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Archive for April, 2012

Hello, and welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, the reread devoted to the Vorkosigan Saga.  Too obvious?  Well, if you don’t know what the Vorkosigan Saga is, then…this is probably the wrong place to start, you want to go back to the beginning of this blog and read the whole thing through, though preferably you should buy all the original books by Lois McMaster Bujold first, and read them in some order or other.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  Okay?  All up to speed?  Good, then let’s move on to Chapters Nine and Ten of Cetaganda, in which we see inside the Star Crèche, almost get blown up, and see the infamous kitten tree.  Intrigued?  Then read on!

Chapter Nine

The ba leads Miles through the Celestial Garden, past such biological wonders as tiny peacocks and spherical cats.  He keeps quiet, certain that he’s being monitored.  When they arrive at an opaque white bubble, the ba leaves, and Miles cautiously makes a general inquiry, since he has no idea if it’s really Rian inside or not.  It is, though, and she formally offers him a short tour, because of his interest in genetic matters.  Miles, who agrees that he is always looking for ways to fix his physical issues, is pleased that she is being circumspect, though disappointed that they can’t pretend to be having a love affair instead.

Shortly they reach a building which Miles soon notices has sealed windows and door-locks, as is proper for a biocontainment facility.  They enter, and Miles finds a fairly functional setup inside, almost deserted because of the funeral ceremonies.  The Star Crèche symbol is prominent.  Without ceremony, Rian deactivates her force bubble and stands up.

Her ebony hair today was bound up in thick loops, tumbling no farther than her waist. Her pure white robes were only calf-length, two simple layers comfortably draped over a white bodysuit that covered her from neck to white-slippered toe. More woman, less icon, and yet . . . Miles had hoped repeated exposure to her beauty might build up an immunity in him to the mind-numbing effect of her. Obviously, he would need more exposure than this. Lots more. Lots and lots and—stop it. Don’t be more of a idiot than you have to be.

She informs Miles that they can talk here, as he sits self-consciously in a chair across from her.  Miles asks if she will get in trouble with Security for bringing him there; she says that all they can do is ask the Emperor to reprimand her.  Miles asks her to be brief, before he gets in trouble with Security himself.  She tells him that she knows who the traitor is now–Slyke Giaja.  He had visited the Star Crèche the day previous and asked to see the Empress’s regalia, which he inspected carefully before he left.  She sees this as evidence that he knows about the substitution.  Miles wonders if he knows they know it’s a decoy, since he didn’t ask for a demonstration.

He speculates on what the traitors’ plan would be, if they would just wait for the funeral to end and see the Key exposed as a fake.  That would suffice to make Cetaganda angry at Barrayar, but if they desire open conflict, they need to make Barrayar angry at Cetaganda as well.  He wonders what story the Ba Lura had intended to give them, and wished they’d found out.

Miles brings up the possibility of one of the consorts being a traitor, but Rian considers this unthinkable, though she has trouble explaining why.  The consorts are haut women, not haut men, and as such not involved in the men’s affairs.  The traitorous governor is not only acting against the Emperor–as might be expected–but against the haut, which cannot be condoned.  Rian tells Miles that the consorts are appointed for life by the Celestial Lady, and he wonders to himself if they can trust any of them or not.  The Empress surely didn’t want her plot to fragment the haut quite this soon, but now her plan is being used to further someone else’s short-term goals.

“I believe your Celestial Lady’s plans have fractured at their weak spot. The emperor protects the haut-women’s control of the haut-genome; in turn you lend him legitimacy. A mutual support in both your interests. The satrap governors have no such motive. You can’t give power away and keep it simultaneously.”

Miles tells Rian that Barrayar doesn’t want Slyke Giaja (or whoever) to succeed, but neither do they want the Empress’s plan to succeed.  He offers his help, but only if she abandons the Empress’s plan.  He proposes to sneak onto Slyke’s ship, retrieve the Great Key and possibly swap it with the decoy.  Then the problem goes away, since none of the governors will want to incriminate themselves.  He suggests posing as the servitor of a consort or ghem-lady with access to Slyke’s ship, since Rian herself rarely leaves the capital.  He briefly considers passing the matter over to Cetagandan Security, but doesn’t think he can count on them not having been penetrated by Slyke’s spies.  Rian asks Miles how he could possibly disguise himself, and Miles suggests he pretend to be a ba, which would be a good disguise precisely because it seems so unthinkable.

They are interrupted then by a comconsole call from a Cetagandan security officer in face paint.  Rian tells the officer, Ghem-Colonel Millisor, that she deliberately made herself unavailable, as it isn’t a good time, as Miles checks that he isn’t in range of the vid pickup.  He eavesdrops shamelessly on the conversation.

“I used the emergency override. I’ve been trying to reach you for some time. My apologies, Haut, for intruding upon your mourning for the Celestial Lady, but she would have been the first to wish it. We have succeeded in tracking the lost L-X-10-Terran-C to Jackson’s Whole. I need the authorization of the Star Crèche to pursue out of the Empire with all due force. I had understood that the recovery of the L-X-10-Terran-C was one of our late Lady’s highest priorities. After the field tests she was considering it as an addition to the haut-genome itself.”

Rian agrees that the matter is important, and uses the Great Seal to give him the authorization he needs.  After she signs off, Miles asks what that was all about, and Rian tells him it is nothing but old haut-genome business.  Miles nonetheless files it away to relay to Simon Illyan when he gets back, because he’s going to need all the help he can get.

He presses Rian for solid details on the plan, telling her they need to set up the meeting ahead of time.  He suggests that she find the woman to get him aboard Slyke’s ship, and send her to meet him at the Bioesthetics Exhibit the next afternoon.  Rian is uneasy at the swift timeline, but Miles points out that they’re not yet certain about Slyke, and they need some slip time in case they need to choose another target.  Miles asks how they can find the Great Key, and Rian says she may be able to find a sensor to detect its old technology.  Miles is happy that they are taking action at last, though he suppresses an impulse to implore her to run away with him.  She, unfortunately, has shown no sign that she even notices his crush on her.

He asks her about Benin, who she hasn’t talked to yet; he tells her the story he’d given to Benin, so it’ll match up with hers.  They also come up with a story for Miles’s current visit, based largely on Slyke Giaja’s, mentioning Miles’s interest in correcting physical disabilities.  He is unable to stop himself from babbling about how his problems are not genetic in origin; he can’t gauge her response.

They exited into a cool and luminous artificial dusk. A few pale stars shone in the apparently boundless dark blue hemisphere above. Sitting in a row on a bench across the entry walk from the Star Crèche were Mia Maz, Ambassador Vorob’yev, and ghem-Colonel Benin, apparently chatting amiably. They all looked up at Miles’s appearance, and Vorob’yev’s and Benin’s smiles, at least, seemed to grow a shade less amiable. Miles almost turned around to flee back inside.

Benin notes that Miles has been given an unusual privilege, and Miles burbles on about how the haut-lady was nice enough to deal with his questions, even if the answers didn’t give him any hope of using Cetagandan techniques to avoid further surgeries.  Neither Benin and Vorob’yev seems quite satisfied with Miles’s account of himself, and Benin ushers them toward the dome exit.  They stop briefly for an arresting performance by luminous frogs tuned to sing in chords before leaving the dome.

Miles and Benin have a little conversation about taxes, and how Cetagandan citizens are taxed less than Barrayarans.  As the air-car departs, Miles thinks of the actual size of the Cetagandan Empire, and wonders if the Great Key will really suffice to change it.

Comments

Miles also seems to be thinking now of how exactly he’s going to account for all this to Simon Illyan when he gets home.  I don’t think we actually get to see that, because Memory was the next book written, and apparently this incident on Eta Ceta wasn’t part of Bujold’s timeline until now, so there are no coy references to it otherwise.  Well, unless you count the conversation with Millisor, which leads to the whole plot of Ethan of Athos, but I don’t believe in that book it ever really came up how Miles had discovered that information.  Since that’s the next book, I guess we’ll be finding out relatively soon…

Miles’s most intimate moment yet with Rian…which is not saying that much.  Just the two of them (and that ba cleaning up in the background), her bubble down, talking about emotionally-charged topics…  Pity she doesn’t slow the slightest interest in him.
At least we now know who the bad guy is!  It’s Slyke Giaja, no doubt about it!  Definitely not that Ilsum Kety guy, or Este Rond, or anyone else.  Good thing that Rian is such a canny detective, able to take all her piece of evidence and put it together.  Shouldn’t be too long now before they have him on the ropes!

Chapter Ten

Miles pleads with Ivan to help him out, because Lord Vorreedi has come with them to the Bioesthetics Exhibit, rather than Mia Maz as Miles had hoped.  He tells Ivan that he may need a distraction so he can make a break for it, possibly telling Vorreedi that Miles is with a lady, or introducing Vorreedi to some of his ghem-lady friends, but Ivan doesn’t think that will work.

“So use your initiative!”

“I don’t have initiative. Ifollow orders, thank you. It’s much safer.”

“Fine. I order you to use your initiative.”

Ivan breathed a bad word, by way of editorial. “I’m going to regret this, I know I am.”

Miles tells Ivan that it wlil be over soon in a few hours, one way or another.  Ivan reminds him of the time, when they were children, that they found an old hovertank in a guerrilla weapons cache and knocked over a barn with it.  Miles protests that the situations are nothing alike.  Vorreedi rejoins them then from talking with the security people, and they enter the hall.

The competition here is for women only; Miles asks if the haut-women compete, but Vorreedi says that no ghem-ladies would ever win in that case.  The first exhibit they see, of coloured fish swimming in patterns, is that of a twelve-year-old girl, and even black orchids and blue roses are routine; another girl tows behind her a tiny unicorn on a leash.  A flowered vine begins to climb up Ivan’s leg, until a ghem-lady rescues him from it and goes off in search of other escapees.

Next they come across a tree covered in fruit with kittens in them.  Ivan tries to rescue one, but when he removes the fruit pod, the kitten dies; Miles shows him how the kitten was joined to the plant, and Vorreedi offers to surreptitiously dispose of it.  Ivan is ready to leave the whole affair, but Miles asks him to stay until he can meet his contact.  From a balcony, they spot Lord Yenaro further down.  Miles notes that his presence could be a coincidence, that this exhibit is right up his alley, but he and Ivan agree it’s probably more than that.  They wait a little longer, and then a middle-aged ghem-lady approaches and flashes Miles a ring with the Star Crèche symbol on it.  She asks him to meet her at the west entrance in half an hour.

Vorreedi returns a few minutes later, and says that they’ve spotted a known professional (professional killer, in this case) on the perimeter, and he’s going to check it out.  Ivan tells him about Yenaro, and Vorreedi dismisses him as a mere annoyance, probably harmless, before leaving to deal with the professional.  Miles is counting down the minutes when they are interrupted by Lady Arvin and Lady Benello, who ooze in on either side of Ivan and each try to woo him into joining them.  Ivan temporizes, unwilling to offend either of them, and Lady Benello begins to turn her attentions to Miles instead.  Miles protests that he has to go soon, but Benello persuades him to come see her sister’s exhibit, at least, and the four of them head down to the lower levels, while Miles wrestles with the question of Rian the unattainable vs. Benello the available.

Lady Arvin turned in at a small circular open space screened by trees in tubs. Their leaves were glossy and jewel-like, but they were merely a frame for the display in the center. The display was a little baffling, artistically. It seemed to consist of three lengths of thick brocade, in subtle hues, spiraling loosely around each other from the top of a man-high pole to trail on the carpet below. The dense circular carpet echoed the greens of the bordering trees, in a complex abstract pattern.

Lord Yenaro is sitting nearby, and tells Lady Benello that her sister, Veda, has stepped away briefly and he agreed to look after it for her.  Benello says that the smell of the fabric, perfume changing to suit the mood of the wearer, is the real point, and tells Yenaro that Veda should really have made it into a dress.  Yenaro invites them to come closer and experience it, and Ivan and Miles sniff dubiously, not quite daring to step closer, wondering where the trap is.

Miles notes an odd, acrid underscent, just as Yenaro comes forward with a pitcher, and suddenly he recognizes it.  He yells to Ivan not to let Yenaro spill it, and Ivan grabs it away from him.  Miles takes the pitcher from Ivan and asks Ivan to smell the carpet, carefully; the ladies are mystified, since the carpet isn’t even part of the exhibit.  Ivan recognizes the carpet’s scent as asterzine, and Miles recognizes the scent from the pitcher as well.  Ivan picks a few threads from the carpet and they drag Yenaro off into a secluded corner.  There, they demonstrate by setting the carpet threads down on the marble floor and telling Yenaro to add a couple of drops from the pitcher; the result is a small explosion.  Miles tells him that the whole carpet would have gone up in a blast big enough to destroy the dome, including the Barrayarans and Yenaro.

Miles tries to persuade Yenaro that whatever trick he thought he was playing on them, “the haut-governor” was trying to use him to dispose of the Barrayarans, and himself.  Yenaro says it was supposed to just give off alcoholic vapours to get them all drunk.  Miles also gets him to confirm that the ‘Autumn Leaves’ sculpture had been deliberate, though it was only supposed to shock, not burn.  They sit Yenaro down, and Miles tells him that this is part of a treason plot against the Cetagandan Emperor, and he’s a pawn, like the Ba Lura, and just as disposable.  Yenaro would have been set up as an incompetent assassin, with a blood-feud between his clan and those of the victims, and bad blood with Barrayar.

Yenaro says he didn’t like them that much, but he really want to kill them.  He’d been promised a post, as Imperial Perfumer, which he thinks he would have been good at.

Miles rose. “Good day, Lord Yenaro, and a better one than you were destined to have, I think. I may have used up a year’s supply this afternoon already, but wish me luck. I have a little date with Prince Slyke now.”

“Good luck,” Yenaro said doubtfully.

Miles paused. “It was Prince Slyke, was it not?”

“No! I was talking about Governor the haut Ilsum Kety!”

Miles tries to reconcile this with Rian’s story.  He can’t decide whether Kety had sent Slyke to the Star Crèche, or Slyke had used Kety to manipulate Yenaro.  Just then, Vorreedi appears around the corner, relieved at having found Miles and Ivan at last.  Miles introduces Yenaro to Vorreedi; Vorreedi tells Yenaro that he just happened to meet up with a man who, apparently, was tasked with making sure Yenaro didn’t leave the dome alive.  When Yenaro doesn’t volunteer any information in response, Vorreedi tells him that he’s got ten minutes until the fast-penta wears off.  Yenaro leaves hastily.

Miles asks Vorreedi if it was true, and Vorreedi confirms it.  He wonders, given Yenaro’s interest in Miles, if it’s more important to Barrayaran interest than it seems, though Miles quickly denies having been so angry at Yenaro to have hired the assassin himself.  He does encourage Vorreedi to try to follow the link to whoever hired the assassin, calling it a hunch.  As they leave the dome, Miles spots his contact-lady, and asks to speak to her; Vorreedi insists on coming along.

“Pardon me, milady. I just wanted to let you know that I will not be able to accept your invitation to visit, uh, this afternoon. Please convey my deepest regrets to your mistress.” Would she, and the haut Rian, interpret this as intended, as Abort, abort abort!? Miles could only pray so. “But if she can arrange instead a visit to the man’s cousin, I think that would be most educational.”

Comments

So maybe it’s not Slyke after all?  Huh!  Well, the first suspect is almost never the correct one, right?  Though Ilsum Kety is really not a big surprise.  A big surprise would have been, I don’t know, the old guy Miles ruled out almost at once.  Though I guess there is still a potential co-conspirator with a float-chair out there.  Anyway, it looks like between Yenaro’s revelation and Miles talking to the ghem-lady he’s decided in favour of Kety over Slyke, or at least wants Rian to consider him as a potential suspect as well, I suppose.  It’s hard to tell exactly what he’s getting at with his circumlocutions.

I guess Vorreedi doesn’t take Miles’s wanderings as a serious issue yet, or he wouldn’t have let him and Ivan unattended so many times.  Is he technically Miles’s superior on this mission?  Let’s hope he ends up better than the ones in The Vor Game.  The assassin is an actual sub-ghem, by the way, though we don’t get to see him, so he still doesn’t count as an actual civilian.

The kitten tree is always one of the most memorable scenes, and images, in the entire book.  I like Miles’s description of Ivan as someone who is just as set on liberating kittens as he is on chasing women, and it reminds me of that scene in A Civil Campaign, with the kitten on the breakfast tray.  I was never quite clear on whether the fruits “just weren’t ripe” yet, if the kittens would eventually be released or not.  Compelling, and a little grotesque.  And very Cetagandan.  On the other hand, I had completely forgotten Yenaro’s final “prank” attempt…

Poor Miles, he could have gotten lucky with Lady Benello, though of course he would have felt guilty about it (for betraying Rian, perhaps?), and it came at a fairly bad time, too.  Probably wouldn’t have worked out any better than the fetish girl on Beta Colony, either.


Into the second half of the book now, only six chapters left, so the action should be speeding up fairly shortly, I think.  So until next week…

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A bit tired tonight, so let me be brief.  I’m going through Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, book by book, two chapters at a time, and right now I’m up to Chapters Seven and Eight of Cetaganda, so let’s get down to it.

Chapter Seven

While Ivan is treated in the infirmary, Miles checks out the list of the eight satrap governors.  They’re all “relatives” of the Emperor and Empress, including two Degtiars.  Each satrap governor holds his office for five years, then either retires or moves to another satrap, to keep any of them from being able to build up a power base.  As such, Miles concludes that the Dowager Empress couldn’t have contacted them longer ago than five years, because otherwise she wouldn’t have known who the governors would be.  Miles tries to figure out how to winnow down the list, wishing for some helpful and discreet Cetagandan security men to help.  He reminds himself that he doesn’t need to solve Ba Lura’s murder, just find the Great Key.  After all, it’s in orbit somewhere, on one of the governor’s ships…

Ivan returns, saying that the poison metabolized rapidly, but they did manage to get a sample.  Vorreedi has returned, and Ivan had a chat with him about Yenaro.  He judges Vorreedi to not be a “booted paranoid”, and urges Miles to come clean to him, or else Ivan will.  Miles shares the salient points of his conversation with Rian.

” . . . so it seems to me,” Miles ran down at last, “that the only way we can certainly prove that Barrayar had nothing to do with it is to find which satrap governor has the real Great Key.” He pointed orbit-ward.

Ivan’s eyes were round, his mouth screwed up in an expression of total dismay. “We? We? Miles, we’ve only been here for two and a half days, how did we get put in charge of the Cetagandan Empire? Isn’t this Cetagandan security’s job?”

Miles says they can’t be trusted to try to exonerate the Barrayarans.  He says he’s thought of three possible leads back to Lord X–Yenaro, Ba Lura’s murder, and political analysis.  Yenaro they can trust ImpSec to work on, but probably not Ba Lura.  As for the third, he tells Ivan that the Barrayarans seemed to be deliberately picked to plant the fake Key on, which could mean either a satrap governor close to Barrayaran space, or one on the other end hoping for a Barrayaran war to divert attention from him.  Ivan and Miles agree that that means either Rho Ceta (next to Komarr) or Mu Ceta (next to Vervain), or Sigma Ceta or Xi Ceta (which is next to Marilac) at the other end of the Empire–four out of eight.  Miles hopes that with all three methods they can eventually narrow it down to just one.

Miles says they should make sure to document all their evidence and conclusions, in case someone else has to follow up on the case, and Ivan says he’s been doing that since the first day.  Miles asks if Ivan hinted to Vorreedi that Yenaro had a high-placed backer, and urges him to do so when Ivan says he hadn’t.

“Why don’t you talk to him?”

“I’m . . . not ready. Not yet, not tonight. I’m still assimilating it all. And technically, he is my ImpSec superior here, or would be, if I were on active duty. I’d like to limit my, um . . .”

“Outright lies to him?” Ivan completed sweetly.

Miles grimaced, but did not deny it. “Look, I have an access in this matter that no other ImpSec officer could, due to my social position. I don’t want to see the opportunity wasted. But it also limits me—I can’t get at the routine legwork, the down-and-dirty details I need. I’m too conspicuous. I have to play to my own strengths, and get others to play to my weaknesses.”

Ivan agrees to talk to Vorreedi, then reminds Miles that Lord X might just as easily be following the leads back to him.

The next morning, Vorob’yev tells Miles he has an unusual visitor–not Rian, as Miles originally hopes, but a Security officer, ghem-Colonel Dag Benin.  Benin is investigating Ba Lura’s death, and apparently Miles’s activities in the rotunda have brought him to Benin’s attention.  Vorob’yev and Vorreedi have decided to let Benin speak to Miles, though the conversation will be monitored.

Ghem-Colonel Benin, waiting for them, rose politely as they entered. He was of no more than middle stature, so probably not over-stocked with haut-genes in his recent ancestry—the haut favored height. He had likely acquired his present post by merit rather than social rank, then, not necessarily a plus from Miles’s point of view. Benin was very trim in the dark red Cetagandan dress uniform that was everyday garb for security staff in the Celestial Garden. He wore, of course, full formal face paint in the Imperial pattern rather than that of his clan, marking his primary allegiance; a white base with intricate black curves and red accents that Miles thought of as the bleeding-zebra look. But by association, it was a pattern that would command instant and profound respect and total, abject cooperation on eight planets. Barrayar, of course, was not one of them.

Benin introduces himself and his purpose.  Miles immediately presses him about whether Ba Lura’s death has been ruled a suicide, or if he may have been stunned elsewhere, which they should be able to test for, brought to the rotunda and killed there.  Benin says that Ba Lura has been cremated, and wonders about Miles’s interest.  Miles says that civil security is in his line of work, exaggerating slightly his modest experience with murder investigations, which piques Benin’s interest.  Benin says that somebody would have seen Ba Lura being carried into the rotunda, but Miles asks if the body happened to have been placed in a spot hidden from the cameras, which Benin confirms.  Miles points out that this means someone familiar with the security arrangements was involved, and asks Benin if anyone highly placed has been trying to quash his investigation.

Benin asks Miles about his conversation with Rian, and Miles claims that she turned out to be interested in him as a genetic curiosity, before Miles told her that his physical issues were not genetic.  Miles turns to the subject to haut-ladies’ bubbles and force-chairs, suggesting that one of those could have been used to bring Ba Lura’s body into the rotunda and conceal it there.  Benin tells Miles that half a dozen haut ladies passed through the chamber, none of them having seen Ba Lura, and Miles says that one of them must be lying.

Miles says that the murderer–they both seem to have concluded that it is likely murder, not suicide–must be highly placed, and with an odd sense of humour.  He says that it may be someone newly come to the capital, and perhaps someone that Ba Lura was blackmailing.  He urges Benin to trace Ba Lura’s movements, which Benin says is in progress.  Miles also suggests that the murder was somewhat rushed, and may have made some hasty decisions.  He thanks Benin for providing him the opportunity to talk shop.  Benin asks Miles if he might be willing to talk under fast-penta, and Miles agrees, with Vorob’yev’s approval (which they both know will not be forthcoming).

As Benin winds the interview down, Miles hopes that he’s managed to point Benin in the direction of the satrap governors.  Miles has also concluded that Benin, somewhat low rank for this investigation, may be intended to be expendable, and urges him to get support from as high up as he can.

“You have good reason to suspect you have a little problem somewhere overhead. But you don’t know where yet. If I were you, I’d go straight to the top. Make personal contact with your Emperor. It’s the only way you can be sure you’ve capped the murderer.”

Did Benin turn pale, beneath his face paint? No way to tell. “That high over—Lord Vorkosigan, I can hardly claim casual acquaintance with my celestial master.”

“This isn’t friendship. It’s business, and it’s his business. If you truly mean to be useful to him, it’s time you began. Emperors are only human.” Well, Emperor Gregor was. The Cetagandan emperor was haut-human. Miles hoped that still counted. “Ba Lura must have been more to him than a piece of the furniture—it served him for over fifty years. Make no accusations, merely request that he protect your investigation from being quashed. Strike first, today, before . . . someone . . . begins to fear your competence.” If you’re going to cover your ass, Benin, by God do it right.

“I will . . . consider your advice.”

After Benin takes his leave, Vorob’yev enters, followed by Ivan, and Vorreedi, at last.  Vorreedi asks Miles if he would like a tour of local police establishments, and Miles demurs, but says that police work would probably been his next choice after the military.  Vorob’yev tells Ivan that he’s received some invitations from several ghem-ladies–Arvin and Benello, from Yenaro’s party, as well as Benello’s married sister.  Ivan refuses to share any of them with Miles, though Miles asks him to find out if any of them have ties to the Celestial Garden.  Ivan tells Miles he’d be happen with Benin, or one of the satrap governors, and Miles admits he hopes to be able to examine the suspects at an official function as soon as he can.

Comments

I’m so glad that all eight of the governors are not serious suspects, because it’s hard enough keeping track of four of them.  I think I’m reaching the point where I remember who Lord X actually is, but I guess I’ll have to wait a little longer to be sure.
The appearance of Vorreedi, at last, is a bit of an anticlimax.  By this point Miles has ceased to think of him as the guy who’s going to solve his problems, though I guess I don’t know if he ever did.  Ivan did, I’m sure…  I wonder if Ivan ever reaches a point where he implicitly trusts Miles to be able to solve all these problems he encounters.  Judging from A Civil Campaign, perhaps not.  Miles is, admittedly, a little too eager to get himself in over his head (insert your own height joke here), but he’s also really good at pulling himself out.

Dag Benin is a far more interesting character, still a ghem-lord but more of a rank-and-file officer than we’ve tended to see so far.  He’s quick on picking up on Miles’s competence, despite his being, technically, an adversary.  Miles’s conversation with him is an interesting exercise in trying to impart information without seeming to, while trying to acquire as much as possible.

Chapter Eight

Vorob’yev pulls a whole bunch of strings and gets himself, Miles and Mia Maz invitations to an exclusive poetry tribute to the Dowager Empress.  Ivan is too busy with, and tired from, his various haut-lady invitations to attend.  They are escorted to a grassy dell scattered with box seats overlooking an arrangement of daises and platforms at the bottom; the box seats, Miles discovers as the haut attendees arrive, are intended to accommodate the haut-lady bubbles.  Miles asks if the women will speak, and Maz says they’d had their ceremony already; the haut-lords will speak in increasing order of rank, ending with the satrap governors, whose presence is the real reason Miles wanted to attend.

Miles studies the governors as they arrive.  Mu Ceta’s aged governor, the late Empress’s half-brother, of the Degtiar constellation, had been appointed to reassure the Vervani, but Miles reminds himself that he had still accepted an illicit copy of the gene banks.  Este Rond, from Komarr’s neighbour Rho Ceta, is tall and bullish, and Miles recalls that he’s tireless in his efforts to improve Cetagandan trade, and to improve the status of his junior constellation.  Slyke Giaja, half-brother of the Emperor, is governor of Marilac’s neighbour Xi Ceta, arrogant and dangerous, a distinct possibility.  Ilsum Kety, from Sigma Ceta, is the youngest (only 45), related in some complex fashion to Slyke Giaja.

The governors are each accompanied by a haut-lady bubble, who Maz explains are the consorts, which really means that they are Star Crèche representatives, sending genetic contracts back to the Celestial Garden and supervising the return of the uterine replicators with the contracted fetuses.  Miles realizes that the consorts must have been how the Empress had communicated with the governors, and with some dismay he wonders if they are also suspects, since they do possess their own force bubbles, and one of them could thus have been closely involved with Ba Lura’s murder.

There is a hush as Emperor Fletchir Giaja arrives with his escort, the haut lords all bowing as he makes his way into the dell.  Shortly thereafter the poetry recitations commence, which Miles initially finds fascinating, but soon he becomes conscious of the repetition of themes and begins to tune out, though Maz does try to keep him interested with whispered comments.

Miles meditated on the character of Lord X, trying to match it with one of the eight faces ranged before him. The murderer/traitor was something of a tactical genius. He had been presented with an unanticipated opportunity to gain power, had committed rapidly to an all-out effort, evolved a plan, and struck. How fast? The first satrap governor had arrived in person only ten days before Miles and Ivan had, the last only four days before. Yenaro, the embassy’s ImpSec office had finally reported, had put his sculpture together in just two days from designs delivered from an unknown source, working his minions around the clock. Ba Lura could only have been suborned since its mistress’s death, not quite three weeks ago.

Miles decides that this precipitousness of action, for the time-scale of the haut lifespan, smelled of youth rather than age.  He wonders if Lord X is chafing at his enforced inactivity, and if he’s kept the Great Key nearby or shipped it home already.  Miles finds his mind wandering, and mentally composes a limerick about the Empress and Lord X, and then one about Rian, stifling his impulse to laugh.  Finally he snaps to attention as the first of the governors takes the dais.  The poems are innocuous enough, though in the most challenging forms, according to Maz, and Miles is almost disappointed that Lord X didn’t weave a smug confession into his.  When they are done, the Emperor leaves and the attendees are freed to sample the food.

Miles’s group are allowed into the most exclusive of the gatherings, where the governors themselves are attending, and Maz is avidly taking in as much information as she can.  Governor Este Rond, when he enters, is obliged to greet the Barrayarans.  Miles notes that Rond’s ghem-general is accompanied by a haut-woman, but on foot, with no force bubble but a reserved and forbidding demeanor.  Vorob’yev introduces Miles to Rond, who tries a few veiled verbal sallies at the governor, winning no response.  Miles asks Rond to introduce him to Ilsum Kety, which he is all too happy to do; Miles whispers to him that they know about Yenaro, but Rond is politely baffled by the remark.

Miles notices that Kety’s hair is frosted with grey, though he’s thirty years younger than the Emperor, whose hair is still black, and concludes that he’s trying to assume the dignity of age, since older men seemed to have all the power in Cetagandan society.  Kety is also accompanied by a ghem-general with a haut-wife, an even more striking one, and Miles is thankful that his experiences with Rian have made him slightly less vulnerable to haut-lady charms.  Miles greets the general, Chilian, and his wife, but she pointedly ignores him.

Miles smiled affably at the haut Ilsum Kety. “I understand we have a mutual hobby, governor,” he purred.

“Oh?” said Kety unencouragingly.

“An interest in the Cetagandan Imperial regalia. Such a fascinating set of artifacts, and so evocative of the history and culture of the haut race, don’t you think? And its future.”

Kety stared at him blankly. “I would not regard that as a pastime. Nor a suitable interest for an outlander.”

“It’s a military officer’s duty to know his enemies.”

“I would not know. Those tasks belong to the ghem.”

“Such as your friend Lord Yenaro? A slender reed for you to lean on, governor, I’m afraid you are about to find.”

Kety’s pale brow wrinkled. “Who?”

Miles, frustrated, wishes he could fast-penta everyone in the pavilion.  He asks for an introduction to Slyke Giaja, and Kety willingly sends him over with General Chilian.  Slyke Giaja is not receptive, but Miles sends Chilian with the message “Yenaro is ours”.  Slyke is accompanied by a haut-lady bubble, and Miles recognizes a ghem-lady attendant as the one who’d escorted him from Yenaro’s party.  Chilian delivers the message, but Slyke is unwilling to meet with Miles, and the elderly Mu Cetan governor has already left, so Miles is left to his own devices.  Mia Maz joins him and says she has been enjoying listening in on the conversations, mostly about the poetry; most opinions seem to agree that the highest-ranked men had the best poems.

Miles asks Maz about the haut-ladies, and she tells him that haut ladies married to ghem-lords, and hence without bubbles, are to be treated as if they are still concealed, and never spoken to directly.  Their conversation is interrupted by a ba servant–Rian’s, who had escorted him before–who says his lady needs to meet with him.  Miles tells Maz to make his excuses, and that he may be some time, as he follows the ba out of the pavilion.

Comments

Now the four main-suspect governors are formally introduced to us.  None of them are dead giveaways right off the bat–none of them react to the mention of Yenaro–though the appearance of the ghem-lady from the party is a bit suspicious, isn’t it?  What’s she doing with Slyke Giaja?  Miles’s realization about the consorts’ possible involvement may sound a bit daunting, but let me reassure you that there is definitely a governor involved, so she hasn’t just given us all the information on the prime suspects for nothing.

I’d been pronouncing Rian as “Ree-ann”, but given that Miles, in his limerick, rhymes it with “scion” and “lion”, apparently it’s pronounced like, well, “Ryan”.  It’s fairly rare for an author to give such a direct pronunciation cue, and I wonder if it’s deliberate.  Normally, if they’re really all that concerned that you pronounce their names right, they provide a pronunciation key, or a glossary.  (I still remember the Robert Jordan signing where he led off with examples of how to say the most mispronounced names from the Wheel of Time series.)  I still can’t bring myself to call her “Ryan”, though; generally I believe that pronunciation of unfamiliar names is up to one’s personal taste, but I’ve been known to change my pronunciations from time to time anyway.  Normally it doesn’t come up unless you’re talking out loud about the character or reading the book to somebody else, so it’s not a big deal.


Looks like this book is sixteen chapters, so we’re already at the halfway point.  I did have the sense that things were moving fairly fast, and these chapters are shorter than in some of the other books I’ve done, so it’s not that surprising.  I’d been hoping there was an odd number so I could only do one this week, but no such luck, I guess.  Maybe I should have, since it looks like Chapter Eight flows directly into Chapter Nine, but I guess it can’t be helped now.  Ethan of Athos has only fifteen, so next book, I guess…  Until next week, when I will return.

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Happy 10th of April, everyone, or should I say, April the 10th be with you?  No?  Well, most of you are probably seeing this on the 11th, or later, so never mind.  Welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, my attempt to do some justice and attract some well-deserved attention to the works of Lois McMaster Bujold, particularly her science fictional masterwork wherein she follows the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan and his friends and family.  This week we continue another couple chapters further into Cetaganda, chronologically earlier than some novels published before it, covering Chapters Five and Six, where the true plot of the book at last emerges.  Or should that be, already?

Chapter Five

Miles and Ivan arrive at Yenaro’s party by groundcar.  They confirm their comlinks are both working, and the driver tells them they have three units of backup nearby just in case, and a medic in a lightflyer forty-five seconds away.  Yenaro’s mansion exhibits clear signs of aristocratic decay, apparently left to Yenaro without the money to keep it up.  Miles notes that the ‘Autumn Leaves’ sculpture was Yenaro’s first, which he finds odd, and he wonders what they’ll find checking into the actual workers who put it together.  Miles, in his fanciest dress blacks, has the Great Key with him, and has had it in his pocket all day, through a tour of the city and a classical dance performance, but so far no contact from Rian.

On one level, Miles was growing extremely sorry he had not taken the local ImpSec subordinates into his confidence on the very first day. But if he had, he would no longer be in charge of this little problem; the decisions would all have been hiked to higher levels, out of his control. The ice is thin. I don’t want anyone heavier than me walking on it just yet.

Yenaro greets them after they enter, and takes them to a shabbily but comfortably decorated room with a dozen other young ghems, more male than female, some of them with daringly unpainted faces.  Incense burning nearby is apparently one of Yenaro’s own blends, incorporating a relaxant.  Miles evinces an interest in seeing Yenaro’s laboratory, Ivan staying behind to strike up an acquaintance with two beautiful ghem-women.  Another ghem-woman asking after a perfume she’d commissioned from Yenaro accompanies them.  The lab is in a different building, across the garden, and Miles sees money spent on the lab rather than on the main house.  The ingredients are all organized, and Yenaro says he can’t bear other people mucking with his system; Miles mentally contrasts this with the “hands are to be hired” attitude toward ‘Autumn Leaves’.  Someone else, who Miles dubs ‘Lord X’, must have supplied the expertise there, and possibly knowledge of Miles’s vulnerabilities as well.

Fact One about Lord X: he had access to Cetagandan Security’s most detailed reports on Barrayarans of military or political significance . . . and their sons. Fact Two: he had a subtle mind. Fact Three . . . there was no fact three. Yet.

They return to find Ivan snuggling with the two women.  Yenaro offers him a special beverage, putting Miles on the alert for poison, but Yenaro and other ghem-lords drink the “zlati ale” as well, and Ivan seems to enjoy his drink.  Ivan shoos Miles away, and Miles turns his efforts to questioning the other ghem-lords, who are eager enough to talk about themselves.  Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much of substance to any of them, locked in place with small horizons until they may happen to inherit something.

Excusing himself from the group, he finds a slightly older woman watching him; she smiles at him, comes forward, and asks if he’d like to walk in the garden with her.  Her smile fades as they leave the house, and she leads him to a gate where a robed ba is waiting to escort him.  Miles pointedly calls in on his comlink to let them know he’s “walking with a lady”.  Miles and the ba cross a ravine onto another neglected estate, over a pond on a footbridge and into a wooded pavilion, where a haut-lady sphere waits.

Haut-lady Rian tells Miles she’s contacted him as promised for her “thing”, and Miles tells her he knows it’s the Great Key.  He takes it out and she asks for it back, but Miles holds on to it, asking for information on how it came to be in his possession in the first place.  He asks why Ba Lura had it on the space station in the first station; it couldn’t have been just theft, since there were surely more valuable artifacts available among the late Empress’s regalia.  He asks Rian if Ba Lura was planning to blackmail her, and if she had it murdered, which Rian hotly denies.  She says that Ba Lura would not have been selling it, so Miles presses her for more information.  Rian says she doesn’t know who Ba Lura would have been bringing it to, and that she and the ba had had a disagreement.

Miles goes back to the beginning, telling the incident of the “man” with the false hair arriving at the airlock, and then of Miles seeing the same face on the dead ba.  Rian tells Miles that she had found it missing that day, but she hadn’t used it for a couple of days before that.  She’d seen Ba Lura the evening before, but could have come and gone at any time after that, and had refused to see her until the next morning.  Then, it had confessed entering the wrong docking bay and losing it to the Barrayarans (after being attacked by six soldiers), and Miles swiftly asks who, in orbit, had been the intended recipient, which Rian refuses to answer.  The Barrayarans had supposedly insulted the Celestial Lady and then tossed the ba out, where it returned home in shame.

Miles asks why the ba, if it were going to kill itself in shame, would have done so publicly, advertising its shame.  Miles reiterates that there weren’t six Barrayaran soldiers, no slurs on the Celestial Lady, and the ba gave up its prize far too easily for such a degree of public shame.  Rian asks for the Key back, but Miles says he still doesn’t understand who is trying to drag Barrayar into this Cetagandan issue, and why.  He wants confirmation of her and her identity–he wants to see her through the force-bubble.  She accedes to his condition, and makes her bubble transparent.

“Oh,” said Miles, in a very small voice.

She sat in a float-chair, clothed from slender neck to ankle in flowing robes of shining white, a dozen shimmering textures lying one atop another. Her hair glinted ebony, masses of it that poured down across her shoulders, past her lap, to coil around her feet. When she stood, it would trail on the floor like a banner. Her enormous eyes were an ice blue of such arctic purity as to make Lady Gelle’s eyes look like mud-puddles. Skin . . . Miles felt he had never seen skin before, just blotched bags people wore around themselves to keep from leaking. This perfect ivory surface . . . his hands ached with the desire to touch it, just once, and die. Her lips were warm, as if roses pulsed with blood. . . .

How old was she? Twenty? Forty? This was a haut-woman. Who could tell? Who could care? Men of the old religion had worshipped on their knees icons far less glorious, in beaten silver and hammered gold. Miles was on his knees now, and could not remember how he’d come to be there.

Miles instantly knows that he has fallen hopelessly in love with this unattainable woman, and without another word he lays the Great Key at her feet.

Comments

I left out most of the somewhat snide remarks Miles had made to himself about Rian up to this point, about how she was probably an “old battleaxe” or some such.  Apparently not, then.  It does seem that a certain amount of the haut (and ghem) genetic development, in the female line, at least, is aimed at  sheer physical beauty, according to standards universal enough that a Barrayaran is ensnared by them.  One wonders why they bother, unless, as Mia Maz might postulate, the ability to inspire devotion in men is just part of their power base.  I’d theorize that haut males would have bred resistance to haut women, except that it’s the women who control the genome, isn’t it?

Looking at the idle rich ghem-lords makes me wonder again about the Cetagandan commoners.  There must be some, right, just like there are many Barrayarans who aren’t Vor.  There must be billions of them, in fact, but we never get to see them.  On this visit, of course, the foreigners are somewhat circumscribed, but one wonders if Vorob’yev or even Mia Maz has any more contact with them.  How do they fit in with the breeding plans of the Empire?  Do the haut and ghem genes ever percolate down to them?  How oppressed are they, anyway?

The mention of Yenaro’s capabilities with his perfumes makes Miles think that he could easily get a position with some corporation.  Sadly, Yenaro probably never will, since “work” is something for the plebes, though he does seem to have a little cottage industry producing perfumes for his peers, at least.  Assuming that they pay for them; it’s not clear that the ghem-lady who is fetching her perfume has paid for it, though maybe she did in advance, or maybe worrying about money is another one of those plebe things.  Of course, perhaps Yenaro is getting money from another, more sinister source…

Chapter Six

Rian picks up the Great Key and inserts a ring worn around her neck into the bird pattern at the end of the seal.  Nothing happens, and she accuses Miles of having tampered with it, since it should have opened.  Miles protests that he had done nothing, and says there are three possibilities–it was broken by someone else, it was reprogrammed, or it was replaced with a duplicate.  Rian’s reaction leads Miles to think the last theory is the most plausible to her.  Miles wonders if this substitute was supposed to have been sent back to Barrayar after being planted with him, but he can’t quite figure it out.

“Milady, talk to me. If it’s a duplicate, it’s obviously a very good duplicate. You now have it, to turn over at the ceremony. So what if it doesn’t work? Who’s going to check the function of some obsolete piece of electronics?”

“The Great Key is not obsolete. We used it every day.”

Miles says they have until the end of the funeral ceremonies, at least, to find the real one, or recreate it from backup.  He can see that Rian is beginning to despair and think that Ba Lura had the right idea.  She says there is no backup of the data on the Great Key, that its indispensability is a matter of control.  Miles asks for an explanation, and Rian tells him that the Great Key contains the index to the Cetagandan gene banks; without it, it would take a generation to physically re-examine each sample and recover the information.

Miles rises to his feet, steeling himself to resist her beauty, and insists that, outlander or no, he’s involved in the problem now.  He tells her she needs an ally, since she seems to be out of her depth, and doesn’t seem to want to involve local security.  He asks he how she thinks he could possibly make matters any worse.  She begins to speak, then stops.   Miles reminds her that if Ba Lura was murdered, it was obviously done by someone with a dark sense of humour to leave the body in the rotunda.

Yes. Look past the surface. See me, not this joke of a body. . . . “And I am the one person on Eta Ceta you know didn’t do it. It’s the only certainty we share, so far. I claim a right to know who’s doing this to us. And the only chance in hell I have to figure out who, is to know exactly why.”

Still she sat silent.

“I already know enough to destroy you,” Miles added earnestly. “Tell me enough to save you!”

Rian tells him that the Dowager Empress disagreed with her son the Emperor about the gene bank.  The Emperor wanted to keep it centralized, under his control, while the Empress wanted it dispersed, and backed up, for safety.  The Emperor prevailed, until the Empress began to reach the end of her life, and she decided to put her plan into action.  She had made eight copies of the gene bank–one for each satrap governor.  The Great Key itself had not been duplicated yet–“control” again–when she died, leaving Rian and Ba Lura as executors of her plan.  They were left without instructions for the duplication, and the original creation of the key had demanded much of the Empire’s resources.  Ba Lura’s only plan was to enlist one of the satrap governors for help, which Rian herself thought too risky.

Miles interrupts to ask what would happen to the empire if each governor had their own copy of the gene bank.  Rian says that each satrap would, in effect, be its own copy of the Cetagandan Empire–the Empire would have divided, like a cell, according to the Empress’s plan.  Miles’s mind boggles at the chaos of war, civil and otherwise, that would erupt in this situation.  He asks if the Emperor would consider her actions treasonous.  Rian replies that she was merely following the Empress’s orders, but the satrap governors have all committed treason, having already received their gene banks.  Each of them has been told he is the only one to have received the bank, to encourage secrecy.

“Do you know—I have to ask this.” I’m just not sure I want to hear the answer. “Do you know to which of the eight satrap governors Ba Lura was trying to take the Great Key for duplication, when it ran into us?”

“No,” she said.

“Ah,” Miles exhaled in pure satisfaction. “Now, now I know why I was set up. And why the ba died.”

Miles says that Ba Lura must have taken the actual Great Key to one of the governors, received the copy in return, and then deliberately planted the copy with the Barrayarans, though perhaps not as it had expected to.  Then the governor arranged for Ba Lura’s death, silencing the only remaining witness, and planning to get a head start on his new gene bank after the funeral is over.  Meanwhile, Barrayar gets the blame for the loss of the Great Key.  Only Miles’s odd actions have kept this plan from coming to fruition.  He asks Rian if she can verify it by examining the key, but she points out that she suspects Barrayar is fully capable of producing this nonfunctional duplicate, so Miles will have to find the real copy to prove his innocence.

“It seems that is just what I must discover, milady, to, to clear my name. To redeem my honor in your eyes.” The intrinsic fascination of an intellectual puzzle had brought him to this interview. He’d thought curiosity was his strongest driving force, till suddenly his whole personality had become engaged. It was like being under—no, like becoming an avalanche. “If I can discover this, will you . . .” what? Look favorably upon his suit? Despise him for an outlander barbarian all the same? “. . . let me see you again?”

He asks Rian if they can set up a better means to communicate.  She offers him a comlink that she uses to communicate with her servitors, but when pressed she admits she doesn’t know how secure it is, and Miles suspects that Cetagandan security would make short work of it.  He tells her to be careful, that whoever killed Ba Lura wouldn’t balk at targeting Rian herself, so she should conceal her possession of the fake Key, since Miles is obviously not following the script.  He asks her to find out more about Ba Lura’s activities over the days before its death, and she tells him she will be in contact.  She opaques her force bubble, and Miles returns to Yenaro’s house.

The party is still going on, some new faces, and many intoxicated by some means or another.  Yenaro asks Miles where he’s been, and Miles tells him about taking a walk with a lady.  Yenaro says that Ivan has been with the two ghem-ladies for a long time, which seems to puzzle him.  Miles accepts a drink from Yenaro, reassessing the ghem-ladies in comparison to haut Rian; they come off much the worse, and Miles hopes this effect on his perception isn’t permanent.  Miles and Yenaro kill time with idle chit-chat until Ivan finally appears from upstairs, descending quickly to rejoin Miles.  He whispers that he thinks he’s been poisoned, though not seriously enough for the medic in the lightflyer, and insists they leave before Yenaro goes upstairs.  He refuses to tell Miles more until they’re in the car.

In the groundcar, Ivan tells Miles that Yenaro seemed to have spiked his drink with an anti-aphrodisiac, probably hoping to humiliate him with the ghem-ladies, and he’s now more willing to believe Miles’s conspiracy theories.  Ivan was forced to invent a tale about how Barrayarans pride themselves on self-control, and must satisfy their ladies before themselves.  It took much time and effort, but Ivan was able to satisfy them and leave them asleep but happy.  Ivan doesn’t want to tell ImpSec, but he does want a medical scan to reassure himself that the effect isn’t permanent.  Miles reassures him that it was probably in the zlati ale, which Yenaro drank himself, so it’ll probably metabolize.  Miles wonders if it’s just Yenaro playing these tricks, or if there’s someone else behind him, like Ba Lura’s murderer.

Ivan asks if Miles has gotten rid of the Great Key, and Miles says he has, but there’s still unfinished business, which is verging from security concerns into diplomatic ones.  Which he’s not sure he trusts to someone in charge of a local ImpSec office.  Still, he doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to continue without backup.

In his room, Miles avoids looking at his body as he strips off his somewhat soiled uniform.  He assures himself that as a Barrayaran Vor, he’s practically a ghem-lord, and it’s not unknown for ghem-lords to be assigned haut wives, for great deeds.  Like saving the Empire–always one of his goals, he just never thought it would be the Cetagandan Empire…  Unfortunately, for the Emperor to reward him, he has to foil the Dowager Empress’s plan, but carrying it out is more likely to help win Rian’s affections.  Either way, he needs to find Lord X, one of eight choices, which don’t seem like good odds.

Comments

The Empress’s plan to fission the Empire does seem more than a little destabilizing, though Rian, at least, doesn’t seem to think that’s her problem.  Not much of a giveaway that Miles’s goal is, in the end, to stop that from happening, because otherwise the expansion of the Cetagandan Empire might have come to dominate the rest of the series.  Spoiler alert–it didn’t.  Maybe it’s just “status quo bias”, but the Barrayarans would probably rather the Cetagandan Empire remained stable.  Unless, of course, it were guaranteed to become weaker in the process, I suppose…  But I don’t think that Gregor, Aral and Illyan are quite that cold-blooded, luckily.

So does Miles turn out to be, after all, the best person to handle this delicate affair?  The only one who wouldn’t have divested themselves of the thing in the first place (as Ivan probably would have), leading to the unprovable assertion “We don’t have it!” when challenged…or sent it back to Barrayar, as Miles suspects the ImpSec types would have?  The only one to risk everything to try to keep someone else’s Empire stable?  Because Miles does believe that honour does apply to enemies as well, something not every Barrayaran would admit.  Bujold does manage to convince us, first that Miles’s curiosity is engaged, and his unwillingness to give up his pet intelligence project, until he sees the greater implications.  Maybe he should trust his fellow countrymen a little more, but I suspect he wouldn’t trust Ungari, or Overholt, with the Key, and certainly not Metzov, and since Vorreedi is an unknown quantity, he’s forced to rely on Ivan, who at least has familial bonds, and a certain amount of friendship, to make him inclinced to help Miles, at least to a point…

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Next week, on the exciting 17th of April, it will doubtless be time, unfortunately, for us to be introduced to eight potential suspects at once.  Oy vey, that’ll be fun to summarize.  I may have to use bullet points or something.  We’ll see if I’ve reached the point (on, what, my fourth or fifth read of the book) where I can actually remember who the bad guy(s) is/are.  I’ll try not to give it away, unless I’m pretty sure I’m wrong…

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Good evening, genties and ladlemen, and anyone else out there who happens to stumble upon this, and welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, where week by week I try, in my small way, to do some justice to the incomparable Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold.  This week we forge ahead in Cetaganda, wherein Miles Vorkosigan and his cousin Ivan Vorpatril get embroiled in mysterious doings on a visit to the capital of the Cetagandan Empire on Eta Ceta IV, and, in chapters Three and Four, learn some hopefully interesting information.

Chapter Three

Miles, Ivan and Vorob’yev fly towards the Cetagandan Imperial Residence, also known as The Celestial Garden or just Xanadu.  It’s covered by a gigantic force dome six kilometers across, which Vorob’yev says consumes an entire generating plant all by itself.  The city radiates outward from it.

“The ceremony today is in some measure a dress rehearsal for the final one in a week and a half,” Vorob’yev went on, “since absolutely everyone will be there, ghem-lords, haut-lords, galactics and all. There will likely be organizational delays. As long as they’re not on our part. I spent a week of hard negotiating to get you your official rankings and place in this.”

That place will be among the ghem-lords, but near the front, at least.  They are all wearing their formal house uniforms; Miles normally likes the riding boots that replace his leg braces, but they are uncomfortable on his burns.  After they land, Miles carries the long wooden box with their gift to the Cetagandans.  They are guided expertly into the dome and through the throne; Miles recognizes the Marilacan and Vervani representatives, as well as others from Aslund, Beta Colony and Jackson’s Whole.  He finds the whole experience a bit surreal.  Miles notices some smaller floating spheres across the hall, and realizes those must be haut-ladies in the personal force spheres they always wear in public, transparent from the inside, and proof against anything short of a gravitic imploder lance.

A majordomo approaches them, informing them of their place, and inquiring after their gift.  Miles opens the box to display an old, battered sword which is a sword carried by Emperor Dorca Vorbarra, ancestor of Gregor, during the first Cetagandan War, and the majordomo is impressed in spite of himself.  While they are waiting for things to start, Miles is approached by an old woman(?), completely hairless, who tells him a lady has requested his presence.  Miles follows “ba” away, through corridors and across a garden, and into a small building occupied by a haut-lady sphere; the lady dismisses the servant.

The silence lengthened. Maybe she’d never seen a physically imperfect man before. Miles bowed and waited, trying to look cool and suave, and not stunned and wildly curious.

“So, Lord Vorkosigan,” came the voice again at last. “Here I am.”

“Er . . . quite.” Miles hesitated. “And just who are you, milady, besides a very pretty soap-bubble?”

There was a longer pause, then, “I am the haut Rian Degtiar. Servant of the Celestial Lady, and Handmaiden of the Star Crèche.”

Miles doesn’t know what her title means, but he knows that “The Celestial Lady” was the late Empress haut Lisbet Degtiar, and Rian confirms their relation (though is baffled by Miles’s idle question about Yenaro).  He asks about the hairless servant, and Rian explains about “ba”, the sexless servants bred by the haut, the older ones having been made hairless because of the fashion at the time.

Rian asks Miles why he is at the Celestial Garden, and Miles’s straightforward explanation about the funeral and the gift she dismisses as mockery.  She is astonished by his offer to help, and he concludes that she is under some misapprehension about him, and asks to start their conversation over.  She accuses him of being a thief, and he realizes she is after the wand; she recognizes it from his description.  He tells her he’s willing to bring it back if she can prove it’s hers, in exchange for some information, like perhaps what it is…

Just then he hears music starting, and realizes that the procession is about to begin, and he tells her he has to leave.  She says she will contact him, and wafts away.  By the time Miles has hobbled his way back, the delegations are on their way in, and Ivan and Vorob’yev are dawdling, waiting for him and extremely annoyed.  Miles catches up and promises to tell Ivan later what was going on.  They are supposed to enter the rotunda and leave the gifts in a spiral based on their importance, but before they reach the rotunda the procession grinds to a halt.  It restarts, but diverted off to one side, as there seems to be some commotion in the rotunda itself.

Miles couldn’t stand it. After all, they can’t massacre me here in front of everybody, can they? He jammed the maplewood box at Ivan, and ducked under the elbow of the ghem-officer trying to shoo everyone out the other door. Smiling pleasantly, his hands held open and empty, he slipped between two startled ghem-guards, who were clearly not expecting such a rude and impudent move.

On the other side of the catafalque, in the position reserved for the first gift of the haut-lord of highest status, lay a dead body. Its throat was cut. Quantities of fresh red blood pooled on the shimmering green malachite floor all around, soaking into the gray-and-white palace servitor’s uniform. A thin jeweled knife was clutched rigorously in its outflung right hand. It was exactly the term for the corpse, too. A bald, eyebrowless, man-shaped creature, elderly but not frail . . . Miles recognized their intruder from the personnel pod even without the false hair. His own heart seemed to stop in astonishment.

Somebody’s just raised the stakes in this little game.

A ghem-officer comes to escort Miles out of the room; Miles complies, but asks about the body, and the officer says that it was Ba Lura, the Dowager Empress’s personal servitor of long standing, apparently driven to commit suicide on its mistress’s bier.  Miles rejoins Ivan and Vorob’yev, concluding that the death probably happened while Miles was talking with haut-lady Rian.  Vorob’yev rebukes Miles for his temerity, but is quite interested when Miles shares the identity of the body.

They circle around to the Eastern Pavilion, where the delegations are being seated during the wait.  Miles sees the Vervani and seizes the opportunity to talk with Mia Maz, who is also looking to talk to him.  Miles tells her about the Ba Lura’s body, though he’s already beginning to doubt the official story, and asks her about her “research question”.  He invites her over to the Barrayaran Embassy after the ceremony to tell him about it, and she accepts.

They are fed a bewildering number and variety of tiny hors d’oeuvres, by which point the majordomo had everything reorganized and sent them back towards the rotunda in their proper order.  When Miles lays down his gift, he notes how clean and dry the floor is, and wonders if they had time to scan everything or if the murderer was counting on haste; he wishes he’d been in charge of the investigation.  By the time they emerge, about an hour late, Miles feels like he’s spent an eternity in the bubble, and does not look forward to having his boots removed back at the embassy.

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Ah, there’s the murder.  Or is it a suicide?  It’s a time-honoured genre, isn’t it, the suicide mystery?  No?  Well, maybe it was a murder, then.  Or an “assisted suicide” like they mentioned in the earlier chapters…

Miles really is trying to get in trouble, isn’t he?  Wandering off with a strange ba, and then trying to get a peek at a crime scene?  Oh, well, if he didn’t, there’d be no plot, or less of one.  Still, I feel a lot of sympathy for Ivan when he tries to keep Miles from getting into trouble, though admittedly less of it when he tries to convince Miles to give up on solving the puzzle…  Curious that when Miles crosses through the guards, he thinks only of being shot, not of getting into trouble, or getting his planet in trouble, as one might expect him to be worried about…

First introduction of the haut-ladies and their force bubbles, though of course the haut-ladies themselves had already been mentioned briefly.  They are integral to the plot, as we learn more about their all-but-alien ways, customs, and priorities, not least down there in the next chapter…

How did Rian find out that Miles had the rod, by the way?  Did she receive an actual message from Ba Lura, or someone else, with the information, or did she just trace its movements and conclude that the Barrayarans must have it?  Why Miles in particular, though?  Why didn’t she summon Ivan as well, or just Ivan?  I suppose that if she was so embarrassed about having lost it, she wouldn’t exactly announce her failure to the authorities and get a lot of official help, which would explain why there were no actual arrests or interstellar incidents, at least not right away, but she immediately leapt to the conclusion that Miles knew what he had and, I don’t know, had some kind of ransom demand or something.

Chapter Four

Ivan manages to prise one of Miles’s boots off, then refuses to take the other one off until Miles spills some of his information.  Miles tells Ivan that the dead ba was their mysterious visitor on the space station, and Ivan insists that surely now is time to inform Vorob’yev.  Miles says that for all he knows Ba Lura had dozens of identical clone-siblings, and he offers to let Ivan sit in on his “briefing” with Mia Maz if he keeps quiet.

“All right,” he said at last, “but after we talk to her, we report to ImpSec.”

“Ivan, I am ImpSec,” snapped Miles. “Three years of training and field experience, remember? Do me the honor of grasping that I may just possibly know what I’m doing!” I wish to hell I knew what I was doing. Intuition was nothing but the subconscious processing of subliminal clues, he was fairly sure, but I feel it in my bones made too uncomfortably thin a public defense for his actions. How can you know something before you know it? “Give me a chance.”

After Ivan and Miles change out of their funeral outfits, Mia Maz arrives and Miles has her escorted up to his room, sure that if it were bugged that someone would already have let them know.  She refuses to let them call her “Milady”, Vervain being a democracy, and Miles ponders that, like his mother, she probably doesn’t see any difference in importance between Ba Lura’s body and that the Dowager Empress.  Maz tells them that Ba Lura’s suicide is unprecedented, and precedent is a very strong driver in Cetagandan society.  She also tells them that the haut never clone their servants, considering each to be a work of art, like everything in the Celestial Garden.

Miles asks about the symbol he’d asked her about, keeping mum about where he actually saw it.  Maz says it’s a symbol of the Star Crèche, and not something often seen by outlanders.  The Star Crèche is the haut’s private gene bank, where they keep every haut’s genetic information, and no haut can be born without the Star Crèche’s approval of the genetic combination.  The Dowager Empress has been, as the senior female in the Emperor’s line, in charge of the Star Crèche since his accession.  There hasn’t yet been an announcement of who her successor is to be, since it should fall to the mother of the Emperor’s heir, as yet undesignated; he has until the end of the funeral rites to make the declaration, and until he bestows the seal of the Star Crèche, no further “genomic contracts” can proceed among the haut.  As an interim move, he could give it to one of his maternal aunts.

After a brief interruption for pastries, Ivan asks if these contracts are like marriages.  Maz says that there can be simple one-off contracts for children, which become part of their father’s “constellation”, or clan, and these may happen without any direct input from the genetic parents, being concluded by their elders instead.  There are exclusive contracts, lifetime monopolies, and the mother of an Imperial heir must never have contracted her genome before and must never do so again except by the emperor.  She thus has a chance to become the dowager empress and mistress of the Star Crèche, or at least mother of a satrap governor, so as a result many more hauts have daughters than sons.  Ivan asks about sex, and says that it’s completely separate from reproduction, but still intricately formalized.

Most haut live with their constellation, though some leave home and become reclusive in old age.  Ivan asks about the haut-ladies who marry ghem-lords, and Maz says this is part of how the haut control the ghem.  Having a haut wife is the ultimate coup for a ghem-lord, but one that cannot be refused, and she instantly takes precedence over all other wives, and she never comes with a dowry, so she can act as a financial brake on his ambitions.  Apart from that, nobody’s quite sure how the haut-ladies keep their ghem husbands in line.

Miles asks Maz if she has a picture of the seal of the Star Crèche, which she calls up on the comconsole.

It was a clear cubical block, measuring maybe fifteen centimeters on a side, with the bird-pattern incised in red lines upon its top. Not the mysterious rod. Miles exhaled with relief. The terror that had been riding him ever since Maz had mentioned the seal, that he and Ivan might have accidentally stolen a piece of the Imperial regalia, faded. The rod was some kind of Imperial gizmo, obviously, and would have to be returned—anonymously, by preference—but at least it wasn’t—

Maz called up the next unit of data, “And this object is the Great Key of the Star Crèche, which is handed over along with the seal,” she went on.

Ivan choked on his wine. Miles, faint, leaned on the desk and smiled fixedly at the image of the rod. The original lay some few centimeters under his hand, in the drawer.

Miles asks about the Great Key’s purpose; Maz isn’t sure, but says that since it’s a couple of hundred years old, it may be obsolete or purely ceremonial by this point.  Ivan’s concern over their possession of this object becomes more visible, and Miles hurriedly begins to feign discomfort from his burned legs.  Maz offers to continue the etiquette lesson some other time, and Miles swiftly agrees.  After she leaves, Ivan once again pressures Miles to get rid of the thing, but Miles says he knows how to solve their problem and get it back to its rightful keeper.  He wonders how Ba Lura came to be in possession of the Key, and in their docking bay, with the cameras disabled.  Ivan says it was obviously taking the Key somewhere, and probably killed itself in shame over losing it.  Miles wonders why it hadn’t been better guarded if the Key was that important.

Vorob’yev knocks and enters, asking if their tutorial with Maz was helpful.  He has a scented paper invitation for Miles and Ivan for Lord Yenaro’s party, and he says that their attending would help smooth over the incident with the sculpture, assuming of course that they accept it was an accident.  Miles says they plan to attend.  He asks if Vorreedi is back yet, and Vorob’yev says he’s been held up by complications, but after the ‘Autumn Leaves’ incident they’ll be sending someone to take his place so he can return to Eta Ceta.  He also asks Miles not to dash off like he did in the rotunda; the Cetagandans are too polite to complain, but Vorob’yev is the one who’ll have to deal with their ruffled feelings after Miles leaves.

Ivan wonders how well Miles, and Ivan himself, can be protected against further incidents at Yenaro’s party.  Miles says they’ll just have to take the risk, but he thinks that an outright attempt on his life would be far too much of an insult to the emperor at his mother’s funeral.  Ivan asks if he really thinks that these incidents are all related, and Miles asks if Ivan really thinks they’re all unrelated.  Ivan asks Miles how he’s going to rid of the Key, and Miles says he’s not sure, but there is a lady’s reputation involved.

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Big cultural infodump galore, and I confess I stripped it of most of the colourful dialogue that might have made it more palatable, but it is an interesting setup.  Very heavy on the ­in vitro, consciously the opposite of the Barrayarans, who are so amazingly primitive that they still think body-births are a pretty neat idea.  But now at least we know what the maguffin is…

I can’t help thinking of “haut” as being directly borrowed from the French word, meaning “high”, but I can’t make myself stop pronouncing it as “hot” (or possibly “haught”).  Well, in French there’s a distinct lack of pronounced consonants, so “haut-lord” would sound like “Oh lord”, so I’ll leave it that way for now in case I ever have to say it out loud.  Not sure where “ghem” is supposed to come from, though–the “gh” makes me think of “ghee”, so maybe, um, South Asian?  There’s an Andre Ghem from Brazil, so maybe Portuguese?  Or just random from the writer’s brain, as happens…

Mia Maz’s description tends to paint her as physically attractive, though somewhat older, so it’s never quite clear if she’s supposed to be a romantic interest or not.  Or, you know, just a physically attractive female character interacting in a non-romantic way with our main character, who nonetheless notices and ponders possibilities, the way guys do.  Not that she doesn’t end up with a little romance by the end of the book, but not with Miles or Ivan.  I think that Miles’s declared first lover is still to come, in an earlier-published story (still not clear about what happened on Beta Colony as a teenager, though), so reading in publication order there would be no suspense there.

I can’t help but snort at Miles’s outraged assertion that “he is ImpSec”.  Three years of training and field experience, eh?  Well, move over, Mr. Negri, here comes Miles Vorkosigan!  I can’t remember exactly how much time is supposed to have passed between this book and The Vor Game, but somehow I don’t think it was enough to transform him into Simon Illyan overnight.  Okay, he’s more ImpSec than Ivan, but I suspect that when Vorreedi is finally brought into the loop, he won’t thank Miles for keeping this all to himself…


With all this information, hopefully there will be something more exciting coming up soon.  Like Yenaro’s party?  Or is there another scene yet before that?  I guess you’ll find out next week, unless you read ahead.  Until next week, then, may all your rereads be happy ones!

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