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.
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.
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.
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.
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!