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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.