Welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, wherein I devote my attentions to the novels and stories of Lois McMaster Bujold’s science-fictional saga of Miles Vorkosigan and company.
After having covered three novels, I pass now onto one of her novellas, “The Mountains of Mourning”, which is set after The Warrior’s Apprentice but before The Vor Game chronologically–quite close to the latter, in fact; ten days, according to the text. Of course, Ms. Bujold wrote the series in a bit of a scattered order, so, for instance, the Miles novel Brothers In Arms, much later chronologically, came out before it, and there were two or three other novellas between that and The Vor Game itself. Nonetheless, although I had seen her books around, and even roomed with a guy who had a copy of The Warrior’s Apprentice which I never read, “The Mountains of Morning” was the first Vorkosigan story I ever read, back when I was actually in the habit of buying SF magazines when I found them and then taking them home and reading them. I had little idea who this guy was, but I did learn a lot about him in reading this…and then still didn’t read any other Bujold for years. It forms an interesting contrast to the space opera of The Warrior’s Apprentice, nearer in spirit perhaps to parts of Barrayar with its close attention to the poorer folk of the Vorkosigan District, and was a definite sign, in retrospect, that there was more to the series than first met the eye…
The Mountains of Mourning
Miles is climbing back up from the lake at Vorkosigan Surleau when he hears a woman weeping. She is trying to plead her case to the gate guard, who asks her to go to the village magistrate instead. She says the magistrate won’t be back for weeks, and she’s already walked for four days. She offers a pitiful bribe, but the guard, seeing Miles, refuses it. Miles asks what’s going on, examining the woman as he approaches; she is young, with an obvious hillfolk accent, simply dressed and barefoot, breasts full but leaking milk with no baby in sight.
The guard tries to shoo the woman off, but she insists that it’s her right to see the Count, her father having been in the service. She says she has a murder to report, and her village Speaker refuses to do anything about it. Miles points out that she does have a right to appeal, to the magistrate or to the Count. He authorizes the guard to admit her, and accompanies her up the path after the gates are open.
“Do you serve Count Vorkosigan, little man?” she asked cautiously.
Miles thought about that one a moment. “Yes,” he answered finally. The answer was, after all, true on every level of meaning but the one she’d asked it. He quelled the temptation to tell her he was the court jester. From the look of her, this one’s troubles were much worse than his own.
By the time they reach the residence, the woman is feeling less sure of herself, nervously asking Miles on how to behave around the Count; Miles just tells her to “stand up straight and speak the truth”. At the entrance to the residence, he learns that the Count and Countess at breakfast, and hands his guest over to Armsman Pym, Bothari’s replacement, so she can join them.
Miles changes into his new Ensign’s uniform, and gathers a few items–a copy of his commission documents, his transcripts, his cadet’s insignia, and a brazier. He takes them into the cemetery and sets up the brazier on his grandfather Piotr’s grave, burning the papers and cloth and a lock of his hair.
“So, Grandfather,” he purred at last. “And here we are after all. Satisfied now?”
All the chaos of the graduation ceremonies behind, all the mad efforts of the last three years, all the pain, came to this point; but the grave did not speak, did not say, Well done; you can stop now. The ashes spelled out no messages, there were no visions to be had in the rising smoke. The brazier burned down all too quickly. Not enough stuff in it, perhaps.
He stood, and dusted his knees, in the silence and the sunlight. So what had he expected? Applause? Why was he here, in the final analysis? Dancing out a dead man’s dreams—who did his Service really serve? Grandfather? Himself? Pale Emperor Gregor? Who cared?
“Well, old man,” he whispered, then shouted: “ARE YOU SATISFIED YET?” The echoes rang from the stones.
Pym clears his throat behind Miles, and informs him blandly that his father wishes him to attend. Miles tells him not to touch the brazier, he’ll clean it up later.
As Miles heads over to the pavilion where his parents are eating, he thinks that he might go sailing on the lake in the afternoon. He has ten days of leave, and he planned to go to Vorbarr Sultana with Ivan and buy himself a lightflyer. He hopes for ship duty, but he resists asking his father to make sure of it. Aral and Cordelia are sitting in the pavilion with the hillwoman, who looks upon Miles with a new understanding.
Count Vorkosigan spoke to the woman. “That is my son. If I send him as my Voice, would that satisfy you?”
“Oh,” she breathed, her wide mouth drawing back in a weird, fierce grin, the most expression Miles had yet seen on her face, “yes, my lord.”
The Count says hers is a most interesting case, and he can see why Miles sent her up. Miles admits ignorance of her case, and the Count says it’s an infanticide case. Miles realizes then where the missing baby is, and comments that it’s unusual for it to be reported. The woman, Harra Csurik, says that her baby’s only deformity was “cat’s mouth”, which Cordelia recognizes as harelip and cleft palate, not even the type of mutation the infanticide customs were designed to combat. Harra says she was going to take her baby to the hospital in Hassadar, but her husband, Lem, killed the baby first.
The Count says that if it is reported as a murder, they will treat it as one, and send a message throughout the District. Though Miles pleads a lack of qualification, the Count thinks that sending Miles himself, deformed as he is, is also part of the message.
Harra is certain that her husband killed the baby, since her crying kept him awake, but he’d left the house for the night. Harra had found the baby asleep in the morning, and went picking berries. Later, when she went to feed the baby, Harra found her dead, with no mark, as if she’d been smothered. The Speaker said she must have overlain the baby, even though she slept in a cradle Lem had made her, and wouldn’t take her complaint.
Cordelia takes Harra to wash, reluctantly, before sending her home, and the Count says that Miles should take Dr. Dea as medical examiner, and in case he suffers any accidents with his brittle bones, as well as an armsman as bodyguard and, possibly, executioner. Miles proposes arriving in the aircar, a couple of hours’ flight, to get it over with quickly, but the Count vetoes that. Miles protests that after days of tramping on foot, he’ll present a less than impressive figure, which the Count agrees to, but he has another idea.
So Miles, Armsman Pym, Dr. Dea, and Harra set off on horseback instead. Miles’s own horse, Fat Ninny, is one he’s had since childhood. Dr. Dea, a city man, is having more trouble with his horse; he falls off and then starts to chase after the horse, who easily canters out of reach. Miles says he’ll have no look trying to outrun the horse, and warns Harra not to let her horse get away either. Miles gets down off of Fat Ninny and digs in his pockets for sugar, giving some to Fat Ninny. Dea’s mare wanders closer, interested, and Miles calmly takes her reins as she eats the sugar.
“No fair,” wheezed Dea, trudging up. “You had sugar in your pockets.”
“Of course I had sugar in my pockets. It’s called foresight and planning. The trick of handling horses isn’t to be faster than the horse, or stronger than the horse. That pits your weakness against his strengths. The trick is to be smarter than the horse. That pits your strength against his weakness, eh?”
Noting that Harra seems to be wavering in her determination as they head towards her home, Miles distracts her by asking about her family. Her father was in the District Militia, but died during Vordarian’s Pretendership, leaving just her and her mother. Miles is relieved at her lack of big strapping brothers to deal with, but she also tells him that her husband Lem has four brothers, which makes Miles more nervous. When Miles had asked his father about that kind of situation, the Count had merely told him that he should have the cooperation of the Speaker and deputies, or else he should figure out how to obtain it.
She asks about Miles’s family, and Miles says that surely she knows he has no siblings. She tells him some of the things she has heard about him, how his mutations spring from radiation, or a venereal disease from his parents, or off-worlder genes, but most agree that it was due to poisoning by the Count’s enemies, which Miles agrees with. She goes into more outlandish rumours, about him having no legs, or being nothing more than a brain in a jar, and he realizes that she’s testing him, trying to reassure herself that he’s suitable and sufficient to her needs.
The woodland, fruit of many generations of terraforming forestry, opened out suddenly on a vale of brown native scrub. Down the middle of it, through some accident of soil chemistry, ran a half-kilometer-wide swathe of green and pink—feral roses, Miles realized with astonishment as they rode nearer. Earth roses. The track dove into the fragrant mass of them and vanished.
They hack through the roses, Miles thinking about the carefully planned terraforming of Barrayar by the original colonists, disrupted by the collapse of the warp point and the stranded settlers’ needs to survive. Many native species were wiped out, but Miles thinks that the fittest of both worlds have found a new balance.
They camp overnight, then move on into areas Miles is less familiar with. The next day they stop short of sunset, not wanting to arrive at Harra’s village in the dark, unannounced. In the morning Miles puts on his dress uniform, and Pym unfurls the Count’s banner. At midmorning, they arrive at the Speaker’s cabin, on the edge of a sugar maple grove.
Harra calls for the Speaker, Karal, who emerges talking about how worried they were at her disappearance, before stopping at the sight of her companions. She tells Karal she took her case to the Count.
“Oh, girl,” Karal breathed regretfully, “that was a stupid thing to do. . . .” His head lowered and swayed, as he stared uneasily at the riders. He was a balding man of maybe sixty, leathery and worn, and his left arm ended in a stump. Another veteran.
“Speaker Serg Karal?” began Miles sternly. “I am the Voice of Count Vorkosigan. I am charged to investigate the crime Spoken by Harra Csurik before the Count’s court, namely the murder of her infant daughter Raina. As Speaker of Silvy Vale, you are requested and required to assist me in all matters pertaining to the Count’s justice.”
Karal asks Miles who he is, and Miles introduces himself as Lord Miles Vorkosigan, son of the Count. Miles dismounts, Karal taking in his height, and asks to water their horses, which Karal sees to with the aid of his son Zed. Karal invites them in and busies himself making tea. Miles says they want to swiftly be about the investigation; Karal protests that the baby likely died a natural death, with no markings, and Miles comments on how often babies die “natural” deaths in the District.
“I begin to see,” Miles let his tone go ice cool, “why Harra Csurik found it necessary to walk four days to get an unbiased hearing. ‘You think.’ ‘You believe.’ ‘Who knows what?’ Not you, it appears. I hear speculation—accusation—innuendo—assertion. I came for facts, Speaker Karal. The Count’s justice doesn’t turn on guesses. It doesn’t have to. This isn’t the Time of Isolation. Not even in the back-beyond.
“My investigation of the facts will begin now. No judgment will be—rushed into, before the facts are complete. Confirmation of Lem Csurik’s guilt or innocence will come from his own mouth, under fast-penta, administered by Dr. Dea before two witnesses—yourself and a deputy of your choice. Simple, clean, and quick.”
He commands Karal to bring him Lem Csurik for questioning. Karal says that most of the villagers will see fast-penta as nothing short of magic, and distrust it, and Miles says that Speaker Karal will have to reassure them, then. The Speaker puts on his old uniform and prepares to go out, stopping to tell Miles that in all his time as Speaker nobody has had to take their justice even as far as the magistrate. Miles counters that justice is for everyone in Silvy Vale, even those sickly, weak, and unable to speak for themselves. Pym joins Karal, stunner at the ready.
Miles looks around the cabin, finding evidence of more children, and a radio set for picking up transmissions from Hassadar. He wonders how far ahead the District would be if it hadn’t been for the nuclear destruction of Vorkosigan Vashnoi during the Cetagandan War. Dr. Dea asks if he should break out the fast-penta, but Miles says that he doubts Lem Csurik will be brought in so easily, and says the autopsy kit will likely be needed first. Indeed, though Karal and Pym return with another man, it is the Speaker’s deputy Alex, not Lem Csurik, who has eluded them.
Miles then proposes to go dig up Raina’s body for the autopsy. Karal is reluctant, not wanting to disturb the dead, then pointing out that Lem is technically the next of kin, and they need his permission. Miles just tells him to be careful the grave they dig is not his own.
Alex digs up the small crate with Raina’s body, upon which Pym and Alex find an excuse to be farther away. Dr. Dea unwraps the body and begins his examination, Miles watching and Harra furtively retrieving the cloths for rewrapping. Dea quickly determines that the baby’s neck was broken and then put back into place, which means it could not have been accidental; no great strength would even have been required. He also says that even an experienced layman should have been able to discover this. Karal admits that he suspected, but he thought that more grief would have come from making a fuss, that his duties were to the living.
“So are mine, Speaker Karal. As, for example, my duty to the next small Imperial subject in mortal danger from those who should be his or her protectors, for the grave fault of being,” Miles flashed an edged smile, “physically different. In Count Vorkosigan’s view this is not just a case. This is a test case, fulcrum of a thousand cases. Fuss . . .” He hissed the sibilant; Harra rocked to the rhythm of his voice, “you haven’t begun to see fuss yet.”
Dea restores Raina’s body, Harra wraps her back up, and Alex reburies her in the crate. Harra cuts off a lock of her hair to burn as offering, and Miles expresses his regreat that he has nothing to contribute. Harra is surprised he would even think to offer.
Peace to you, small lady, after our rude invasions. I will give you a better sacrifice, I swear by my word as Vorkosigan. And the smoke of that burning will rise and be seen from one end of these mountains to the other.
After sending Karal and Alex away to find Lem Csurik, Miles offers Harra a ride to her house on Fat Ninny. Pym surreptitiously scans the bushes on the way. At the house, they find signs of recent male habitation, which Harra absently begins to straighten up. Miles gets Harra to show them where she picks her berries, and times how long it takes to get an idea how long the murderer would have had; he also notes that you couldn’t hear someone calling from the house. He is frustrated to note that both method and opportunity are wide open, leaving only motive.
They leave Harra in her home, where she insists on staying despite the chance of Lem returning, wanting to be alone for a while. Pym suggests they rouse the village to beat the bushes for Lem. When Karal had taken him looking for Lem before, they found people who had been hunting for Harra already returning, Lem’s relatives among them. Miles thinks that Karal knows more than he’s letting on; Pym suggests using fast-penta on him, but Miles says that that results in a loss of dignity that he’d rather avoid inflicting on the Speaker.
“I have facts. Physical facts. A great big pile of—meaningless, useless facts.” Miles brooded. “If I have to fast-penta every back-beyonder in Silvy Vale to get to the bottom of this, I will. But it’s not an elegant solution.”
“It’s not an elegant problem, m’lord,” said Pym dryly.
Speaker Karal’s wife is home and frantically preparing for her guests when Miles and Pym return. She is indignant at Dr. Dea’s suggestion that her guests sleep in their tent and spurn her hospitality. Dr. Dea suggests that they at least eat their packaged food, but Miles says they should be able to share the common pot safely enough. Karal’s younges tson serves them tea, and asks if Miles will be sleeping in his bed. Miles suggests they sleep in his tent, since they’re being put out anyway, and the boy runs off excitedly to pass on the news.
Miles makes himself comfortable, and Dr. Dea wonders if they’re knocking off for the day already. Miles points out that either Lem Csurik is guilty, and there’s a possibility they’ll have to call in reinforcements to deal with his relatives, or he’s innocent, and there’s still a murderer. He reminds Dea that running after something isn’t always the best way to catch it, and his duty is not merely to solve the crime, but to be seen as what he is–a “mutie”, a lord’s son, and a man.
“The Mountains of Mourning” doesn’t have chapters, though it does have a number of scene breaks. This isn’t a particularly exciting place to stop, but it’s an oddly-paced story, with little in the way of physical excitement, so I decided to just pick somewhere about halfway through, since it’s much longer than any two chapters…
It is, in many ways, a murder mystery. I don’t read a lot of straight mystery, but I’m sure someone out there has written a mystery set in a backwoods setting, which this would probably resemble. The SF touches are fairly subtle–the tradition of infanticide, the legacy of generations of mutations brought on by radiation exposure.
I was going to say “after the destruction of Vorkosigan Vashnoi”, but then I realized that that was back in Count Piotr’s time, and the tradition was long-settled by that time. There’s a part I didn’t quote, where Cordelia talks about the Barrayarans’ ancestors “pilgrimage through the Fire”. While it does sound like some kind of journey through a radioactive zone, it may be merely metaphorical, since the problems probably didn’t start until after the first wormhole disappeared. So maybe even the radiation was not responsible, as much as a desire to keep the gene pool from straying too far afield…?
I find it interesting that the story starts with Miles trying to decide whether or not he’s appeased his grandfather’s spirit–how literally I don’t know, since I don’t think that Miles seriously believes in ghosts or anything, but he has a sense of obligation to his ancestors nonetheless–and throughout the course of the story he takes on a new duty, that to the slain infant Raina Csurik. For Count Piotr, Miles tried his hardest to make his peace with the ways of Barrayar of the past–the horses, the military, the service of the Emperor, the responsibilities of the Vor. But for Raina, Miles has to try to bring the future to Barrayar, to allow it to shed the customs of its past that no longer make sense as Barrayar slowly assimilates the technology and knowledge of the greater galactic community. One of the best scenes in Memory, for instance, is when Miles, with so much stripped away from him, makes a return pilgrimage to Raina’s grave.
We’ll wrap up the story next week, and then after that head on to The Vor Game, which is not my favourite of the series, but more on that later. Until then…