The Vorkosigan Saga Reread continues, leaving memories that become legend. Legend becomes myth, something something something, oh wait, this is Lois McMaster Bujold, not Robert Jordan…. Somewhere a few hundred years in the future, or possibly a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Mark Vorkosigan was on the planet of Barrayar, while his brother’s frozen body was still missing. There are neither beginnings nor endings in the Vorkosigan Saga, and, quite frankly, this is kind of in the middle, because it’s Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen in the novel Mirror Dance, so here we go.
Ivan takes Mark to the caravanserai for lunch; most of the area has been cleaned up and renovated since its seedier days. Ivan points out the building where he was born during Vordarian’s Pretendership, and after lunch he takes Mark to the street where Padma Vorpatril’s death is commemorated by a plaque. Ivan says they usually went to a nearby pastry shop after burning death offerings, and takes Mark there for dessert. While Ivan is flirting with the counter-girl, Mark steps back outside with a bag of pastries and is seized with an impulse to look for a former underground Komarran spy contact a couple of blocks away, just out of idle curiosity.
On his way back, he takes a wrong turn and ends up in a cul-de-sac; turning to leave, he is spotted by an old woman, who calls him a “mutie” and goads her grandson into attacking him. When confronted, Mark switches to an Earth accent, but apparently they don’t like offworlders either. Mark takes the opportunity to vent and slag off on Barrayar, and soon finds that two of the youth’s friends have come up behind him. They attack before Mark is sure that the insult content has ended. Mark diverts the first two attacks, directing the attackers away, but blocking himself in the alley.
They jumped him both together, telegraphing every move. The purely defensive katas continued to work charmingly; they flowed into, and out of, his momentum-gate to end up both on the ground, shaking their heads dizzily, victims of their own aggression. Mark wriggled his jaw, which had taken a clumsy blow, hard enough to sting and wake him up. The next round was not so successful; he ended up rolling out of reach, finally losing his grip on the bakery bag, which promptly got stomped. And then one of them caught up with him in a grapple, and they took some of their own back, pounding unscientific blows of clenched fists. He was getting seriously out of breath. He planned an arm-bar and a sprint to the street. It might have ended there, a good time having been had by all, if one of the idiot punks, crouching, hadn’t pulled out a battered old shock-stick and jabbed it toward him.
Mark almost killed him instantly with a kick to the neck; he pulled his punch barely in time, and the blow landed slightly off-center. Even through his boot he could feel the tissues crush, a sickening sensation richoceting up through his body. Mark recoiled in horror as the kid lay gurgling on the ground. No, I wasn’t trained to fight. I was trained to kill. Oh, shit. He’d managed not to quite smash the larynx. He prayed the kick hadn’t snapped a major internal blood vessel. The other two assailants paused in shock.
Ivan arrives then and demands to know what’s going on; Mark claims to have been jumped, and one of the kids runs though the other stays with his injured friend, and the old woman screams insults at them until the municipal guards arrive. Ivan manages to keep Mark’s name out of the incident, and Mark doesn’t want to press charges anyway, so they are soon back in Ivan’s car.
Mark complains about the absence of “outer perimeter”, and Ivan points out that they were the ones who called the guards. Mark asks if Miles had to put up with this, and Ivan says that Miles wouldn’t have gone there in the first place, and would have talked his way out if he had. Mark wonders why the great and powerful Vor have to be so careful around scum like that, why they can’t just get rid of them. Mark wonders about the kid he kicked, if he’s going to be okay, and realizes that maybe he should have backed off because the punks weren’t in his “weight class”.
They stop at Ivan’s apartment so Mark can clean himself and his clothes; Mark will still have visible bruises for a few days, but Miles would have ended up with broken bones in the same situation. When they return to Vorkosigan House, Ivan downplays the incident, but Aral and Cordelia have the full report by evening. She tells Mark that his victim will be on liquid food for a little while, but will regain his voice; Ivan has already paid his medical bills, beating her to it. The next day, she says, Elena and Pym will escort Mark instead.
Aral says that Gregor, apparently impressed with Mark, has given permission for him to be officially presented as one of House Vorkosigan’s heirs–as the heir, if and when Miles’s death is confirmed. He hasn’t decided yet if it would be better to ram Mark’s confirmation as heir through the Council of Counts, or wear them down slowly, which might leave Mark’s position more secure in the long run. Mark asks if he could be rejected, and Aral says that heirs to Countships need to be approved, though personal property is outside their jurisdiction. Approval is usually a formality, if it’s a relative, but there are odd cases, including the case of one Count Vortala who had quarreled with his son and had his horse, Midnight, declared his heir instead.
“What . . . a hopeful precedent for me,” Mark choked. “How did Count Midnight do? Compared to the average Count.”
“Lord Midnight. Alas, no one found out. The horse pre-deceased the Vortala, the war petered out, and the son eventually inherited after all. But it was one of the zoological high points of the Council’s varied political history, right up there with the infamous Incendiary Cat Plot.” Count Vorkosigan’s eye glinted with a certain skewed enthusiasm, relating all this. His eye fell on Mark and his momentary animation faded. “We’ve had several centuries to accumulate any precedent you please, from absurdities to horrors. And a few sound saving graces.”
After supper, Mark flees to the library, where he looks at a few paper books before settling down with a large volume of arms and armour, fascinated by the bizarre distinctions between types down to the minutest differences. When Count Vorkosigan enters, Mark instinctively stays quiet, hoping the Count will leave again, not wanting to end up in conversation with him again. Instead, Aral sits at a comconsole and settles in; Mark is just considering making some noise to reveal his presence when Cordelia enters as well. Aral turns to her, and they have a conversation which quickly turns to Mark himself.
They discuss how Mark is getting a “crash course” in Barrayar, including its fear of mutants, which Aral hopes he will understand more with the proper historical background. He notes that Mark seems to be more confrontational than Miles, inclined to push through resistance rather than dance around it, noting his tendency to dress to emphasize his height rather than downplay it. Cordelia asks if Mark’s weight gain embarrasses him, but says it’s an obvious move; Aral asks her to explain it.
She tells her there’s three factors–first, that unlike Miles, Mark could easily have grown up to a healthy Ivan-sized adult, but has been artificially cut down, without his metabolism having been retooled to fit, so he’ll end up more heavyset by nature. Second, it’s a way of asserting control over his body shape, which others have been manipulating without his consent all his life. Third, he’s using it to distance himself from Miles, to make himself more distinct from his brother and carve out his own identity, for fear of being overshadowed all his life. Once he works through his fear and control issues, he should settle down, Cordelia judges.
“If Miles is dead,” he began.
“If Miles is not recovered and revived,” she corrected sharply.
“Then Mark is all we have left of Miles.”
“No!” Her skirts rustled as she rose, stepped, turned, paced. God, don’t let her walk over this way! “That’s where you take the wrong turn, Aral. Mark is all we have left of Mark.”
Aral asks if, in that case, Mark is really ready to be the next Count Vorkosigan, and Cordelia asks if Aral will only accept Mark as a potential heir, like his own father disapproved of Miles. She notes that many current Counts are no great shakes either, so he wouldn’t have that much to live up to. Aral says it’s also the Vorkosigan District that would need to accept him, deformed and a clone, as their Count. Miles has earned their affection to some extent through his own efforts, but Mark doesn’t seem to radiate the same kind of personality; Cordelia speculates Mark is still working through guilt over having been trained to assassinate Aral.
Aral begins to contemplate Ivan’s possible virtues as Count, though he knows that Ivan is capable of much more than he’s ever exhibited. Cordelia says that Ivan is being careful not to shine too brightly, not being that far away from the Imperial Throne, so he won’t attract conspiracies to put him on it. Mark would do well enough on Beta Colony, she says; Aral points out sadly that on Beta Colony he wouldn’t be able to get to know Mark at all. Cordelia says that he should then try to spend some time with Mark while he’s on Barrayar.
“I cannot stop all government business for this personal crisis,” said the Count stiffly. “As much as I might like to.”
“You did for Miles, as I recall. Think back on all the time you spent with him, here, at Vorkosigan Surleau . . . you stole time like a thief to give to him, snatches here and there, an hour, a morning, a day, whatever you could arrange, all the while carrying the Regency at a dead run through about six major political and military crises. You cannot deny Mark the advantages you gave Miles, and then turn around and decry his failure to outperform Miles.”
She tells him that he doesn’t need to be the parent he was for crippled baby Miles, but he can try to be the father for a Mark in his twenties. She also urges him to retire as Prime Minister, but Aral says that he can’t, because he needs to be in the loop with Illyan and ImpSec during the search for Miles, to make sure they search hard enough. Cordelia says there’s no fear of that in any event.
When the Count spoke again at last his voice was weary. “I was ready to step down three years ago and hand it off to Quintillan.”
“Yes. I was all excited.”
“If only he hadn’t been killed in that stupid flyer accident. Such a pointless tragedy. It wasn’t even an assassination!”
The Countess laughed blackly at him. “A truly wasted death, by Barrayaran standards. But seriously. It’s time to stop.”
They leave the library; Mark, curled up on the chair still, is in pins and needles from the cramped position, but emotionally feels even more worked over by Cordelia’s frank opinions, wondering how transparent he really is. What he realizes is that he no longer feels afraid of the Count and Countess, since they don’t seem to be different in private than they are in public, and embody that word “integrity” that he’s always heard about.
Lest we think that Mark was some kind of physical nincompoop…he does have mad fighting skills, but they are kind of skewed a certain way–towards fatal blows and the like. Admittedly, his judo throws, or whatever (“momentum-gate”? Is that a real term?) were effective, but it doesn’t take long for him to accidentally almost kill someone. It’s true that he is a little more confrontational than Miles, but he does still have a big chip on his shoulder. Despite Aral’s best efforts, Mark isn’t necessarily warming to Barrayar. He’s the guy who obstinately refuses to get out of the way just to be stubborn.
I find myself wanting now to try to poke holes in what Cordelia says–does Bujold really intend her to always be right?–but she is right about an awful lot. She certainly sees the reasons for Mark’s weight gain, and she does see that Aral is not necessarily trying the right approach to Mark, that he’s more interested in making Mark into the backup heir, and maybe even backup Miles. And he’s completely at a loss about how to even proceed, so he chickens out, avoids Mark and makes excuses that he never let himself make about Miles.
Mark spends the next few weeks being taken by Elena to places of cultural and historical significance in Vorbarr Sultana and surrounding districts, as well as a number of schools and universities; he’s heartened to note that the Agricultural & Engineering Institute, rather than anything military, is the largest school in the capital. Elena does her duty but keeps to herself, giving Mark lectures rather than conversation. One evening the Count arrives at Vorkosigan House and takes Mark and Elena off to Vorkosigan Surleau. Mark wonders why he’s bring brought to the Vorkosigans’ most private retreat–as a test, or a reward?
The next morning he comes across Aral and Elena, dressed in their formal uniforms, burning an offering in the cemetery; Mark watches quietly rather than disturb them. Elena leaves shortly after, though looking a little less strained than she had before, and Aral summons Mark inside. He explains that Elena was burning a death-offering to her father, which she hadn’t had the chance to before; Mark is familiar with Sergeant Bothari from his briefings, but Galen didn’t spend much time on him as he was already dead by that point.
“He should have. Sergeant Bothari was very important to Miles. And to us all. Bothari was . . . a difficult man. I don’t think Elena ever was quite reconciled to that. She’s needed to come to some acceptance of him, to be easy with herself.”
“Difficult? Criminal, I’d heard.”
“That is very . . .” The Count hesitated. Unjust, Mark expected him to add, or untrue, but the word he finally chose was ” . . . incomplete.”
The Count shows Mark around the graveyard, pointing out ancestors, relatives and retainers, though they don’t go back past the destruction of Vorkosigan Vashnoi. The Count says he wants to be buried here, rather than in Vorbarr Sultana, as he managed to do for his own father. He says some of the happiest moments of his life were spent here, including his marriage and honeymoon, and Miles’s conception, and so, in a way, Mark’s. Mark notes that they must have brought their uniforms specifically to do this offering, and asks if that was the purpose for the trip; Aral replies, among others.
After breakfast, Aral takes Mark on a walk up the hill to the horse pasture. He asks Mark to try calling over Miles’s horse, Fat Ninny, admitting he’s curious if the horse will be fooled by Mark’s voice. Mark calls the horse over, and it comes; Aral explains that Miles always gave it sugar, and gives him some for the horse. Mark diffidently gives it to Fat Ninny, and Aral shares some out to the other horses as well. He asks Mark if he wants to ride, but Mark doesn’t.
After they leave the pasture, Aral mentions a riding trail through the woods to an old picnic spot, and asks if Mark would like to see it. Mark doesn’t want to refuse another overture, so he agrees, noticing a complete lack of armsmen or bodyguards, heralding a private chat to come. As they walk, Mark asks if Cordelia put him up to this.
“Not really,” said the Count, ” . . . yes.”
A thoroughly mixed reply and probably true.
“Will you ever forgive the Bharaputrans for shooting the wrong Admiral Naismith?”
“Probably not.” The Count’s tone was equable, unoffended.
Mark asks if ImpSec would be going to all this trouble if it were his dead body in the cryo-chamber, not Miles’s, and Aral says that Miles would probably be spearheading the ImpSec search himself. Aral would probably be less forceful, but Cordelia would care just as much. Mark comments on his brutal honesty, and Aral says they need to build their relationship on it from the start.
After a while longer, the Count brings up the cryo-chamber again. Mark has been kept mostly in the dark, except for what he could get out of Cordelia, which is mostly negative reports of an ever-growing number of places where the cryo-chamber isn’t. Aral tells him they’ve found the cryo-chamber, and Mark is excited before he realizes that there must be something wrong, or Aral would have mentioned it sooner. Aral says it was found, empty, cleaned and reconditioned, and up for sale by a medical supply company in the Hegen Hub; the ImpSec agent who found it bought it and shipped it for Komarr.
They investigated the company and found that they may have bought it from someone who bought it on the black market, so it’s a bit of a dead end. It may have come directly from Jackson’s Whole, but it could as easily have gone via Cetaganda; they’ve calculated there are nine planets, seventeen stations, and a large number of ships where it could have been taken. Aral says he’d almost rather the Cetagandans had taken Miles’s body as part of some nefarious plan than some other possibilities, like some Jacksonian petty thief dumping him on a midden.
Mark says that Norwood had more on the ball than that, he would have sent it to somewhere he had confidence in. Aral admits that it was reconditioned before being bought in the Hegen Hub, so Mark says that there must have been another medical facility involved in that, so Miles might be in storage somewhere. Mark knows that kind of altruism is rare on Jackson’s Whole, unfortunately. Aral says that it wouldn’t take that much to clean up the chamber if the body had just been dumped.
“The report came in yesterday afternoon. So you see . . . it becomes measurably more important that I know where you stand. In relation to Barrayar.” He started again up the trail, then took a side branch that narrowed and began to rise steeply through an area of taller trees and thinner brush.
Mark toiled on his heels. “Nobody in their right mind would stand in relation to Barrayar. They would run in relation to Barrayar. Away.”
The Count grinned over his shoulder. “You’ve been talking too much to Cordelia, I fear.”
“Yes, well, she’s about the only person here who will talk to me.”
Aral admits his failure and apologizes, wondering ruefully if his own father felt as frustrated. He begins to ask Mark again, then gets a funny look on his face and sits down abruptly against a tree, muttering about something feeling strange, and saying he needs a rest. Mark agreeably sits nearby, but soon gets the impression that all is not well with the Count. He says it’s not a perforated ulcer, but his breathing is getting shallow, and he admits to chest pain. Mark says he should call for help on the commlink, and Aral says he left it behind, wanting a truly private conversation. As Aral gets worse, Mark begins to wonder if he did somehow do something.
Aral tells him to go fetch help from the house. Mark isn’t sure he was paying attention on the way up, and briefly considers trying to carry the Count, but abandons that idea swiftly. He runs pell-mell down the path, trying to remember where they turned, and wondering if they’re going to blame him for whatever happens to the Count. Finally he finds Elena and gets her attention; once he catches his breath, he tells her how Aral took sick up in the woods. She asks what he did, then cuts herself off and says there’s a commlink in the stable. She asks where the Count is, and Mark gives her what directions he can, then she runs for the barn and Mark staggers back up the path towards Aral. He finds the Count on the ground behind a fallen log, breathing in gasps.
“Hello. Boy,” he huffed in greeting.
“Elena’s bringing help,” Mark promised anxiously. He looked up and around, and listened. But they’re not here yet.
“Don’t . . . try to talk.”
This made the Count snort a laugh, an even more horrible effect against the disrupted breathing. “Only Cordelia . . . has ever succeeded . . . in shutting me up.” But he fell silent after that. Mark prudently allowed him the last word, lest he try to go another round.
Shortly thereafter, Elena arrives with an ImpSec medic on a float bike. The medic is also suspicious of Mark; after a quick examination of Aral, he tells Elena to get the Count’s physician to meet them at the hospital in Hassadar. Mark tries to help them load the Count on the float-bike, and the medic tells him to keep away, until the Count tells the medic that Mark’s all right. Elena tells Mark where they’re meeting the aircar, and after the float-bike takes off, Mark runs towards the clearing and just makes it there in time to get in.
In the aircar, the medic begins working to try to stabilize Aral, as Mark pants, desperately trying to regain his breath, and eventually succeeding.
Despite the synergine the Count’s eyes were going shocked and vague. He pawed at the little plastic oxygen mask, batted away the medic’s worried attempt to control his hands, and motioned urgently to Mark. He so clearly wanted to say something, it was less traumatic to let him than to try and stop him. Mark slid onto his knees by the Count’s head.
The Count whispered to Mark in a tone of earnest confidence, “All . . . true wealth . . . is biological.”
They make it to the hospital in Hassadar, where the Count is whisked away by a swarm of medical personnel, while Mark and Elena are sent to a private waiting room. The Countess arrives a few minutes later and heads right into the medical area.
Some clueless passing doctor on the other side actually tried to stop her: “Excuse me, ma’am, no visitors beyond this point—”
Her voice overrode his: “Don’t give me that crap, kid, I own you.”
Elena tells Mark that is literally true; Cordelia has put a lot of money into the medical program, and half of the staff are oath-sworn to her personally. Mark looks out the window at Hassadar, a New City, mostly built after the Cetagandan invasion and looking not unlike a galactic city of similar size, and is surprised to note that it’s still morning. It’s close to noon before Cordelia emerges, to tell them that Aral is stabilized, but his heart is badly damaged and will need a transplant, and he’s being transferred to ImpMil.
Mark asks Cordelia, who had been at ImpSec HQ waiting for more news, if there was any, and she says no. She notes that at least the news seems to have driven Aral to try to connect with Mark.
“No . . . I don’t know. He took me around, showed me things. He tried. He was trying so hard, it hurt to watch.” It hurt still, a knotted ache somewhere behind his solar plexus. The soul dwelt there, according to somebody-or-other’s mythology.
“Did it,” she breathed.
It was all too much. The window was safely shatterproof, but his hand was not; his soul-driven fist bunched, drew back, and struck.
The Countess caught it with a quick open hand; his self-directed violence smacked into her palm and was deflected.
“Save that,” she advised him coolly.
Loads of little references here–Mark sees Amor Klyeuvi, from _Barrayar_, buried in the cemetery, and feels a scar on Fat Ninny’s neck from “The Mountains of Mourning”. And the offering for Bothari, of course, long overdue for Elena. I often wonder, given how Elena must have felt about finding out the truth about her father’s true past, why she didn’t just become Elena Jesek, but kept the “Bothari” in there as well. She must have been highly conflicted, and burning the offering seems to have released something. I sometimes wonder what these Barrayar chapters would look like from Elena’s point of view; she’s so reserved that it’s hard for Mark to know what she’s really feeling, or for the reader to get the cues that might let us, with our potentially greater knowledge of backstory, to figure it out. I’m not even sure why she’s still on Barrayar, why she hasn’t fled back to the Dendarii Mercenaries, but maybe she feels that she can also help on the ImpSec side of things…?
I find that as I read this chapter by chapter, I try to tease out what the purpose for each chapter is. When I read it straight out, it’s more just reading event after event, scene after scene, but now it’s like trying to figure out how the chapter is composed. I could conceivably summarize each chapter in one sentence, and maybe not even a run-on one; you lose a lot that way, but you can also figure out what the novel may have looked like as an outline… This one is obviously “Aral has a heart attack while in the woods with Mark”. The heart attack is of course important, but the fact that it happens when he’s alone with Mark is also significant. The suspicion that Elena and the medic (who does have a name, Jasi, I just didn’t include it) have of Mark is telling, but maybe after this he’ll be able to put that behind him, at least a little bit. The news about the cryo-chamber is designed to be devastating, since it adds that extra element of uncertainty–it’s turned up, but empty, so what happened to Miles? I can think of at least a couple of major scenes coming up with Mark, so probably at least two more chapters before we find out anything more about Miles’s fate.
Which is a good place to end it, I guess. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep up the two-chapters-a-week pace, but we’re moving house soon, so things will get more chaotic around here for a while. Wish me luck.