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?
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.
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…
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.
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…
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…