Previously, on the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, we saw Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, wife of Lord Regent Aral Vorkosigan, receive bad news in the form of Captain Vaagen, one of the scientists who was entrusted with the care of the uterine replicator holding her fetus son Miles, while they gave him calcium treatments to try to fix his bones after the damage done by the antidote to the soltoxin Cordelia was exposed to. Anyway, Vaagen told her that the rebel and self-proclaimed Regent in his own right Vordarian sent men to retrieve the replicator and take it to the Imperial Residence. What will she do now?
Find out in this installment of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, where I promise to have much fewer run-on sentences, though I still try to convey the gist of the action in fewer sentences than the original author…
Within two minutes of Vorkosigan’s arrival at main portal Security, Captain Vaagen was flat on a float pallet and on his way to the infirmary, with the top trauma doctor on the base being paged for rendezvous. Cordelia reflected bitterly on the nature of chain of command; all truth and reason and urgent need were not enough, apparently, to lend causal power to one outside that chain.
After his treatment, he is pronounced well enough to be questioned further, if briefly, supplying a few more details. Illyan confirms Vaagen’s information, though he says the agents in the palace thought the device might be a bomb; they don’t know if anyone is working on maintaining it. Vaagen says the treatments have been interrupted anyway, and there are some details that only Henri knew. Cordelia says that Betan replicators run on a two-week service cycle. Vaagen says that nutrients are the bottleneck, and they have about six days before they run out. Illyan says that the physician in the Residence has been killed, so he wouldn’t be able to service it. Cordelia is dismayed to realize that Miles might die out of sheer ignorance.
They leave Vaagen’s room, and Aral tells Cordelia that nothing has really changed in their situation. Cordelia protests that Miles is a prisoner now, no longer hidden, and his life is on a clock. Aral says he regrets not having sent a raid earlier, ImpMil being easier to break into than the Residence itself. But he insists that his position is no worse than any of the other men with hostages. Cordelia says that the position is different, because unlike the other hostages, Miles has only six days left, less the time they spend arguing. She says she’s never asked him for any special favours, but now she is asking.
Aral says it’s a delicate time, with negotations with the space forces and two of Vordarian’s top commanders; if that works out, then they can rescue all of the prisoners in one raid. A small raid to recover Miles would likely jeopardize the larger one, whether it succeeded or not. Cordelia asks for a time estimate, and the best that Aral can offer is ten days. Cordelia offers to go herself, with two or three men, but Aral violently refuses. Cordelia asks if he doubts her competency, though she secretly does herself; Aral says that it would drive him crazy, waiting for her return.
“You ask that of me. To wait, unknowing. You ask it every day.”
“You are stronger than I. You are strong beyond reason.”
“Flattering. Not convincing.”
His thought circled hers; she could see it in his knife-keen eyes. “No. No haring off on your own. I forbid it, Cordelia. Flat, absolutely. Put it right out of your mind. I cannot risk you both.”
“You do. In this.”
Cordelia defuses the conversation and leaves without him extracting an oath from her not to go. Outside, she encounters Count Piotr, who seems less hostile. She tells Piotr about Vaagen’s arrival, and Piotr laughs at the emptiness of Vordarian threatening Miles, adding that he would be doing House Vorkosigan a service. Cordelia can’t restrain herself from asking the Count whether he set up Miles’s abduction.
“You dare accuse me—!” His outrage edged into plain rage.
Her rage was shadowing her vision with red. “I know you are an attempted murderer, why not an attempted traitor, too? I can only hope your incompetence holds good.”
His voice was breathy with fury. “Too far!”
“No, old man. Not nearly far enough.”
Piotr tells her that while he would be happy enough to have Vordarian dump out the fetus, he would rather Vordarian not know how worthless his lever is. He heads off in search of Aral, and Cordelia retreats to her quarters, pacing in agitation. When Drou asks, she says she doesn’t really believe Piotr is a traitor; she says Aral is right, she can’t risk failure. Drou quietly reminds Cordelia that she spent three years in security at the Residence, and gets Cordelia’s full attention. Drou says that, as Kareen’s body servant, she was “the last line of defence”, and knew about five secret escape routes. Of those, two were known only to her, Negri and Emperor Ezar, and they should be equally usable as secret entrances.
Cordelia found she had to remember to breathe. “Who do you work for, Drou?”
“Captain—” she started to answer, but slowed self-consciously. “Negri. But he’s dead. Commander—Captain Illyan, now, I suppose.”
“Let me rephrase that.” Cordelia opened her eyes at last. “Who did you put your life on the line for?”
“Kareen. And Gregor, of course. They were kind of the same thing.”
“Still are. This mother bets.” She caught Drou’s blue gaze. “And Kareen gave you to me.”
She asks what she could give Drou in return for her assistance, and Drou says she wants to get Kareen out too. The staff have classified Kareen as “expendable”, but Drou says that she can’t just switch off her loyalty that easily. Cordelia says that they need someone else, someone who knows the city, and sends for Bothari. When he arrives, Cordelia sees how much tension is lurking in his body. He asks her if she’s heard anything about Elena, and Cordelia says that she’s still being kept with other second or third-tier hostages. He tells her that a man he didn’t know approached him the other day and offered him Elena’s life if he killed Count Piotr. Bothari thought about it, but didn’t accept because he didn’t think he’d survive to take care of her afterwards.
Cordelia tells Bothari about Miles’s situation, and he says that a lot of the staff talk about Miles as a “non-viable mutant” behind his back. She asks Bothari who he works for.
“I am oath-sworn Armsman to Count Piotr,” Bothari recited the obvious. He was watching her closely now, a weird smile tugging at one corner of his mouth.
“Let me rephrase that. I know the official penalties for an armsman going AWOL are fearsome. But suppose—”
“Milady.” He held up a hand; she paused in mid-breath. “Do you remember, back on the front lawn at Vorkosigan Surleau when we were loading Negri’s body into the lightflyer, when my Lord Regent told me to obey your voice as his own?”
Cordelia’s brows went up. “Yes . . . ?”
“He never countermanded that order.”
“Sergeant,” she breathed at last, “I’d never have guessed you for a barracks-lawyer.”
His smile grew a millimeter tighter. “Your voice is as the voice of the Emperor himself. Technically.”
“Is it, now,” she whispered in delight. Her nails dug into her palms.
They go to the motor pool, Bothari signing out a vehicle, ostensibly for Count Piotr, while Drou and Cordelia hide out of sight. Their plan is not to head directly for Vorbarr Sultana, but to head into neutral territory first, and then double back. Bothari gets the vehicle without trouble and parks it so that his passengers can enter without being seen. Unfortunately, as they are getting in, Koudelka sees them and asks what they’re doing. Cordelia tries to deflect him with a story of a shopping trip, the security detail having gone ahead, but Koudelka isn’t buying it. Bothari calls him over to look at something, and then clubs him on the back of his neck; they load his unconscious body into the car and drive off.
Bothari passes through security checkpoints easily, the rear compartment blocked off by a reflective barrier so the passengers can’t be seen, so the guards presume that it’s the Count himself. They discuss what to do with Koudelka as he regains consciousness; they decide not to ditch him outside, to give them away, and Cordelia decides to risk bringing him along, to try to convince him to help. Koudelka tries to sway them to return, to keep Vordarian from having another lever against Aral; then he orders Bothari to turn around and drive them back.
A slight pause. “I’m not in the Imperial Service anymore, sir. Retired.”
“Piotr didn’t order this! You’re Count Piotr’s man.”
A longer pause; a lower tone. “No. I am Lady Vorkosigan’s dog.”
“You’re off your meds!”
How such could travel over a purely audio link Cordelia was not sure, but a canine grin hung in the air before them.
“Come on, Kou,” Cordelia coaxed. “Back me. Come for luck. Come for life. Come for the adrenaline rush.”
Droushnakovi leaned over, a sharp smile on her lips, to breathe in Koudelka’s other ear, “Look at it this way, Kou. Who else is ever going to give you a chance at field combat?”
Excessive quotage, but there is a lot of great dialogue in this chapter, as Cordelia assembles her daring party. I always forget how Koudelka gets “convinced” to come along. Interesting how the security system makes a lot of presumptions about, first, the loyalty of Count Piotr, and second, the loyalty of Count Piotr’s armsman. If Count Piotr had been colluding with Vordarian over the uterine replicator, he at least wouldn’t have had much trouble getting in and out of the compound. I suppose he’d have needed to contact Vordarian a little more circumspectly, though, given how many spies they have in place. Anyway, I suppose that the planet does really run on loyalty and oaths, as Cordelia often ponders in near disbelief.
Koudelka is brought around, almost unwillingly, and by the time they reach the neutral district of Count Vorinnis, he has organized a plan to get them smuggled into Vorbarr Sultana in the back of a produce truck. When asked, he admits that his father was a grocer, which Cordelia realizes is a sort of secret shame.
Bothari and Koudelka played two recently discharged vets, looking to better their sorry lot, and Cordelia and Drou two countrywomen co-scheming with them. The women were decked in a realistically odd combination of worn mountain dress and upper-class castoffs apparently acquired from some secondhand shop. They managed the right touch of mis-fittedness, of women not wearing originals, by trading garments.
They get out in the city before the market itself, which Koudelka says will have too many soldiers around, as much to steal their own share of the black-market goods as to guard anything. Cordelia wonders now how Koudelka knows so much about the black market, and if it has anything to do with how his father afforded to get him into the Imperial Military Academy.
Bothari leads the way through the run-down part of town, finding a place marked “Rooms”; the proprietor isn’t eager to open up until he sees there are women in the party. Koudelka and Drou take first shift with the beds, while Cordelia and Bothari go looking for supplies. Bothari warns Cordelia not to talk, with her recognizably foreign accent. He goes to talk to the innkeeper, pretending that they were planning to sell Drou’s virginity to a Vor Lord, but now that’s all screwed up.He says that Koudelka is the brains, but safe to leave with the woman because of his nerve damage, and Cordelia tries to hide her amusement at Bothari’s invention.
Bothari intimates that he’s looking for work to tide them over, and the innkeeper takes the bait. He says there’s a strange man in a room down the street, who’s only seen buying more food than one man could be eating. There’ll be reward from Vordarian’s men for “information-leading-to”, he says. Bothari warns him that if Vordarian loses–and he can smell defeat in the streets–Vorkosigan’s men won’t take kindly to those kind of informers, and the innkeeper says that it’ll be easier for a transient like Bothari to take the risk anyway. Cordelia whispers to Bothari to try to find out who it is, and Bothari asks for 50% and says wants to get a look at who it is.
When Bothari returns, he says that it’s Lord and Lady Vorpatril hiding out; he didn’t make any contact, though, because he wanted to find out Cordelia’s intentions, if she wanted to risk her mission to help them. Cordelia asks about the baby, and Bothari says she hasn’t had it yet, even though it’s two weeks overdue. They decide that the Vorpatrils would be too conspicuous, and if they can discourage the innkeeper, the Vorpatrils might be safe enough until they can get back and tell the others. Bothari also mentions that he saw on a vid that Vordarian has finally declared himself Emperor.
They are just leaving that evening when the innkeeper sees them and yells at Bothari for making them miss the opportunity. At Bothari’s coercion, he tells them that someone else has found the fugitives and is picking them up now. Quickly, Cordelia gets out a stunner and takes out the innkeeper, and the rest get their weapons as well. They head the few blocks over toward the Vorpatrils’ hideout, finding Security groundcars parked outside. They hide around the corner, and Bothari sends Drou around to the other side to set up crossfire; Bothari complains about not being able to see what’s going on, and Cordelia says they can pretend to be a couple who just happens to pass, and watching the arrest.
From a shadowed doorway, they can see Padma Vorpatril shoved against one of the cars, battered and grinning with fast-penta. The still-pregnant Alys Vorpatril is manhandled out of the house as they watch. The colonel in charge of the guards orders his men back, now that they’ve got what they came for, “the lord and the heir”. His lieutenant asks how they’re supposed to kill the two of them when the heir isn’t born yet, and urges them to take Alys back to the station; one of the guards urges raping Alys first, which Cordelia realizes arouses Bothari. The colonel says just to kill them all, at which point Cordelia gives Bothari the same order. Bothari, Cordelia and Drou between them take out the guards with stunners and nerve disrupters, but not before the lieutenant has killed Padma Vorpatril. One car begins to drive away, and Koudelka takes it out with a plasma arc. They grab Alys and drag her away from the scene for several blocks, as they hear sirens behind them.
Suddenly Alys stops short, and Cordelia realizes that she’s in labour; Alys says that her water broke during the fight. She moves slower and slower between contractions, and finally Bothari goes off and returns to lead them to an abandoned set of rooms off an alleyway. They consult each other about any knowledge of babies, and eventually Bothari admits that his mother used to do some midwifery. He asks Cordelia to stay, which Cordelia realizes is intended as a way to keep himself under control. The labour goes on for a while without progressing much, until Bothari helps push on the baby and his head pops out.
Cordelia caught the head between her hands, and eased the body out with the next contraction. The baby boy coughed twice, sneezed like a kitten in the awed silence, inhaled, grew pinker, and emitted a nerve-shattering wail. Cordelia nearly dropped him.
Bothari swore at the noise. “Give me your swordstick, Kou.”
Lady Vorpatril looked up wildly. “No! Give him back to me, I’ll make him be quiet!”
“Wasn’t what I had in mind,” said Bothari with some dignity. “Though it’s an idea,” he added as the wails went on. He pulled out the plasma arc and heated the sword briefly, on low power. Sterilizing it, Cordelia realized.
Bothari cuts the cord after the placenta comes out, and Cordelia notes how large Ivan is, explaining the difficulty in delivery.
Alys looked at the baby and began crying again, muffled sobs. “Padma said . . . I’d have the best doctors. Padma said . . . there’d be no pain. Padma said he’d stay with me . . . damn you, Padma!” She clutched Padma’s son to her. In an altered tone of mild surprise, she added, “Ow!” Infant mouth had found her breast, and apparently had a grip like a barracuda.
“Good reflexes,” observed Bothari.
What kind of accent does Cordelia have, anyway? They always talk about the Barrayarans’ “guttural” accent, which makes me picture something vaguely Germanic, or possibly Russian, so maybe it’s just that she sounds more British or American or something. Or something different, though there doesn’t seem to be too much drift among “Galactic Standard”, with the exception of Barrayar, which was isolated and still has substantial non-Standard-speaking minorities. I guess later they describe Miles’s Betan accent as more “flat and nasal”, I think. For some reason that makes me think of the New York accent, like Joe Pesci or something.
Both Koudelka and Bothari admit to having parents who taught them skills that they’d rather pretend not to have–Koudelka’s father the black-market grocer, and Bothari’s mother, the, um, lady who worked somewhere that resulted in a number of babies being born. Okay, she was a prostitute, not to put too find a point on it. (Though admittedly that doesn’t come up in full for a few chapters yet, I think.) Both of them have managed to rise to work for some of the most powerful men on Barrayar, mostly as a result of their military careers.
It is probably quite lucky that Drou didn’t hear the details of Bothari’s concocted story about selling her virginity. She still doesn’t like or trust Bothari much, and that would really have set her against him. One also presumes that Kou and Drou didn’t get up to any hanky-panky when left on their own, with their still-unresolved issues. I think that those get dealt with pretty soon, though.
And that’s it for another two chapters, as we move toward the climax of the book, and the action begins to ramp up again. The next two chapters may even do it for the climax; there’s still five more left, and I haven’t yet decided if that will take me two weeks or three. We’ll see if I can get started earlier than Sunday next week or the week after. Did I take a week off after the last book? I think so. That’ll be nice…