If all you wanted for Christmas (or something other than Christmas) was the final installment of The Warrior’s Apprentice on the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, then you’re in luck this year, because here it is. This week we shall cover the final chapter plus the epilogue, as some plot threads and character arcs get tied off, some of them predating this book entirely. Also, Ms. Bujold (that’s Lois McMaster Bujold, the author of the series, in case I haven’t mentioned) makes me well up not once but twice.
Miles and Ivan fly over Vorbarr Sultana in a lightflyer, approaching Vorhartung Castle. Ivan notes that all the Counts seem to be present, judging by the banners he can see, including the Emperor’s. Miles notes the security men with their guns trained on the flyer, and carefully sets it down outside the castle walls.
“Y’know,” said Ivan thoughtfully. “We’re going to look a pair of damn fools busting in there if it turns out they’re all having a debate on water rights or something.”
“That thought has crossed my mind,” Miles admitted. “It was a calculated risk, landing in secret. Well, we’ve both been fools before. There won’t be anything new or startling in it.”
Miles begins to feel a paralyzing funk, and has a glimmer of what Baz Jesek felt before he deserted. Ivan chivvies him until he gets out of the lightflyer, and they head up to the castle. Miles introduces himself to some guards and says the Emperor has summoned him; they are skeptical until one of them recognizes him. As they are escorted in, Miles can hear Count Vordrozda speaking inside the chamber; one of the guards tells him this has been going on for a week, and they are into the final summing-up. Miles hears Admiral Hessman’s voice too, which is odd in a hearing sealed to the Counts alone.
“. . . If our illustrious Prime Minister knew nothing of this plot, then let him produce this ‘missing’ nephew,” Vordrozda’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. “He says he cannot. And why not? I submit it is because Lord Vorpatril was dispatched with a secret message. What message? Obviously, some variation of ‘Fly for your life—all is revealed!’ I ask you—is it reasonable that a plot of this magnitude could have been advanced so far by a son with no knowledge by his father? Where did those missing 275,000 marks, whose fate he so adamantly refuses to disclose, go but to secretly finance the operation? These repeated requests for delays are simply smokescreen. If Lord Vorkosigan is so innocent, why is he not here?” Vordrozda paused dramatically.
Ivan tugged Miles’s sleeve. “Come on. You’ll never get a better straight line than that if you wait all day.”
Miles enters the room, seeing Vordrozda in the speaker’s circle, Hessman on the witness bench, and the Emperor and many others in their service uniforms. Miles is conscious of the drabness of his own outfit in comparison. Miles asks Vordrozda and Hessman to answer their own question. He watches for his father’s reaction, conscious of how old his father looks; Aral sees Ivan and is startled into asking where he’s been. Ivan says Hessman had sent him to look for Miles, but that wasn’t what he’d really wanted. Miles tells the assembled Counts that his invitation to attend got lost, as Ivan can attest; Gregor looks askance at Vordrozda, and Aral smiles in sudden enlightenment.
Vordrozda seems to be annoyed with Hessman, and Miles realizes he must capitalize quickly on the rift before it closes up. He accuses Hessman of sabotaging Dimir’s ship and attempting to murder Ivan along with the others. Vordrozda says the charges belong in military court, and Miles points out that then Hessman would have to face them alone, without his co-conspirator Vordrozda. He asks Hessman whether he thinks Vordrozda would really substantiate any claims that Hessman’s actions were at Vordrozda’s order. As Miles badgers Vordrozda about his connection with Hessman, Hessman stands up and admits that Vordrozda had first talked to him about Miles back at Winterfair.
Vordrozda yells at Hessman to shut up, pulling out a needler pistol from his robes and aiming it at Hessman before realizing what he’d done by pulling a weapon in the presence of the Emperor. Dozens of military men from among the Counts instantly move to take down Vordrozda and protect the Emperor, Ivan first among them.
After Vordrozda and Hessman are arrested and led out of the chamber, Miles faces the Emperor. The Emperor declares an hour recess to examine new testimony, summoning Aral and Miles as well as Lord Vorhalas and Lord Vorvolk for witnesses. Henri Vorvolk is a personal friend of Gregor’s, but Lord Vorhalas is a longtime enemy of Aral’s, ever since Aral had to execute his sons, one of them for the soltoxin attack that crippled Miles in the womb. Miles wonders if Vorhalas was connected to the conspiracy to destroy him, in revenge, but decides that Vorhalas has more honour than that in his antagonism.
Aral asks Miles what happened, telling him that Illyan is in prison as part of the conspiracy, so his reports haven’t been getting through. Gregor points out that the question is whether Illyan served Aral or the Emperor. Aral asserts that all who serve him serve the Emperor through him, and Illyan has served faithfully all this time.
Miles tells the story in full, starting with his meeting with Arde Mayhew, deciding after a brief hesitation to include Baz Jesek’s name as well. The only thing he does omit is Elena Visconti’s story of Prince Serg’s depravities. As he is winding down, he remembers the antacid he needs to drink, and has some, offering his father a swig when he asks (which he accepts). Ivan supports the parts of Miles’s story that he witnessed himself, and Miles explains his plan to surprise his accusers by arriving in secret. Gregor seems unhappy at the revelations about Vordrozda, his new advisor. He asks Miles why he raised the Dendarii, if not for treasonous purposes.
“My liege.” Miles lowered his voice. “When we played together in the Imperial Residence in the winters, when did I ever demand any part except that of Vorthalia the loyal? You know me—how could you doubt? The Dendarii Mercenaries were an accident. I didn’t plan them—they just happened, in the course of scrambling from crisis to crisis. I only wanted to serve Barrayar, as my father before me. When I couldn’t serve Barrayar, I wanted—I wanted to serve something. To—” he raised his eyes to his father’s, driven to a painful honesty, “to make my life an offering fit to lay at his feet.” He shrugged. “Screwed up again.”
“Clay, boy.” Count Vorkosigan’s voice was hoarse but clear. “Only clay. Not fit to receive so golden a sacrifice.” His voice cracked.
Gregor says he is unhappy to have come so close to dispensing injustice, and asks the witnesses if they are satisfied that the charges of treason are unproven. Vorvolk agrees, and so does Vorhalas, but he also asks about the original charge of violating Vorloupulous’s Law. Vorvolk asks who would dare bring such a charge, and Aral says that a man devoted to justice, with nothing to lose, might do so. Vorhalas asks Aral to beg for his son’s life, and Aral does so on his knees with no compunctions; Vorhalas throws his begging back in his face.
Miles points out to Vorhalas that he would have to face Cordelia with the same accusation. Vorhalas asks if she can’t understand the desire for vengeance, looking at what happened to her son.
“Mother,” said Miles, “calls it my great gift. Tests are a gift, she says, and great tests are a great gift. Of course,” he added thoughtfully, “it’s widely agreed my mother is a bit strange . . .” He trapped Vorhalas’s gaze direct. “What do you propose to do with your gift, Count Vorhalas?”
Vorhalas, somewhat deflated, grumbles that he’s not a saint, and Gregor points out that it does him no good if his loyal servants are at odds. Vorhalas subsides, waving Aral away, and asks what they are to do about the Dendarii Mercenaries. Gregor asks Miles if they’re likely to go away on their own, but Miles says that they seemed rather to be thriving. Gregor ponders, noting that he doesn’t dare change Vorloupulous’s Law, wondering if he can change the context like Miles did to break his blockade.
Miles suggests that the Emperor take the Dendarii for his own, declare them a Crown Troop, if only as a legal fiction, and privately, so that the Dendarii don’t know who they are currently working for. He adds that they could be added to Illyan’s Imperial Security, since a mercenary fleet would probably prove quite useful to them somehow. They agree that this is an eminently suitable solution, Vorhalas grudgingly, though he asks what they should do with Miles. Aral agrees that Miles should be kept in line, perhaps in some sort of discipline, perhaps in the Imperial Service Academy, much to Miles’s shock and delight. Aral asks Miles if he can go back to being a student, and a subordinate, after promoting himself to Admiral.
Count Vorhalas raised skeptical brows. “What sort of ensign do you think he will make, Admiral Vorkosigan?”
“I think he will make a terrible ensign,” said Count Vorkosigan frankly. “But if he can avoid being strangled by his harried superiors for—er—excessive initiative, I think he might be a fine General Staff officer someday.”
Two days later, Miles is acquitted of all charges, not least because Gregor, who as Count Vorbarra had a vote but usually abstained, voted for the acquittal. Only Vorhalas abstained.
Later, at Vorkosigan Surleau, Miles digs Bothari’s grave himself, with a shovel, his hands soon bleeding. His mother points out that it would be quicker with a plasma arc, but Miles quotes Bothari that “Blood washes away sin”. She says no more, watching as he finishes digging, lowers the float pallet with the coffin, and fills the grave in. He prepares the bowl for the burnt sacrifices, including Elena Visconti’s hair and his own; Cordelia supplies some of hers and Aral’s.
“I’m afraid I made a most improper Baba,” he whispered in apology. “I never meant to mock you. But Baz loves her, he’ll take good care of her . . . My word was too easy to give, too hard to keep. But there. There.” He added flakes of aromatic bark. “You shall lie warm here, watching the long lake change its faces, winter to spring, summer to fall. No armies march here, and even the deepest midnights aren’t wholly dark. Surely God won’t overlook you, in such a spot as this. There will be grace and forgiveness enough, old dog, even for you.” He lit the offering. “I pray you will spare me a drink from that cup, when it overflows for you.”
Two highly moving moments, the ceremony at the end, of course, but also Aral’s “feet of clay” line. *sniff*
Miles’s entrance into the Counts’ Chamber is almost Matlockian, the sudden arrival of the witnesses with new evidence, stampeding one of the bad guys into a confession… But it does ring true. If Hessman hadn’t turned on Vordrozda, then Vordrozda would have had nothing to gain (except keeping his honour) by substantiating anything Hessman accused him of. So if you buy that Vordrozda is willing to compromise his honour to save his own skin, and Hessman buys it, and Hessman is sure that Ivan’s testimony will convict him, then he has nothing to gain by keeping his mouth shut. Of course, Vordrozda condemned himself by pulling out his gun, which was an appalling loss of control on his part, so I guess you’d have to buy that Miles had rattled him enough to forget where he was, and to be desperate enough to want to kill his co-conspirator. On the other hand, if Hessman had been provoked into drawing a weapon, then maybe Vordrozda could have taken him out without as much suspicion. Except for the whole “carrying weapons into the presence of the Emperor” thing. Why had Vordrozda taken that risk? Was he allowed, as a Count, as long as he didn’t draw it? Not sure if that’s quite clear. If he wasn’t allowed, then why did he do it?
The scene with Vorhalas was a fair resolution of the plot thread left over from Barrayar. Obviously Vorhalas would have been an implacable foe of Aral’s after the executions of his sons, but if he was honourable, he’d have to wait for an opportunity to take advantage of, rather than making his own. I suppose that Vordrozda did the same, but less scrupulously, presumably once he’d heard about Miles’s adventures, but he had been actively pumping Hessman for intelligence on Miles’s activities. Vorhalas wouldn’t push on the false treason charge, but was happy enough to want to use Vorloupulous’s Law (boy, am I tired of typing that–I think I’ve been misspelling it, too) to engineer Miles’s death and bring the same kind of pain to Aral. He could withstand Aral’s pleading, as Aral had done his own, but Miles and Gregor wore him down.
The emergency docking drill was called in the middle of the night cycle, naturally. He’d probably have timed it that way himself, Miles thought, as he scrambled through the corridors of the orbital weapons platform with his fellow cadets. This four-week stint of orbital and free-fall training was due to end tomorrow for his group, and the instructors hadn’t pulled anything nasty for at least four days. Not for him the galloping anticipation of upcoming leave planetside that had formed the bulk of the conversation in the officer’s mess last night. He had sat quietly, meditating on all the marvelous possibilities for a grand finale.
His partner for the drill is Kostolitz, who comments disdainfully on Miles’s knife. Miles contemplates how to deal with Kostolitz and his class-consciousness, something he’ll have to deal with throughout his career. Kostolitz wears a green armband, which the instructors use to designate someone who they judge would have been injured in a real-life situation; yellow armbands indicate death in the same way. Ivan has two greens and a yellow, and another cadet has give yellows, but Miles himself has no armbands at all. Some cadets want to team with him as a good luck charm, but others avoid him as they realize the instructors are beginning to target him. Miles happily anticipates something sneaky on the part of the instructors in this drill.
Miles and Kostolitz begin inspecting the shuttle, each taking a side. Kostolitz hastily counts the breath-masks, while Miles carefully examines a first-aid kit, finishing more slowly. Miles pretends to have lost his light-pen, and when the instructor takes out his, Miles spots three breath masks in his pocket. The two cadets take their seats and Kostolitz begins piloting the shuttle to its designated position.
A sudden loud noise announces the challenge of a coolant leak spilling gas into the cabin. Kostolitz dives for the breath masks, but Miles takes the controls instead and sets the shuttle to spinning, leaving the heavier coolant gas to pool against the aft bulkhead. Kostolitz rejects one breath mask, clearly out of oxygen, then another, as Miles heads for the first-aid kit instead. As Kostolitz realizes that the masks are all exhausted, Miles takes some IV tubing from the kit, splices them together with his knife and surgical tape, then attaches it to the emergency oxygen canister. The instructor takes one breathing tube, and Kostolitz returns to take another. Miles left himself the only long section of the tube, so the other two are forced to sit at the control panel while he goes to turn the emergency shutoff valve.
The panel door on which he rested his weight gave way with a sudden crack, and he swung out over the evilly heaving green gas. The oxygen tube ripped from his mouth and flapped around wildly. He was saved from yelping only by the fact that he was holding his breath. The instructor, forward, lurched futilely, tied to his air supply. But by the time he’d fumbled his pocket open, Miles had swallowed, achieved a more secure grip on the wall, and recovered his tube in a heart-stopping grab. Try again. He turned the valve, hard, and the hissing from the hole in the wall a meter astern of him faded to an elfin moan, then stopped.
Miles returns to his seat as the fans clear the last of the coolant gas and Kostolitz pilots the shuttle back to dock. The chief instructor is waiting with two yellow armbands, and is disappointed and intrigued when the instructor from the shuttle indicates they won’t be needed. Kostolitz comments the knife was handy, and Miles says they can be more useful than a plasma arc when you’re surrounded by inflammable gas. Seeing an opportunity, Miles tells Kostolitz about a place where he can buy a good quality blade, and offers to take him there when they’re back planetside.
Miles is already becoming a target for his superiors, as they try to catch him up. As they will realize, you can’t catch him out, apparently, on anything requiring any sort of problem-solving skill–only his body, or his sense of honour, will betray him. Is it implausible for him to be so incredibly capable? Well, of course he has his physical limitations–being barely able to reach the shuttle foot-controls, for instance–but apparently his mind is so highly developed that he more than compensates for it. Of course, having established this fact, Bujold has to keep him from just brute-thinking his way out of every situation…that may have been one of the problems with Cryoburn, actually.
Having closed off so many other character arcs in the book, Bujold also decided to return to Kostolitz in the epilogue. It could have been any other cadet, of course, even Ivan, perhaps, but adding Kostolitz gives him a chance to deal with someone less sympathetic to him. Of course, Miles himself doesn’t have much of a problem with class consciousness, but of course he has to get along with others who may.
All in all, a pretty good book, much different in mood, overall, from the two Cordelia books. That’s only to be expected, because Cordelia and Miles are very different characters. While Miles does have his dark moments, he tends to solve his problems by thinking and talking at them, so he’s very bipolar that way. His adventure is more outlandish and fun, overall, with plenty of humour and wit.
The biggest problem with the story is that its two pieces don’t fit as well together as they could. The return to Barrayar at the end feels a little bit forced and rushed. The foreshadowing of Vorloupulous’s Law sticks out a bit, and the fact that Miles doesn’t think of it until near the end is fairly implausible. I can see that Bujold didn’t want to sever Miles’s ties to Barrayar just yet, but somehow she snaps him back a bit fast. If she’d had the leeway for extra word count that today’s thicker books allow, would the transitions have been less abrupt? Perhaps, but it’s hard to second-guess these things, no matter how we try.
From the afterword in the Young Miles omnibus, I discovered that the title was supposed to be a reference to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, except…as a mercenary instead of a wizard? So it’s about how Miles’s attempts to fix matters leads them to ballooning further and further out of control. I guess that makes sense, but I’m still not comfortable with it, because I still want to know, who’s he apprenticed to? I’ve never been that keen on The Vor Game as a title either…Shards of Honour is good, the planet titles are okay…I suppose Mirror Dance would be my favourite title that way, because it matches the book on so many levels.
After the Christmas break, I’ll return with “The Mountains of Mourning”. Since it doesn’t have chapter breaks, I still haven’t decided if I’ll do it all at once, or if I’ll have to subdivide it some other way. (Makes me glad I’m not doing a reread of Mr. Terry “I don’t believe in chapter breaks” Pratchett…) So I’ll see you all back here on January 3rd, 2012, for the next bit of Miles Vorkosigan’s career.