said Kou, sounding stung.
Drou stiffened. “Yes. Repeatedly,” she said coldly.
“And there we come to the heart of the matter,” Cordelia said slowly, seriously. “What Kou actually means, Drou, is that he isn’t a bit sorry. The moment was wonderful, you were wonderful, and he wants to do it again. And again and again, with nobody but you, forever, socially approved and uninterrupted. Is that right, Kou?”
Kou looked stunned. “Well—yes!”
Drou blinked. “But . . . that’s what I wanted you to say!”
“It was?” He peered over Cordelia’s head.
Cordelia points out that they still some time before they have to leave, possibly enough to finish working things out, in words of one syllable.
Holy crow, Cordelia’s “baba” scene there, as I think of it (though admittedly, the term “baba” is never used in this chapter, and possibly not even in the entire book–I guess I think of it from later books, like A Civil Campaign, or is it only Warrior’s Apprentice?) is so awesome I had to restrain myself from quoting the entire thing. Not very well, as you can see. Anyway, looking to the future, I’d have to say that Kou and Drou do have a bright one ahead of them, especially considering the kinds of matches their daughters make for themselves down the line. Practically one from every estate. But anyway… Sometimes it seems that every pair of characters needs a Cordelia to sit down between them and clear up all the misunderstandings, secrets and conflicts between them. Or maybe that’s just the Wheel of Time books, whose characters have finally, as of Book 13 in the series, began to actually talk and tell each other things.
Something that bothered me when I was reading this, though. Initially Drou was to stay by Lady Alys’s bedside while she slept, so that she wouldn’t be too disoriented at awakening in a strange place. (Though how well does Alys know Drou, anyway? As a former bodyguard to Princess Kareen, given to Cordelia… At least she would be familiar from the rescue, if nothing else, I suppose.) Lady Alys seems to be still asleep when Cordelia has her conversation with Drou before fetching her to have the baba scene with Kou…so why are they no longer worried about her waking up to find herself alone in a strange place? Never crosses either of their minds at that point. I’ll call it an authorial oversight, though one presumes that Cordelia does take her place there immediately after the end of the chapter.
Also, where do Kou and Drou go off to spend their little bit of personal time? Do they have to rent a room? I seem to have missed on all my previous reads the little bit that said that the couch where they were talking was at the end of the hallway, not in another room, so I suspect that couch would still be a little public for them… They must have rooms with real beds for all of them somewhere. Do they have much money on them, or is Bothari’s credit good?
Koudelka, Alys and baby Ivan prepare to leave the brothel just before dawn, dressed in sober and inconspicuous clothes. Koudelka gives Drou his sword-cane, since it looks far too good quality to match their disguise. Cordelia asks if there’s any risk of being robbed, and Bothari says that Vordarian’s troops have been conscripting a lot of the normal gang members and having them dig bomb shelters, supposedly to protect against Aral. They part with few words, Koudelka giving Drou one last salute.
Cordelia, Bothari and Drou head for a tall commercial building, then down to its sub-basement. Drou breaks into a utility tunnel, well-lit and obviously in use, then opens an access hatch. Cordelia drops into a storm sewer, cold water to her ankles, and Drou and Bothari follow. From there, they find a smaller, brick-lined tunnel where they have to shuffle hunched over. Drou begins to tap on the ceiling, and eventually finds a hatch whose catch she triggers with Koudelka’s sword blade. They emerge into a darkened chamber which Drou says is the old stables, burned down and levelled decades ago; Ezar planted a garden over top, just north of the Residence proper. Ezar and Negri planned this escape route between them.
Drou finds a cache of boxes left for Ezar, with clothes, weapons and money, some of the clothes apparently meant for Kareen and Gregor. Drou and Cordelia put on clean dresses and get stunners; Bothari unpacks his black fatigues and gets a stunner, a plasma arc, and a nerve disrupter. Cordelia also takes the sword-cane, and Gregor’s shoe, out of their satchel. Drou then leads them into a narrow passage with a ladder going into an even narrower squeeze between two walls. Cordelia extinguishes her handlight and Drou opens the panel, which leads into the Emperor’s bedchamber.
It is not empty, though; the bed is occupied by Vordarian, with Kareen huddled into one corner of the mattress. They retreat back down the ladder, where Drou is crying with disappointment in her former mistress. Cordelia points out that Kareen didn’t have much of an option, or a power base with which to resist, and her posture in the bed seemed to indicate that she wasn’t a willing partner. The second exit from the tunnel will be more dangerous, and Cordelia considers turning back, but instead gives them the go-ahead. This time they exit into Ezar’s private office, still unused, its comconsole disconnected.
Cordelia, conscious of the conspicuousness of wearing the cane like a sword, puts it on a tray and carries it like a servant instead as they leave the room. They pass a soldier who salutes to Bothari, and Cordelia hopes that his suspicions are allayed by the fact that the two women seem to be under guard. They climb a flight of stairs to the level where the replicator is being stored. There is a guard outside; as they pass by, Bothari salutes him, which turns into a punch that knocks his head back against the wall and leaves him unconscious. Bothari takes his place outside and Drou and Cordelia drag the guard into the room.
The replicator sits on a table in the centre of the room. Cordelia is about to pick it up when she notices something wrong, and double-checks the readouts. The replicator is empty… In desperation, Cordelia checks the serial number, and discovers that it’s not the same one Miles was in. She discovers a pressure sensor on the table underneath the replicator, no doubt linked to some alarm. Cordelia decides they’ll have to retreat, and hope to catch Vordarian unawares and squeeze Miles’s replicator’s location out of him.
Just then, there is noise outside in the corridor, and stunner fire, and Bothari ducks inside. Drou and Bothari are willing to die to protect Cordelia, but she doesn’t see the point, and proposes surrender instead. They give up their weapons as the guards come inside; one of them finds the shoe in Cordelia’s pocket and sets it on the table. Cordelia hopes that she will get to see Kareen, however briefly, to seal Vordarian’s fate. The guards keep them there until Vordarian arrives, with Kareen in tow.
Vordarian exults at the success of his trap, though the guards warn him that they didn’t have the chance to herd them in from the perimeter, they’d just appeared out of nowhere. Vordarian says they just need to fast-penta Drou to find out how.
“What have you done with my son, Vordarian?”
Vordarian said through his teeth, “An outworlder frill will never gain power on Barrayar by scheming to give a mutant the Imperium. That, I guarantee.”
“Is that the official line, now? I don’t want power. I just object to idiots having power over me.”
Behind Vordarian, Kareen’s lips quirked sadly. Yes, listen to me, Kareen!
Kareen tells them that Vordarian is the Emperor now, if he can keep it, and Vordarian says that he has as good a claim than Aral, and that he will “preserve and protect” the true Barrayar. Cordelia gives Kareen the shoe, which puzzles Vordarian, who is already planning their interrogations.
“Kareen,” said Cordelia softly, “where is my son?”
“The replicator is on a shelf in the oak wardrobe, in the old Emperor’s bedchamber,” Kareen replied steadily, locking her eyes to Cordelia’s. “Where is mine?”
Cordelia’s heart melted in gratitude for her curse, live pain. “Safe and well, when I last saw him, as long as this pretender,” she jerked her head at Vordarian, “doesn’t find out where. Gregor misses you. He sends his love.” Her words might have been spikes, pounded into Kareen’s body.
That got Vordarian’s attention. “Gregor is at the bottom of a lake, killed in the flyer crash with that traitor Negri,” he said roughly. “The most insidious lie is the one you want to hear. Guard yourself, my lady Kareen. I could not save him, but I will avenge him. I promise you that.”
Kareen points out that the shoe hasn’t been immersed; Vordarian reassures her that she can have another son someday, but Kareen grabs a nerve disrupter and fires at Vordarian. One guard knocks her arm aside, spoiling her shot, and another reflexively shoots her with his own nerve disrupter; Vordarian seizes a disrupter and shoots him.
The room tilted around her. Cordelia’s hand locked around the hilt of the swordstick and triggered its sheath flying into the head of one guard, then brought the blade smartly down across Vordarian’s weapon-wrist. He screamed, and blood and the nerve disruptor flew wide. Droushnakovi was already diving for the first discarded nerve disruptor. Bothari just took his target out with one lethal hand-blow to the neck. Cordelia slammed the door shut against the guards in the corridor, surging forward. A stunner charge buzzed into the walls, then three blue bolts in rapid succession from Droushnakovi took out the last of Vordarian’s men.
“Grab him,” Cordelia yelled to Bothari. Vordarian, shaking, his left hand clamped around his half-severed right wrist, was in poor condition to resist, though he kicked and shouted. His blood ran the color of Kareen’s robe. Bothari locked Vordarian’s head in a firm grip, nerve disruptor pressed to his skull.
They head back out into the corridor, Vordarian’s guards backing off at the sight of their lord held hostage. At Bothari’s urging, and over Drou’s protests, Cordelia takes the plasma arc and begins setting fire to the hallway behind them, thinking of it as a funeral pyre for Kareen. They reach the Emperor’s bedchamber and Cordelia sets the corridor burning in the other direction as well. Inside the chamber, she finds the uterine replicator where Kareen had said it would be, and confirms that this one is occupied.
Vordarian begins to argue for them to release him, pointing out that his guards will stun them all. If they let him go, he’ll let them live, even Miles. He said that he never meant for Evon Vorhalas to damage Vorkosigan’s heir, it was only Aral himself that was too dangerous.
“We’d never proved you were behind Evon Vorhalas,” Cordelia said quietly. “Thank you for the information.”
That shut him up, for a moment. His eyes shifted uneasily to the door, soon to burst inward, ignited by the inferno behind it.
“Dead, I’m no use to you as a hostage,” he said, drawing himself up in dignity.
“You’re no use to me at all, Emperor Vidal,” said Cordelia frankly. “There are at least five thousand casualties in this war so far. Now that Kareen is dead, how long will you keep fighting?”
“Forever,” he snarled whitely. “I will avenge her—avenge them all—”
Wrong answer, Cordelia thought, with a curious light-headed sadness. “Bothari.” He was at her side instantly. “Pick up that sword.” He did so. She set the replicator on the floor and laid her hand briefly atop his, wrapped around the hilt. “Bothari, execute this man for me, please.” Her tone sounded weirdly serene in her own ears, as if she’d just asked Bothari to pass the butter. Murder didn’t really require hysterics.
“Yes, Milady,” Bothari intoned, and lifted the blade. His eyes gleamed with joy.
“What?” yelped Vordarian in astonishment. “You’re a Betan! You can’t do—”
The flashing stroke cut off his words, his head, and his life.
Bothari screams and falls to his knees, dropping the sword; Cordelia realizes he must be reliving the suppressed memory of the murder of Admiral Vorrutyer. Drou says that the door is getting hot, and they have to leave. Cordelia finds a drawstring plastic bag, which she puts Vordarian’s head into. She orders Drou to take the replicator (she picks up the swordstick of her own accord), and coaxes Bothari to his feet and down the ladder after Drou. She pushes Bothari ahead of her into the cellar, where they pause for a rest.
“Is he all right?” Droushnakovi asked nervously, as Bothari sat down with his head between his knees.
“He has a headache,” said Cordelia. “It may take a while to pass off.”
Droushnakovi asked even more diffidently, “Are you all right, Milady?”
Cordelia couldn’t help it; she laughed. She choked down the hysteria as Drou began to look really scared. “No.”
Once again, Bujold tries to keep from making her villain too incompetent; he had a plan, if someone tried to break in and go after the replicator, for the guards to stay out of their way and shepherd them towards the fake…but just in case, he also had a pressure sensor underneath it. And yet, it’s only the fact that somebody went looking for the guard that Bothari knocked out that had them detected.
It’s interesting to see the progression of the chaos after Kareen’s attempt on Vordarian’s life. I left out some of the details, but essentially, there are four guards who come into the room to hold Cordelia, Bothari and Drou captive. Then Vordarian and Kareen join them. Kareen takes one guard’s nerve disrupter and tries to shoot Vordarian; that guard knocks her arm out of the way. The guard commander shoots Kareen, then throws away his weapon; Vordarian takes a third guard’s disrupter and shoots the commander with it. Vordarian was in his bedclothes, so he didn’t have his own weapon, and Bothari’s were thrown out of the room when they surrendered. That leaves only one guard with a nerve disrupter (plus Vordarian), which is when our captives move into action. Neatly done and plotted.
The cover of at least one edition of the book is an extreme closeup of the scene–two hands, one male, one female, on the curved handle of the sword-cane. Intriguing, if you don’t know what it means; once it does, it’s evocative of the climactic scene of the book, in this chapter. And it’s intensely satisfying, as Cordelia finds, disquietingly. So many books, the good guys continue being good and don’t do anything to do the bad guy except give them to the authorities, or let them get taken care of by other evil people. The distinction between revenge and justice can be hard to determine, sometimes, especially since revenge is more visceral, possibly hardwired in, if the evolutionary psychologists have anything to say about it. A lot of socialization is occupied in teaching people the concept that “he started it” is not an excuse for doing something back to him, and still it happens, and it’s oh-so-satisfying when it does. When revenge and justice happen to intersect, it’s too much to resist.
And that’s it for another installment. Three more chapters to go in Barrayar, with the TV season starting up. It’s just possible that I may manage two more for next week, and leave my one-chapter week for the week after, when there’s a whole whack of shows I want to watch. And then a week off in between books before I start on the first real Miles book, The Warrior’s Apprentice. We’ll see how well I can keep to a two-chapter schedule after that…
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