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Archive for May, 2012

Welcome back, named and anonymous readers on the Internet, to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread.  This week we start a new book, Ethan of Athos, chronologically after Cetaganda though written long before it.  The books in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series generally involves Miles Vorkosigan, or at least his mother Cordelia.  Generally.

Ethan of Athos is the second book in the omnibus volume Miles, Mystery & Mayhem, and it includes at most two of the three elements in that title, because there is no Miles in it.  That’s probably one reason why I haven’t reread it nearly as much as I have the rest of the series, because it isn’t technically a Vorkosigan book at all.  There’s no Vorkosigans in it; the closest we get is one of the Dendarii, and a mention of a Naismith.  Last time I reread it, it was better than I remembered it, so I decided to include it in this reread (as opposed to Falling Free, for example).  It’s one of Bujold’s first novels, and yet hardly anything in her later books springs from it; without that reference in Cetaganda years later, it could lift out of the series without a trace.  And it does, unfortunately, have a really slow start, so I’m hoping that I’m recall correctly that it does get better…

Chapter One

Dr. Ethan Urquhart deftly delivers a baby boy from a uterine replicator at Sevarin District Reproduction Centre, where he works, on the planet of Athos; he pronounces the baby perfectly healthy, to the delight of the baby’s waiting father.

On his way to check on one of his more worrisome embryos, he chats with Georos from the night shift.  When he checks on the embryo, CJB-9, he finds that it’s non-viable, not having formed properly.  Georos says that the father is scheduled to come talk to Ethan so they can get permission to terminate, which Ethan is less than thrilled about.

On his morning inspection, Ethan first reprimands one tech for playing raucous modern music instead of more sedate classical works (“the classic hymn ‘God of Our Fathers, Light The Way’ rendered by the United Brethren String Chamber Orchestra”), then another for letting the levels of waste toxins get dangerously close to the maximum allowed before changing the filter.  As such, he almost misses the CJB-9 father when he arrives, and has to dash back up to his office.  The father, Brother Haas, is surprised at Ethan’s youth.

Ethan touched his shaved chin, then became self-conscious of the gesture and put his hand down hastily. If only he had a beard, or even a mustache, people would not be constantly mistaking him for a 20-year-old despite his six-foot frame. Brother Haas was sporting a beard, about a two-week growth, scrubby by comparison to the luxuriant mustache that proclaimed him a long-standing designated alternate parent. Solid citizen. Ethan sighed. “Sit, sit,” he gestured again.

Haas asks what the problem is, for him to come all the way in person; Ethan notes that he came from Crystal Springs, even though there is a closer Reproduction Centre, and Haas said that Sevarin had a CJB stock, which he particularly wanted.  A recent farming accident made him realize that they needed a doctor, and CJB’s tend to make good doctors.  Ethan says that it’s far from a certain correlation, but admits that he himself is a CJB-8.

Ethan tells him that the embryo was non-viable; Haas asks if there’s genetic damage they can repair, but Ethan says that only a few common problems can be fixed that way, if they’re spotted early.  He tells Haas that since the problem was with the ovum, they won’t charge him extra, but they can’t offer CJB anymore.  In fact, nobody can, because this was the last viable CJB culture on the whole planet.  Haas asks why they’ve stopped working, if there was some kind of offworlder sabotage.

“No, no!” Ethan said. Ye gods, what a riot that fabulous rumor could start. “It’s perfectly natural. The first CJB culture was brought by the Founding Fathers when Athos was first settled—it’s almost two hundred years old. Two hundred years of excellent service. It’s just—senescent. Old. Worn out. Used up. Reached the end of its life-cycle, already dozens of times longer than it would have lived in a, ah,” it wasn’t an obscenity, he was a doctor and it was correct medical terminology, “woman.”

He talks Haas into trying a JJY-8 instead, since one of his best medtechs is a JJY-7.  He hopes Haas doesn’t follow his statement to its logical conclusion, since all of the ovarian cultures they have on Athos are descended from those brought by the Founding Fathers, and so they’re all in danger of senescence, and CJB is not the first to disappear.  A distressingly large number of embryos are coming from the shrinking pool of cultures that haven’t begun to have problems yet, and things are only getting worse.  They need a long-term solution for the issue.

Over the next three months, another culture dies, and another one’s egg production is on a severe decline.  One day, the Chief of Staff, Desroches, calls Ethan to inform him that a mail ship has docked at the space station.  Ethan has received some copies of ­The Betan Journal of Reproductive Medicine, but that’s not all.  When he arrives in Desroches’s office, he sees the large refrigerated container from House Bharaputra on Jackson’s Whole, with a new selection of fifty ovarian samples.  Ethan is vastly relieved that they have finally arrived, with nobody having to venture off the planet to try to obtain them.  Desroches assigns him to get the new cultures settled in.

Ethan starts thawing the cultures, though he only planets to do twelve of them at first, enough to fill the support units left vacant by the deterioration of the original cultures; a whole new bank of machines is in the works to contain the rest of them.  While he waits, he takes a look at the Betan journals; his censorship level has risen high enough now that he can, for the first time, read offworld journals uncensored.  Most of the articles have to do with in vivo births, involving actual “women”, and he makes sure to avoid those, but the ones involving uterine replicators or male reproducing apparatus he finds interesting.  One new technique for the replicators he finds intriguing enough to look up at the authors, Kara Burton and Elizabeth Naismith; he is taken aback by their pictures, beardless like young, childless men but showing clear signs of age.  He half-expects insanity to strike him just from seeing the images, as it is supposed to do when you see women in the flesh, but apparently the pictures don’t have the same effect.

He opens up one of the new cultures which has reached the correct temperature.  He is taken aback to find it shrink-wrapped, and raw material rather than an actual culture.  Many of them look odd; when he counts them, there’s only thirty-eight; and some of them are too large, and familiar from his time spent butchering meat in K.P. as cow ovaries.  Once he’s satisfied himself of his conclusions, he bursts into Desroches’s office and gives him the bad news.

Desroches was just donning his coat, the light of home in his eye; he never turned off the holocube until he was done for the day. He stared at Ethan’s wild, disheveled face. “My God, Ethan, what is it?”

“Trash from hysterectomies. Leavings from autopsies, for all I know. A quarter of them are clearly cancerous, half are atrophied, five aren’t even human for God’s sake! And every single one of them is dead.

Comments

Bujold takes a bit of a risk in this book, making our main viewpoint character (the only one for the book, as I recall) someone from a distinctly different culture.  It takes a little while to notice, perhaps, the complete lack of female characters, but discovering that “woman” is a somewhat distasteful term that can only be used clinically is the first sign.  Ethan’s reaction to the pictures, and the stories of the madness that women strike in the hearts of men, reveals just how neurotic the culture is about them.  The author isn’t actively judgemental against the inhabitants of Athos, since everyone is actually fairly well-adjusted as long as women don’t come up, and not too caricatured.  Everyone is perforce gay, or possibly just asexual by Athos standards.  Though sex is evidently not required to produce babies, so it may be optional.  Haas lives in a commune, so pair-bonding for parenting may not be required, as long as somebody will be available to raise the children…

I seem to recall that it becomes clear at some point that the ovarian culture letters are the initials of the original donors (and it makes me wonder if LMB used the initials of friends or fans or just made them up).  The numbers I’m not quite as sure about, but I guess they must do some cloning or copying of the original cultures or something…  Okay, I don’t know, and maybe they go into it more later, but I don’t recall that particularly.

I guess there are a few references to things that turn up again in the series–House Bharaputra on Jackson’s Whole, for instance, as the suppliers of the cultures.  Athos is doubtless standoffish about dealing with offworld women, so maybe they ended up with Jackson’s Whole because the Jacksonians are less picky and willing to meet the Athosians’ doubtless bizarre conditions.  Except that they apparently screwed them up this time…  Oh, and I’m pretty sure that Elizabeth Naismith is Miles’s Betan grandmother, of course.

Chapter Two

Ethan is brought along to an emergency Population Council meeting where they try to decide what to do about the outrageous shipment.  It emerges that they bought from the lowest bidder, but they had promised fifty cultures for each Centre, and the next would only have sent thirty.  They have only four days until the ship leaves again, and there won’t be another for a year.  Some of the representatives grumble that they should have their own ships, and others ask them how many Reproduction Centres they want to trade for them.  One councilor makes the suggestion that they could grow their own ovaries, using female fetuses, not bringing them completely to term…the other councilors, revolted, say they’re not that desperate yet.

The councilors are also worried about the problem of genetic diversity, especially given that they only had three immigrants this year and two the year before…and those tend to be a little “strange”.  They agree that they need to get some new cultures, but this time they will have to send an agent actually offplanet to supervise it.  Desroches says that they need a man with technical know-how and proven integrity, given that he’ll be handling all of their available foreign currency, moral fibre to resist the temptations of the greater galaxy, as well as energy and conviction; he adds that this man should also be unattached, not to leave an overburdened partner behind him.  Belatedly, Ethan realizes that Desroches has been thinking of him the whole time.

After the meeting, Ethan complains that Desroches had set him up, and Desroches admits it, but said he would never have volunteered on his own.  He asks Ethan if he can think of someone better they could have picked, like the fellow with his talk of female fetuses…  Desroches also points out the social credits that this trip will earn Ethan, ten years’ worth, if he returns.  Ethan says it’s his foster-brother and partner who really needs them, but they’re not transferrable.  Desroches says that Ethan’s partner is likeable enough, but totally irresponsible; Ethan tells him to stay out of his private life.  Desroches said at least they didn’t draft him and send him out on military pay.

Desroches drops Ethan back at his house, with four days to prepare for the trip.  Ethan thinks about his foster brother Janos, son of his father’s Designated Alternate, one of five children the two had had.  Ethan had been happy when Janos came to Sevarin to live with him, and hopes to find comfort in his arms, but instead finds the apartment deserted.  Checking the garage, he finds his new lightflyer gone, but according to the locator it’s only a few blocks away.  He decides to walk over and surprise Janos at whatever party he’s doubtless attending.

Instead, he finds emergency tow vehicles trying to extricate his lightflyer out of the upper branches of a tree.  A bystander tells him that one of the two men who’d been inside it when it crashed had been taken to the hospital, and the other, obviously completely intoxicated, had been taken to the police station.  A parks official starts tallying up Ethan’s fine for damage to the tree, and then the lightflyer slides out of the branches.

Five meters per second, thought Ethan with hysterical irrelevancy. Times 25 meters times how many kilograms?

The nose-down impact on the granite cobblestones starred the gleaming red outer shell of the flyer with fracture lines from front to rear. In the sudden silence after the great crunch Ethan could quite clearly hear an elfin tinkle of expensive electronic instrumentation within, coming to rest a little out of phase with the main mass.

Ethan finds Janos at the police station to bail him out.  He asks Janos how they crashed, and Janos tells him how he and his friend Nick were divebombing some birds (on Athos, that meant feral mutant chickens) and hit the tree by accident.  Finding out it was before dark, Ethan asks why Janos wasn’t at work, and it emerged that Janos had failed to get up (Ethan’s fault, for leaving him with only the alarm to wake him), had gotten a talking-to at work which ended up with Janos losing his temper, picking a fight with his boss, and getting fired.  The police let Ethan take Janos home, since the charges have all been settled.

When they get home, Janos admits that the fine came out of his already depleted social duty credits.  Ethan is incensed that Janos can’t manage even the minimal accumulation that would have allowed any regular person to get one parenting credit by now, and Janos’s irresponsibility isn’t a good sign for parenthood anyway.  Janos says he doesn’t care about babies that much anyway, and Ethan is disgusted at his foster-brother’s self-centeredness.  He tells Janos he’s leaving, and explains about the assignment he’s been given to go to Jackson’s Whole.

“Now who doesn’t care?” said Janos angrily. “Off for a year without so much as a by-your-leave. What about me? What am I supposed to do while you’re . . .” Janos’s voice plowed into silence. “Ethan—isn’t Jackson’s Whole a planet? Out there? With—with—them on it?”

Ethan nodded. “I leave in four—no, three days, on the galactic census ship. You can have all my things. I don’t know—what’s going to happen out there.”

Janos’s chiseled face was drained sober. In a small voice he said, “I’ll go clean up.”

Comments

Five metres per second–that’s about half a gee (assuming they mean “metres per second squared”, that is).  I guess most of the Athosians are used to the low gravity, not having known anything else, but I really had forgotten there was anything odd about the gravity…  I guess we’ll see how Ethan reacts to the different gravities when he goes offworld.  (Spoiler alert:  He doesn’t make it to Jackson’s Whole, that I recall.)

There does seem to be an explicitly sexual relationship between Ethan and Janos, which is…well, maybe a little squicky, since they’re foster brothers, but I guess they’re not likely to be “inbreeding”, are they?  One presumes that they keep track of everyone’s “mothers” so that they can keep that from happening, though there’s little reference to it in these first two chapters.  Though it does mention how Ethan and Janos’s parents had a pair of children where each had used the other’s maternal ovarian culture, which makes my head spin a little bit.  Sort of like two men each having a child with the other man’s mother, or sister, or cousin…without any “women” actually being involved, of course.

Janos is a piece of work, isn’t he?  One might hope that being forcibly deprived of his partner like this might shock him to reality somehow, so I guess we’ll have to see if he shows up in the denouement or anything.  I’m not holding my breath, though.

I’m not sure what I think of the female-fetus thing.  Where did the original ovaries come from?  Donated by the original women, somehow?  Given that the founders of Athos may have been just a teensy bit crazy, it’s not impossible that the “donation” was involuntary, but I don’t remember any such skeletons coming out later, so I may just be overdramatizing.  Anyway, the Athosians find the idea distasteful because of the idea of raising female fetuses, I imagine; modern-day North Americans are probably more concerned about the “raising disposable fetuses” issue, which is still considered a bit beyond the pale morally.  Considering that there is demonstrably cloning technology available in later books, it’s likely that somewhere else, probably on Jackson’s Whole, there is somebody with the knowhow to create embryos from two men’s genetic material, but I suppose it’s probably out of Athos’s price range, plus it wouldn’t do much to help their genetic diversity…


Next week things should pick up a bit, as Ethan actually arrives at Kline Station, the setting for most of the rest of the book, and the plot really starts.  It’s possible that we may even see a familiar face–well, not that familiar, since the last time we saw her she didn’t really have a face at all…

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Chapter Fifteen

Miles watches from the floor as Benin’s squad arrest Naru, Kety and his retainers.  Kety pauses on the way out to congratulate “Lord Vorpatril” on his victory, confusing Ivan, but Miles decides it’s not worth it trying to correct him.  Ivan and Vorreedi come over to check on Miles; upon discovering Miles is only suffering from the shock-stick, Ivan hoists him to his feet and helps keep him upright.

Colonel Vorreedi looked him up and down. “I’ll let the ambassador do the protesting about that.” Vorreedi’s distant expression suggested he thought privately that the fellow with the shock-stick had stopped too soon. “Vorob’yev is going to need all the ammunition he can get. You have created the most extraordinary public incident of his career, I suspect.”

“Oh, Colonel,” sighed Miles. “I predict there’s going to b-be nothing p-public ’bout this incident. Wait ‘n see.”

Vorreedi tells Miles that Ivan has explained everything, and he’s still assimilating it.  Ivan complains about how Miles left him there and went off with no backup, and Miles explains that Ivan ­was his backup, and quite capably, too.  After Ivan awoke, Rian managed to get him in touch with Benin–who strolls over to join the conversation–and clue him in on what was happening.  Benin adds that he was already aware of odd occurrences around the Star Crèche, and so had orbital squads ready; Ivan says there’s three battle cruisers around Kety’s ship.  Ghem-General Chilian has been detained, not arrested, for questioning about his wife’s activities.  Miles glances over to where Pel and Nadina seem to be arranging for the float-chair with the Great Key locked inside to be conveyed directly to the Star Crèche.

Vorreedi asks Miles why he kept the incident secret, even from his own side.  Miles says that by the time he discovered the significance of the Great Key, it was too late.  He admits that he didn’t want to have the investigation taken away from him–he wanted to prove that he wasn’t just a cripple with a cushy job, but was actually capable.

Ghem-Colonel Benin slowly deciphered this outpouring. “You wanted to be a hero?”

“So badly you didn’t even care for which side?” Vorreedi added in some dismay.

Miles points out that he did do Barrayar a good turn in defusing Kety’s plot, even if his own personal survival had still been in jeopardy when the rescuers showed up.  Ivan says he should just sign up for Cetagandan Security then; Miles points out that he wasn’t serving Cetaganda as much as the haut, which Benin admits is a valid point.  Benin tells Miles that, nevertheless, Emperor Fletchir Giaja demands that Benin bring Miles to him immediately.  Ivan and Vorreedi may join him, as long as they remain quiet unless authorized to speak.  As they leave the room, Nadina and Pel murmur their approval of Benin, and agree that they should do something for him.  Miles notices that Benin seems ever so slightly smug about having been able to arrest his superior officer.

Miles ventured, “By the way, if I didn’t say it before, congratulations on cracking your very tricky murder case, General Benin.”

Benin blinked. “Colonel Benin,” he corrected.

“That’s what you think.”

Miles, Ivan and Vorreedi are escorted to a small, enclosed building in the Celestial Garden that even Vorreedi is not familiar with.  They cool their heels in an antechamber for an hour, attended by ghem guards and thus unwilling to talk too openly, after Benin goes off with Pel and Nadina.  When they are admitted into the next room, where they are forced to stand, they find Yenaro there as well, with his own attendant, looking like he hasn’t had a chance to change his clothes since they last saw him, and barely willing to acknowledge their presence.  Benin arrives, dismissing the rest of the guards, followed by Nadina, Pel and Rian, in float-chairs but unshielded, and then Emperor Fletchir Giaja himself.

Emperors per se did not unnerve Miles, though Yenaro swayed on his feet as though he were about to faint, and even Benin moved with the most rigid formality. Emperor Gregor had been raised along with Miles practically as his foster-brother; somewhere in the back of Miles’s mind the term emperor was coupled with such identifiers as somebody to play hide-and-seek with. In this context those hidden assumptions could be a psychosocial land mine. Eight planets, and older than my father, Miles reminded himself, trying to inculcate a proper deference to the illusion of power Imperial panoply sought to create. One chair at the head of the room rose from the floor to receive what Gregor would have sardonically dubbed The Imperial Ass. Miles bit his lip.

Miles restrains his impulse to babble and waits for the Emperor’s questions.  The Emperor asks him to explain his role in the affair; Miles says he was intended to be sacrificial lamb, but refused it.  When the Giaja wants elaboration, Miles glances at Rian for authorization, then tells the whole tale, conveniently also confessing to Vorreedi at the same time.  Miles says that after Ba Lura’s death he was in the position of having to prove a negative, that the Barrayarans had done nothing to the Great Key, so he had to find the real Key.  It was also clear he couldn’t trust Cetagandan Security, with the possible exception of Benin, who looked like he was also being set up as a sacrifice.  He compliments Benin on finding Yenaro before Kety did; Benin says that Yenaro and his carpet did a lot to support Ivan’s story.  Miles adds that Rian also refused her role, of accuser, by being willing to listening to Miles’s story and help him discover the truth, and says she was well-chosen as Handmaiden.

“That is hardly for you to judge, Barrayaran,” drawled the haut Fletchir Giaja, whether in amusement, or dangerously, Miles’s ear could not quite tell.

“Excuse me, but I didn’t exactly volunteer for this mission. I was suckered into it. My judgments have brought us all here, one way or another.”

Giaja looked faintly surprised, even a little nonplused, as if he’d never before had one of his gentle hints thrown back in his face.

The Emperor asks Miles about his encounters with Yenaro, and Miles describes them in detail; even Vorreedi is taken aback by the story of the asterzine carpet bomb.  Miles says that Yenaro was as much of an intended victim as Miles himself, and doesn’t have the nerve to be an actual traitor, which Yenaro doesn’t gainsay; he confirms Miles’s story when asked.  After a pause, Giaja instructs Benin to take Ivan and Vorreedi out and leave Miles and the three haut women.

When the others have left, the three haut women’s aspect changes from meek to confrontational as they move into a circle around the Emperor.  Pel notes Miles swaying on his feet and tells Giaja to provide him with a seat; the Emperor complies.  Giaja then tells the haut women that he hopes they see now why the Emperor is to be the only interface between the haut and the Empire, so that the haut-genome is insulated from the political affairs of the Empire.  Ghem, such as Naru, don’t fully comprehend the purposes of the haut.  Rian says that it was Kety’s treason that shook her faith in the haut the most, and now she thinks they might not be ready for the next step, the “winnowing and reaping” of competition.

Giaja says that the haut still have plenty of space to expand, into the realms of the servitor classes, before they need to expand into new territory.  The others agree that the Constellations haven’t been breeding as much as they should, trying to keep their economic positions, and should perhaps be forced to cross-breed more.  Miles pipes up an opinion about how they should be trying to do better than natural selection; he is stared into silence, and wonders why he has been allowed to witness this conversation at all.

Rian says she will convey Giaja’s veto to the Consorts, but the diversity issue, and the bottleneck of the single Key, need to be dealt with sooner than later.  Giaja asks whose idea it was to spill the Great Key’s contents all over the system, and Pel fingers Miles, who points out that he was hoping to salvage as much of the Key as he could, whether they survived or not.

“The best strategies run on rails like that,” Miles pointed out. “Live or die, you make your goal.” He shut up, as Fletchir Giaja’s stare hinted that perhaps outlander barbarians had better not make comments that could be construed as a slur on his late mother’s abilities, even when those abilities had been pitted against him.

Miles asks what will happen to the conspirators.  Naru will be executed; Kety will be offered retirement due to “ill health”, or else suicide.  The other governors will not be punished, but will find it difficult to obtain good posts in the future.  Vio will also be offered a choice between serving in the Garden as a ba, or else suicide, which they suspect she would prefer.  As for Rian and Miles himself, the Emperor says he will think further.

Benin returns to escort Miles back to his Barrayaran companions, and tells Vorreedi that while they can’t control what the Barrayarans report to their superiors, the Emperor hopes strongly that it won’t become “social gossip”.  The Barrayarans give their sworn words, which satisfied Benin.  In the embassy aircar, Miles wishes they could just go home, but there is one final day of the funeral ceremony, and he should see it through to the end.  Vorreedi has only one more question for him.

“What did you think you were doing, Vorkosigan?”

“I stopped the Cetagandan Empire from breaking up into eight aggressively expanding units. I derailed plans for a war by some of them with Barrayar. I survived an assassination attempt, and helped catch three high-ranking traitors. Admittedly, they weren’t our traitors, but still. Oh. And I solved a murder. That’s enough for one trip, I hope.”

Vorreedi then asks Miles if he’s really a special agent; Miles decides he’s not on the need-to-know list, and says that at least he succeeded like one…

Comments

Miles tries to be impressed by the Cetagandan Emperor, but, as he says, his upbringing is against him.  Despite everything else, he was raised in an Imperial Palace, and while he wants to prove himself outside of that context, he can’t help but feel that the powerful are people just like everyone else.  Even the haut can’t daunt him for long.  It’s amusing how irrepressible he is.

For some reason I remembered the scene between Fletchir Giaja and the haut women as having more than just the three of them, but I suppose the three of them are enough in this case.  We don’t need all nine to be escorted in.  Obviously Giaja is used to haut women, so even three of them isn’t enough to daunt him, since he is freakin’ Emperor, after all, and one presumes the pinnacle of haut development to date.  Also, he does have veto power of them, when they bother to consult him, at least.

The bit about the haut expanding into the space currently occupied by servitors was interesting.  Does that mean that their goal is to have the entire population of the Cetagandan Empire made up of haut?  I can see that being a hard sell, since it will result in a steady decline in the overall grandeur of the haut.  Or maybe there will still be ba to do all the actual dirty work, and if they still want ghem to do things like fight and demonstrate the value of various genes in an arena of competition…  They do plan things for the long term, though, even being as long-lived as they are.

Also amused to hear him paraphrasing Cavilo’s advice about making sure all paths lead to victory, however unimpressed Fletchir Giaja is with it…

Chapter Sixteen

Ivan wakes Miles up the next morning, but Miles doesn’t want to get out of bed.  Ivan says it’s just his “post-mission sulks”, and comments on how attractive the shock-stick mark on the side of his face is.  While he forces Miles to get up, Ivan tells him that Benin is coming to pick him up so he can arrive an hour early for the cremation ceremony.  Miles racks his brain as to what the Cetagandans could have planned for him while Ivan helps him prepare.  Miles wonders if they want to arrest or kill him, and Ivan helpfully points out that they could easily give him some kind of untraceable poison or disease that would kill him months later.

In the lobby they find Mia Maz, who tells them that Vorob’yev will be down soon.  Miles is puzzled at her presence until she tells him that Vorob’yev asked her to marry him and she accepted.  Miles thinks that will solve the embassy’s female staff problem, at least.  She asks Miles about his mother and how she found Barrayaran society; Miles says that egalitarians seem to do fine when they end up as aristocrats.

Just as Vorob’yev appears, Benin arrives, sure enough, with the insignina of Ghem-General.  Vorob’yev asks what’s going on, and Benin says that the Emperor wishes Miles’s presence, but he will be returned.  Vorob’yev reluctantly accedes to the request, and Miles is led out to a large, non-military groundcar.

“May I ask what all this is about, ghem-General?” Miles inquired in turn.

Benin’s expression was almost . . . crocodilian. “I am instructed that explanations must wait until you arrive at the Celestial Garden. It will take only a few minutes of your time, nothing more. I first thought that you would like it, but upon mature reflection, I think you will hate it. Either way, you deserve it.”

“Take care your growing reputation for subtlety doesn’t go to your head, ghem-General,” Miles growled. Benin merely smiled.

Miles is brought to a small audience chamber where Fletchir Giaja sits, in his elaborate mourning robes, with three haut-bubbles in attendance.  A ba servitor brings a box to Benin, who hands it to the Emperor.

“Do you know what this is, Lord Vorkosigan?” Giaja asked.

Miles eyed the medallion of the Order of Merit on its colored ribbon, glittering on a bed of velvet. “Yes, sir. It is a lead weight, suitable for sinking small enemies. Are you going to sew me into a silk sack with it, before you throw me overboard?”

Giaja glanced up at Benin, who responded with a Didn’t I tell you so? shrug.

“Bend your neck, Lord Vorkosigan,” Giaja instructed him firmly. “Unaccustomed as you may be to doing so.”

He does, and Giaja puts the medal on him.  Miles tells the Emperor that he refuses the honour, but the Emperor says that he doesn’t, because of his “passion for recognition”, much like that of a ghem-lord.  Better than being likened to a ba, Miles decides, haut science projects that they are.  He says he won’t be able to wear it at home, and the Emperor says that’s fine, as long as he keeps quiet about how he earned it, apart from classified military reports.  Miles reluctantly agrees, beginning to wonder if these private chats arranged with the Emperor are designed to plant suspicions about him in Barrayaran minds.

Giaja summons him to walk on his left hand, but Miles turns to the haut-bubbles and asks to speak to lady Rian one last time.  Giaja allows it, leaving at his stately pace with one of the haut-bubbles, leaving two others behind.  One disappears to reveal Rian.

She floated closer, and raised one fine hand to touch his left cheek. It was the first time they had touched. But if she asked, Does it hurt?, he swore he’d bite her.

Rian was not a fool. “I have taken much from you,” she spoke quietly, “and given nothing.”

“It’s the haut way, is it not?” Miles said bitterly.

“It is the only way I know.”

She removes a coil of hair from her sleeve and presents it as a gift, the only thing she could think of.  Miles thinks to himself that her hair is one of the few things she truly owns.  He asks her what it symbolizes, and she admits she’s not sure.  He says he’ll keep it for memory, and asks if she’ll remember him.  She says that there is no danger she’ll forget him anytime soon, as he shall soon see.

Miles emerges in Giaja’s train into a dell with the Dowager Empress’s force-sphere-enclosed bier at the centre, surrounded by ghem, haut and delegates.  The Emperor strides right down the centre, past the consorts and remaining governors, Miles extremely conspicuous in his house blacks and Order of Merit, with his visibly bruised face.  The Emperor is probably sending some message to his governors, Miles decides, by granting him this place of honour.  The Barrayarans certainly seem to be confused and suspicious when they see him.  He spots Lord Yenaro, who seems by his garb to have been granted a position at the Celestial Garden–the absolute lowest, but still an honour, intended to keep him in line.

As they arrive at the centre, Miles becomes aware of hunger and grogginess, and tries to distract himself by calculating the total cost of all of the funeral ceremonies.  A force-bubbled Rian and her ba approach, proffering the Empress’s regalia, including the recovered Great Key, to the Emperor.  While Miles is wondering who will end up as empress, Giaja calls Rian back and Miles soon realizes that Rian herself is going to be the new Empress.  Miles isn’t certain how he feels about it, even though he has no idea what kind of actual relationship she and Giaja will actually have, apart from mingling their genomes to produce new Imperial children.  She must have known before the ceremony, and she hadn’t seemed unhappy at the prospect.

Giaja gives the orders, and the force-bubble with the Dowager Empress inside begins to glow with increasing brightness as the contents are incinerated.  Then a hole opens in the force-bubble above them, and another hole in the bier, and white fire shoots up into the sky.  The bubbles close again, the force-dome brightens, and the smaller bubble vanishes without even a mark on the grass.  The Emperor changes out of his white mourning robe into something more colourful, and the procession winds its way back out of the dell.  Giaja bids farewell to Miles and hopes they don’t meet again soon.

Ghem-General Benin, at Miles’s elbow, almost cracked an expression. Laughing? “Come, Lord Vorkosigan. I will escort you back to your delegation. Having given your ambassador my personal word to return you, I must personally—redeem it, as you Barrayarans say. A curious turn of phrase. Do you use it in the sense of a soul in a religion, or an object in a lottery?”

“Mm . . . more in a medical sense. As in the temporary donation of a vital organ.” Hearts and promises, all redeemed here today.

The Barrayarans are waiting for float-cars to take them to another buffet meal, but Miles implores Ivan to leave right away, especially when Ivan points out that all the ghem-ladies will be there.  Vorreedi asks Miles what that was all about, and Miles says it’s “high irony” on the part of the Emperor.  Mia Maz exclaims what a great honour it is, but Vorob’yev says that most Barrayarans will be highly dubious about it.  Miles asks if it can be a military secret; Ivan points out that thousands of people just saw it, and Miles says it’s Ivan’s fault for not bringing him enough coffee to properly wake him up.

Vorreedi’s brows twitched. “Yes . . .” he said. “What did you and the Cetagandans talk about last night, after Lord Vorpatril and I were excluded?”

“Nothing. They never asked me anything more.” Miles grinned blackly. “That’s the beauty of it, of course. Let’s see you prove a negative, Colonel. Just try. I want to watch.”

Back on the courier ship, Miles chews on a ration bar, while Ivan ceremoniously and mournfully disposes of the ghem-lady invitations that had been waiting for him at the embassy, asking why Miles is eating such bland food, wondering if his stomach is acting up again.  Ivan’s gaze falls on the Order of Merit and he offers to dispose of it too, but Miles snatches it away; Ivan says that proves it does mean something to him, and Miles says he bloody well earned it.  He mourns the fact that, if he ever gets into an actual military command, nobody will know about his actual experience, and he’ll have a hell of a time getting their respect.

Miles reflects that the haut-women may have had an easier time conquering Barrayar than the ghem-lords ever did.  Ivan wonders how much longer the haut-lords will actually be human, and Miles asks in return how long the haut-lords will still consider_them_ human.  Miles says that the Cetagandans will remain dangerous until they actually reach their goal, whatever it is, with the ghem kept around to provide variation, like wild seeds kept around just in case even when you have a monoculture.  The best bet is to keep punishing the ghem for their expansionism, and maybe they’ll give up.

Keeping one eye out for sudden moves from his cousin, Miles re-hung his medallion.

“You going to wear that? I dare you.”

“No. Not unless I have a need to be really obnoxious sometime.”

“Ivan.” Miles let his voice grow unexpectedly chill. “Why should the haut Fletchir Giaja decide he needed to be polite to me? Do you really think this is just for my father’s sake?” He ticked the medallion and set it spinning, and locked eyes with his cousin. “It’s not a trivial trinket. Think again about all the things this means. Bribery, sabotage, and real respect, all in one strange packet . . . we’re not done with each other yet, Giaja and I.”

Comments

A bit of an ominous line at the end, there…well, not quite at the end, but still.  Let me just reveal that there hasn’t really been that much more between Miles and Fletchir Giaja.  Miles has intersected with Cetagandans a few more times, but only indirectly (as in Ethan of Athos) or non-adversarially (as in Diplomatic Immunity).  So the next book doesn’t really contain the next phase of Miles’s cat-and-mouse game with the Emperor of Cetaganda.  Though (if you consider Memory, the next book written) it does contain the scene where he needs to be “really obnoxious”…  Can’t wait until we get there, but there’s still another four books or so until then, so you’ll just have to be patient (or, as always, read ahead on your own).

The actual last line is “Miles settled back with slitted eyes, and watched the shining circle spin like planets.”  It keeps making me think that the beginning of the first chapter should have been a sentence that mirrored it, something about watching planets spin like shining circles, except, you know, probably better.  I guess she decided to go for some nice banter between Ivan and Miles instead.  Can’t fault that.

Miles’s last scene with Rian is fairly touching, especially her gift of hair.  We already know how special their hair is, from the scene with Nadina refusing to let them cut it.  Did Rian actually cut out a lock of hair, or did she just pull out a few strands?  Perhaps they were caught in her comb that morning or something.  Assuming they haven’t bred for hair that doesn’t need to be combed, or have split ends, or even come out except on purpose.  (And now I’m picturing Rapunzel as a haut-lady.  Wonder if that’s a popular folk-tale in Cetaganda?)  (And do you say “in Cetaganda”?  You can’t say “on Cetaganda”, since it’s not an actual planet, but is “the Cetagandan Empire” the same as “Cetaganda”?  I suppose it must be, but it still sounds wrong to me.)

Mia Maz is one of those people that should have turned up at some point on Barrayar, unless Vorob’yev has just never come home at the same time as Miles.  Did he not, say, warrant an invitation to Gregor’s wedding in A Civil Campaign?  I realize that we can’t always bring back every single character in later books, but a surprise once in a while could be nice.  Ah, well.  For all I know, she and Vorob’yev split up three years later, or Vorob’yev got assassinated or something.

Overall Comments

I promised I’d do this, didn’t I?  Okay, what was it that I wanted to say again?  (“Take notes”?  What’s that?)

Well, obviously the book takes a nice deep look into Cetagandan culture, or, as I’ve said over and over again, haut culture.  In other books, it was just the ghem military we saw; here we see a little more ghem, the young dissolute idlers, but we see a lot of haut, or least of the women.  Bujold is no stranger to in-depth cultural examinations–the Cordelia books are really showing the view of an outside on Barrayar, for instance, and of course we get to see the quaddies both in Falling Free and later in Diplomatic Immunity–but this book manages to be both that and a murder mystery.

After the last couple of books with the Dendarii, having Miles in his Barrayaran role, and with Ivan as his foil, shakes things up a bit.  Again, taking things in publication order, it’s really Brothers In Arms that’s the first real Ivan-and-Miles-Show, but this is a worthy companion to that one.  And this book was written between Mirror Dance and Memory, both containing large doses of character development on Barrayar, so it’s kind of a departure from those as well.  Anyway, Ivan works well as a counterweight, holding back Miles’s exuberance and impulsiveness, or at least trying to, and pointing out the possible flaws in any plan.  And yet, in a pinch, he will come through–he led the rescue effort in this book, didn’t he?  (I also can’t forget him tackling Vordrozda at the end of The Warrior’s Apprentice.)  Also, he makes a good decoy/damsel in distress.  Gregor had this sort of role in The Vor Game, actually, but less cautious and more fey…

I’m still amazed at Vorreedi and Vorob’yev’s forbearance.  Perhaps it’s that Miles and Ivan were actually sort of visiting diplomats, there not because of their military rank but because of their bloodlines, so they weren’t technically under the command of anyone at the embassy…or were they?  Maybe I’m just remembering the idiot on Earth in Brothers In Arms, who I recall as being much less accommodating.


That’s all I can come up with for now, so next I get a week off, and then it’s on to Ethan of Athos, the first book to not actually contain any Vorkosigans.  But it does have Elli Quinn in it (who you may remember from The Warrior’s Apprentice), plus definite plot links to Cetaganda itself, so I decided to include it this time.  The one-year anniversary of this blog will come during the two-week interval, by the way, so that’s something, I suppose.  Until then, keep on reading!  Forward momentum!

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Some weeks seem longer than others, and some shorter, but one thing remains the same–I will be working down to the wire to bring you the next installment of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread before midnight local time on Tuesday.  This week I cover Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen of Cetaganda, as the plot finally reaches its peak and many questions are finally answered.

Chapter Thirteen

Miles is forced to wait for a day while the consorts retrieve the gene banks, and he frets at the inactivity.  He’s not sure that he wants to give Lord X an extra day, even with the shock of the gene bank recall.  Lord X still needs to frame Barrayar, preferably over Miles’s dead body.  If Miles had handed in the Key on the first day, Barrayar would be trying futilely to prove that they hadn’t tampered with it, and relations would be deteriorating as a result.  None of the other embassies would have fared any better if Lord X had chosen them, either.

Miles returns to plans of the governors’ ships, all approximately the same, and continues trying to guess where the Key might be.  Without Rian’s key to open it–which would allow him to extract all of its data, and possibly copy it and even return the original–he has to try to break in himself, so he’d have it in a cipher lab of some sort, but where precisely that would be…

Vorreedi knocks and enters; Miles pretends he’s just studying up on Cetagandan warships.  Vorreedi tells him that a warrant has been issued for Yenaro’s arrest, on the charge of theft, accused by a ghem-lord.  Miles says that whoever put the ghem-lord up to it is likely their target, the man behind Yenaro as well.  Vorreedi leaves, and Ivan comes in, the added security having put a crimp in his social life, not to mention the actual possibility of another attempt.  When Ivan starts to complain of boredom, Miles chases him out.

The next day they attend the ceremony of Singing Open The Great Gates, which is short on gates but long on singing.  Several hundred ghem are to sing, in an area of the Celestial Garden with interesting acoustical properties.  Miles prepares to endure standing for most of the afternoon.  Hundreds of haut-lady bubbles are visible; Miles and Ivan are accompanied by Vorob’yev, Vorreedi, and Mia Maz.  When the singing starts, it takes Miles’s breath away, and they are mesmerized for half an hour before the singers stop and move on to another compass point in the garden.  The ba shepherd the delegates to a buffet while the chorus prepares to set up at the south gate; the haut-ladies head off in a third direction.

He notes that he’s beginning to get used to the Celestial Garden, and Vorob’yev reminds him of the many deaths that Barrayar owes to the Cetagandans.  Miles agrees, but says that they’ve punished that behaviour sufficiently that it probably won’t be repeated anytime soon.  His instincts tell him the Cetagandans are turning inward, but who knows what they’ll be after ten more generations of genetic experimentation.  Miles waits tensely for a contact from Rian, though painfully aware that Vorreedi is watching him like a hawk.

After the fourth and final performance, Miles is making small talk with Vorreedi, still working out extrication strategies, when he notices a ba talking to Ivan–and not one of Rian’s bald ones.  Ivan heads off with the ba, and Miles immediately takes off after him, out of the buffet pavilion and into a near-maze of shrubbery.  Miles takes a wrong turn, and retraces his steps to see Ivan face to face with a haut-lady with her screen down.  She sprays Ivan in the face with something, catches him as he collapses onto her lap, puts up her force-screen and starts moving away.  Miles takes off in pursuit, but the float-chair easily outdistances him.  He loses it on a major path with several other haut-bubbles, and runs back to Vorreedi.  Vorreedi offers to call Cetagandan Security, but Miles looks for a ba servitor instead.

A ghem-lord guard appears to urges them back to the pavilion; Vorreedi explains about the missing member of their party, and the guard calls it in.  They return to the pavilion, and Miles tells the oldest ba servitor he sees that he needs to speak immediately with Rian Degtiar.  The ba leads him and Vorreedi into a service area, where it makes a coded call on its wrist-com before handing the com to Miles.  Miles asks Rian through his com if she had just sent someone to pick up Ivan; when she denies it, he tells her that’s what he saw, and she realizes what is happening and promises to deal with it.  Vorreedi asks Miles what’s going on; Miles tells him Ivan left with a lady, and he promises that he can deal with it discreetly if Vorreedi trusts him.

Vorreedi took a long, long minute to think this one over, his eye cold on Miles. Vorreedi, Miles reminded himself, was Intelligence, not Counter-intelligence; curiosity, not paranoia, was his driving force. Miles shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and tried to look calm, unworried, merely annoyed. As the silence lengthened, he dared to add, “If you trust nothing else, sir, please trust my competence. That’s all I ask.”

“Discreet, eh?” said Vorreedi. “You’ve made some interesting friends here, Lord Vorkosigan. I’d like to hear a lot more about them.”

“Soon, I hope, sir.”

He knows, though, that once he leaves with Rian’s ba, he might not be back until his mission is concluded.  A ba shows up in an unshielded float-car, waves away a concerned ghem guard, and takes Miles to the Star Crèche.  There, he sees five haut bubbles herding a sixth one toward a back entrance, pushing against its force shield with their own.  Miles follows them inside, where he finds Rian and five consorts, the sixth remaining stubbornly shielded.  Rian urges the bubble’s occupant to surrender and cooperate; when there is no response, she uses a special tool to override the shield with the Empress’s codes.

The float-chair drops to the ground, spilling a paralyzed Ivan onto the floor, but its other occupant, Vio d’Chilian, recovers and puts a knife to Ivan’s throat.  Behind Vio, Pel silently leaves the room, and Miles essays to distract Vio as best he can.  He tells her that Ivan isn’t the one she wants, which confuses her.

But of course. Lord X always used front men, and women, for his legwork, keeping his own hands clean. Miles had been galloping around doing the legwork; therefore, Lord X must have reasoned that Ivan was really in charge. “Agh!” Miles cried. “What did you think? That because he’s taller, and, and cuter, he had to be running this show? It’s the haut way, isn’t it? You—you morons! I’m the brains of this outfit!” He paced the other way, spluttering. “I had you spotted from Day One, don’t you know? But no! Nobody ever takes me seriously!” Ivan’s eyes, the only part of him that apparently still worked, widened at this rant. “So you went and kidnapped the wrong man. You just blew your cover for the sake of grabbing the expendable one!” The haut Pel hadn’t gone for help, he decided. She’d gone to the lav to fix her hair, and was going to take forever in there.

Well, he certainly had the undivided attention of everyone in the loading bay, murderess, victim, haut-cops and all. What next, handsprings? “It’s been like this since we were little kids, y’know? Whenever the two of us were together, they’d always talk to him first, like I was some kind of idiot alien who needed an interpreter—” the haut Pel reappeared silently in the doorway, lifted her hand—Miles’s voice rose to a shout, “Well, I’m sick of it, d’you hear?!”

Vio has just begun to turn when Pel hits her with the stunner.  She nicks Ivan’s throat with the knife before collapsing, but not seriously.  Miles asks about the effect of the stun on Ivan on top of what Vio sprayed him with, but Pel examines Vio’s spray-bottle and pronounces it harmless.  She promises to get him some synergine to help with the effects.

Miles turns to assess Rian, realizing that, as “Handmaiden”, she seems to be acting Empress.  He asks her what she’s found out, and if the gene banks have been returned.  Rian tells him that Vio was in Nadina’s float-chair, which Miles impatiently says obviously points to Ilsum Kety.  She agrees, saying that Kety didn’t return his gene bank, and they suspected something was amiss with “Nadina” ever since Vio arrived pretending to be her.  She suspects that Kety was somehow planning to frame Ivan for Nadina’s disappearance or death.  Miles points out that Vio must have been the one to kill Ba Lura.  Rian says that Vio will face the Star Crèche’s own justice for her crimes.

Miles said uneasily, “She could be an important witness, to clear Barrayar and me of blame in the disappearance of the Great Key. Don’t, um . . . do anything premature, till we know if that’s needed, huh?”

“Oh, we have many questions for her, first.”

“So . . . Kety still has his bank. And the Key. And a warning.” Damn. Whose idiot idea had it been . . . ? Oh. Yes. But you can’t blame Ivan for this one. You thought recalling the gene banks was a great move. And Rian bought it too. Idiocy by committee, the finest kind.

Rian is worried that she’d sent Nadina to her death, but Miles reassures her that she must still be alive, or else framing Ivan wouldn’t work.  He also concludes that Nadina must be able to keep some information from Kety.  He asks Rian if she can, using her overrides, encode the float-chair for anyone to use.  She says it will only work for haut-women, and Miles says that they should give Kety what he wants–a haut-lady and a Barrayaran returning in a haut-bubble.

Comments

Finally, the identity of Lord X is settled for good.  Vio’s moment of rage at the garden party is explained, too.  It’s not Slyke trying to put one over on his cousin, though, as admitted, he did visit the Star Crèche, and he also accepted a copy of the gene bank, so he’s not entirely innocent.

Vio…short for “Violet”, perhaps?  The haut-ladies all seem to have fairly short names; I can’t help but wonder why they don’t have more elaborate ones, to distinguish them from the hoi polloi, but maybe that’s just me.  Dag Benin, of course, has an even shorter first name, so I presume that names don’t get longer as you go down the social classes.  I guess the haut are a small enough social pool that they don’t need to use long names to distinguish from each other.  The “d'” prefix on the surname, which Lady d’Har also used…is that only used for haut-women who are forced to marry down to the ghem?  I guess so, since otherwise they don’t actually marry, according to Mia Maz back in Chapter 8…

Also worth noting that Ivan gets to be the “lady in distress”, and not for the last time, either.  Except that his captrix didn’t realize that he wasn’t the mastermind, so he wasn’t taken as a hostage, strictly, but certainly Miles had to dash off and rescue him.  If Miles is correct, Ivan was taken as a patsy to be framed for the death of haut Nadina, to further inflame relations between Barrayar and Cetaganda…what an utter tool.  Miles’s rant, while intended for a distraction, is nonetheless heartfelt, and I suspect it was almost aimed at Rian as much as it was at Vio.

Chapter Fourteen

Miles calls Vorob’yev and tells him how Ivan is getting a tour of the Star Crèche, and they can’t offend their hostesses by leaving early, so they’ll meet up with him later.  Vorob’yev is not happy with yet another “unplanned excursion”, but he only cautions Miles to keep Ivan from offending any of the haut-ladies.  Miles signs off having gained only an hour or so.  Rian and Pel are re-keying the float chair, and Ivan is still out cold, but looking somewhat better for his dose of synergine.  He tells Rian to contact Benin, or the Emperor, if things go wrong, since he doesn’t trust anyone else in Imperial Security.

Pel has armed herself with Vio’s tricks, sadly not including any energy weapons, since even in a float-chair they couldn’t smuggle those past security scanners.  Miles climbs onto the arm of the chair, Pel puts up the shield, and they leave the dome, with two other haut-ladies heading off in other directions as camouflage.  Miles regrets on some levels that Rian isn’t his companion, but rationally, he admits that he likes Pel’s style and resourcefulness, and thinks that if she weren’t Cetagandan and probably eighty years old…

They meet up with Kety’s party near the south gate, which includes ghem-General Chilian as well as a number of guards and servitors.  Miles wonders if Chilian is in on the plan, or intended to be sacrificed along with Nadina.  Kety invites the haut-bubble into his own vehicle, which is clearly designed to accommodate the bubbles, and the rest, including Chilian, take other cars.

“You’re late. Complications?” Kety inquired cryptically, settling back in his seat. He looked worried and stern, as befit an earnest mourner—or a man riding a particularly hungry and unreliable tiger.

Yeah, and I should have known he was Lord X when I first spotted that fake gray hair, Miles decided. This was one haut-lord who didn’t want to wait for what life might bring him.

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” reported Pel. The voice-filter, set to maximum blur, altered her tones into a fair imitation of the haut Vio’s.

“I’m sure, my love. Keep your force-screen up till we’re aboard.”

That clinches it, Miles decides–General Chilian’s days are numbered.  He wonders if Kety or Vio is in charge, or if they’re planning this as equals, which could explain a lot.  Pel turns to talk to Miles, having cut off external sound, about whether they should look for Nadina or the Great Key first.  Pel is in favour of the Key, but Miles wants Nadina, who is an important witness for Barrayar, and who also may know where the Key is.  Pel says she will likely be hidden in a cabin, so as few people know about her as possible.  Miles says that they will probably need to take her back down to the planet to stage the murder, so they should find her fast.  Kety interrupts to ask if her captive is waking up yet, so he can question him, but Pel tells him not yet.

They don’t have much more conversation with Kety until after the orbital shuttle has docked with his ship and they’ve all disembarked.  Chilian goes off without even attempting to talk to his wife, and Kety dismisses his guards and beckons the haut-bubble to follow him.  Miles notes a room down the hall with a single liveried guard posted outside, where he guesses Nadina might be held; Kety entered a different cabin instead, which proves to be vacant.

Kety asks if she’ll need guards, or if she can control her captive chemically.  Pel, dissembling, asks for synergine and fast-penta, and notes they’ll need to do a test for an induced allergy.  Kety asks if he’s liable to wake up before he returns; Pel says she dosed him rather strongly, and Kety warns her not to leave a trace that might show up in an autopsy.

“Let me help you lay him out,” Kety said. “It must be crowded in there.”

“Not for me. I’m using him for a footrest. The float-chair is . . . most comfortable. Let me . . . enjoy the privilege of the haut a little longer, my love.” Pel sighed. “It has been so long. . . .”

Kety promises her that soon she’ll be the most privileged in the galaxy, and leaves to get the drugs.  As soon as he’s gone, Miles checks how many doses of Vio’s spray they have (two, according to Pel) and they head out into the hallway.  Miles climbs onto the back of the float-chair, Pel floats up to the liveried guard, addresses him, lowers her shield and sprays him.  The guard falls onto Pel’s lap, and Miles climbs around to examine the lock.  It needs a palmprint, and Miles tries the guard’s; it works.  He takes the guard’s stunner and they enter the room.

Inside, haut Nadina is stripped down her bodysuit and bound by having her hair clamped to the floor half a meter from the end.  Pel donates a few layers of clothing and they examine the hair-lock.  They can’t pull the hair free, and while, according to Nadina, Vio had the key, Pel doesn’t find it among Vio’s possessions.  Miles suggests cutting the hair off, which scandalizes the women, as haut-women never cut their hair.  He offers to take them both the shuttle and escape, but they refuse to leave without the Key; Nadina does, at least, know its location.  They return to arguing about the hair; Miles finds a vibra-knife on the guard, points to the door to distract them, then cuts Nadina’s hair free.  Nadina is outraged, but Pel looks secretly glad she didn’t have to do it herself.

They all board the float-chair and return to the corridor; the chair, overloaded, moves under protest, as Nadina directs them to the room with the Key.  Miles wonders at the absurdity of sneaking around the ship in a bubble with two old haut-women, but admits it’s better than disguising himself as a ba.  They reach an unmarked door, and after a moment Pel lowers the shield long enough to knock, horrifying Miles.  A man opens the door, scans the bubble, and addresses “haut Vio”.  Pel claims that she’s brought Nadina back to try again, and he lets them in.

There are two other men inside, one of them a ghem-General, not Chilian but Naru, third in command of the Celestial Garden’s security; the others seem to be cipher techs, trying to hack into the Great Key.  There are tangles of wires linking a computer to what appear to be eight Great Keys–the real one and seven copies, or are all eight of them copies?  Miles isn’t quite sure what the plan for the copies is, but he’s sure it’s not for anyone else’s benefit, and certainly not to carry out the Dowager’s plan.  He asks Nadina if she knows which one is real, and she can’t decide.  Pel says that they can find out, and displays the ring with the Great Seal.  Miles is horrified, since that one item would save Kety’s men all the effort of trying to break the encryption on the Key by brute force.

Naru addresses Vio in a contemptuous fashion, and when Pel replies haughtily, he tells her that he looks forward to the day when there are no more haut-bubbles–apparently his motivation for joining in on Kety’s scheme.  Miles pegs him as another equal in the triumvirate, and possibly the most dangerous.  He tells Pel to spray Naru, and he’ll try to bluff the techs with his stunner, even though it’ll set off alarms throughout the ship if he actually fires it.

Pel drops the shield and sprays Naru, but he manages to hold his breath, so Miles is forced to stun Naru and the techs.  Pel begins trying the eight Keys while Miles wonders how long they have before Kety or someone else authorized to enter the room comes to investigate.  Pel is having no luck with the Keys, and Miles realizes that they must all be false, and follows the cables until he finds a box with the real Key hooked up inside it.  Miles urges them to leave, just as Pel confirms the Key is real, and the door slides open.  Miles fires his stunner, and one of Kety’s men falls back; he and Pel leap back into the float-chair and put up the shield as more stunners fire into the room, knocking Nadina to the ground.  Nadina urges them to flee, but Kety’s men are blocking the exit, and then Kety follows his men into the room, locking the door behind him.

Kety asks what’s going on, and Naru, who was only partially stunned, identifies the float-chair’s passengers.  Miles wonders how they got Nadina out of her bubble, and if Kety can do it again.  He asks Pel if the float-chair has communications capacity.  At least they can get the word out, and tell the Cetagandans that Naru’s been compromised.  Kety puts a vibra-knife to Nadina’s throat, and asks Pel to drop the screen and surrender.

Miles, trying to think of a way out, realizes that the Great Key’s value lies in the information stored inside it.  He asks Pel if they can download the information from the Key and send it out through her chair’s communications system.  She protests that they can’t send it back to the Celestial Garden, but Miles says that they can use standard emergency-relay channels, which has easy-to-remember public codes–it’ll resend the signal to every ship and station in range.  Pel sets it up, and is just hooking up the Key as Kety begins to lose his patience.  Pel lowers the shield, she and Miles step out, and then the shield snaps up again a second later.

“That,” said Kety coldly, eyeing the bubble with the Great Key inside, “is annoying. But a temporary inconvenience. Take them.” He jerked his head at his guards, and stepped away from Nadina. “You!” he said in surprise, finding Miles in their grip.

“Me.” Miles’s lips peeled back on a white flash of teeth that had nothing to do with a smile. “Me all along, in fact. From start to finish.”

Kety is about to hit Miles himself, but remembers his fragility, and instructs his guards to use shock-sticks on them instead–amending his instructions to just Miles when they are reluctant to strike haut-women.  Kety asks Nary how long to open it, and Naru estimates half an hour once his techs have recovered.  Just then, Kety receives a message from a subordinate who tells him about a signal being sent out from the ship, some kind of “coded gibberish”, using an Imperial override.  Kety is puzzled, then he realizes what’s happening, and tells Naru to get the bubble down as soon as they can.  Unable to revive the techs even with high doses of synergine, Kety and Naru turn to the work themselves.

Kety and Naru were so absorbed in their task and their irate arguments over the swiftest way to proceed, only Miles noticed when a spot on the door began to glow. Despite his pain, he smiled. A beat later, the whole door burst inward in a spray of melted plastic and metal. Another beat, to wait out anyone’s hair-trigger reflexes.

Ghem-Colonel Benin, impeccably turned out in his blood-red dress uniform and freshly applied face paint, stepped firmly across the threshold. He was unarmed, but the red-clad squad behind him carried an arsenal sufficient to destroy any impediment in their path up to the size of a pocket dreadnought. Kety and Naru froze in mid-lurch; Kety’s liveried retainers suddenly seemed to think better of drawing weapons, opening their hands palm-outward and standing very still. Colonel Vorreedi, equally impeccable in his House blacks, if not quite so cool in expression, stepped in behind Benin. In the corridor beyond, Miles could just glimpse Ivan looming behind the armed men, and shifting anxiously from foot to foot.

“Good evening, haut Kety, ghem-General Naru.” Benin bowed with exquisite courtesy. “By the personal order of Emperor Fletchir Giaja, it is my duty to arrest you both upon the serious charge of treason to the Empire. And,” contemplating Naru especially, Benin’s smile went razor-sharp, “complicity in the murder of the Imperial Servitor the Ba Lura.”

Comments

The climax, and the cavalry, in this one chapter.  Well, I guess Chapter Thirteen had the start of the climax, starting with the abortive kidnapping of Ivan, but this one chapter carries it through.  Pel proves out to be just as quick-thinking as Miles had thought, especially with her impersonation (voice-only) of Vio.  I wonder if Kety had clued in yet that it wasn’t Vio in the bubble he just brought on board, but he’s a haut-lord, he’s smart, he could probably put it together.  Or maybe not–it wasn’t like he asked what they’d done with his “love”, Vio.  Did he come just because of the alarm Miles set off, or had he already noticed “Vio”‘s bubble missing and guessed correctly from there?

The plan with sending out the Key’s data probably didn’t really accomplish its goal, if that goal was to “back up” the Key in everybody’s communications cache, but it did put some time pressure on Kety and Naru, and distract them long enough for the cavalry to arrive.  I presume that the transmission was of the decrypted copy of the data, since Pel had opened it with the ring, or something like that.  One wonders…if they hadn’t brought the Great Seal ring with them, they wouldn’t have been able to pull it off, right?  I wasn’t clear on whether they were just trying to decrypt the contents of the Key, or if they were trying to replicate the procedure that the Seal would use to open it up.  If the former, could they have, in theory, broadcast the Key’s encrypted contents, and then somehow downloaded that into a physical copy of the Key and opened that with the Seal instead?  Or is there a physical component to the Key’s workings that would be difficult to replicate as well?  That would have been a little extra safety precaution for the original creators, at least.  These are people who thought it was better to keep access to the data limited than to back it up in any way, so that might be par for their level of paranoia.

Not sure how I feel about Naru being introduced this late in the book.  I guess he had been alluded to by Miles’s distrust of the Cetagandan Imperial Guard, but for him to be apparently so high up in Kety’s inner circle, I wasn’t quite prepared for that.  The involvement of a haut-lady had been broached already, so Vio was not a big surprise, but Naru…  One really does wonder how good allies Vio and Naru made, since Naru hated the haut-lady privileges and Vio yearned for their return.  If Kety had prevailed, it wouldn’t have been long before he’d had to pick sides among them.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d picked Naru, since I suspect he’s also a little uncomfortable with the secrets of haut women himself.  After all, he suborned their plan to take the Great Key for himself.  I’m not sure I believe his avowals of love for Vio, either.  Still, I suppose he needed an Empress if he was going to be Emperor, and not shake up the existing social structure too much all at once…  It would have been a tricky balancing act, and would probably have been his downfall in the end, but after the new war with Cetaganda, the Barrayarans wouldn’t have found that much consolation.

I don’t recall that Nadina’s hair was originally described as being all that much longer than, say, Rian’s, despite her greater age…so, does that mean, if they never cut it, that by Rian’s age it has already stopped by itself?  Or did Nadina just have it made up in a more elaborate way?  In the text it sounds like Nadina had about 2.5 meters of hair, but Rian’s already “coiled around her feet”, at least when she was sitting…  I expect that, no matter how much their hair length matters to them, they wouldn’t like stepping on it, so they must do something to keep it from being underfoot.


Just the denoument left, pretty much, though there are certainly enough issues to wrap up for that to be worth two whole chapters.  Even if Miles doesn’t have to be debriefed by Simon Illyan.  I should also try to remember to do some closing comments this time, since I have some thoughts on the book as a whole, which hopefully I haven’t already covered in individual chapter comments.  Then, once again, a week off before I head into Ethan of Athos.  Until next week, then, I remain.

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Another week has passed and here we are again, sharing in the wonder that is the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Today we consider Chapters Eleven and Twelve of Cetaganda, the fifth (and a bit) novel chronologically in the story of Miles Vorkosigan (and his friends and family).  In which Miles has a few important interviews, goes over the edge of a building, and is called as a witness, among other things.  Curious?  Read on.

Chapter Eleven

Vorob’yev sends Miles down to Vorreedi’s office in the basement of the embassy.  Vorreedi gives Miles his full attention, which worries Miles because he knows that Vorreedi must be sharp or he wouldn’t be here in Cetaganda.  Vorreedi begins by talking about Miles’s (putative) career of ImpSec courier, and notes that, unlike every other ImpSec courier, Miles reports directly to Simon Illyan, who reports only to Emperor Gregor, an exceptionally short chain of command.  Miles claims that his job is to fetch things for Gregor that are too trivial for real couriers, and that he clearly got this posting through nepotism.

“Hm.” Vorreedi sat back, and rubbed his chin. “Now,” he said distantly, “if you were a covert ops agent here on a mission from God,” meaning Simon Illyan—same thing, from the ImpSec point of view, “you should have arrived with some sort of Render all due assistance order. Then a poor ImpSec local man might know where he stood with you.”

If I don’t get this man under control, he can and will nail my boots to the floor of the embassy, and Lord X will have no impediment at all to his baroque bid for chaos and empire. “Yes, sir,” Miles took a breath, “and so would anyone else who saw it.”

Vorreedi glanced up, startled. “Does ImpSec Command suspect a leak in my communications?”

“Not as far as I know. But as a lowly courier, I can’t ask questions, can I?”

This amuses Vorreedi, as of course Miles has been asking questions nearly constantly.  He asks Miles for proof, and Miles says that if he were a real courier, he would have an implanted allergy to fast-penta.  Because of his rank, that was considered too risky, so therefore he’s clearly unsuited for high-security missions.  Vorreedi finds this convincing, and Miles adds that the full report of his Cetagandan visit will be given to Illyan, and what Illyan tells Vorreedi is up to him.  Miles dares to hint to Vorreedi that he not be hedged around with arbitrary restrictions, or micromanaged, but instead turned loose.  With one rule, perhaps–“Deliver success or pay with your ass”–and no authority, only responsibility.

Miles turns the conversation to Yenaro, who Vorreedi says survived the night, last seen carrying a carpet over his shoulder.  The Cetagandan Police have picked up the assassin who was after him, after receiving an “anonymous” tip, and he had no chance to contact his employer.  Miles contemplates the effect on Lord X of this lack of information–he would probably get twitchy and possibly make a mistake, though Miles wonders if that’s necessarily a good thing.  Vorreedi asks him and Ivan to terminate their contact with Yenaro, which Miles readily agrees to, as he thinks they’ve gotten as much information from Yenaro as they’re likely to.  He tells Vorreedi he’s more interested in whoever built that fountain for Yenaro in the first place.  Vorreedi concludes by telling him that Ghem-Colonel Benin has requested another interview with Miles and Ivan, and is already on his way.  He dismisses Miles to fetch Ivan for the interview.

“I do not see how Lord Vorpatril fits into this. He’s no courier officer. And his records are as transparent as glass.”

“A lot of people are baffled by Ivan, sir. But . . . sometimes, even a genius needs someone who can follow orders.”

Miles hurries to Ivan’s quarters, sure that Vorreedi isn’t going to be able to restrain himself from bugging their rooms for much longer.  He tells Ivan that they’re going to talk to Benin, with Vorreedi present, but quashes Ivan’s hope that they can actually confess yet.  He instead pleads with Ivan to confirm Miles’s version of events.  He wants to give Benin as many “real facts” as he can, to help in tracking down Ba Lura’s murderer, but leave out haut Rian and the Great Key.  He tells Ivan he’s convinced Vorreedi that he’s on a mission from Simon Illyan, which Ivan realizes means that he’s definitely not.  Miles says he would be, if Illyan knew what was happening, and asks Ivan to bring the nerve disrupter.  Ivan tells Miles he’s not shooting his commanding officer.  Miles says that Vorreedi’s not his commanding officer, and anyway he just wants it for evidence, if they ask, but not to volunteer it.  Ivan encourages him to continue not volunteering.  Miles tells him to get moving, and to try to stay cool.

“…I may be completely off-base, and panicking prematurely.”

“I don’t think so. I think you’re panicking post-maturely. In fact, if you were panicking any later it would be practically posthumously. I’ve been panicking for days.”

Ivan reminds him of another chilhood incident, where Miles had him and Elena digging an escape tunnel in the back garden of Vorkosigan House, and the tunnel collapsed on Ivan, trapping him until Bothari dug him out.  Miles suddenly misses Bothari intensely, but suppresses the feeling, since he needs to keep his focus, and his forward momentum.

Miles and Ivan arrive at the conference room for the meeting with Benin to find him there with Vorreedi, but only just sitting down, which Miles hopes means they haven’t had much time to compare notes.  Benin begins by asking Miles about his courier work, which Miles tells him is good because it’s not too physically demanding, gives him a chance to travel, keeps him away from the prejudiced eyes of other Barrayarans, and gives him an official position.  Ivan tells him about working in Operations in the capital, ostensibly wishing for ship duty, but Miles suspects that Ivan likes his settled life and just wishes that Lady Vorpatril was further away.

Benin then asks Miles about his previous encounter with the Ba Lura.  Miles doesn’t deny it, throwing Benin off-balance at first, and presents it as a kind of test of competency for Benin to have unearthed it.  Benin proves to know about the Ba Lura’s visit, though not the specifics of what happened in the Barrayaran pod, nor, unfortunately, where the ba had previously left the station (to deliver the Great Key).  Miles describes the encounter in the pod, omitting the Great Key, of course; he can tell that Vorreedi is getting more and more unhappy about Miles for keeping this from him until now.  Ivan corroborates Miles’s story.  Both Benin and Vorreedi ask Miles why he hadn’t mentioned this story earlier.  Miles replies that the pilot will have reported the event to Illyan, which, he thinks to himself, with a three-day delay in communications, likely won’t result in any orders to interfere with Miles’s self-appointed mission.  He adds that with orders to keep a low profile, he had decided to keep quiet to keep from starting a diplomatic incident, especially one involving a Barrayaran envoy being attacked by an Imperial servant.

On demand, Ivan produces the nerve disrupter as evidence.  Benin and Vorreedi both want to examine it, Benin being surprised that Vorreedi hadn’t seen it before.  Miles tells Benin that he’s welcome to keep it, if he shares with Miles any information he can extract from it.  He asks Benin where Ba Lura visited before the Barrayarans; Benin says a ship off-station, but he can’t be more specific, even if he wanted to.  The three governors moored at that station were, unfortunately, Slyke Giaja, Ilsum Kety and Este Rond, so this doesn’t help Miles narrow down his field.  Miles is ready to let Benin examine his new clue, but Benin asks about Miles’s conversations with Rian.  Miles only tells him to apply to her for more information.  Vorreedi, surprisingly, doesn’t insist on Benin staying, probably wanting to take a turn at Miles himself.  As Benin prepares to leave, Miles asks if he’d taken his advice on getting help from higher up; Benin says he did, and it went better than expected.

Once Benin has gone, Vorreedi tells Miles he’s not a “mushroom”, to be kept in the dark and fed horseshit; Miles tells him to appeal to Illyan for permission to be in the loop.  Otherwise, he sees no other route but to go on as he had been, trying to find some shred of proof.  Vorreedi tells Miles that they will speak again, and leaves.  Miles and Ivan return to Ivan’s room, where Ivan has a new batch of ghem-lady invitations.  As Miles tries to figure out how to get in touch with Rian, Ivan discovers an invitation addressed to both of them, for Lady d’Har’s “garden party”.  Miles says that it’s probably another contact, and they have to accept, even though Ivan doesn’t think it sounds that much fun.  Miles tells him that the ghem-ladies with whom he’s left his “genetic material” may very well start using it as the basis of their next year’s genetic experiments…

Ivan sighs and accepts it, wondering idly to himself why they can’t just confiscate the governors’ copies of the gene banks.  Miles thinks this is brilliant, and asks why he hadn’t thought of this before; Ivan points out that it doesn’t let him play the hero for haut Rian.

Comments

Miles’s meeting with Vorreedi, where he manages to strongly imply that he’s an operative of the highest degree, is fun to read, and you should go do that, since the little I quoted barely does it justice.  It hearkens back to Miles’s improvisational skills from The Warrior’s Apprentice.  Vorreedi has been hanging over Miles’s head as a potential obstacle since he was first mentioned, and at least this allows Miles to, however temporarily, work a little more openly.  His time-window is limited–if Simon Illyan manages to actually contact Vorreedi, the jig is likely up–but then, Miles only has a limited amount of time to solve the problem anyway, so he considers it an acceptable risk.  Even Vorreedi’s discovery that Miles has been concealing information from him isn’t enough to shake his confidence that Miles is truly on an important mission.  Convenient, but I buy it.

The conversation with Ivan has some great lines, too, illustrating again why Ivan makes such a great foil.  As Miles notes, he also does, usually, follow Miles’s orders, however often he points out that it got them into trouble when they were kids.  And he does, sometimes, come up with good ideas, or at least trigger a good idea by stating the obvious.  But he doesn’t really want to be a hero, or take risks; he just wants to keep his head down and live comfortably.  Which makes me wonder even more how he’ll do as the protagonist of the new book this fall…

Chapter Twelve

The garden party turns out to in fact take place in a garden, but on the rooftop of a skyscraper overlooking the glowing dome of the Celestial Garden.  Miles, Ivan and Vorob’yev are wearing their ultra-formal dress blacks, and only admitted because of their rank and the invitation, even Vorreedi not considered worthy to attend.  The occasion of the party is the late return of Ghem-Admiral Har, whose wife is the haut Lady d’Har; the Admiral wears only the Cetagandan Order of Merit, one of the highest honours of the Empire, and his lady, aged but still stunning, welcomes guests outside the protection of her bubble.

Ivan is distressed how high the age of the attendees is skewing; these are the real upper-crust of ghem society, including several haut-lady bubbles.  Miles wonders if Rian is concealed in one of them.  Vorob’yev is impressed with Miles for having secured an invitation.  Miles contemplates where the power lies in Cetagandan society–the ghem-lords have the military might, but the haut-lords control them, somehow, and the haut-ladies, though reclusive, have somehow created the haut themselves.

They walk around the garden, admiring the views, Vorob’yev anticipating making some good high-level contacts.  Around one corner they encounter haut Vio d’Chilian, ghem-General Chilian’s wife, standing alone.  Ivan is starstruck at the sight of his first haut-lady, while Miles finds his resistance to her beauty much heightened.  Vorob’yev warns Ivan from pursuing any married haut-ladies.

Some movement or sound from the Barrayarans must have broken her reverie, for her head turned toward them. For a second, just a second, her astonishing cinnamon eyes seemed copper-metallic with a rage so boundless, Miles’s stomach lurched. Then her expression snapped into a smooth hauteur, as blank as the bubble she lacked, and as armored; the open emotion was gone so fast Miles was not sure the other two men had even seen it. But the look was not for them; it had been on her face even as she’d turned, before she could have identified the Barrayarans, blackly dressed in the shadows.

Ivan rushes forward to introduce himself, and his companions, babbling slightly.  Before he can dig himself too deeply, though, General Chilian himself appears to escort his wife away.  Miles wonders if their presence is part of Lord X’s plan, somehow, if it is Ilsum Kety after all, or if that’s too obvious.  Shortly thereafter, a haut-lady in a bubble appears, asking to speak privately with Miles, for an hour or so–not long enough to go to orbit, Miles thinks.  Vorob’yev is unsure he wishes to let Miles go off alone, but Miles refuses a guard or a com link, and tells them to wait if he’s delayed.

In a private nook, the lady turns off her bubble, revealing a honey-blonde woman who looks fortyish (and is probably more like eighty).  She tells him Rian summoned him, and he can perch on her float-chair for the ride.  Miles asks for confirmation, and she shows him her Star Crèche ring.  He climbs onto the back of her float-chair, and she raises the shield again and begins to move back down the path.  They pass Ivan and Vorob’yev again, who of course have no idea who’s in the force-bubble.  Instead of heading for the lift, though, they head for the edge of the building.  Lady d’Har admits them to a private landing pad; Miles’s escort turns off her bubble’s glow and drops over the edge of the building.  Miles is horrified, but the haut-lady assures him that they can manage a controlled glide, as they arc toward the Celestial Garden.  They touch down a few centimetres above the ground near one of the Garden’s entrances.

“Ah,” she said, in a refreshed tone. “I haven’t done that in years.” She almost cracked a smile, for a moment nearly . . . human.

They pass through the Celestial Garden security effortlessly; when Miles comments on it, she introduces herself as Pel Navarr, Consort of Eta Ceta, and says this is her home.  She takes them through the Garden and to the Star Crèche building Miles had met Rian in before.  They go up one level to a large round chamber, where Miles finds himself facing Rian and seven other haut-women, their cumulative beauty almost overwhelming.  Rian calls him to testify to them, and at Miles’s request introduces him to the other haut-women, who are, as he suspected, the eight satrap consorts.  The haut Nadina, Consort of Sigma Ceta (not of Ilsum Kety himself, Miles notes) is silver-haired, close in age to the late Dowager Empress, Prince Slyke’s and Este Rond’s being younger.

Rian asks Miles to tell the consorts how he came to have to false Great Key.  Miles confirms that she understood his message about aborting the attempt to board Prince Slyke’s ship, and then asks how she can be sure all of the consorts are trustworthy.  The consorts don’t like this, but Rian excuses his ignorance and explains that they have concluded the treason is further down–that the governor with the real Great Key will still need a haut-lady to maintain the genome or else break with all custom, and they suspect he has chosen a new consort.  They don’t have information on who the woman is, so still no lead on the actual governor.

Miles asks about the security system for the force-bubbles, how their owners are authenticated.  Rian tells him, only in general terms, that the control panels of the chairs do a gene-scan, matching several designated genetic markers, to confirm the operator is a haut-lady, and identify the particular one.  Miles asks if it is possibly for two haut-women, perhaps from the same constellation, to match so closely that one could pass for the other.  If not, then they simply need to examine the list of the six haut-women that Colonel Benin has logged as approaching the bier with the opportunity to deposit Ba Lura’s body.  Unfortunately, Rian says that to get access to that kind of genetic data, they would need the Great Key itself.

Miles says that his own investigations seem to point to either Slyke Giaja or Ilsum Kety, with Este Rond a distant third, but none of the consorts have any information that can narrow it down any further.  Miles proceeds to tell the haut-ladies of the events on Eta Ceta since their arrival, Rian showing no sign of wishing him to withhold anything in particular.  He realizes that by spreading the information around, she wishes to make it harder for Lord X to eradicate it completely.

After he finishes his story, he suggests Ivan’s Plan B, the retrieval of the gene banks.  Lord X would be unable to just flee without arousing the suspicions of the military, who could take care of him easily.  At that point they can try to negotiate for the return of the Great Key, or enlist the help of the other governors.  One consort suggests that the governor may threaten to destroy it; haut Nadina says that Ilsum Kety is probably capable of it, if he is the guilty party, and the consort of Slyke’s planet doesn’t deny his capacity either.  Miles says that reconstructing the Great Key is still possibly, but Rian insists that retrieving it is the highest priority.

The consorts lament the possibility that the gene bank distribution be delayed even further, hoping that they could still manage to carry out the Dowager Empress’s plan.  Rian says that she herself had only been distributing the gene banks for backup purposes, and she wonders if the Ba Lura had really carried out its mistress’s plans by absconding with the Great Key, or if it had misunderstood her purpose.

She bowed her head. “I apologize to the Council for my failure.” Her tone of voice made Miles think of inward-turning knives.

“You did your best, dear,” said the haut Nadina kindly. But she added more sternly, “However, you should not have attempted to handle it all alone.”

“It was my charge.”

“A little less emphasis on the my, and a little more emphasis on the charge, next time.”

Miles tried not to squirm at the general applicability of this gentle correction.

The consorts begin to debate whether they need to begin making the haut-lords more controllable, or more aggressive to aid expansion, or whether the ghem can take care of that…  Rian brings the debate to a halt, noting that it will be the new Empress’s decision.  She calls for a vote, and they agree to recall the gene banks.  The banks will be identified as samples from each of the various satrapies, and the governors will be told that they found an error in the copy which must be corrected.  The consorts disperse, leaving Miles, Rian and Pel.  Miles asks if the plan to retrieve the Key is still in effect, but Rian says they must wait until the gene banks are returned, even if that leaves only two days.

Watching her, he searched his heart. The impact of his first mad crush was surely fading, in this drought of response, to be replaced by . . . what? If she had slaked his thirst with the least little drop of affection, he would be hers body and soul right now. In a way he was glad she wasn’t faking anything, depressing as it was to be treated like a ba servitor, his loyalty and obedience assumed. Maybe his proposed disguise as a ba had been suggested by his subconscious for more than practical reasons. Was his back-brain trying to tell him something?

Pel returns through the Celestial Garden; when Miles asks, she says that the plant and animal life in the garden is all ghem work, since the haut work only in the human genome, with ba servitors for field tests.   They return to the Lady d’Har’s rooftop by groundcar and lift, and Pel lets him out in a private nook.  He waits in the garden until Ivan and Vorob’yev find him, exclaiming over his lateness, but he has nothing more he can tell them.

Comments

I forgot it was so late in the book before we met Pel, because she is one of the most memorable characters in the book, a haut lady with a sense of humour and an adventurous spirit.  We will see more of her, though not enough, alas.  I wonder if her dive off the rooftop was calculated to throw watchers off the scent, or if she was taking a shortcut and having some fun.

The consorts’ debate about the future of the haut is interesting, and a little scary.  These women, remember, consider the genetic future of their race something to plan out and fine-tune.  They were all in sympathy with the Dowager Empress’s plan to fragment the Cetagandan Empire.  Are they out of touch with the actual effects this would have on the galaxy, or do they just consider the benefits to outweigh the risks?

There is a mention, too, of potential “aggression” genes making their way into the haut genome by way of the ghem “experiment”.  I recall that the haut genes were supposed to make their way into the ghem genome by means of the haut wives, but I didn’t recall that it was supposed to go the other way.  Do they just sample ghem, or even the lower classes, and monitor them to see if there’s anything worth integrating?  The mention of how the ba are used for field tests is also telling, but perhaps riskier than the haut-ladies admit to themselves.


I do think we’re getting close to the climax here, since, after all, the tension goes up the closer we get to the deadline for the retrieval of the Great Key.  So next week maybe we’ll actually get into it.  There’s only four more chapters left to go, after all…

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