The Sherriff’s Secret Police have just announced, in a press conference held on top of the hour hand of the invisible clock tower, that it is not illegal to read the Vorkosigan Saga Reread. In fact, it is forbidden to not read it. Aren’t you lucky that another installment is making its way onto the Internet right now? Welcome…to Vorbarr Sultana. This week, buffeted by snow, stress, and endless commutes, I am cutting back to a single-chapter update, and cutbacks will continue until morale improves, or chapters get shorter. Don’t be sad; at least you get Chapter Three, with three points of view, to keep you from the depths of despair…
Ekaterin had sent her proposed garden designs to Miles, but he genuinely couldn’t decide between them, so he was able to plan another visit to the Vorthyses after all. When Miles arrives, though, he discovers he’s not the only visitor by any means. Ekaterin and her aunt are entertaining three male guests–one of them is an Ops major that Miles doesn’t recognize, but the others are Lieutenant Alexi Vormoncrief, also from Ops, and Byerly “By” Vorrutyer, a longtime town clown. Madame Vorthys introduces the other man as Major Zamori, a former student who came over ostensibly to lend her a book; Vormoncrief was supposedly there to investigate whether he and Ekaterin were related, which they are, but only distantly. By Vorrutyer neglected to provide an excuse. Miles immediately spots Ivan’s hand in the appearance of two men from Ops.
Ekaterin is happy to see Miles, who greets the others; Zamori asks if Miles is there to see the Lord Auditor Vorthys, who apparently fled for a walk in the rain. Miles says he has business with Madame Vorsoisson, but none of the men take the hint and leave. Vormoncrief explains that they were having a family-tree discussion.
“Speaking of strange pedigrees, Alexi, Lord Vorkosigan and I were almost related much more closely,” Byerly remarked. “I feel quite a familial attachment to him.”
“Really?” said Vormoncrief, looking puzzled.
“Oh, yes. One of my aunts on the Vorrutyer side was once married to his father. So Aral Vorkosigan is actually some sort of virtual, if not virtuous, uncle to me. But she died young, alas—ruthlessly pruned from the tree—without bearing me a cousin to cut the future Miles out of his inheritance.” Byerly cocked a brow at Miles. “Was she fondly remembered, in your family dinner conversations?”
“We never much discussed the Vorrutyers,” said Miles.
“How odd. We never much discussed the Vorkosigans, either. Hardly at all, in fact. Such a resounding silence, one feels.”
Zamori asks about the Komarr accident, and Miles, who can’t tell them what really happened, repeats the official story of “pilot error”; he claims to suspect it was actually a suicide, but couldn’t find enough evidence to support it. Vormoncrief asks what he thinks of the Komarran Empress-to-be; Miles recalls that Vormoncrief’s uncle is leader of the Conservative Party, who are dubious but not outright disapproving of Laisa. Miles says that he likes her, and points out that Gregor marrying a Komarran means one more Barrayaran women for the rest of them. In fact, he recommends Komarran women to the rest of them, too, claiming that there are many available rich heiresses to choose from. By says that money isn’t everything, though, and Vormoncrief says that he prefers Barrayaran girls.
Ekaterin excuses herself to go get Miles’s data disks, and does not return; eventually Vormoncrief and Zamori give up waiting and make to leave, though Zamori has cannily promised to bring Nikki a book on jumpship designs. Zamori leaves first; as Miles is preparing for his meeting with Ekaterin, he overhears By and Vormoncrief talking on the porch. Vormoncrief is asking By if he thinks Miles is angling for Ekaterin himself; By points out that some women would settle for anything for the chance of becoming a Countess. Vormoncrief says that Ivan would make a better heir, and laments that Miles had survived long enough to inherit. He notices Ekaterin in the archway, and wonders what she’s heard, even as she notices him eavesdropping, again; By and Vormoncrief eventually move off into the rain.
Miles asks Ekaterin where the visitors came from; Ekaterin says Zamori has been visiting the Professora, and making friends with Nikki, which Miles realizes might be one way to her heart. Miles surmises that By has turned to Vormoncrief as his latest victim to sponge off of, telling Ekaterin about By’s fecklessness and lack of resources, only afterwards revealing that he may have made By sound sympathetic. Miles convinces her that they’re only there to vie for her hand, and she says she’d hoped her mourning would hold them off for longer.
Miles changes the subject back to the gardens, and they pore over her two proposed designs, the “backcountry” and “urban” gardens, one more naturalistic and one with concrete terraces and fountains. Ekaterin deftly combines the two, adding water features to the backcountry garden, until Miles pronounces himself satisfied. He tells her to go ahead and start hiring contractors to build it; she protests that she has no experience past the design phase, and he tells her to contact Tsipis, the Vorkosigans’ business manager, who will willingly help her out with the practical end of things.
Tsipis, carefully primed, answered the comconsole in his office in Hassadar himself, and Miles made the necessary introductions. The new acquaintance went well; Tsipis was elderly, long married, and genuinely interested in the project at hand. He drew Ekaterin almost instantly out of her wary shyness. By the time he’d finished his first lengthy conversation with her, she’d shifted from I can’t possibly mode to possession of a flow-chart checklist and a coherent plan which would, with luck, result in groundbreaking as early as the following week. Oh yes. This was going to do well. If there was one thing Tsipis appreciated, it was a quick study. Ekaterin was one of those show once people whom Miles, in his mercenary days, had found more precious than unexpected oxygen in the emergency reserve. And she didn’t even know she was unusual.
Ekaterin says she should almost be paying Miles for Tsipis’s guidance, and Miles, reminded about payment, pulls out a credit chit for her, payment for the design. Ekaterin protests that the amount is too much, but Miles says that he checked around and averaged several other companies’ prices. She protests that she’s an amateur, and was only combining standard design elements; Miles says she earns the money for knowing how to arrange them well.
Deciding to leave on a high note, Miles decides, on his way out, to invite her to the dinner party for the Koudelkas; Ekaterin is attracted by the thought of a family with four daughters, and Miles bypasses her other objections by inviting the Vorthyses as well, to make it more of a family event. After that, he hopes maybe he’ll be able to lure her into joining him at some of his wedding-week events, and then…who knows?
After Miles leaves, Ekaterin apologizes to her aunt for the visitors, though, as her aunt points out, she didn’t invite any of them. Ekaterin shows her the credit chit, and says she can pay them some rent now; her aunt protests, though allows that she could let Ekaterin buy some groceries, as long as she saves some money for her schooling as well. Ekaterin agrees, exulting in the fact that she won’t need to ask her father for any money; mostly she doesn’t want him poking his nose into her life right now, since he disapproves of her not coming home to live with him, or with Tien’s mother, as a proper Vor widow should. Her father had never been very daring at the best of times, and her mother had seemed stifled by him at times.
Vorthys and Nikki return from the bakery with ample replacements for the pastries that the visitors had decimated; Vorthys says he remembers the shortages from when their own daughters were being courted, and wishes he could discourage them with spotty food and chores. Nikki asks if it’s true that those men want to marry her, and if so, which one she’ll pick; Ekaterin says she won’t pick any of them, though she is amused that Nikki prefers Major Zamori because “majors make more money”.
Her aunt asks if she should be discouraging the visitors, and Ekaterin says that at least she will be out of the house more, with the new garden. She tries to keep herself from feeling sympathy for them, not wanting to get sucked into that death-spiral of marriage again. She’s been enjoying her new freedom. Her aunt points out that not all men are like Tien, but Ekaterin says she’s afraid of getting sucked into bad patterns again, and wonders if she’s to blame for not stopping Tien from getting worse over the years.
After a long moment of silence, the Professora asked curiously, “So what do you think of Miles Vorkosigan?”
“He’s all right. He doesn’t make me cringe.”
“I thought—back on Komarr—he seemed a bit interested in you himself.”
“Oh, that was just a joke,” Ekaterin said sturdily. Their joke had gone a little beyond the line, perhaps, but they had both been tired, and punchy at their release from those days and hours of fearsome strain . . . his flashing smile, and the brilliant eyes in his weary face, blazed in her memory. It had to have been a joke. Because if it weren’t a joke . . . she would have to run screaming. And she was much too tired to get up. “But it’s been nice to find someone genuinely interested in gardens.”
At Vorkosigan House, Lord Mark Vorkosigan is arriving in a hired groundcar with his companion, Dr. Enrique Borgos, followed by a freight van of equipment; they are greeted by Pym. Enrique tells Mark that until seeing the house, he hadn’t really believed that Mark was a Barrayaran Lord.
Miles comes to meet them, looking better than the rumours had been painting him; Mark himself has been taking quick weight-loss drugs to try to get back down to the weight he was when last on Barrayar, and knows that he looks a little sallow as a result. He passes it off as jump lag, though, and asks after Kareen, eager to get back together with her. He introduces Enrique, an Escobaran entomologist, to Miles; Miles immediately becomes suspicious of the “Delicate” crate they’re carrying, which has air-holes covered with screens. Mark asks if they can spare some room for Enrique, and Miles says there’s plenty of space; Mark says Enrique will want to set up a laboratory, too, and promises to explain everything to Miles once they’re unloaded.
By press-ganging the drivers, the van was unloaded quickly to the staging area of the black-and-white tiled entry hall. A moment of alarm occurred when Armsman Jankowski, tottering along under a load of what Mark knew to be hastily-packed laboratory glassware, stepped on a black-and-white kitten, well-camouflaged by the tiles. The outraged creature emitted an ear-splitting yowl, spat, and shot off between Enrique’s feet, nearly tripping the Escobaran, who was just then balancing the very expensive molecular analyzer. It was saved by a grab from Pym.
They’d almost been caught, during their midnight raid on the padlocked lab that had liberated the all-important notes and irreplaceable specimens, when Enrique had insisted on going back for the damned analyzer. Mark would have taken it as some sort of cosmic I-told-you-so if Enrique had dropped it now. I’ll buy you a whole new lab when we get to Barrayar, he’d kept trying to convince the Escobaran. Enrique had seemed to think Barrayar was still stuck in the Time of Isolation, and he wasn’t going to be able to obtain anything here more scientifically complex than an alembic, a still, and maybe a trepanning chisel.
Enrique’s first choice for laboratory was Ma Kosti’s kitchen, but he ends up settling for a laundry room in the basement; Mark expects that he’ll end up dragging in a coat and sleeping there. Mark selects a bedroom for himself, and goes to try to sell Miles on his idea, which doesn’t seem quite as easy as it had before he’d learned how much help Enrique needed with anything besides his bugs; he gives Enrique strict instructions to keep his mouth shut.
They find Miles in the library, with a setting of hors d’oeuvres, which will be perfect for Mark to showcase his idea. He unwraps a cube of a soft white substance which he describes as an “animal product”, unflavoured but very nutritious, and serves it to the three of them. Miles pronounces it bland, but better than some military rations; Mark says that the selling point is that it can be made easily by anyone who has a supply of butter bugs. Miles is taken aback by this news, and when Mark shows him one of the bugs, he declares it incredibly repulsive.
Inside the box, the thumb-sized worker butter bug scrabbled about on its six stubby legs, waved its antennae frantically, and tried to escape. Mark gently pushed its tiny claws back from the edges. It chittered its dull brown vestigial wing carapaces, and crouched to drag its white, soft, squishy-looking abdomen to the safety of one corner.
Miles leaned forward again, to peer in revolted fascination. “It looks like a cross between a cockroach, a termite, and a . . . and a . . . and a pustule.”
“We have to admit, its physical appearance is not its main selling point.”
Mark says that their main virtue is how efficiently they can convert any organic waste matter into “bug butter”, with symbiotic bacteria in their gut. They can consume all sorts of low-grade plant matter, and the butter can be processed to add flavour. Miles, though, is having trouble getting past the fact that he’s just eaten “bug vomit”, and rinses his mouth thoroughly with wine. He then realizes that the crate they brought in must have been full of butter bugs, and, from Mark’s information, works out that they brought in eight thousand of them. Mark reassures him that the workers are sterile, and the mature queens are immobile; then he brings out his big selling point–the fact that he’s pretty sure Enrique can produce bugs that can eat Barrayaran native vegetation. They could eat the Barrayaran vegetation that currently backcountry farmers go to great trouble to get rid of, not to mention that their guano makes great fertilizer.
Miles begins to get more interested, though he also wonders why they’re not marketing this on Escobar instead. Mark skims over that part, saying that they want to try to market some bug-butter products from regular Earth plant matter for now, to muster funds for getting the Barrayaran version working.
“Mark . . .” Miles frowned at the butter bug box, now sitting closed on the table. Tiny scratching noises arose from it. “It sounds logical, but I don’t know if logic is going to sell to the proles. Nobody will want to eat food that comes out of something that looks like that. Hell, they won’t want to eat anything it touches.”
“People eat honey,” argued Mark. “And that comes out of bugs.”
“Honeybees are . . . sort of cute. They’re furry, and they have those classy striped uniforms. And they’re armed with their stings, just like little swords, which makes people respect them.”
“Ah, I see—the insect version of the Vor class,” Mark murmured sweetly. He and Miles exchanged edged smiles.
Enrique said, in a bewildered tone, “So do you think if I put stings on my butter bugs, Barrayarans would like them better?”
Mark says the Vorkosigan House laboratory will be only temporary–he’ll look for something more permanent in Vorbarr Sultana or Hassadar, and Miles tells him to talk to Tsipis, though he’s unwilling to commit to investing in Mark’s idea. The business talk subsides, and Enrique rambles on about the history of yeast, until Pym comes into collect the dishes. Enrique seems interested in Pym’s livery, and Miles explains the Vorkosigan heraldry and selected episodes of the family history; Mark finds it encouraging that Enrique seems to be developing some social skills after all. Afterwards, Enrique tells Mark he’s got a great idea for making his brother like the butter bugs; Mark is too distracted by thoughts of Kareen to pursue this further.
I always forget that it’s in Miles’s plotline that we first see Byerly Vorrutyer, because for the rest of the book he seems much more closely tied to Ivan’s POV. He never seemed that serious a suitor for Ekaterin, but maybe that’s because my brain insists on painting him as gay. I’m pretty sure he isn’t–or, at least, whatever he is, he is interested in women–but I can’t get over his foppishness, perhaps. Oscar Wilde associations, perhaps. Well, I gather that Barrayar might not be particularly friendly to openly gay people, so a gay man may want a camouflage wife in any case. After all, Vordarian tried to sabotage Aral Vorkosigan’s marriage by outing him to his wife… And, of course, there’s the late unlamented Ges Vorrutyer, from Shards of Honour, who was Aral’s lover. At least By can’t be as bad as him. (And by the way, I hate “By” as the name of a character. Never give a character a name, or a nickname, which is a common two-letter word. I keep reading it as the preposition and then having to go back.)
As far as the butter bugs go, I confess that I’m solidly on Miles’s side. I am, to some degree, reconciled to the fact that insects exist, and probably need to exist to keep our ecosystems from collapsing. But I would be happy if I never had to personally encounter one, ever again, in my life. They creep me out, and I have proved my manhood several times by cringing and shuddering while my wife disposes of some harmless beetle that has ventured out into the open. So it’s probably a good thing that Bujold introduced the bugs in Mark’s POV, because we first see them through the eyes of someone who doesn’t hate them on sight…
Ekaterin turns out to be in denial about Miles’s feelings for her, having convinced herself that he was only joking, somehow, at the end of the last book, when he told her that she could be next in line if she wanted to. Miles is trying to play things casual and try not to spook her, while of course covertly pursuing his goals, which, of course, will not turn out well. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy–but who is the “enemy” here? Is there one? Not yet…but there might be soon.
I guess the short chapters from the last couple of books have spoiled me, because these ones leave me panting and gasping (metaphorically) by the time they’re done. Maybe once the currently-ridiculous commute times settle down, I’ll be more up to multiple-chapter weeks, but I wouldn’t count on it for a little while yet…