Welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, as I manage, against all odds, to progress two more chapters into Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Mirror Dance, where Miles Vorkosigan’s absence casts a pall over the Emperor’s Birthday celebration, as, to some extent, does his clone Mark’s presence. With no further ado, here we go:
Mark dresses for the Emperor’s Birthday celebration, noticing that the outfit he’s wearing had been a little loose when delivered eight weeks earlier, but fits fine now, and wonders if ImpSec has been calculating his weight gain. Cordelia’s dress is colourful, seeming carefully designed not to suggest mourning in any way. She tells Mark he will certainly rivet the attention of the Vor crowd, and then gives him his ceremonial bag of gold with some tips on how to present it to the Emperor…a move which will also serve as a formal declaration of Mark as a Vorkosigan heir.
“Whatever your own feelings—whatever the final outcome of the present crisis—don’t let them see you shake,” the Countess advised. “It’s all in the mind, this Vor system. Conviction is contagious. So is doubt.”
“You consider the Vor system an illusion?” Mark asked.
“I used to. Now I would call it a creation, which, like any living thing, must be continually re-created. I’ve seen the Barrayaran system be awkward, beautiful, corrupt, stupid, honorable, frustrating, insane and breathtaking. Its gets most of the work of government done most of the time, which is about average for any system.”
“So . . . do you approve of it, or not?” he asked, puzzled.
“I’m not sure my approval matters. The Imperium is like a very large and disjointed symphony, composed by a committee. Over a three-hundred year period. Played by a gang of amateur volunteers. It has enormous inertia, and is fundamentally fragile. It is neither unchanging nor unchangeable. It can crush you like a blind elephant.”
Cordelia reminds him that not everyone there will be a stranger–the Vorpatrils, and several others that he’s met over the past several weeks’ full schedule of private dinner parties. Mark asks what to say to those who will be fishing for information about Aral’s condition, and Cordelia advises the truth, which is easiest to keep track of, though he needn’t go too deeply into the details, which might reveal how serious his situation is. Mark asks what if they ask him about Miles, and Cordelia says they’re not near to being ready to declare him dead yet, and as far as most people know he’s just on a long courier mission.
Mark tells her how Galen had briefed him on the Emperor’s Birthday and other major festivals. He tells her some of the things Ser Galen had said about Aral–that he was a murderer, a torturer, a madman, and a sodomite. Cordelia says that Aral was a soldier and killed many people, but insists that he was innocent of the Solstice Massacre, where he gained his sobriquet of “Butcher”, though he did kill his political officer (who had ordered the massacre) afterwards. The torture could be blamed on Ges Vorrutyer and Prince Serg, now dead; the sanity of anyone of Barrayar was seriously in question; and as for being a sodomite, Cordelia says she’s always thought Aral was strongly attracted to soldiers, which led to homosexuality on Barrayar, but made Cordelia herself an ideal compromise. Mark is relieved to hear the Count’s personality being picked apart the way his own was earlier.
Mark asks what Miles thought of all this, and Cordelia admits that Miles never asked, and may have discounted a lot of what he’d heard as being vicious rumour. She’s told Mark, because she thought he needed to know, especially with Galen’s exaggerations and misinformation cluttering up his mind. She also points out that since everyone has flaws, then having flaws is no excuse not to work wonders.
“I’ve never heard you analyze yourself, ma’am,” he said sourly. Yes, who shaved the barber?
“Me?” She smiled bleakly. “I’m a fool, boy.”
She evaded the question. Or did she? “A fool for love?” he said lightly, in an effort to escape the sudden awkwardness his question had created.
“And other things.” Her eyes were wintry.
Pym drives them to the Imperial Residence; Cordelia tells Mark that the armsmen will have a bit of a night off, since ImpSec will be taking charge of security for everyone at the residence. They meet Simon Illyan in the vestibule, in uniform and carrying real energy weapons. Cordelia gives him a real report on Aral’s condition–edemic, and mentally drifty–and hopes that he’ll last long enough for the organic heart to be grown without needing an extra transplant operation to install a mechanical replacement. She advises Simon not visit him, or he’ll try to get work done, and probably not able to manage it…although good news about Miles could always be shared. Mark asks why he’s not on Komarr, and Illyan says he still needs to run the security for the Birthday Dinner, or else someone could take out the entire government with one bomb. Mark asks about the search for Miles, and gets the impression that they might be dropping the priority, convinced that Miles is already dead.
Mark took a disturbed breath. “So how many agents do you have searching Jackson’s Whole?”
“As many as can be spared. This new crisis,” a jerk of Illyan’s head indicated Count Vorkosigan’s dangerous illness, “is straining my resources. Do you have any idea how much unhealthy excitement the Prime Minister’s condition is going to create on Cetaganda alone?”
“How many?” His voice went sharp, and too loud, but the Countess at least made no motion to quiet him. She watched with cool interest.
“Lord Mark, you are not yet in a position to request and require an audit of ImpSec’s most secret dispositions!”
Not yet? Not ever, surely. “Request only, sir. But you can’t pretend that this operation is not my business.”
Illyan excuses himself, and Mark and Cordelia ascend the stairs into the reception room, where Mark is momentarily dazzled by the splendour of the outfits, the Vor lords almost more than the women. He does note that most of the servants are probably ImpSec agents. His arrival is noticed, and Ivan and Lady Alys come over to greet them in the momentary conversational lull. Alys pulls Cordelia away for a private conversation, leaving Ivan to keep an eye on Mark.
Ivan describes the event as a “cattle drive”, with the young Vor heifers being brought out for matchmaking purposes. Even Mark, he allows, might be someone’s target, as a Count’s heir, no matter what he looks like. Mark is cheered momentarily by the prospect that women might actually come after him, even if only for his family connections. Ivan says that Miles never could take advantage of it, being too discouraged by momentary rejections, no matter how Ivan told him of the value of persistence. Mark wonders if Admiral Naismith was significantly different from Lord Miles Vorkosigan in that respect. Notwithstanding, Ivan tries to dodge the girls here, since it’s all “look don’t touch”; Mark recalls Barrayar’s antiquated attitudes towards sex and reproduction, and cheers further at the thought that here he might be able to interact with girls without the spectre of his sexual dysfunction coming up.
A girl that Ivan puts down as subpar, Cassia Vorgorov, comes over to talk to them, and Mark gets indignant on her behalf for how much Ivan is pointedly ignoring, and squandering, her look of hopeful adoration. Ivan introduces her to Mark, and she notes that he doesn’t quite look like Miles before belatedly introducing herself. Ivan takes the opportunity to excuse himself, and leaves the two of them to awkward conversation, which leads to Mark’s clone background before Cassia herself flees.
Cordelia comes back over to him and they discuss Ivan and Alys’s relationship; how Alys is trying to secure Ivan’s future, and he lazily goes along with it, except for the part where she wants him to settle down and start a family. She opines that if Ivan really wants to get his mother off his back, having children would be the best way to do it. Mark notes her own hands-off maternal attitude, and she wonders if that was a mistake, desolation shadowing her eyes for a second.
Changing the subject, she tells him how the real agenda of the ball is the genetic one of the mothers, arranging for the next generation of Vor. The big issue in question there is the uterine replicator–the ones who are more and more willing to let their daughters use it, and the ones who are jealous that they didn’t get to use it and are willing to forbid it to their daughters. She thinks that Vor society is going to change in the next decade, and they’re not going to see it coming.
The Major of Protocol comes to fetch them, and arrange for Mark’s presentation. Mark is surprised to see the Emperor seated on a camp-stool, which Cordelia explains as a symbol, and an old Barrayaran tradition. Panicking briefly, Mark retrieves the bag of gold and makes the presentation correctly, to the whispers of the rest of the hall. Gregor dismisses his financial minister to have a brief chat with Mark.
“So here you are after all—Lord Vorkosigan,” murmured Gregor.
“Just Lord Mark,” Mark pleaded hastily. “I’m not Lord Vorkosigan till Miles is, is . . .” the Countess’s searing phrase came back to him, “dead and rotted. This doesn’t mean anything. The Count and Countess wanted it. It didn’t seem like the time to give them static.”
“That’s so.” Gregor smiled sadly. “Thank you for that. How are you doing yourself?”
Gregor was the first person ever to ask after him instead of the Count. Mark blinked. But then, Gregor could get the real medical bulletins on his Prime Minister’s condition hourly, if he wanted them. “All right, I guess.” He shrugged. “Compared to everybody else, anyway.”
“Mm,” said Gregor. “You haven’t used your comm card.” At Mark’s bewildered look he added gently, “I didn’t give it to you for a souvenir.”
Mark says he doesn’t feel he’s earned it, and Gregor says the Vorkosigan family has an account that they could never exhaust. Mark says he doesn’t want to ask for anything, and Gregor reminds him that a new business often starts with borrowed capital. Mark says he tried that, with the Dendarii, and it didn’t work out that well. Gregor says they’ll talk again, and dismisses him, and Mark withdraws.
Aral, Alys and Ivan get the Cordelia analysis in this chapter. I’ll have to think about whether her opinion of Ivan is borne out by his viewpoint chapters in A Civil Campaign and, of course, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. Aral’s does seem plausible, at least, but then Cordelia has had a long time to observe him, and may even be able to muster sufficient objectivity on the subject. One hopes she hasn’t shared it with him; I’m not sure how he’d be able to deal with it. Of course, he probably does remember his earlier relationship with Ges Vorrutyer well enough, so he may have a bit of a clue on the matter.
Poor Mark is a little starved for affection, but he doesn’t know how to respond to it when he receives it, so he’s got a ways to go yet. If only he could meet somebody who was willing to overlook his appearance, and maybe even give him a second chance if he gets too defensive…
After the taxation ceremony, everyone sits down to a huge banquet. Mark is happy enough to eat and drink, rather than engage in idle conversation, and ends up a little tipsy before he picks up on Cordelia’s trick of not actually taking a drink with every toast. At least, he thinks, he doesn’t have to pretend to be Miles right now too. Afterwards they head into a large ballroom, where Cordelia and Gregor lead off the dancing. Mark notes that Barrayaran dances tend to be complex patterns involving multiple couples at once.
He flees to a side chamber, and considers getting drunk, but doesn’t want to embarrass Cordelia by getting sick, so he refrains. Nestled in a window nook, he watches her working the crowd, pursuing her goals ruthlessly even under the strain of her husband ill and her son missing and dead. His contemplations of what might have happened to Miles’s body are interrupted when he’s addressed by name.
He raised his eyes from blind contemplation of his boots to find himself facing a lovely cleavage, framed in raspberry pink gauze with white lace trim. Delicate line of collarbone, smooth swelling curves, and ivory skin made an almost abstract sculpture, a tilted topological landscape. He imagined himself shrunk to insect size, marching across those soft hills and valleys, barefoot—
“Lord Mark?” she repeated, less certainly.
He tilted his head back, hoping the shadows concealed the embarrassed flush in his cheeks, and managed at least the courtesy of eye contact. I can’t help it, it’s my height. Sorry. Her face was equally rewarding to the eye: electric blue eyes, curving lips. Short loose ash-blonde curls wreathed her head. As seemed the custom for young women, tiny pink flowers were braided into it, sacrificing their little vegetable lives for her evening’s brief glory. However, her hair was too short to hold them successfully, and several were on the verge of falling out.
She introduces herself as Kareen Koudelka, daughter of Clement, who of course is known to Mark from his briefings. Her father’s not present, called away to work at HQ. She asks after Miles, obviously not in the loop about his real situation; Mark asks if she’s in love with Miles too, but she says that with three older, and taller, sisters, she never stood a chance. Mark wishes she could be his, but after what his screwups he knows he doesn’t stand a chance, and even if he did, his sexual dysfunction would doubtless crop up. He tells her to go away, and she shrugs, saying she was warned he was moody, and turns to go. Mark rescues a couple of flowers fallen from her hair and calls her back, attempting to salvage the conversation.
She tells him she’s a student right now, and Countess Vorkosigan has promised her a chance to study on Beta Colony if she works hard. She finds Miles an inspiration, even just the fact that he made it through the Imperial Service Academy, and at the top of his class (obviously not knowing anything about the Dendarii or his real ImpSec duties). She excuses his poor temper on account of the Count’s condition.
“Have you made any friends here?”
“I . . . don’t quite know.” Ivan? Gregor? His mother? Were any of them friends, exactly? “I’ve been too busy making relatives. I never had any relatives before, either.”
She mentions that Miles always seems to have a lot of friends, which sets him off again, but she doesn’t seem fazed, and invites him to dance.
“I don’t know any of your dances.”
“That’s a mirror dance. Anybody can do the mirror dance, it’s not hard. You just copy everything your partner does.”
Mark doesn’t want to join the actual dance floor, though, and suggests dancing outside instead, but Kareen grabs him and tows him to the dancefloor. Mark asks her if she’s sure she wants to be seen dancing with a “toad”, as Ivan had called him earlier, and Kareen dismisses Ivan airily, which makes him feel better. It doesn’t take Mark long to get the hang of the dance, and he finds himself amused by the antics of some of the younger dancers. Kareen says he seems different when he laughs, and tells him dirty jokes to get him to laugh again.
After the dance finishes, he gets them drinks and leads her outside, conscious once again of the eyes on him. He is attracted by her warmth and her scent, but is afraid to get too close. She asks him, as a near-galactic, how he feels about uterine replicators, and he replies that he doesn’t see why any woman would want to not use one, and any man who wouldn’t let his wife use one would be a barbarian. He asks why she’s interested, and she says it’s still hypothetical. She and her sisters were born right around the time that sex-determination pills had become available, and many of the Vors chose to have sons around the time, so there’s a girl-drought, and Cordelia says that they could all marry Vors if they play their cards right; certainly none of the men would risk alienating potential candidates by insisting on body-births.
Ivan passes by, carrying a bottle and looking a little hunted as he descends to the garden. Mark asks Kareen if he has a chance at all–short, getting fat, and a clone. Kareen says that may be true, but as Miles’s clone he should have Miles’s intelligence, and the smart women will appreciate that too. Mark says morbidly that he wonders if the Jacksonians changed that about him, because he doesn’t feel that smart.
Kareen’s sister Delia arrives and says their mother wants her, and Kareen bids Mark farewell and says it was nice meeting him. When she’s gone, he collects the rest of the flowers she’d shed from her hair and puts them in his pockets. He relishes her parting smile, though once again reminds himself that after Jackson’s Whole he’s personally bankrupt.
He descends to the garden looking for Ivan, and runs into a man in Imperial uniform who calls him “Vorkosigan’s clowne“. Mark rises to the baiting, feeling as belligerent as he had in the caravanserai, agreeing that he has no sense of honour and is really more of an assassin than a soldier. The Vor tells him that if Aral dies, he won’t become Count Vorkosigan, and Mark agrees, but wonders how this fellow discovered that Miles was missing/dead. Mark is warning him not to annoy ImpSec when a servant walks by and offers them drinks; the Vor strides off into the garden. Mark, sure that the servant is ImpSec sent to rescue him, castigates him for his timing, saying he hadn’t had time to dig anything interesting out of him yet; the servant doesn’t break his cover, if any, but does identity the man as Captain Edwin Vorventa. Before he goes, Mark asks him where Ivan might be, and the servant gives him rough directions.
Ivan is in a gazebo near a fountain, alone, and doesn’t seem to want to talk, but as Mark turns to go he offers Mark a drink from the bottle. Mark asks if he’s safe to drive, and Ivan says he’ll just stay there to be swept up with the garbage in the morning. Mark realizes that Ivan is crying, but doesn’t mention it; Ivan says he’s trying to get very drunk, a traditional kind of Emperor’s Birthday challenge. Ivan starts reminiscing about previous Emperor’s Birthdays with Miles, and admits he’s heard about the empty cryo-chamber. Mark offers to help him back to his car, and Ivan accepts; at the edge of the garden they meet Cordelia, who arranges for some armsmen to take Ivan home.
Cordelia takes Mark himself home, then goes to call ImpMil. On impulse, Mark goes up to Miles’s room for a look around. It’s fairly bare, but there are several mementos around, which Mark examines.
Reasonably enough, the few mementos that had been retained tended heavily to reminders of successes. Miles’s diploma from the Imperial Service Academy, and his officer’s commission, were normal enough, though Mark wondered why a battered old Service issue weather manual was also framed and placed exactly between them. A box of old gymkhana awards going back to youth looked as if they might be heading for an attic very soon. Half a wall was devoted to a massive book-disk and vid collection, thousands of titles. How many had Miles actually read? Curious, he took the hand-viewer off its hook on the wall nearby and tried three disks at random. All had at least a few notes or glosses entered in the margin-boxes, tracks of Miles’s thought. Mark gave up the survey, and passed on.
One object he knew personally; a cloissoné-hilted dagger, which Miles had inherited from old General Piotr. He dared to take it down and test its heft and edge. So when in the past two years had Miles stopped carting it around, and sensibly begun leaving it safely at home? He replaced it carefully on the shelf in its sheath.
One wall-hanging was ironic, personal, and obvious: an old metal leg-brace, crossed, military-museum fashion, with a Vor sword. Half joke, half defiance. Both obsolete. A cheap photonic reproduction of a page from an ancient book was matted and mounted in a wildly expensive silver frame. The text was all out of context, but appeared to be some sort of pre-jump religious gibberish, all about pilgrims, and a hill, and a city in the clouds. Mark wasn’t sure what that was all about; nobody had ever accused Miles of being the religious type. Yet it was clearly important to him.
Some of these things aren’t prizes, Mark realized. They are lessons.
He looks through a portrait collection–Bothari, Quinn, Elena, Miles’s parents, Ninny, Ivan, Gregor, and then dozens of people Mark doesn’t even recognize. He finds Kareen’s flower-buds in his pockets, throws them to the floor, then picks them up again before starting to weep. Ten minutes on Jackson’s Whole would have made all the difference–how many ten-minute spans have passed without him even noticing, when that one has screwed up his life forever?
He recovers himself, washes his face, and sits at Miles’s comconsole; though his palmprint is beginning to become distinct from Miles’s, he is eventually able to access at least the top layer. He calls ImpSec and asks to speak to Simon Illyan. When he has Illyan on the line, he mentions the encounter with Vorventa, and points out that Vorventa seemed to know about Miles, which Illyan didn’t expect. Illyan isn’t happy to have yet another problem to look at, but he’s glad to know about it; Mark asks if he can get in on the investigation of Miles. After some consideration, Illyan turns him down, not wanting Mark to have that kind of access to secure files.
“What do you imagine you can do that ImpSec hasn’t?” Illyan snapped.
“The point is, sir—ImpSec hasn’t. You haven’t found Miles. I can hardly do less.”
He hadn’t put that quite as diplomatically as he should have, Mark realized, as Illyan’s face darkened with anger. “Good night, Lord Mark,” Illyan repeated through his teeth, and cut the link with a swipe of his hand.
Mark thinks about the Vorventa incident, and notes that Illyan hadn’t picked up on Vorventa’s illicit knowledge, and so isn’t as smart as Mark had once thought. He contemplates Miles and all his supporting cast, and how he can never catch up to him, and then he takes out Gregor’s comm card. Finally he puts the call through, and asks to be put through to Gregor; Gregor informs him that it’s five in the morning, and Mark feels foolish, but asks him to override Illyan and let Mark in on the search for Miles. After some consideration, Gregor says, “Let’s see what happens” and agrees to call Illyan–right away, as Mark’s urging. Illyan calls Mark back shortly afterward and tells him to be at ImpSec in the morning–in less than three hours–and he’ll have the access he desires. Mark realizes what Gregor already had, that Lord Mark Vorkosigan is a real person with something to offer after all.
Oh, look, it’s the actual mirror dance! It came up earlier, of course, back in Barrayar, and was heavily symbolic there, too, as Cordelia discovered that she could lead the dance just as easily as Aral… We haven’t seen Koudelka in a few books, but here we finally get to see some of the next generation, Kou and Drou’s kids–Kareen and Delia, at least; I think the other two don’t show up until A Civil Campaign. Kareen has enough of Cordelia’s influence, and familiarity with Miles, that she’s not put off even by Mark’s moodiness. One dares to hope that the two of them may have some kind of a future…
It’s funny looking at Miles’s souvenirs from Mark’s point of view. The weather manual from Kyril Island, Count Piotr’s dagger (when did Miles stop carrying it around?), the page of text that was Suegar’s inspiration in the Dagoola prison camp…fairly personal, so much so that Galen and his intelligence didn’t have a clue about them. Though I would have thought that Mark would know about Kyril Island, at least, but I guess he didn’t realize its significance to Miles. Dagoola was probably a bit too recent for Galen to have much intel on it, apart from the TV-movie they’d made, of course, which might have glossed over the religious tract…unless they interviewed Suegar, of course. One suspects that they did not.
Ivan’s grief about Miles is affecting, given how much of a facade he puts up most of the time. When Mark is shedding his own private tears, he apologizes silently to Ivan for interrupting his. And then he finally begins to _do_ something about it, calling Illyan, and then Gregor, in his determination to help find Miles. The late-night conversation with Gregor is fun, especially when Gregor remarks how much he sounds like Miles when apologizing for waking him…
Things are a little turbulent here right now, and I’m having more trouble finding time, opportunity and inclination for doing two chapters a week here. I wanted to do these two together because of the unity of time, but I might drop back to one chapter, or maybe even change the day of the week I post, because somehow I almost always arrive at Monday evening without having done more than read the two chapters in preparation, and then I have to spend most of two evenings working on it. But I will persevere, fear not, even if it’s only one chapter at a time.