Sisyphus finally pushes his boulder to the top of the mountain, only to have gravity yank it from his grasp and send it rolling down the other side. In unrelated news, welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, where due to Christmas concerts and other such vagaries, this is going to be another single-chapter week, despite my best intentions. So prepare yourself for another chapter from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, in this case Chapter Seven of A Civil Campaign, where we get to see Mark Vorkosigan lead a field trip, and Ivan meet a friend at the spaceport and reluctantly make a call on their behalf.
Mark flies over Vorkosigan’s District in Miles’s lightflyer, enjoying the fine weather and the fact that the controls are at the right height, even if the seat’s a bit narrow. He banks to show off the landscape better to Kareen and Ekaterin in the back seat, and Ekaterin does indeed admire the countryside aloud. Enrique admits that he’d expected something more drab, concrete and marching soldiers in uniform.
“Economically unlikely for an entire planetary surface. Though uniforms, we do have,” Mark admitted.
“But once it gets up to several hundred different kinds, the effect isn’t so uniform anymore. And some of the colors are a little . . . unexpected.”
“Yes, I feel sorry for those Counts who ended up having to pick their House colors last,” Mark agreed. “I think the Vorkosigans must have fallen somewhere in the middle. I mean, brown and silver isn’t bad, but I can’t help feeling that the fellows with the blue and gold—or the black and silver—do have a sartorial edge.” He could fancy himself in black and silver, with Kareen all blond and tall on his arm.
“It could be worse,” Kareen put in cheerfully. “How do you think you’d look in a House cadet’s uniform of chartreuse and scarlet, like poor Vorharopulos, Mark?”
“Like a traffic signal in boots.”
Ekaterin tells Enrique that the South Continent area where she grew up was very flat, despite mountains just over the horizon, but she says it was very spacious, and had tremendous sunrises and sunsets.
Mark flies them over Hassadar, where they set down on top of the Count’s Residence, just off the city’s central square. Tsipis is waiting there to greet them; he flies them in turn over to check out three possible sites for the facility–one of them a city warehouse, and the other two farms belonging to families who had emigrated to Sergyar. All are owned by the Vorkosigans outright, and Tsipis says that Mark may be able to get Miles to forgo the rent; Mark isn’t sure about asking Miles for the favour, but he reminds himself that he is also a Vorkosigan. He and Kareen discuss the possible choices, while Ekaterin shows Enrique some of the native plants. At last they decide on the farm with the newer and more spacious outbuildings, and Tsipis takes them back to Hassadar for lunch.
The lunch spread is luxurious, and Mark suspects Miles had left instructions to that effect for Ekaterin’s benefit. Later, while the others are inspecting the gardens, Tsipis asks Mark about Madame Vorsoisson; Miles has been holding forth about her, at length. Mark says it’s hilarious, and yet also scary. Tsipis agrees, saying that Miles was never afraid of physical pain, but emotional rejection can drive him crazy. He relates an incident where, after one such rejection, Miles had a riding accident, riding a horse he’d been forbidden to ride, and they wondered how much of an accident it really was.
Tsipis says he’s surprised Miles is interested in a Barrayaran, rather than a galactic, and wonders if he’s setting himself up for a fall. Mark says that Miles has a Plan, and asks Tsipis what he thinks of her; Tsipis declares Ekaterin honest, and a quick study, which is high praise from him, attractive enough, and well-qualified for the job of Countess. He says it’s not before time, in any case, and hopes for the Count to have some grandchildren in his lifetime.
“You will keep an eye on things, won’t you?” Tsipis added.
“I don’t know what you think I could do. It’s not like I could make her fall in love with him. If I had that kind of power over women, I’d use it for myself!”
Tsipis smiled vaguely at the place Kareen had vacated, and back, speculatively, to Mark. “What, and here I was under the impression you had.”
He asks if Mark has seen any signs that Ekaterin returns Miles’s affection, and Mark says that she is very reserved. He says he’ll ask Kareen, since girls often discuss these things among themselves. Tsipis, who considers Kareen part of the family, asks assurances that Mark will treat her well, and Mark agrees fervently. Even the Black Gang are behind him. He’d be willing to follow Kareen around hoping for a crumb of her affection, but his therapist has admonished him from putting that kind of pressure on her. Of course, his therapist likes Kareen, because everyone likes her, because she likes them; she has virtue to spare, and she’d do wonders in sales. He can’t bear the idea of losing her.
Once the others return, Kareen chivvies them off to gather rocks for Ekaterin’s garden; Tsipis sends two burly young men with a van to follow them and do the actual lifting. Mark heads them into the Dendarii mountains, to a vale still largely populated by native plantlife. Ekaterin steps out and, looking out over the valley below them, exults in the feeling of spaciousness, which she says she normally doesn’t find in hill country. She leads the young men to hunt for rocks, Enrique following after; Mark stays behind to cuddle with Kareen.
When Mark ventures a sexual suggestion into his cuddle, Kareen pulls away; she apologizes, and says that being back on Barrayar is making her feel less like her own person and more conscious how dependent on her family she really is.
He clutched her hand; that at least he might not let go of. “You want to be good. All right, I can understand that. But you have to be careful who you let define your good. My terrorist creators taught me that one, for damn sure.”
She clutched him back, at that feared memory, and managed a sympathetic grimace. She hesitated, and went on, “It’s the mutually exclusive definitions that are driving me crazy. I can’t be good for both places at the same time. I learned how to be a good girl on Beta Colony, and in its own way, it was just as hard as being a good girl here. And a lot scarier, sometimes. But . . . I felt like I was getting bigger inside, if you can see what I mean.”
Mark says she has to be sure to choose Kareen’s good, not Barrayar’s or Beta Colony’s; Kareen says she can’t even seem to find herself to ask what that would be. She says she wants to stay on Beta Colony until she can become as strong a person as Countess Vorkosigan. Mark hugs her reassuringly, hoping that when she finds herself, there’s still room for him in her life.
He changes the subject to Ekaterin, and asks Kareen if she seems to like Miles back. She says she can’t tell; Ekaterin is working hard on his garden, but they’re still not on a first-name basis. Mark says Tsipis wants some reassurance about Miles, and Kareen says she’d like to be friends with Ekaterin, since she doesn’t seem to have many friends, and she’s still very quiet about what happened to her on Komarr. He asks if she’d be good for Miles, and Kareen asks if anyone’s thought about whether Miles would be good for her.
“Um . . . um . . . why not? Count’s heir. Well-to-do. An Imperial Auditor, for God’s sake. What more could a Vor desire?”
“I don’t know, Mark. It likely depends on the Vor. I do know I’d take you and every one of the Black Gang at their most obstreperous for a hundred years before I’d let myself get locked up for a week with Miles. He . . . takes you over.”
“Only if you let him.” But he warmed inside with the thought that she could really, truly prefer him to the glorious Miles, and suddenly felt less hungry.
“Do you have any idea what it takes to stop him? I still remember being kids, me and my sisters, visiting Lady Cordelia with Mama, and Miles told off to keep us occupied. Which was a really cruel thing to do to a fourteen-year-old boy, but what did I know? He decided the four of us should be an all-girl precision drill team, and made us march around in the back garden of Vorkosigan House, or in the ballroom when it was raining. I think I was four.” She frowned into the past. “What Miles needs is a woman who will tell him to go soak his head, or it’ll be a disaster. For her, not him.” After a moment, she added sapiently, “Though if for her, for him too, sooner or later.”
The young men return for their van and load up the rocks that Ekaterin had picked out. Enrique returns, looking cheerful, if wet from falling in the creek, and carrying a huge bundle of Barrayaran plant samples. They load back up in the lightflyer and Mark flies them back to Vorbarr Sultana. They drop off Ekaterin and Kareen, and Mark and Enrique return to Vorkosigan House, where Ekaterin has promise to return the next day to help Enrique classify his samples. Mark discovers that Ekaterin has also expressed interest in Enrique’s doctoral thesis, Toward Bacterial and Fungal Suite-Synthesis of Extra-cellular Energy Storage Compounds. He decides it could use some spicing up, and keeps asking Mark for rhymes so he can rewrite the abstract as a sonnet. Mark wonders if Enrique is now thinking that he has a chance to woo Ekaterin. He resolves to move the business out of Vorkosigan House as soon as possible.
Ivan and By Vorrutyer wait in the Vorbarr Sultana shuttleport for the returning Lady Donna; Ivan has a bouquet, hoping to strike the right tone with her right off the bat, though By seems amused by it. He’ll offer to carry her luggage, he decides, except perhaps for any uterine replicators she happens to have brought back from Beta with her. At least, if she is trying the clone ploy, he won’t have to get involved in the political end of it.
By points out an approaching group of three men. One of them Ivan recognizes as Szabo, one of the late Count Pierre’s armsmen, and there’s another Vorrutyer guardsman on the other side.
The man in the center Ivan had never seen before. He was an athletic-looking fellow of middle height, more lithe than muscular, though his shoulders filled his civilian tunic quite well. He was soberly dressed in black, with the barest pale gray piping making salute to the Barrayaran style of pseudo-military ornamentation in men’s wear. The subtle clothes set off his lean good looks: pale skin, thick dark brows, close-cropped black hair, and trim, glossy black beard and mustache. His step was energetic. His eyes were an electric brown, and seemed to dart all around as if seeing the place for the first time, and liking what they saw.
Ivan wonders who this is–a Betan paramour? Count Pierre’s secret love child? He does look like a Vorrutyer… By says that they need no introduction, but Ivan says they do; the man introduces himself as Lord Dono Vorrutyer. Ivan finally recognizes the eyes–as Lady Donna’s. After all, on Beta Colony, if you can can afford it and convince them you’re an adult, you can get them to do anything you want…such as, in this case, a sex change. Donna/Dono insists that he/she will be Count Vorrutyer, once he can get the Council of Counts on board. He/she teases Ivan with the bouquet until Szabo asks him/her not to do that in public. Dono promises to be good. By suggests they continue the conversation in private, and directs them to the waiting groundcar; Ivan tries to excuse himself, but By and Dono insist that Ivan come with them.
Dono says he got rid of Lady Donna’s luggage on Beta Colony, living out of one suitcase like his armsmen do. Ivan asked if the Armsmen are all in on it; Dono says that he and Szabo swore them all in after Pierre died, when they presented the plan. Lady Donna had been running the District quite well, and none of them has the slightest affection for Richards. Dono says that Richars had tried to rape her when she was twelve, and then drowned her new puppy, blaming it on her; only By had believed her then. Szabo said that Richars has counted the District as his since Pierre started getting ill, and had been deliberately trying to erode his health since then. He’d also sabotaged Pierre’s attempts at courtship, though they haven’t proven he actually caused the flyer wreck that killed one of them. So the Armsmen all concluded that they wouldn’t last in Richars’s service.
Pierre had refused to make a will, not wanting to officially declare Richars, or any of Richars’s brothers or sons, as his heir. He’d been holding out hope still for a son of his own up to the time of his death. Ivan wonders if Dono can expect to be heir, since she wasn’t his brother at the time of his death; Dono says that without a sworn heir, his sex won’t matter until they appear before the Council of Counts itself, when he will demonstrably be Pierre’s brother.
Ivan asks what happened to Donna’s female parts; Dono says he dumped them back on Beta, not particularly feeling a need to go back, though he says he could always clone new organs if he ever wanted to. Ivan asks where Dono’s male parts came from; Dono says the Y chromosome came from Pierre, and they used tissue samples from him to grow his male genitalia. He admits most of his chromosomes are still XX; the full gene therapy would have taken too long, and risked ending up as some kind of odd chimera or mosaic, but his genitalia is all XY. For the Council of Counts, though, he needs Ivan.
They pull into Vorrutyer House, an old, fortress-like house built with gun-slits at ground level by Count Pierre “Le Sanguinaire” Vorrutyer, trusted aide and enforcer to Emperor Dorca Vorbarra near the end of the Time of Isolation. That Pierre was killed in the Cetagandan invasion, though one of his daughters married into the Vorkosigans, which is why Mark’s middle name was “Pierre”. Dono leads them into the house, which seems to have been entirely abandoned since Count Pierre left for his District months ago. Dono claims the Count’s old bedroom, though with fresh sheets, and tells Szabo to get the place cleaned up as soon as possible; Ivan recommends the cleaning firm the Vorkosigans use.
By tells them that Richars tried to take possession of the house twice; the first time, Dono’s Armsmen kept him out, and the second time, they had a legal order, which By was luckily able to trump. Szabo critiques Dono’s sitting position, saying that rather than emulate By, he should go for a more dominating model, like Aral Vorkosigan. Dono goes rooting in Pierre’s closet, saying that he shouldn’t be too far off fitting Pierre’s clothing, asking Szabo to get a tailor. Dono begins undressing, and Ivan tries to excuse himself again, but Szabo insists he stay.
“Sit down, Ivan,” Lord Dono growled. His burning eyes suddenly crinkled, and he murmured, “For old time’s sake, if nothing else. You used to run into my bedroom to watch me undress, not out of it. Must I lock the door and make you play hunt the key again?”
Ivan opened his mouth, raised a furious admonishing finger in protest, thought better of it, and sank to a seat on the edge of the bed. You wouldn’t dare seemed suddenly a really unwise thing to say to the former Lady Donna Vorrutyer. He crossed his ankles, then hastily uncrossed them again and set his feet apart, then crossed them again, and twined his hands together in vast discomfort. “I don’t see what you need me for,” he said plaintively.
“So you can witness,” said Szabo.
“So you can testify,” said Dono.
Dono strips completely naked, and asks Ivan’s opinion. Ivan reluctantly inspects Dono’s equipment, and admits that it looks normal; By agrees, but points out it’s a bit undersized as yet. Dono says that he was in a rush, but the Betans insist it will finish growing in situ. It hasn’t reached full sexual maturity yet, but he’s looking forward to it. Ivan wonders how Dono’s going to learn sex from the other side, and Dono says that that’s one thing he’s not worried about; he taught Ivan, after all.
Ivan asks Dono if he’s let Gregor in on this yet; Dono says they hadn’t, figuring it was easier to get forgiveness than permission.
Ivan clutched his hair. “All right. You two—you three—dragged me up here because you claimed you wanted my help. I’m going to hand you a hint. Free.” He took a deep breath. “You can blindside me, and laugh your heads off if you want to. It won’t be the first time I’ve been the butt. You can blindside Richars with my good will. You can blindside the whole Council of Counts. Blindside my cousin Miles—please. I want to watch. But do not, if you value your chances, if you mean this to be anything other than a big, short joke, do not blindside Gregor.”
Byerly grimaced uncertainly; Dono, turning before the mirror, shot Ivan a penetrating look. “Go to him, you mean?”
“Yes. I can’t make you,” Ivan went on sternly, “but if you don’t, I categorically refuse to have anything more to do with you.”
“Gregor can kill it all with a word,” said Dono warily. “Before it even launches.”
“He can,” said Ivan, “but he won’t, without strong motivation. Don’t give him that motivation. Gregor does not like political surprises.”
“I thought Gregor was fairly easy-going,” said By, “for an emperor.”
“No,” said Ivan firmly. “He is not. He is merely rather quiet. It’s not the same thing at all. You don’t want to see what he’s like pissed.”
“What does he look like, pissed?” asked By curiously.
“Identical to what he looks like the rest of the time. That’s the scary part.”
Dono says that By was the one who’d brought Ivan in on this, because of his connections, so they should listen to Ivan’s advice on the matter. He asks Ivan what they should do, and Ivan says they should arrange a meeting with Gregor before doing anything else, talking to anyone else. He asks Dono if he ever slept with Gregor, and he confesses he did not. Ivan says that if Gregor won’t approve it, then it’ll be over quickly, but if he does, then they’ll have a matchless silent backer. Dono asks if Ivan can get them an appointment, as soon as possible, the next morning; Ivan mumbles that he’ll see what he can do. With that, at last they let him go; Dono even send him home by groundcar, unfortunately depriving Ivan of the opportunity to get murdered on the way and get out of this affair for good.
Back in his apartment, Ivan mourns the loss of Lady Donna–the last thing Barrayar needs is another man, after all–though he supposes that maybe they can send the excess Vor males off to Beta to get reshaped the other way. Reluctantly, he digs out his private contact-card and inserts it into his comconsole. Gregor’s “gatekeeper” identifies Ivan immediately, and asks if he really meant to call this channel.
He is shortly put through to Gregor, with a blurry Laisa in the background straightening her clothing. Gregor is initially annoyed to see that it’s Ivan, and not Miles, contacting him, and then asks why Ivan is contacting him. Ivan tells him that “Lady Donna” is back onplanet, and Gregor needs to meet with “her” as soon as possible. Gregor warns Ivan that he better not be just calling in some sexual favour; Ivan insists he wanted nothing to do with it, which intrigues the Emperor, and he fits them in at 11:00 the next morning, frowning in puzzlement.
Another talky chapter, and not from our two romantic principals. Most of the plotlines get advanced a little–Mark and Kareen, Mark and Enrique, Ekaterin and the garden (if not, directly, Ekaterin and Miles), and then the Ivan and By and, apparently, Lord Dono Vorrutyer. The little field trip to the Vorkosigan District doesn’t advance anything too far, but it does introduce Enrique to the list of potential Ekaterin suitors. You know, Mark goes on about how everybody likes Kareen, and she likes everybody, and it seems like everyone likes Ekaterin, too. They’re just a likable pair of women, I guess.
You know, if the only possible way to keep your scumbag rapist cousin from becoming a Count is to go off to another planet to get a sex change…then maybe there’s something wrong with your system. And Barrayar is progressing in a lot of ways, but I don’t get a sense that sexual equality, in particular in the Countships, is that close to the offing. Maybe they just need to take a few tips from the Cetagandans and seize power in their own sphere… Yeah, I don’t know what that would mean either…though I recall Cordelia having some observations on women’s power back in Barrayar. So maybe the Countships are, or should be, less relevant.
I love the whole bit with Ivan calling Gregor, though. Nobody is taking him seriously–questioning whether he meant to make the call, questioning his motives for doing this… Ivan’s got almost as much of a “town clown” reputation as By Vorrutyer, though I guess it’s more that his goals have been negative–to not get involved in politics, to not get stuck under his mother’s thumb–so it’s odd to see him actually trying to do something. But this plotline here is why we were all cheering for Ivan to get his own book…
I do almost wish I’d had time to do the next chapter too, since it follows on directly with the interview with Gregor, but alas, lack of time and gumption. Next week, I promise, you will…get at least that chapter, if nothing else. And after that is Christmas, which I may give myself off…though I should try to get another post or two in over the holidays regardless. For this week, though, I am signing off.