Welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, as we enter a whole new era, by which I mean a new omnibus. This one is, for some reason, called Miles, Mystery and Mayhem, and it looks like it contains Cetaganda, Ethan of Athos, and “Labyrinth”, only two of which actually have Miles in them, but I suppose they all have mystery and mayhem to a greater or lesser degree. The first of them, Cetaganda, probably contains a fair bit more mystery than mayhem, depending on how you define them, of course. It comes fairly late in publication order, later even than The Vor Game, and I think is the last one published that was out of chronological order–that is, the last one to come chronologically before any other already-published novels. So she hasn’t done that in a while, but I suspect that, given the large gap before Cryoburn, we wouldn’t mind something filling that in at some point…
I am amused to note that at the beginning of Miles, Mystery and Mayhem electronic copy (I don’t have a paper copy to check, alas) there is a nice little wormhole map of Barrayar and some of its environs, including Komarr, Pol, The Hegen Hub, Vervain, Aslund… Yes, that’s right, this is the map that actually should have been in The Vor Game, a.k.a. Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Omnibus. Oops. Anyway, that’s enough ado, so on I shall proceed to cover the events of the first two chapters of Cetaganda…
Lieutenants Miles Vorkosigan and Ivan Vorpatril are in a small personnel pod being piloted from a Barrayaran courier vessel toward a station orbiting the Cetagandan homeworld, Eta Ceta IV. Miles compares the many lights on the planet below to the comparative sparseness of population on Barrayar, as he compares Ivan’s stature and handsomeness to his own stunted figure.
Barrayaran Imperial Security didn’t pay him to be pretty, thank God, they paid him to be smart. Still, the morbid thought did creep in that he had been sent along on this upcoming circus to stand next to Ivan and make him look good. ImpSec certainly hadn’t given him any more interesting missions, unless you could call Security Chief Illyan’s last curt “. . . and stay out of trouble!” a secret assignment.
On the other hand, maybe Ivan had been sent along to stand next to Miles and make him sound good. Miles brightened slightly at the thought.
They are there to attend the funeral of the haut-lady Dowager Empress, and they speculate idly whether her death was natural. Miles points out that she was a generation older than his grandfather, after all, and if it were at all suspicious, likely Illyan would have kept them home. And if the Emperor had died instead, then they’d be in some defensive outpost hoping the Cetagandan war of succession didn’t spill over. As it is, they’re just there to pay their respects and report on the event for Illyan later. All the haut-lord satrap governors are going to attend.
“If any two governors come, I suppose the rest have to show up, just to keep an eye on each other.” Ivan’s brows rose. “Should be quite a show. Ceremony as Art. Hell, the Cetagandans make blowing your nose an art. Just so they can sneer at you if you get the moves wrong. One-upmanship to the nth power.”
“It’s the one thing that convinces me that the Cetagandan haut-lords are still human, after all that genetic tinkering.”
Ivan grimaced. “Mutants on purpose are mutants still.” He glanced down at his cousin’s suddenly stiff form, cleared his throat, and tried to find something interesting to look at out the canopy.
“You’re so diplomatic, Ivan,” said Miles through a tight smile. “Try not to start a war single . . . mouthed, eh?”
The pod is piloted into their assigned docking station, and Ivan and Miles unbuckle and head for the airlock. As it opens, a man hurtles inside, white-haired but with no facial hair. As he reached for a pocket of his uniform vest, Miles shouts “Weapon!” and Ivan launches himself at the man. The man pulls a nerve disrupter from his trouser pocket, but Ivan dislodges it, and it ricochets throughout the cabin before Miles snatches it. Ivan gets him in an armlock, and Miles pulls the object out of his vest pocket, an odd wand somewhat like a shock stick. The man cries out in dismay as Miles takes it, continuing to struggle.
The intruder shook off Ivan’s grip and recoiled to the hatchway. There came one of those odd pauses that sometimes occur in close combat, everyone gulping for breath in the rush of adrenaline. The old man stared at Miles with the rod in his fist; his expression altered from fright to—was that grimace a flash of triumph? Surely not. Demented inspiration?
The man ducks back through the airlock, and kicks Ivan back into the pod when he tries to follow. By the time they emerge from the pod, he’s disappeared out of the docking bay. Miles tells Ivan the man had a desperate look to him, even before he drew a weapon. They look around and realize that nobody else is there, Barrayaran or Cetagandan, and wonder where their welcoming committee is. Miles points out two surveillance cameras ripped from their moorings, so it looks like the man wasn’t any kind of official emissary. They speculate on whether he wanted to pod for an escape, or if he was after Miles, and wonder where station security is. Ivan notes that the man must have been in disguise, since the hair that came loose during the struggle has an obvious adhesive at one end, and Miles wonders if station security has cleared personnel out of the station to try to hunt down a fugitive.
The pilot tells them that flight control has stated quite forcefully that they are in the wrong dock, and orders them to leave the station and wait for instructions, even though he’s sure he docked at the coordinates he was given. They reboard the pod and the pilot undocks. He asks if he should report the incident to station security, and Miles tells him to wait until they ask, since it’s not their job to do the Cetagandans’ work for them. Ivan is dubious, but Miles says the competency of Cetagandan station security is doubtless something Illyan would be interested in. Miles examines the items they captured. The nerve disrupter is civilian make, not military, high quality but not decorated, meant to be concealed.
The short rod was odder still. Embedded in its transparent casing was a violent glitter, looking decorative; Miles was sure microscopic examination would reveal fine dense circuitry. One end of the device was plain, the other covered with a seal which was itself locked in place.
“This looks like it’s meant to be inserted in something,” he said to Ivan, turning the rod in the light.
“Maybe it’s a dildo.” Ivan smirked.
Miles snorted. “With the ghem-lords, who can say? But no, I don’t think so.” The indented seal on the end-cap was in the shape of some clawed and dangerous-looking bird. Deep within the incised figure gleamed metallic lines, the circuit-connections. Somewhere somebody owned the mate, a raised screaming bird-pattern full of complex encodes which would release the cover, revealing . . . what? Another pattern of encodes? A key for a key . . . It was all extraordinarily elegant. Miles smiled in sheer fascination.
Ivan asks if he’s going to give it back, and Miles says he will if they ask for it, otherwise he’ll keep it as a souvenir. Or give it to Illyan, whose cryptographers could probably spend a long time picking it apart. To placate Ivan, Miles gives him the nerve disrupter. They receive new docking instructions, and end up two rows up from their original dock. They debark again, a little more hesitantly this time. They are met by Lord Vorob’yev, the Barrayaran ambassador, with four Barrayaran guards, and two Cetagandan station officials. Miles is taken aback by the lack of Cetagandan security he was expecting, and realizes they didn’t connect their pod to the fugitive below.
They give a coded diplomatic disk to Vorob’yev and declare their six pieces of luggage, but don’t mention their more recent acquisitions. One of the Cetagandans takes their luggage off, no doubt to be searched, but Vorob’yev tells them not to worry, it will be returned, eventually. Miles tells Vorob’yev their trip was uneventful, but comments that they were redirected to a different docking port at first, and Vorob’yev says this is just a particularly ornate runaround to put the Barrayarans in their place. They go to Vorob’yev’s diplomatic shuttle, leaving their Cetagandan escort outside, and relax in Vorob’yev’s lounge with a glass of wine.
Miles debates on whether to tell Vorob’yev about the incident, as Ivan silently urges him, but he tries to consider possibilities. The Cetagandans could be stringing them along waiting for them to incriminate themselves, or they may just not have caught up with the fugitive yet. Their luggage arrives as they finish their wine, and as Vorob’yev goes to deal with it, Ivan asks Miles what he’s up to. Miles isn’t sure, off-balance because the Cetagandans failed to respond as he thought they would. He tells Ivan they should be reporting to Lord Vorreedi, who’s in charge of ImpSec at the embassy. Miles doesn’t look forward to having this little mystery taken out of his hands, though.
Vorob’yev returns and tells them they are welcome that evening to attend a reception at the Marilacan Embassy, which he heartily recommends. Ivan asks about clothing, and Vorob’yev recommends they stick to uniforms, which will help keep them from running afoul of the complex Cetagandan language of clothes. The shuttle undocks from the station, and Miles concludes that the fugitive must have eluded the Cetagandans, and nobody else knows of their little prizes.
Miles kept his hand down, and did not touch the concealed lump in his tunic. Whatever the device was, that fellow knew Miles had it. And he could surely find out who Miles was. I have a string on you, now. If I let it play out, something must surely climb back up it to my hand, right? This could shape up into a nice little exercise in intelligence/counter-intelligence, better than maneuvers because it was real. No proctor with a list of answers lurked on the fringes recording all his mistakes for later analysis in excruciating detail. A practice-piece. At some stage of development an officer had to stop following orders and start generating them. And Miles wanted that promotion to ImpSec captain, oh yes. Might he somehow persuade Vorreedi to let him play with the puzzle despite his diplomatic duties?
I never remember Vorob’yev’s name, though now I wonder how I could forget it with its awkward (from the Anglophone standpoint) apostrophe in the middle. Apologies to my friend Anna Korra’ti if she happens to be reading this, but I’ve never been sure about the usage of apostrophes in fantasy names, so I’m obscurely troubled when I find them in real-world names too. I find it a little puzzling, since from what little I know of Russian, the apostrophe is often used to represent the glottalization of a consonant…but so is the “y”, so are they really both needed? Not sure. In any case, it’s awkward to type.
Earlier I think I mentioned Cetaganda as one of the “planet” books, but I guess that’s not strictly true. Cetaganda isn’t a planet, it’s an empire, and each of the planets (as we see later) is Something Ceta, where Something tends to be a Greek letter. Where this actually comes from is unclear, since it’s not an astronomical thing, or at least not an Earth-centered one. The constellation of Cetus, the whale, is well known for the star Tau Ceti, among the nearest sunlike stars, but Tau Ceti appears on the Nexus map and is not part of Cetaganda; there’s a completely different Tau Ceta which is one of the Cetagandan worlds. Anyway, it’s clear where the “Ceta” comes from, but what about the “ganda”? It’s a mystery, I guess.
I can understand Ivan’s frustration with Miles’s refusal to offload the mystery onto their superiors, though it’s entirely in character for Miles not to want to. Here he is on a completely non-Dendarii mission, which he doesn’t want to be just boring and diplomatic, and this thing drops right into his lap; of course he wants to explore it. One can already see him burning through another superior or two, like ImpSec Captain Lord Vorreedi…
Reading chronologically, it’s almost a little frustrating to see Miles with no Dendarii. First we see him in The Warrior’s Apprentice, at the end of which he’s forced to leave the Dendarii behind, and then in The Vor Game he is reunited with them and assigned as a liaison. And now we have Cetaganda, where (spoiler alert) the Dendarii never appear. Again, this was written chronologically out of order, as Bujold filled in a time gap, and explained some of the events in her (very early) novel Ethan of Athos, and by that point she’d already written several Dendarii stories. She never really did a straight Dendarii novel, if there really was such a thing, and one presumes she was never really that interested in that kind of story, so there’s lots of gaps in the timeline.
Miles dawdles about getting dressed for the reception, trying to figure out whether he should carry the rod with him or leave it in the room. Ivan chides him for his slowness and says that maybe it’s a practical joke designed to drive Miles crazy. Miles makes a quick sketch of the symbol on the end on a plastic flimsy and leaves the rod in his dresser, telling Ivan that since they don’t have a lead-lined box, it doesn’t really matter where they hide it. Ivan says they have one in the embassy, but Miles says that since Vorreedi is out of town, trying to deal with some Barrayaran merchant ship impounded at a jump station, he’s reluctant to tell anyone else at the embassy about it.
Ivan once again tells Miles to finish getting ready. Miles puts his leg braces on under his uniform trousers, lamenting the fact that he hasn’t had his bones replaced with plastic yet. They join Vorob’yev in the foyer and head over to the Marilacan embassy, which he tells them is “neutral but non-secured territory”. There won’t be any haut-lords there, but there may be some minor ghem-lords. Vorob’yev notes that Marilac has been accepting much “aid” from Cetaganda, thinking that that will keep them safe.
“The Marilacans aren’t paying sufficient attention to their own wormhole nexus maps,” Vorob’yev went on. “They imagine they are at a natural border. But if Marilac were directly held by Cetaganda, the next jump would bring them to Zoave Twilight, with all its cross-routes, and a whole new region for Cetagandan expansion. Marilac is in exactly the same relationship to the Zoave Twilight crossings as Vervain is to the Hegen Hub, and we all know what happened there.” Vorob’yev’s lips twisted in irony. “But Marilac has no interested neighbor to mount a rescue as your father did for Vervain, Lord Vorkosigan. And provocative incidents can be manufactured so easily.”
Miles is worried briefly that Vorob’yev is alluding to Miles’s own experiences in the Hegen Hub, but concludes that he has no way of knowing of Miles’s involvement. They discuss the way that the ghem-generals are subdued by the failure in Vervain, and Ghem-General Estanis having committed suicide, even though he may have some help along the way.
“Thirty-two stab wounds in the back, worst case of suicide they ever saw?” murmured Ivan, clearly fascinated by the gossip.
“Exactly, my lord.” Vorob’yev’s eyes narrowed in dry amusement. “But the ghem-commanders’ loose and shifting relationship to the assorted secret haut-lord factions lends an unusual degree of deniability to their operations. The Vervain invasion is now officially described as an unauthorized misadventure. The erring officers have been corrected, thank you.”
“What do they call the Cetagandan invasion of Barrayar in my grandfather’s time?” Miles asked. “A reconnaissance in force?”
Vorob’yev tells them that ImpSec has been informed of his suspicions about Marilac, but so far it’s just a theory. He asks them to keep an ear open for interesting gossip and information, and relay it to Vorreedi when he returns, while trying to not to give away too much in return. Their car drives into the Marilacan embassy’s garage and into a foyer, then the lobby where the reception is taking place.
The center of the lobby was occupied by a large multi-media sculpture, real, not a projection. Trickling water cascaded down a fountain reminiscent of a little mountain, complete with impressionistic mountain-paths one could actually walk upon. Colored flakes swirled in the air around the mini-maze, making delicate tunnels. From their green color Miles guessed they were meant to represent Earth tree leaves even before he drew close enough to make out the realistic details of their shapes. The colors slowly began to change, from twenty different greens to brilliant yellows, golds, reds and black-reds. As they swirled they almost seemed to form fleeting patterns, like human faces and bodies, to a background of tinkling like wind chimes. So was it meant to be faces and music, or was it just tricking his brain into projecting meaningful patterns onto randomness? The subtle uncertainty attracted him.
The Marilacan ambassador, Bernaux, tells them that the sculpture, called ‘Autumn Leaves’, is a gift from a local ghem-lord. After being introduced to Bernaux, they are set loose to mingle, though Miles wishes he could listen in on Vorob’yev and Bernaux’s conversation. Miles and Ivan separate, and Miles watches ‘Autumn Leaves’ cycle through to a cold, bleak winter. He doesn’t see any hairless faces that could be their mysterious fugitive, but he watches as Ivan quickly corrals himself a ghem-lady. Miles considers the difference between himself and Ivan, how Ivan can bounce back from rejections until he finds an acceptance, while Miles takes them personally and spends his time brooding instead.
Ivan, Miles and the ghem-lady are soon joined by a ghem-lord who is introduced as Yenaro, who turns out to be the sculptor who created ‘Autumn Leaves’. The ghem-lady, Gelle, introduces the Barrayarans to Yenaro, who tells Miles that they have a connection–his grandfather as the ghem-general who commanded the Barrayaran invasion (not “reconaissance”) that Miles’s grandfather Piotr repulsed. Miles points out that General Yenaro was only the last of the five commanders, and received more than his due share of blame as a result.
Gelle asks Yenaro about the “banal” sculpture in the lobby, which Yenaro says is only a practice piece, but the Marilacans are happy enough with it. He prefers to create scents, himself, putting down Gelle’s own scent in the process. He also tells her how Ivan is a biological body-birth, which Gelle apparently finds faintly off-putting, deploring Yenaro’s obnoxiousness and taking her leave.
Yenaro tells them that they should experience the sculpture from the inside. Miles agrees, but is then called over by Vorob’yev, though he promises to return. Vorob’yev introduces him to an attractive, slightly older woman named Mia Maz, from the Vervani Embassy. Maz specializes in women’s etiquette, and has apparently been trying for some time to convince Vorob’yev that he needs a women’s expert as well. Vorob’yev protests that he hasn’t one with the experience, and Miles suggests that Maz could take on an apprentice. Vorob’yev excuses himself, and Maz expresses her gratitude to Miles for his father’s help against the Cetagandan invasion attempt.
Miles asks Maz if the ghem-ladies are really that different, and Maz insists they are, though she admits the Barrayarans have more in common with the ghem-lords than many other cultures do. The haut-lords and ladies, on the other hand, are entirely different, each sex with its own area of power and control, though mysterious to outsiders. Miles takes a chance and shows her the sketch of the bird-logo from the rod, asking her if she recognizes it. Maz says that it looks like a personal seal, rather than a family, but it lacks the decorative cartouches which have been in vogue for three generations so it must be an old one.
Ivan reappears with Yenaro, turning his charms on Mia Maz, and insisting that Miles take a turn passing through the sculpture as Ivan has just done. Miles reluctantly takes leave of Maz and lets Yenaro escort him inside. Miles asks for technical details, and Yenaro says that the floating flakes are driven by magnetism, not gravity, but it emerges that it was really put together by technicians, with Yenaro as the designer. Yenaro and Miles get into a discussion on whether design is sufficient, or if physical work is equally of value, and Yenaro invites Miles to a private gathering at his home two nights hence, which Miles decides to accept.
They enter the sculpture, and Miles is interested enough until he realizes that he can feel burning sensation in his legs–something about the magnetism is heating up his leg braces, and he frantically peels them off, leaving burns on his legs and hands. Yenaro calls for help, and Miles finds he’s drawn the attention of most of the attendees. Miles concludes that the magnetic fields used by the sculpture had a bad effect on the metal of the braces, like shoving them in a microwave.
Bernaux asks if he wants to go visit the embassy infirmary, but Miles says he’d rather go home. Yenaro, distraught, insists that the sculpture be destroyed, though Bernaux temporizes that they may settle for just doing a thorough safety check. Ivan and Vorob’yev escort Miles to the Barrayaran groundcar and head back to their embassy. They discuss whether this was more than an accident–the field would have been harmless to anyone not wearing a lot of metal, but it seems like it would have taken too much lead time. Their departure had been scheduled two weeks ago, the reception invitation came three days ago, and the sculpture had only been installed the day before.
Vorob’yev thought it over. “I think I must agree with you, Lord Vorpatril. Shall we put it down as an unfortunate accident, then?”
“Provisionally,” said Miles. That was no accident. I was set up. Me, personally. You know there’s a war on when the opening salvo arrives.
Except that, usually, one knew why a war had been declared. It was all very well to swear not to be blindsided again, but who was the enemy here?
Lord Yenaro, I bet you throw a fascinating party. I wouldn’t miss it for worlds.
Second bizarre incident, check. No suspicious deaths, yet–the Dowager Empress’s doesn’t count, I don’t think–but definitely a mystery looming. We have nowhere near enough information about anything yet, but what’s going on is definitely very Cetagandan, if nothing else. Or “Byzantine”, if you prefer. I don’t recall yet if Cetaganda is really a hotbed of intrigue, but I suspect that it is, with haut-lords plotting and ghem-lords carrying out their schemes, or something like that.
One thing I don’t recall us ever seeing is regular, everyday Cetagandans. We see the lords and ladies, and a few police-types, but what about the Cetagandan civilians? Are they oppressed, or fairly free? The fact that they still live in a monarchy implies something closer to the former, since the Cetagandans seem a little more paranoid, if more technologically sophisticated, than Barrayarans. Or are there any civilians? Is everyone either ghem or haut? I suspect not–after all, we see a lot of Barrayaran Lords, but there are still regular people out there too, in the cities as well as the backwoods.
More than a few references to past Cetagandan adventures–Mia Maz and her thanks from Vervain–and future ones, with Vorob’yev’s discussion of Marilac’s relationship with the Cetagandans. From books already published, by this point, so this is more backfilling, like the links to Ethan of Athos I mentioned earlier (though they don’t come up until much later).
Yenaro is so obviously a rebellious youngster, like a teenager, emotionally, an artist working with scents as a way of annoying his no-doubt militaristic ghem-lord father. This is probably why we haven’t had nearly as much trouble with the Cetagandans in a while, if the up-and-coming generation are this kind of “retro-avant” spoiled dilettantes.
So, two chapters in, we can see that Cetaganda is shaping up to be a mystery, of a sort, though what kind is not quite clear. We have an implicit promise from the author that things will be explained if we read to the end, though, so please join me next week as I continue to do so.