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.
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.
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…
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.
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…