Are you still shell-shocked from watching this season’s Game of Thrones? Full of schadenfreude from having known what was going to happen for years? Trying to avoid spoilers (good luck with that!), or just not caring about the whole thing? Why not come visit a story where weddings are, in general, less fraught–Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga? Admittedly, there are no actual weddings in Memory, though some people are certainly thinking matrimonial thoughts. So let’s cover another couple of chapters, picking up Miles during his visit to the Dendarii Mountains and following him to where the real plot of the book…doesn’t quite start yet. But Miles is almost recovered enough to be able to deal with it when it does.
Miles points out a clearing in front of a nearby cabin–Speaker Karal’s, last time he visited, and Martin lands the lightflyer there. A man comes out of the cabin–not Speaker Karal, though, but a younger man with a proprietary air. Miles gets out of the lightflyer uncertainly, briefly wishing for an actual bodyguard, but the stranger recognizes him and comes to greet him. Miles says it’s merely a social visit; the man asks if Miles recognizes him, then introduces him as Zed Karal, who was just a boy for Miles’s last visit. Miles asks after his parents, uncertain, and Zed says they stay with his brother and sister-in-law for the winter.
“Is . . . Karal not the Speaker of Silvy Vale anymore, then?”
“No, we have a new Speaker, as of about two years ago. A young hotshot full of Progressive ideas he picked up living in Hassadar, just your type. I think you’ll remember him all right. Name’s Lem Csurik.” Zed’s smile broadened.
Miles smiles for the first time that day and says he’d like to see Lem. Zed offers to guide them to the new clinic, where Lem will be working, and hops into the lightflyer to guide Martin and a bemused Miles. Over the next ridge they set down in front of the frame of a six-room building under construction. Lem recognizes Miles instantly (of course), and greets him happily. He tells Miles about the new clinic, which they hope to have finished before winter, after which they’ll have an actual doctor, one of the Countess’s scholarship students from Hassadar.
Miles asks about the dam, and Lem says they built it themselves, after giving up waiting for the District giving them a receiver for satellite power. They looked over a dam from another village, figured out how they could make one themselves, subcontracting the tricky parts to an engineer from Hassadar in exchange for a summer cabin. Lem says that this was the best site for the dam, and has made it possible for the village to improve, so they can have power for the clinic.
“You didn’t let anything stop you, did you?”
“Well, m’lord, you know who I learned that from.”
Harra, his wife, of course. Raina’s mother.
Miles asks after Harra, who he’s now starting to want to talk to as much as he had Raina; Lem says she’s teaching at the school, along with another girl Harra’s training. Lem says Harra will doubtless want to see Miles as well, and get in the lightflyer for his own turn as guide. They arrive at the log cabin labelled as the Raina Csurik School. Harra is teaching a class of teenagers, their wooden desks nonetheless holding comconsole links, but she interrupts the class to greet Miles, hugging him warmly. He did attend her graduation from teacher’s college in Hassadar, but hasn’t seen her since then. Harra introduces her to his class, who view him with interest more than revulsion; in fact, at the front of the class are three pictures–the Emperor and their Count, by regulation, but Miles as well. Miles feels a little self-conscious about his shabby clothes, but he gives an impromptu rah-rah speech before Harra shows him to the younger class as well.
Miles tells Harra that he’d really come to burn an offering on Raina’s grave, but he wouldn’t be able to do that now without setting his boat on fire, unless they moved her grave somewhere else. Harra says they did move most of the graves to a ridge above the lake–not her mother, of course, dishonoured by Raina’s murder, and not Raina, because they couldn’t find her tiny body and makeshift coffin. Instead, she considers the school Raina’s memorial, and teaching like burning an offering. She asks after his health, and he says he’s recovering from illness. Harra invites him for lunch to meet their own children, after dismissing the classes early.
They descended by lightflyer unannounced upon Lem’s sister, who rose to the challenge smoothly. The lunch she provided was, thank God, light. Miles dutifully met and admired Csurik children, nieces, and nephews. He was hijacked by them and taken on a stroll through the woods, and viewed a favorite swimming hole. He waded gravely along with them on the smooth stones with his boots off, till his feet were numb with the chill, and in a voice of Vorish authority pronounced it a most excellent swimming hole, perhaps the finest in his District. He was obviously an anomaly of some fascination, an adult almost their own size.
They return to the school in later afternoon, where a gathering is already well underway, a celebration of his presence, and he realizes he’s getting a party that day after all. They’re not getting out that night, and, given the maple mead being pased around, probably not until the next afternoon. By the time the bonfire’s blazing and he’s had a few sips of mead himself, Miles finds himself actually beginning to relax. Martin is teaching city dances to eager teenagers, and perhaps not taking it easy enough on the mead, but Miles decides to let him learn about that himself. Miles dances with Harra and a number of other women, feeling glad to be an excuse for their celebration.
As the party begins to die down, though, he feels a lack of closure, that he hasn’t accomplished what he came up here to do. He still needed that talk with Raina, somehow, possibly with a jug of mead, but he’s afraid to get too close to the reservoir and break his oath to Ivan by throwing himself in. Instead he goes with Lem and Harra.
It was not the dead Miles needed to talk to, in the dark, he realized. It was the living. Useless to confess to the dead; absolution was not in their power. But I’ll trust your Speaking, Harra, as you once trusted mine.
He says he wants to talk to them about something; Harra asks if he’s sick or dying, and Miles says he kind of did it backward. He explains about his death and revival, and the seizures, and how he screwed things up for himself by trying to hide them. Now he feels like he’s thrown a big chunk of his life away. Harra says it’ll do some good if it means he spends more time in the district; she knows all about shame, and waste.
Harra was silent for long enough for Lem to pass around the stone jug one last time, in the dim moonlight and shadows. Then she said, “You go on. You just go on. There’s nothing more to it, and there’s no trick to make it easier. You just go on.”
“What do you find on the other side? When you go on?”
She shrugged. “Your life again. What else?”
“Is that a promise?”
She picked up a pebble, fingered it, and tossed it into the water. The moon-lines bloomed and danced. “It’s an inevitability. No trick. No choice. You just go on.”
Noon the next day a very hung-over Martin pilots the lightflyer, very delicately back to Vorkosigan Surleau. He asks Miles if he found what he was looking for; Miles says it wasn’t there anymore. Lem and Harra are the kind of heroes the Dendarii Mountains need, not Admiral Naismith. He asks Martin how old “middle age” is, and Martin answers thirty; Miles thinks that his mother always considered it “ten years older than you are”.
“I had a professor at the Imperial Service Academy once,” Miles went on, as the hills grew more gentle beneath them, “who taught the introduction to tactical engineering course. He said he never bothered changing his tests from term to
term to prevent cheating, because while the questions were always the same, the answers changed. I’d thought he was joking.”
“Unh?” said Martin dutifully.
“Never mind, Martin,” Miles sighed. “Just go on.”
In case I thought I was past the parts of the book that made me cry…Harra Csurik’s “You just go on” speech there does it for me. I’m not sure why, but I guess it’s just that the two of them, each having known loss, connect on a deep level, and Harra’s lesson (which I’ve heard from survivors in my own life) is just: “You just go on”. Well, in reality there’s two choices–to stop, or to go on–but if you have the strength to avoid the first choice, then the second is all you’re left with.
And the Csuriks, and Silvy Vale, have gone on. They refused to stay the thing he remembered from his past, the isolated village and the baby’s grave. Miles apparently attended Harra’s graduation in Hassadar, at what point I’m not sure, but apparently he happened to be onplanet for that one. And Lem went from suspected murderer to respected community leader; they took action and built a dam, moving their graves out of the way, choosing the future over the past. He doesn’t need to just mourn the loss of the future he expected; he can take action and find a different future for himself.
How would the Csuriks’ lives have been different if Harra’s mother hadn’t killed Raina, if Raina hadn’t had a harelip and grown up as a normal girl? Would they have become the same community leaders that they are in this timeline, or is it only because of their adversity, and perhaps Miles’s example, that they managed to achieve so much? (Hint: Lem wasn’t talking about Harra when he was talking about how he learned not to let anything stop him.) It’s hard to prove counterfactuals, especially fictional counterfactuals, so let’s pretend that Miles played a crucial part, that this is like his “It’s A Wonderful Life” moment, showing him how much he improved things, just when his life has been at its darkest ebb. (Barrayarans, not being particularly religious, don’t believe in angels, though, I’d imagine, except perhaps Father Frost.)
Back at the lake house, Miles makes himself face the video birthday greetings forwarded from Vorbarr Sultana. Gregor’s is serious, Ivan’s is cautiously mocking; Mark’s, sent from Beta Colony, is somewhat stilted, and possibly oft-revised, but Miles allows that this may be Mark’s first chance to send a birthday greeting ever. Miles realizes that now he’ll have to send Mark a reply, and somehow tell him what’s happened without seeming to blame him for it.
Last is the message from his parents, which was sent through the government comm relays from Sergyar and would be little more than a day old; they’d be reacting to the most recent news to reach them. Even before they speak, Miles can tell from their expressions that they don’t know about his change of circumstance, though they seem to know that he is back on Barrayar. They congratulate him on reaching thirty alive, and try blaming their gray hairs on him, and ask him to route his next mission via Sergyar so he can come visit. They also ask why they haven’t heard from him yet–Lady Alys hasn’t passed on anything about him yet either. The subject turns to Gregor and Laisa, asking him for his opinions, and stating their support.
“Alys said she’ll do,” said the Countess, “and I trust Alys’s judgment. Though I don’t
know if the young lady quite realizes what she’s getting into. Please assure Dr. Toscane of my full support, Miles, whatever she decides to do.”
“Surely she’ll accept, if Gregor asks her,” said the Count.
“Only if she’s so head-over-heels in love as to have lost all sense of self-preservation,” said the Countess. “Believe me, you have to have lost your mind to marry a Barrayaran Vor. Let’s hope she has.” Miles’s parents exchanged peculiar smiles.
They reminisce about what they were doing at age thirty–Cordelia in the Betan Astronomical Survey, just missing promotion to captain, while Aral was already a captain, on ship duty. They demand that he send them a reply, and sign off. Miles promises himself he won’t put it off much longer.
They fly back to Vorbarr Sultana the next day, and Miles is just trying to compose the message when Ivan calls, happy to see him back in town. He badgers Miles about making a medical appointment to get his head looked at, having been ordered by Gregor by Lady Alys. Miles says it hasn’t seemed that urgent, since it wasn’t likely to get him back into ImpSec or the Dendarii if he gets them fixed. Ivan says that if he doesn’t want to go to ImpMil, there’s plenty of other clinics around, and he offers Miles their names and locations, though Miles has already done his own search. Ivan says he’s surprised that Miles isn’t up and running at this newest obstacle, determined to overcome it like usual. He says he’d half expected Miles to go running back to the Dendarii, and to hell with the treason charge and breaking his oath to Gregor, if he never planned to come back to Barrayar.
Miles promises to make an appointment by the end of the week, and Ivan says he’ll hold him to that. After the call, Miles wonders at his behaviour as well. He thinks that he was delaying his appointment to buy time, but he’s not sure for what. Facing reality perhaps, facing the possibility that his seizures can’t be cured, or facing the possibility that they can be, and the temptation to flee to the Dendarii will resurface. Has being killed scared him so much that he’s arranged this whole situation to keep from having to take dangerous missions again? He never had before, he’s proved his bravery over and over. Does he really need to keep on proving it?
Suppose he got his head fixed, here or on Komarr or on Escobar, it didn’t matter where. And suppose he took off, and ImpSec declined to assassinate their renegade Vor, and they achieved some unspoken agreement to ignore each other forevermore. And he was all and only Naismith.
And then what?
I face fire. Climb that wall.
And then what?
I do it again.
And then what?
And then what?
It’s logically impossible to prove a negative.
I’m tired of playing wall.
He decides it’s not cowardice, but he’s still not sure why he’s delaying. He turns to the message to his parents, and it comes out more stilted than Mark’s birthday message, but, refusing to put it off any longer, he sends it off…though by regular mail, so it’ll take a couple of weeks to get to Sergyar. He makes a slightly modified version to send to Quinn, whose birthday message had been demure, guarded, and anxious.
Ivan comes around for the dinner the next night, where he seems less concerned with nagging Miles about his medical appointment and more with winning over Ma Kosti. During dessert, Martin announces an “ImpSec stiff-rod” calling for Miles. Miles wonders by Simon Illyan would be calling him, but it turns out to be Duv Galeni instead.
“You smarmy goddamn little pimp,” said Galeni, in a dead-level voice.
Miles’s own bright, innocent, panicked, “Hi, Duv, what’s up?” tripped over this and fell very flat, and just lay there, withering under Galeni’s glare. Galeni’s face was neither red nor pale, but livid, gray with rage. I should have stayed at Vorkosigan Surleau one more week, I think.
Galeni outright accuses Miles of setting up the whole Laisa and Gregor thing, though Miles insists he couldn’t have known that Gregor would taken an interest. Galeni rails against Vor thievery, his dialect slipping back into gutter Komarran, though Ivan interjects to ask if Galeni is sure he wants to have this conversation over the com. Miles shushes Ivan, not sure he wants Galeni there in person when he’s this mad. He asks how Galeni found out, and Galeni says that Gregor and Laisa just called him, her “best friend” on the planet, to announce their engagement. He’d kept his cool then, congratulating them, saving his ire for Miles. Ivan asks Galeni how he’d managed to court Laisa for five months without her seeming to realize it, and Galeni said he had to prove himself worthy of her, and he had a timetable in mind, proposal at six months.
Galeni’s mad is winding down; he asks Miles if there’s any chance he could intercede to change Gregor’s mind, though he realizes himself that it’s hopeless. Miles says that he owes Gregor, and he really does want Gregor to get some heirs for his own peace of mind. He reminds Galeni that it’s Laisa’s decision, not anybody else’s, no matter what Galeni’s timetable was, and Galeni signs off. Ivan is relieved to get that over with, since he’s been avoiding Galeni for weeks, and accuses Miles of having done essentially the same in Vorkosigan District. Ivan suggests returning to dessert, but Miles says that he’s probably high on Gregor and Laisa’s call list as well, so they might as well wait.
Sure enough, they call a few minutes later, glowing with happiness, and inform Miles–and Ivan, when they find him there–of their engagement. Miles asks who else knows; Gregor says Lady Alys was the first, and informed Simon Illyan, and of course they called Duv Galeni.
“He agreed it might be good for planetary accord,” said Gregor, “which, considering his background, I find most heartening.”
In other words, you asked him point-blank, and he said, Yes, Sire. Poor, excellent Duv. No wonder he called me. It was that or explode. “Galeni . . . is a complex man.”
“Yes, I know you like him,” said Gregor.
They’d also sent a message to Aral and Cordelia, letting them know; Miles tells them that they already had an inkling from Alys, and passes on their expressions of support. Laisa is terribly interested to meet Lady Vorkosigan. Gregor asks Miles to be his Second, which he accepts. He asks about the date, and Gregor says, sadly, that Lady Alys, is insisting in making this as elaborate as possible, possibly involving an actual wedding on each planet. Alys is already en route to Komarr to contact Laisa’s parents, and she’s insisting on no formal betrothal for a month, and almost a year until the wedding. Miles recommends that they listen to her, because she’ll win over the Old Vor before he knows it. Gregor says he’d like to have Lady Cordelia there for the betrothal as well, and Miles assures him she’s not likely to miss it.
Gregor grinned. “Congratulations to you too, Miles. Your father before you needed a whole army to do it, but you’ve changed Barrayaran history just with a dinner invitation.”
Miles shrugged helplessly. God, is everybody going to blame me for this? And for everything that follows? “Let’s try to avoid making history on this one, eh? I think we should push for unalleviated domestic dullness.”
After they sign off, Ivan agrees that it’s Miles’s fault, because it was his idea to invite Duv Galeni along. They compromise on blaming it all on Lady Alys for asking Ivan for more guests in the first place. While searching for some booze to truly celebrate the affair, Ivan asks Miles if he thinks Galeni will do something stupid. Miles thinks about it for a long time before saying he won’t.
Duv Galeni calling Miles a smarmy little pimp is one of the scenes I always remember from this book. Because it’s so unlike the usually reserved Galeni, and given what he proved himself capable of in Brothers In Arms, Miles is right to be cautious of him. Poor guy–it can’t be easy for your girlfriend to fall for someone else, to not even realize that she was your girlfriend, and not just a friend… Oh, well, he’ll get over it.
At least Miles finally managed to send messages to his parents, and to Quinn. He’s learned that keeping secrets=bad, I guess. Sending video messages seems to be the thing on Barrayar, which seems more plausible now than it did back then, really. Now everybody’s got a netbook or smartphone with a camera, and sending video messages may not be routine yet, but it can’t be too far away. Sending them offplanet means that you can precompose them, like an email, though of course if your performance or recitation falters, you’ll either have to edit them heavily or do several takes.
This chapter also includes some soul-searching on Miles’s part. It’s interesting to consider that he might have been subconsciously sabotaging himself, out of fear or insecurity, trying to give himself a good excuse to bow out of the Dendarii. But if that wasn’t the case, then we have to see him come up with a reason not to take the easy out back to the Dendarii, at least assuming he gets his head fixed and stops being a liability. He begins to realize that it wouldn’t accomplish anything–if he disconnects the Dendarii from Barrayar, from service to something larger, then all it is is “playing wall”, showing that he can overcome challenges. (That may, in fact, be part of the reason that I find some of the pure adventure stories to be a little dissastisfying. We need what my wife calls “public stakes” and “personal stakes”, so that the central issues in the plot matter to the main character, as well as being important to others.)
So he’s at least ruled out one possible future, but we still don’t know what he is going to do with himself. Become a Vor drone? Go into politics? Study accounting? I guess we’ll find out…
It may not be fair to characterize what happens next as the beginning of the “real plot”. Character stories are real stories too, and I thoroughly enjoy Miles’s personal journey in this book, as I may have indicated. But there are public stakes showing up in this book as well, and we’ll see them shortly. Plus, the title will soon begin to make a little more sense…