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!
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.
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!
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.”
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…