Welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, wherein I summarize and comment on the books of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, in weekly installments of (usually) two chapters, posted on Tuesdays, at least in my time zone–more often in the evenings than in the mornings, admittedly, but technically Tuesday none the less. This is the penultimate installment of the Barrayar reread, as I cover chapters 19 and 20, winding the plot down from Cordelia’s triumph to a gentle, touching denouement. There’s even a wedding, for a nice, traditional ending.
But at the start, Cordelia, Drou and Bothari have just escaped from the burning Imperial Residence, with the severed head of soi-disant Emperor Vordarian, former pretender to the throne.
In Ezar’s cache they find money and fake IDs for Drou, so Cordelia sends Drou out to buy a groundcar. They will have to pass several checkpoints to leave the capital, but the monorail is worse, and lightflyers likely to be shot down. Drou buys a fairly cheap car, since Cordelia wants to save money for bribes at the checkpoints. As they set off, Cordelia can see the black smoke coming from the fire at the Residence.
The first checkpoint is unmanned; the second is harried, and a healthy bribe convinces them to let Drou and her “sick uncle” Bothari pass through. At the third, they mention the “rumour” of Vordarian’s death and the guard deserts on the spot. After that, they drive to Vorinnis’s neutral District, and switch to the monorail after the car breaks down. Once they reach a loyal District, Drou convinces the duty officer at a supply depot near the border to contact Tanery Base, and they send an air shuttle to pick them up.
Once they reach the base, she orders her ImpSec escort to get Vaagen there right away, and they tell her he’s already been summoned. The security men take their weapons, and Cordelia doesn’t blame them, in their current condition. Vaagen arrives and examines the replicator, saying nutrient levels are low and waste products high, but still within tolerance. Aral already set up a lab for Vaagen, just in case, so he has everything he needs to get it back into shape, though he doesn’t know what effect there was on the calcification treatments. After being relieved of the replicator, Cordelia wants to rest, but she has to tell Aral, first. She wonders if she’s crippled his credibility among his men.
Koudelka arrives, and he and Drou have a quite non-military reunion. Kou says that the Vorpatrils are safely bedded down, suffering from exhaustion but little worse. Drou tells him about Kareen’s fate, and Koudelka says that he’s been ordered to bring them to Aral for the initial debriefing before they talk to anyone else. He asks about her plastic bag, and the ImpSec men say she wouldn’t let them look at it, and they don’t know if they should let her bring it into the base. Koudelka takes a peek inside, pales, and says that this is definitely something Aral should see.
“Lieutenant, what should I put on my inventory?” the ImpSec man—whined, Cordelia decided, was what he was doing. “I have to register it, if it’s going in.”
“Let him cover his ass, Kou,” Cordelia sighed.
Kou peeked again, his lips twisting into a very crooked grin. “It’s all right. Put it down as a Winterfair gift for Admiral Vorkosigan. From his wife.”
Drou returns the sword-cane, apologizing for losing the case, and Koudelka immediately makes the connection with the severed head; Cordelia says she’ll go back to Siegling’s and replace the casing. Koudelka says that Aral is meeting with two Vordarian officers negotating their help with the hostage recovery, but Vordarian’s death will certainly change everything. Koudelka leads them into a conference chamber.
Cordelia took in the tableau, that paused to look back up at her from around the polished table. Aral was in the center, of course. Illyan and Count Piotr flanked him on either side. Prime Minister Vortala was there, and Kanzian, and some other senior staffers all in formal dress greens. The two double-traitors sat across, with their aides. Clouds of witnesses. She wanted to be alone with Aral, be rid of the whole bloody mob of them. Soon.
Aral’s eyes locked to hers in silent agony. His lips curled in an utterly ironic smile. That was all; and yet her stomach warmed with confidence again, sure of him. No frost. It was going to be all right. They were in step again, and a torrent of words and hard embraces could not have communicated it any better. Embraces would come, though, the grey eyes promised. Her own lips curved up for the first time since—when?
Count Piotr’s hand slapped down hard upon the table. “Good God, woman, where have you been?” he cried furiously.
A morbid lunacy overtook her. She smiled fiercely at him, and held up the bag. “Shopping.”
For a second, the old man nearly believed her; conflicting expressions whiplashed over his face, astonishment, disbelief, then anger as it penetrated he was being mocked.
“Want to see what I bought?” Cordelia continued, still floating. She yanked the bag’s top open, and rolled Vordarian’s head out across the table. Fortunately, it had ceased leaking some hours back. It stopped faceup before him, lips grinning, drying eyes staring.
The reaction is gratifying. Koudelka lays the sword-stick down next to the head to emphasize its role. Cordelia says that she paid too much for it, that Kareen is dead. Aral says that he wishes to be along with his wife. As Vordarian’s turncoats are leaving, Cordelia tells them she’s tired of their stupid war and they should surrender unconditionally. Count Piotr says he underestimated her, and she tells him to stay away from her son. Aral tells Koudelka to take the head away to the morgue until it can be reunited with its body, and that Bothari and Drou should wash, eat and report to him in his quarters.
Alone at least, Cordelia and Aral embrace fiercely, and Cordelia promises never to pull a stunt like that again as long as Aral never makes it necessary again. He has already heard about Padma Vorpatril, who was the only other survivor of Prince Xav’s descendants. He says that she’s shocked the Barrayarans, and she says that like Vordarian, they seem to think that Barrayarans have a monopoly on savagery. Aral asks about the head, and Cordelia says that she wasn’t sure why she was bringing it along, but later realized that it was the only way to convince people that she’d actually done the deed. She says that Bothari needs help, better than the memory wipe he got from Ezar. She wonders why he fixates on her, of all people.
Vorkosigan looked very thoughtful. “Bothari . . . does not have a good sense of self. No strong center. When I first met him, at his most ill, his personality was close to separating into multiples. If he were better educated, not so damaged, he would have made an ideal spy, a deep-penetration mole. He’s a chameleon. A mirror. He becomes whatever is required of him. Not a conscious process, I don’t think. Piotr expects a loyal retainer, and Bothari plays the part, deadpan as you please. Vorrutyer wanted a monster, and Bothari became his torturer. And victim. I demanded a good soldier, and he became one for me. You . . .” his voice softened, “you are the only person I know who looks at Bothari and sees a hero. So he becomes one for you. He clings to you because you create him a greater man than he ever dreamed of being.”
Three days later, Aral’s forces retake Vorbarr Sultana, without too great a loss of life, or much resistance except at the Residence and ImpSec headquarters. The hotel where Elena Bothari and other hostages were being held was liberated without incident, and Aral granted Bothari leave to take her back home. Evon Vorhalas, who had of course been fighting for Vordarian, was shot by his own men after he refused to consider an offer of amnesty.
One rebel Count declared himself Emperor after hearing of Vordarian’s death, but his own pretendership was brief; in another District, the Count killed himself and an anti-Vor group declared themselves an independent republic. Aral decided to let the Count’s successor deal with that one himself.
On the fifth day, Gregor was returned to the capital. Vorkosigan and Cordelia together undertook to tell him of the death of Kareen. He cried in bewilderment. When he quieted, he was taken for a ride in a groundcar with a transparent force-screen, reviewing some troops; in fact, the troops were reviewing him, that he might be seen to be alive, finally dispelling Vordarian’s rumors of his death. Cordelia rode with him. His silent shockiness hurt her to the heart, but it was better from her point of view than parading him first and then telling him. If she’d had to endure his repeated queries of when he would see his mother again, all during the ride, she would have broken down herself.
The funeral for Kareen was public, though much less elaborate than it would have been in less chaotic circumstances. Gregor was required to light an offering pyre for the second time in a year. Vorkosigan asked Cordelia to guide Gregor’s hand with the torch. This part of the funeral ceremony seemed almost redundant, after what she’d done to the Residence. Cordelia added a thick lock of her own hair to the pile. Gregor clung close to her.
“Are they going to kill me, too?” he whispered to her. He didn’t sound frightened, just morbidly curious. Father, grandfather, mother, all gone in a year; no wonder he felt targeted, confused though his understanding of death was at his age.
“No,” she said firmly. Her arm tightened around his shoulders. “I won’t let them.” God help her, this baseless assurance actually seemed to console him.
She notices a chance in the Barrayaran nobles’ reaction to her, and she eventually realizes that they are treating her with respect. It enrages her that a worthy trial like Lady Alys’s childbirth is considered unexceptional, but chopping off a man’s head really made you somebody, and in private she breaks down in Aral’s company. She asks if he’ll use her newfound “status”, and he says he’ll do whatever it takes to get Gregor to his throne alive and sane. They are officially granted guardianship of Gregor, and while Prime Minister Vortala emphasizes that this does not Cordelia herself any added power, she is in charge of Gregor’s household and education; she is astonished that Vortala doesn’t realize the power that this does give her.
So what do they do with the uterine replicator when they’re on the monorail? Do they keep it wrapped up, a hidden shape probably the size of a small keg, or do they travel with it uncovered, an odd technological device? The author kinda skims over this bit. One wonders if Vordarian’s head has started to smell at all–how soon does putrefaction set in? At the very least it should smell like blood. I guess they’re traveling through the neutral district at this point, and perhaps people are just trying not to be too curious.
Poor Gregor, he’s got issues, and it takes him a while to work through them–a major plot element in The Vor Game, as I recall. In later books, though, he seems much the better for any Betan elements that Cordelia managed to sneak into his upbringing.
Aral’s analysis of Bothari is interesting. (Also: awwww.) I’ll have to watch, in The Warrior’s Apprentice, to see how Miles’s relationship with him fits into this template.
Aral and Cordelia move into the Imperial Residence, and Drou returns to Gregor’s service. Kou and Drou plan their wedding for a month after Winterfair. Alys Vorpatril is distracted from dwelling on Padma’s death and Ivan’s future, and takes Drou under her wing, making her a gift of a holiday cottage and a wedding gown.
Cordelia offered herself as a go-between for the two families. For some reason, Kou and Drou both turned the offer down, hastily, though with profuse thanks. Given the bewildering pitfalls of Barrayaran social custom, Cordelia was just as happy to leave it to the experienced elderly lady the couple did contract.
Aral arranges for the wedding to take place in the Residence, and he is heartened by the different social classes represented in the guest list. With Alys Vorpatril arranging it, even the most conservative Vor won’t dare to complain, either. Kou and Drou begin to get overwhelmed by the affair, but the Residence staff are happy to have something interesting to do.
The day and hour came at last. A large circle made of colored groats was laid out on the floor of the Red Room, encompassed by a star with a variable number of points, one for each parent or principal witness to stand at: in this case, four. In Barrayaran custom a couple married themselves, speaking their vows within the circle, requiring neither priest nor magistrate. Practically, a coach, called appropriately enough the Coach, stood outside the circle and read the script for the fainthearted or faint-headed to repeat. This dispensed with the need for higher neural functions such as learning and memory on the part of the stressed couple. Lost motor coordination was supplied by a friend each, who steered them to the circle. It was all very practical, Cordelia decided, as well as splendid.
Drou’s father is surprisingly smaller than Drou herself and her three brothers, all able to be present. Bothari escorts a visibly nervous Koudelka in, and Lady Alys escorts Drou. They make their oaths, revealing in the process their despised first names, Clement and Ludmilla, and then Aral breaks the circle of groats to let the new couple out.
At the reception, Cordelia asks Bothari how Elena is doing. She is crawling, and he hopes that Mistress Hysopi can keep up with her now, but he is happy with the arrangement, so different from his own childhood. His new meds seem to be doing better for him, too. He is the first to spot Gregor, having obviously snuck out of bed and creeping toward the buffet. Cordelia retrieves him before distraught ImpSec staff can.
“How’d he get away?” snarled Illyan to Gregor’s keepers, who stammered out something inaudible about thought he was asleep and never took my eyes off.
“He’s not away,” Cordelia put in tartly. “This is his home. He ought to be at least able to walk about inside, or why do you keep all those bloody useless guards on the walls out there?”
“Droushie, can’t I come to your party?” Gregor asked plaintively, casting around desperately for an authority to outrank Illyan.
Drou looked at Illyan, who looked disapproving. Cordelia broke the deadlock without hesitation. “Yes, you can.”
So, under Cordelia’s supervision, the Emperor danced with the bride, ate three cream cakes, and was carried away to bed satisfied. Fifteen minutes was all he’d wanted, poor kid.
It is the end of winter when Vaagen tells Cordelia that it’s time to take baby Miles out of the replicator. They all go down to ImpMil the next day, Aral, Cordelia, Count Piotr, and Bothari. Vaagen’s lab is in a new building, both as part of a promotion and to relieve him of the ghosts attached to the old lab, and there are many observers present. Vaagen makes a bit of a lecture out of the lead-up, then asks Cordelia and Aral to do the final honours. Together they open the top of the replicator, and Dr. Ritter, Miles’s new doctor, cuts him out of the placenta. He cries lustily upon being removed.
The contrast with baby Ivan was overwhelming. Despite the extra weeks of gestation, ten months to Ivan’s nine-and-a-half, Miles was barely half Ivan’s size at birth, and far more wizened and wrinkled. His spine was noticeably deformed, and his legs were drawn up and locked in a tight bend. He was definitely a male heir, though, no question about that. His first cry was thin, weak, nothing at all like Ivan’s angry, hungry bellow. Behind her, she heard Piotr hiss with disappointment.
Dr. Ritter says that the hip sockets are fused as a side effect of the treatments on the skull, and that and the spine will need to be fixed. One of the other doctors manages to accidentally break one of Miles’s brittle arm bones. Piotr stamps off, and Aral and Cordelia follow. Piotr accuses them of having deceived him about the efficacy of the calcium treatments, though Cordelia says she passed on to him all the information that they got. Piotr says he refuses to be associated with such a “mutant”.
Piotr’s lips curled in a silent snarl. Cheated of a cooperative target, he turned on Aral. “And you, you spineless, skirt-smothered—if your elder brother had lived—” Piotr’s mouth clamped shut abruptly, too late.
Aral’s face drained to a grey hue Cordelia had seen but twice before; both times he’d been a breath and a chance away from committing murder. Piotr had joked about Aral’s famous rages. Only now did Cordelia realize Piotr, though he may have witnessed his son in irritation, had never seen the real thing. Piotr seemed to realize it, too, dimly. His brows lowered; he stared, off-balanced.
Aral’s hands locked to each other, behind his back. Cordelia could see them shake, white-knuckled. His chin lifted, and he spoke in a whisper.
“If my brother had lived, he would have been perfect. You thought so; I thought so; Emperor Yuri thought so, too. So ever after you’ve had to make do with the leftovers from that bloody banquet, the son Mad Yuri’s death squad overlooked. We Vorkosigans, we can make do.” His voice fell still further. “But my firstborn will live. I will not fail him.”
Piotr is taken aback at Aral’s low blow, then his anger then turns to Bothari, and upon Bothari vowing his loyalty to Cordelia, he discharges him into Cordelia’s service and stalks off. Aral says that Bothari hasn’t really been discharged, but reassigned. Cordelia decides that he can take up the role of Miles’s bodyguard, which Bothari likes the idea of, since he can see that Miles will have a difficult childhood. He takes up his post right away, lurking against the wall of the lab. The doctors hand Miles to his parents at last.
Welcome to Barrayar, son. Here you go: have a world of wealth and poverty, wrenching change and rooted history. Have a birth; have two. Have a name. Miles means “soldier,” but don’t let the power of suggestion overwhelm you. Have a twisted form in a society that loathes and fears the mutations that have been its deepest agony. Have a title, wealth, power, and all the hatred and envy they will draw. Have your body ripped apart and re-arranged. Inherit an array of friends and enemies you never made. Have a grandfather from hell. Endure pain, find joy, and make your own meaning, because the universe certainly isn’t going to supply it. Always be a moving target. Live. Live. Live.
I welled up so many times reading this chapter, it’s not even funny. The last paragraph there, Kou and Drou’s wedding, Gregor’s escapade at the reception… Dammit, Bujold, what’s up with that? <sniffle> I guess that the term “moving target” does describe Miles fairly well.
Another bit of plot I always forget is just how Bothari ends up assigned to Miles. It’s almost a shame that he has spend most of Barrayar working for Count Piotr, who doesn’t seem to particularly appreciate him, and probably just took him on as a favour to his son. I thought, in fact, that at the end of Shards of Honour Bothari was one of Aral’s guards, but either Ms. Bujold changed her mind and thought it would add some tension to have him one of Piotr’s instead, or she decided that only the Count proper could have armsmen. She ran the risk there of having it seem a bit contrived having Bothari around with Cordelia, but I guess it worked out okay.
I never could warm to Count Piotr. In Shards he’s affable enough, but in Barrayar he ends up on the wrong side of his son after the soltoxin incident and never becomes sympathetic again. It is almost a wonder that he doesn’t cross over to Vordarian’s side, but I’m sure it’s more for personal reasons than ideological ones.
With several hours of TV premieres between this and the next week, I’ll cover just the epilogue next week, and then a week off before heading into The Warrior’s Apprentice. Or, I suppose, Young Miles, since I use the digital copies to facilitate cutting and pasting. (Maybe it makes it too easy, since sometimes I seem to go a little overboard…it’s just her lovely prose, I guess.) Until then…