Happy New Year (for those of you following the Gregorian calendar, anyway), and welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread! This is the start of the fourth calendar year of my reread of Lois McMaster Bujold’s exquisite Vorkosigan Saga, following Miles Vorkosigan and his friends, family and confederates through their adventures. As the Christmas holidays draw to a close (for me, at least), I manage to persevere and to pull off two whole chapters this time–one of them a fairly unpleasant one, at that, as Miles’s dinner party turns into an unmitigated disaster. Please join me for Chapters Nine and Ten of A Civil Campaign, if you dare…
Miles considers a number of potential outfits for the dinner party, rejecting his House and Imperial uniforms–briefly considering his Dendarii uniform, but afraid what Ivan and Illyan will say about it–before going back to his first choice, one of his normal gray Imperial Auditor suits. Pym approves his choice, and Miles gets dressed, inspecting himself in the mirror and resisting the urge to pluck out gray hairs.
He goes the recheck the arrangements in the dining room, where he has carefully planned the seating so that Ekaterin is next to Miles, Kareen next to Mark, and Ivan in the middle far from either of them. Lady Donna should be able to occupy all of Ivan’s attention anyway. Miles recalls Ivan’s affair with Lady Donna, which he’d watched enviously, and Lady Alys had been quite disapproving of. Of course, these days Lady Donna would still be able to have a child, no matter her age; he wonders if Lady Alys and Illyan are planning to have one, and makes a note to suggest it to Ivan at some appropriate moment–like when his mouth is full. And on some other night.
Mark wanders in, dressed in black, and considers the place cards; Miles sternly warns him to leave them alone, and Mark asks if he can at least move Duv and Delia farther away from him. Miles says he needs to keep René Vorbretten next to Lady Alys, as a favour, and tells Mark he needs to be prepared to deal with Duv as part of the family, if he’s serious about Kareen. Mark says that Duv must have mixed feelings about him. Miles wonders how serious Mark really is about Kareen, and decides he should ask the Countess.
Pym announces the arrival of Alys and Illyan; Alys inspects the place settings, pronouncing a qualified approval but noting that the sexes aren’t matched–nine men and ten women–before going to talk with Ma Kosti. Miles greets Illyan and asks if Alys has explained about Ekaterin to him.
“Yes, and Ivan had a few comments as well. Something on the theme of fellows who fall into the muck-hole and return with the gold ring.”
“I haven’t got to the gold ring part yet,” said Miles ruefully. “But that’s certainly my plan. I’m looking forward to you all meeting her.”
“She’s the one, is she?”
“I hope so.”
Illyan’s smile sharpened at Miles’s fervent tone. “Good luck, son.”
“Thanks. Oh, one word of warning. She’s still in her mourning year, you see. Did Alys or Ivan explain—”
He is interrupted by the announcement of the Koudelkas’ arrival, and goes to greet them in the library, Mark following him closely. Armsman Roic brings out hors d’oeuvres and drinks, Mark talks to Kareen’s parents, and Illyan and Alys join them shortly thereafter. Miles listens for the door, disappointed by the arrival of the Vorbrettens. The next arrivals prove to be the Vorthyses and Ekaterin at last, and Miles eagerly goes to welcome them himself.
Ekaterin is wearing the Barrayar pendant he’d given her, and taking off garden gloves; she announces she’s just planted the first Barrayaran plan in his garden. Miles says he’ll have to go see it later, and offers her his arm. He escorts her to the library, where she is somewhat anxious, but he introduces her to the Vorbrettens, then to Alys and Illyan; she seems somewhat nervous at meeting the legendary former ImpSec head, but Illyan puts her at her ease, and seems to approve of her.
Enrique arrives, done up quite respectably, and shyly asks Ekaterin if she read his dissertation. Ekaterin says most of it went over her head, and comments on the abstract being done in verse; Enrique says he’s sure she got most of it. Miles notices that they’re using first names with each other, and that Ekaterin reacted to a compliment on her intelligence the way she never would on her appearance; he suddenly realizes that Enrique may be another rival for her affections.
Miles almost misses the announcement of Ivan and his guest, before realizing the Pym had said “Lord Dono” Vorrutyer… He wonders why Ivan has pulled this last-minute substitution on him, and who this fellow is; mid-handshake the penny drops, and he smoothly asks if Lord Dono has been to Beta Colony. As he introduces Dono to Ekaterin his mind begins to work through the implications of Dono’s change–obviously he hadn’t cloned Pierre after all. Dono asks to discuss it with Miles at more length; Miles says that as an Imperial Auditor he has to remain neutral, but he recommends Dono talk to René Vorbretten, who also has a pending suit, as well as Professora Vorthys, who specializes in Barryaran political history, and Lady Alys and Simon Illyan. Dono thanks him appreciatively and moves on.
Miles snags Ivan and asks if Gregor knows about Dono yet. Ivan says he made sure of that right away, and Miles correctly guesses Gregor’s intent to “see what happens”. Ekaterin asks what that was all about, and why Miles seems amused; Miles takes her aside and brings her up to speed on the Lady Donna/Lord Dono situation. Miles admits he was caught off-guard, but in retrospect it makes an absurd sort of sense; Ekaterin objects mildly to the term ‘absurd’, and drifts towards where Dono is now surrounded with the Koudelka women.
Ivan returns to Miles, who twits him about his taste in dates; Ivan tells him how By Vorrutyer set him up. Duv, Koudelka and Professor Vorthys join them; the women begin laughing, glancing at the men in amusement. Miles decides that now is the time to serve dinner, to break this up before it gets too out of hand. As they are leaving the library, though, Miles sees Mark and Ivan emerging from the dining room, where it emerges they have been reshuffling the carefully-ordered place settings.
All his carefully rehearsed conversational gambits were for people now on the other end of the table. Seating was utterly randomized—no, not randomized, he realized. Reprioritized. Ivan’s goal had clearly been to get Lord Dono as far away from himself as possible; Ivan now was taking his chair at the far end of the table by Mark, while Lord Dono seated himself in the place Miles had intended for René Vorbretten. Duv, Drou, and Kou had somehow all migrated Miles-ward, farther from Mark. Mark still kept Kareen at his right hand, but Ekaterin had been bumped down the other side of the table, beyond Illyan, who was still on Miles’s immediate left. It seemed no one had quite dared touch Illyan’s card. Miles would now have to speak across Illyan to converse with her, no sotto voce remarks possible.
Aunt Alys, looking a little confused, seated herself at Miles’s honored right, directly across from Illyan. She’d clearly noticed the switches, but failed Miles’s last hope of help by saying nothing, merely letting her eyebrows flick up. Duv Galeni found his future mother-in-law Drou between himself and Delia. Illyan glanced at the cards and seated Ekaterin between himself and Duv, and the accompli was fait.
Miles kept smiling; Mark, ten places distant, was too far away to catch the I-will-get-you-for-this-later edge to it.
After that, the dinner itself proceeds well enough; Ekaterin seems unconcerned with her ImpSec neighbours. The menu seems a bit odd, though–a creamy soup, a creamy salad dressing, an aromatic herb spread for the bread… Miles realizes that the meal is full of bug butter, and so does Ekaterin, though she determinedly pretends nothing is wrong. Miles decides not to warn off his guests, though he avoids it himself.
Enrique gets up and taps on his glass to make an announcement. He thanks Vorkosigan House for its hospitality, and says that he has a gift to give them in return, which fills Miles with dread. Enrique takes out a box and sets it down next to Miles; the ImpSec men tense up, prepared for the worst. He opens it, and it proves to contain three butter bugs, but changed; their carapaces are now adorned with a perfect replica of the Vorkosigan crest in brown and silver. At Lord Dono’s puzzlement, Enrique explains the butter bugs, and how the bug butter they produce has been the basis for the food they’ve been eating. He also says that the design was added genetically, and should breed true. Pym seems quite distressed that the insignia he wears so proudly is now decorating repulsive insects; Miles tells him quietly that it wasn’t intended as an insult.
Miles tries his hardest to control his response; Ekaterin’s opinion is paramount, and from what he recalls of Tien, the man was probably given to displays of vicious temper. He takes a deep breath and compliments Enrique’s talent, asking him to put the “girls” away for now; Ekaterin breaths a sigh of relief. Enrique returns to his seat and happily tells his neighbours, the Vorbrettens, all about the bugs, but the rest of the conversation has ground to a halt. Miles sends Pym to the kitchen for the next course, but asking him to check it for bug butter first. What emerges is poached salmon garnished with lemon slices, instead of the buttery sauce that was doubtless meant to accompany it.
Ekaterin, trying to break the ice, asks Duv, as a Komarran in ImpSec, about his family’s opinion of his career; Duv, initially taken aback, merely replies that his new family approves of it. Ekaterin picks up that she’s committed a faux pas, but doesn’t know what it is. Koudelka changes the subject to the Komarran soletta repairs, which seems like a safer subject. Before the conversation can get going again, though, everyone hears Enrique talking loudly to Kareen about how, with butter bug profits, she’ll surely be able to go back to the Orb of Unearthly Delights back on Beta Colony–again–with Mark. Commodore Koudelka, obviously aware of the Orb’s reputation as a pleasure dome where almost everything was available for the asking, spews his mouthful of wine across the table and begins to choke.
Kou got just enough breath back to gasp at Mark, “You took my daughter to the Orb?”
Kareen, utterly panicked, blurted, “It was part of his therapy!”
Mark, panicked worse, added in desperate exculpation, “We got a Clinic discount . . .”
Galeni freezes at the news that Mark may be a prospective brother-in-law, and Koudelka begins to hyperventilate; Drou, who had gotten up to help her husband, deliberately sits back down, with a glare that conveys that they will discuss this later. Lady Alys tries gamely to resume the soletta conversation, only to be interrupted by the arrival of a pair of kittens in the dining room, one of them carrying a Vorkosigan-liveried bug in its mouth. Enrique tries to rescue it–too late–and Miles begins to wonder how the kitten managed to get hold of a butter bug, if they were all secured… He asks Enrique and Mark, and Enrique, caught by a sudden thought, suddenly excuses himself and dashes away; Mark follows, and so does Miles, hastily instructing Lady Alys to take over as host.
In the laboratory, he finds Enrique kneeling by a butter bug house, its lid knocked askew, and only one brown-and-silver bug therein. Enrique says the cats must have knocked it over–most of the bugs have escaped, close to two hundred. Miles contemplates all the places a butter bug can hide, and says that at least they should all be neuter workers, since the queens can’t move.
“Um,” said Enrique.
Miles chose his words carefully. “You assured me the queens couldn’t move.”
“Mature queens can’t move, that’s true,” Enrique explained, climbing to his feet again, and shaking his head. “Immature queens, however, can scuttle like lightning.”
Miles thought it through; it took only a split-second. Vorkosigan-liveried vomit bugs. Vorkosigan-liveried vomit bugs all over Vorbarr Sultana.
There was an ImpSec trick, which involved grabbing a man by the collar and giving it a little half-twist, and doing a thing with the knuckles; applied correctly, it cut off both blood circulation and breath. Miles was absently pleased to see that he hadn’t lost his touch, despite his new civilian vocation. He drew Enrique’s darkening face down toward his own.
He gives Enrique an ultimatum–to get all the bugs back, including their queen, by six hours before his parents are due to return home, because after that he’s going to call in professional exterminators. At Ekaterin’s shocked exclamation, he involuntarily releases Enrique’s collar, but Kareen steps forward to berate the Escobaran for mentioning the Orb. Ekaterin assures Enrique that Miles can be reasonable, and offers to stay and help him hunt. Miles, arrested by this unwelcome image, grudgingly agrees that, after dinner, they should all help look for the bugs, including the armsmen.
Mark offers to stay and help Enrique, but Kareen says that she refuses to deal with her parents and sisters all by herself. Miles asks what Mark was doing, taking a young Barrayaran lady to the Orb in the first place. Kareen calls Miles a hypocrite, since his grandmother said he’d been there several times; Miles insists that it was all for intelligence-gathering purposes. He cuts off further argument by saying they should return to dinner, before Ma Kosti gets annoyed with them, and this shuts them up.
They return to the table, Pym serves more wine, and conversation is more-or-less successfully directed to the topic of the Emperor’s wedding, though Mark and Koudelka mostly just eye each other warily. Ekaterin seems subdued, except for laughing at a few of Dono’s jokes. After the main course, also bug-butter-free, the dessert proves to be a frozen creamy concoction; Pym tells Miles that Ma Kosti was already upset about her sauces, and refused to budge on the dessert. Miles resolutely takes a spoonful, and is somewhat annoyed to find that it’s incredibly delicious; Ekaterin and Kareen seem especially delighted about this.
Miles has just finished a rousing anecdote about acquiring his District’s wedding gift–a life-size maple-sugar sculpture of a guerrilla–and is preparing to ask her a leading question about her garden, when Illyan innocently asks Ekaterin about how long Miles has been courting her. Half the people at the table wince; Olivia says, confused, that she’d thought they weren’t supposed to talk about that yet. Miles sees that Ekaterin’s face is freezing into stone; in a last-ditch effort, he asks her to marry him.
Ekaterin made no response at all, at first. For a moment, it seemed as though she had not even heard his words, and Miles almost yielded to a suicidal impulse to repeat himself more loudly. Aunt Alys buried her face in her hands. Miles could feel his breathless grin grow sickly, and slide down his face. No, no. What I should have said—what I meant to say was . . . please pass the bug butter? Too late . . .
She visibly unlocked her throat, and spoke. Her words fell from her lips like ice chips, singly and shattering. “How strange. And here I thought you were interested in gardens. Or so you told me.”
You lied to me hung in the air between them, unspoken, thunderously loud.
So yell. Scream. Throw something. Stomp on me all up and down, it’ll be all right, it’ll hurt good—I can deal with that—
Instead, she gets up from the table, bids farewell to her aunt, and walks quickly out of the room. Miles follows her, catching her up in the entry hall, saying they need to talk. Ekaterin agrees, then tells him she resigns as his landscape designer, though she will pass on her designs for whoever he picks to finish her garden–if a garden was what he wanted in the first place. Miles says that he wanted the garden and to spend time with her, but he couldn’t tell her all of that, because she wasn’t close to being healed from Tien’s treatment of her. Ekaterin flinches at the truth of that, but excoriates him for playing on her vanity.
“Not vanity,” he protested. “Skill, pride, drive—anyone could see you just needed scope, opportunity—”
“You are used to getting your own way, aren’t you, Lord Vorkosigan. Any way you can.” Now her voice was horribly dispassionate. “Trapping me in front of everyone like that.”
“That was an accident. Illyan didn’t get the word, see, and—”
“Unlike everyone else? You’re worse than Vormoncrief! I might just as well have accepted his offer!”
“Huh? What did Alexi—I mean, no, but, but—whatever you want, I want to give it to you, Ekaterin. Whatever you need. Whatever it is.”
“You can’t give me my own soul.” She stared, not at him, but inward, on what vista he could not imagine. “The garden could have been my gift. You took that away too.”
Miles wants to follow up this last statement, but a large groundcar is pulling up outside, and Ekaterin takes advantage of this distraction to insist that Pym let her out. As Ekaterin turns to flee, she bumps directly into the early-returned Count Aral Vorkosigan. He and Cordelia express concern at the young lady’s distress, assure her that they will call a cab for her directly, and ask Miles what is going on. Miles says his dinner party is just breaking up; he tries to introduce Ekaterin to her, but is interrupted by Ekaterin’s abrupt retreat from the house. The Koudelkas soon follow suit, insisting that Kareen come home with them, and stay out of Vorkosigan House, despite Kareen’s insistence that she works there; Mark tries to insist it’s his fault.
Commodore Koudelka’s eye fell on the returnees as the rolling altercation piled up in the hallway. “Ha—Aral!” he snarled. “Do you realize what your son has been up to?”
The Count blinked. “Which one?” he asked mildly.
The chance of the light caught Mark’s face, as he heard this off-hand affirmation of his identity. Even in the chaos of his hopes pinwheeling to destruction, Miles was glad to have seen the brief awed look that passed over those fat-distorted features. Oh, Brother. Yeah. This is why men follow this man—
Olivia is allowed to leave with the Vorbrettens instead, who try to sneak out quietly; Lord Dono makes a point of complimenting Miles on his interesting dinner party. Enrique wanders into the entry hall, with some kind of unpleasantly-scented lure on a stick, searching for his bugs.
“Pym!” The Countess spotted a new victim, and her voice went a little dangerous. “I seconded you to look after Miles. Would you care to explain this scene?”
There was a thoughtful pause. In a voice of simple honesty, Pym replied, “No, Milady.”
“Ask Mark,” Miles said callously. “He’ll explain everything.” Head down, he started for the stairs.
Hoo boy, that was an ordeal. It’s painful to read. As I said before, when I first read the book, I was looking forward to this scene, getting all these characters together in one room–it would be a lot of fun. Like one of those Emperor’s Birthday or Winterfair scenes from other books–which often had their share of unpleasantness, but nothing like the meltdown that happens here. I guess that didn’t fit in with the plot, though. Enrique and Illyan between them manage to say just the wrong things, bringing Miles and Kareen’s secrets to light–Kareen about the exact nature of her relationship with Mark, and Miles’s singularly unsecret campaign for Ekaterin’s heart. In hindsight, of course, it’s inevitable, because in both cases the secrets have been shared so widely that almost everyone but the person/people that they were supposed to be secret from knew about them.
It’s almost a little off, that even Miles is judgemental about Mark and Kareen having a sexual relationship, or maybe it’s just that the Orb is taking it too far. He should know that Mark hasn’t internalized a true Barrayaran value system–his upbringing by Ser Galen probably included a fair chunk of it, but I’m sure it didn’t thoroughly take. The Koudelkas, of course, aren’t true Vor, but they probably wish they were, on some level, and prefer to emulate the true Vor value system as much as possible–like Bothari, everything has to be right for their girls. It’s more than a little hypocritical for both of them, but as I recall we get to that a little later.
At some point in this chapter Miles thinks to himself that he was no good at poetry (apart from limericks), being much better at planning combat drop missions. This obviously shows, because his campaign for Ekaterin is like one of those combat drop missions, where he tries to plan every detail, getting potential rivals out of the way (and sharing too much vital intelligence on the way), and then suddenly everything goes pear-shaped, just like Mark’s clone-rescue on Jackson’s Whole back in Mirror Dance. Or, if I may venture into an entirely different mythos, like Phil Connors’s calculated attempts to woo Rita, over and over, in “Groundhog Day”.
At least this is the low point. Miles and Mark’s love lives are as screwed up as they can get–but now Countess Cordelia is there, and she can help them untangle themselves. Yes, I know, sometimes it seems a little pat, having her as the fix-it person, but right now it’s a positive relief…
Countess Cordelia wakes Mark up the next afternoon, bringing him tea, but not food. Mark had sought refuge in Gorge and Howl last night after fleeing the party, eating his way through several tubs of bug butter. Cordelia says that Miles sought his refuge, more traditionally, in wine, and they shouldn’t expect to see him again before evening. Mark’s last memory of the party were Koudelka calling Mark’s grandmother a “Betan pimp” and Kareen refusing to ride home with “uncultured Barrayaran savages”.
Cordelia says she had a most enlightening conversation with the Vorthyses, particularly the Professora, who she wished she’d known earlier. Simon Illyan was quite distraught at spilling the beans; he’d apparently thought that he’d forgotten something important that Miles had told him. The Countess is annoyed at Miles for setting Illyan up like that, and also for not passing on more information about Ekaterin in his brief missives. She had also had a talk with Enrique; she says his work seems sound, and she promised to keep Miles from killing his bugs. They found a couple in their bedroom that morning, one of which got squished by accident, but neither of them was the queen.
She tells Mark she feels some responsibility for Kareen, being perfectly aware of what choices she would have available to her on Beta Colony. She adds that she would be perfectly happy to have Kareen as a daughter-in-law, and that she trusts Mark’s intentions to be honorable. Mark says he doesn’t think that the Koudelkas would be that keen to see him in the family.
“You are a Vorkosigan.”
“A clone. An imitation. A cheap Jacksonian knock-off.” And crazy to boot.
“A bloody expensive Jacksonian knock-off.”
Cordelia says she’s more than happy to help him and Kareen, if they can only tell her what it is they want. Mark, cautious about what problems he aims his mother at, says that he wants what Kareen wants, but that seems to have gotten confused since their return to Barrayar. He tells her that Kareen wants time to be herself, and Barrayar seems to be trying to push her into a box–even “wife” would be a box, here. She asks what his own goals are, and if they’ve changed with his time on Beta. Mark says his therapy has made progress, and it’s encouraged him; economics school was helpful, and he’s gotten some good ideas about what to do to make the Jackson’s Whole clone-body replacements less desirable, including some potential life-extension treatments the Duronas have come up with.
He’s pumping money into the Durona Group, but he wants enough to maintain financial independence as well, and so he’s looking into his “agribusiness” venture on Barrayar. Cordelia notes that they could come in handy on Sergyar too, though she admits that they should remove the Vorkosigan crest before pitching them seriously to Aral. Mark says that it’ll all come to nothing if he and Kareen can’t get back to Beta Colony. He’d probably be able to pay her way back, but he doesn’t think that would be a good idea, putting her in his debt like that. Cordelia finds that interesting, but points out that if they both give each other everything, then it evens out.
The Countess finished her tea and put down her cup, “Well. I don’t wish to invade your privacy. But do remember, you’re allowed to ask for help. It’s part of what families are all about.”
“I owe you too much already, milady.”
Her smile tilted. “Mark, you don’t pay back your parents. You can’t. The debt you owe them gets collected by your children, who hand it down in turn. It’s a sort of entailment. Or if you don’t have children of the body, it’s left as a debt to your common humanity. Or to your God, if you possess or are possessed by one.”
“I’m not sure that seems fair.”
“The family economy evades calculation in the gross planetary product. It’s the only deal I know where, when you give more than you get, you aren’t bankrupted—but rather, vastly enriched.”
Mark asks if she can help Miles; she says that’s more difficult, because she doesn’t know about the Ekaterin side of the equation. She’s of the opinion that he dug his own hole, he’ll have to dig his way out.
After she leaves, Mark tries calling the Koudelka household on the comconsole, preparing various conversational gambits for whoever may answer, but it turns out they’ve blocked him entirely.
Ekaterin has somewhat of a hangover the day after the dinner party as well–with Pym topping up her wineglass, she was sure she’d drunk several times her usual two-glass limit. At least it had given her the courage to run out.
She’s prepared all the notes on the Barrayaran garden, but she hesitates on the final act of sending it to Miles and closing off that chapter of her life entirely. She ponders the model of Barrayar that Miles had given her, remembering the shopping trip on Komarr with its watery climax, and the way he’d awarded it to her in the transfer station. She convinces herself that it was really an award, not a gift, because if it was a gift she should never have accepted it, and therefore she earned it, and doesn’t have to get rid of it.
She’d almost gone back to the garden and taken her skellytum rootling back out, but she’d been afraid of running afoul of Vorkosigan House security, who would likely have been quite embarrassed. Miles didn’t care about it, in any case–after all, he hadn’t gone out to look at it, had he? She’d carried it around long enough, it had survived enough mishaps and moves, and now she was done with it–she would leave it to its fate in the garden. Though she does add an appendix about its requirements to the garden instructions.
Nikki thumps into the room, making her wince; she’s glad she hadn’t brought him along to the dinner party, where she might have been trapped, unable to retreat with him complaining about not having finished his dessert. He asks if she’d settled on when she could go out to Vorkosigan Surleau and ride Miles’s horse, a topic which had come up during one of his visits to Vorkosigan House. Miles had generously allowed Nikki to visit the house sometimes when Ekaterin had to bring him to work, playing with Armsman Pym’s son, and sometimes Armsman Roic, eating Ma Kosti’s food, even helping Kareen in the lab, and had made this offhand invitation at the end of one such day. Now she wonders how calculated this invitation had been.
She tries to put Nikki off by telling him they can’t impose on him, and suggests they try somewhere closer if he wants to ride horses. Nikki says that Miles offered to let him try flying his lightflyer on the way down, too; Ekaterin says he’s too young, but Nikki says that Miles first flew when he was younger than that. He presses her to ask Lord Vorkosigan next time she goes to work, and finally she has to tell him that she quit her position. When Nikki asks her why, she says it was an ethical issue.
“What? What issue?” His voice was laced with confusion and disbelief. He twisted himself around the other way.
“I found he’d . . . lied to me about something.” He promised he’d never lie to me. He’d feigned that he was very interested in gardens. He’d arranged her life by subterfuge—and then told everyone else in Vorbarr Sultana. He’d pretended he didn’t love her. He’d as much as promised he’d never ask her to marry him. He’d lied. Try explaining that to a nine-year-old boy. Or to any other rational human being of any age or gender, her honesty added bitterly. Am I insane yet? Anyway, Miles hadn’t actually said he wasn’t in love with her, he’d just . . . implied it. Avoided saying much on the subject at all, in fact. Prevarication by misdirection.
“Oh,” said Nikki, eyes wide, daunted at last.
Aunt Vorthys ushers Nikki out of the room, telling him his mother has a hangover, which is a concept he has some trouble getting his mind around. She returns a while later with water and painkillers, which Ekaterin takes dutifully. She says, mournfully, that it must have been the Count and Countess Vorkosigan last night, that she had bumped into and fled past. Her aunt agrees, and says she had quite a nice conversation with them. Ekaterin says they must think she’s a lunatic, the way she ran out like that. But she can’t believe what Miles did to her, either.
Her aunt says that she didn’t have much choice but to run out–otherwise, she’d have had to answer Miles’s question. Ekaterin is confused–wasn’t her departure answer enough?
“He knew it was a mistake the moment the words were out of his mouth, I daresay, at least judging from that ghastly expression on his face. You could see everything just drain right out of it. Extraordinary. But I can’t help wondering, dear—if you’d wanted to say no, why didn’t you? It was the perfect opportunity to do so.”
“I . . . I . . .” Ekaterin tried to collect her wits, which seemed to be scattering like sheep. “It wouldn’t have been . . . polite.”
After a thoughtful pause, her aunt murmured, “You might have said, `No, thank you.’ ”
Ekaterin rubbed her numb face. “Aunt Vorthys,” she sighed, “I love you dearly. But please go away now.”
She does realize, after her aunt leaves, that she was right–she hadn’t actually answered the question, and she hadn’t realized it. She recognizes her feeling, heartsickness, all too familiar from her rows with Tien, the cold feeling after the argument broke down. She doesn’t want to return to that state again. She’s not sure who she is anymore, where her home could be. She has felt moments of deep calm in Miles’s presence, and also extreme exasperation. But she doesn’t trust her own judgement anymore.
She considers adding a note to the garden plans, but decides that just sending them will be message enough, and sends them without further ado, then goes to lie down.
After a day of sulking in his bed, Miles emerges in the evening, and enters the library to find his parents there. He mumbles a greeting to them, and after a moment asks them about their trip home; his mother says it was quite uneventful, at least until their arrival. She says they missed him at mealtimes that day; Miles says he spent a lot of time throwing up, which wouldn’t have been much fun.
The Countess added astringently, “Are you done with that now?”
“Yeh. It didn’t help.” Miles slumped a little further, and stretched his legs out before him. “A life in ruins with vomiting is still a life in ruins.”
“Mm,” said the Count in a judicious tone, “though it does make it easy to be a recluse. If you’re repulsive enough, people spontaneously avoid you.”
The Count asks Miles if he has any Auditing to do; Miles says no, fortunately for them. Aral says that Alys gave them a heavily editorialized account of the dinner party, and says she hopes he wouldn’t have retreated from a losing battle the way he did last night. Cordelia says that a woman running screaming from Miles’s marriage proposal isn’t a good sign, but from what she heard Miles didn’t leave her much choice. She asks Miles how bad Ekaterin’s prior marriage was; Miles says that from what he could tell, Tien Vorsoisson played so many head games with his wife that she must have been half-convinced she was crazy, a type that Cordelia says she recognizes well.
He admits he panicked when Illyan spilled the beans, never wanting to ambush her like that. He starts to explain his brilliant plan, to use her interest in gardens to keep her in proximity to him by hiring her to put one in the lot next door.
“Is that what that crater is,” said his father. “In the dark, from the groundcar, it looked as though someone tried to shell Vorkosigan House and missed, and I’d wondered why no one had reported it to us.”
“It is not a crater. It’s a sunken garden. There’s just . . . just no plants in it yet.”
“It has a very nice shape, Miles,” his mother said soothingly. “I went out and walked through it this afternoon. The little stream is very pretty indeed. It reminds me of the mountains.”
“That was the idea,” said Miles, primly ignoring his father’s mutter of . . . after a Cetagandan bombing raid on a guerilla position . . .
Miles suddenly remembers the skellytum Ekaterin said she’d planted, and panic briefly over what might have happened to it, before deciding it was just another reason she was mad at him. Cordelia paraphrases his plan as trying to keep a destitute widow from other romantic opportunities by manipulating her purse strings, which Miles considers an uncharitable description. He can’t believe she’d just quit working on the garden after all the time she’d devoted to it.
Cordelia reminds him of an incident from his youth, where he’d won a game of cross-ball against Armsman Esterhazy, his first win ever, only to find out later that Esterhazy had lost on purpose. He’d been furious, and never forgiven the insult; Cordelia says that Esterhazy had done it to cheer him up, but Miles said it stole his victory from him, and poisoned any later victory he happened to achieve. His mother lets this sink in for a few seconds.
The light dawned. Even with his eyes squeezed shut, the intensity of the glare hurt his head.
“Oh. Noooo,” groaned Miles, muffled into the cushion he jammed over his face. “I did that to her?”
His remorseless parent let him stew in it, a silence sharper-edged than words.
“I did that to her . . .” he moaned, pitifully.
He realizes what she’d meant about the garden being her gift…he’d just been hoping they were finally getting into the real matter, so they could have a real argument…so that, as his father supplies, he could win. Aral says you can’t win that war except by surrendering. Miles said he tried to surrender; his mother points out that she wasn’t lowering herself to Miles’s level, and hopes that sometime they can actually properly meet this woman. Miles says she sent the garden plans to him, no message or anything, and asks what he should do now. Cordelia asks if she’s going to actually listen to his advice, because otherwise she won’t give it; Miles swallows his anger and humbly says that he’s listening.
Cordelia says he owes Ekaterin an apology. He says Ekaterin won’t even talk to him, and she admits that he can’t go over to the Vorthys house in person, or even make a live comconsole call, without being too invasive. She suggests he write a short note of apology, as abject as he can manage. Handwritten, if he can make it legible, without having a secretary do it.
Miles says he doesn’t even have a secretary, since his workload hasn’t required it yet; Aral says that he can’t wish Miles had more problems to solve, and after all, solving the Komarr soletta problem should have earned him some time off. Cordelia wonders what Ekaterin earned for her own contribution, and Miles grumbles that she should have earned the gratitude of the Empire, except that the whole thing has been classified. She was heroic, she didn’t fold under the pressure, she did what she had to–and she doesn’t get the recognition for it. Cordelia points out that everyone has some pressure they’ll fold under, it’s just not the same kind of pressure for everyone.
Miles heads out to water the skellytum, which takes him some time to find, and wonders if it’s hardy enough to survive out here. He ponders what his life will be like when the skellytum is full-grown again–reclusive bachelor, or proud paterfamilias? He heads back inside, determined to nail this damned “abject” if it kills him.
Professora Vorthys seems to be a wise woman too, someone who Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan gets along with instantly, with perhaps not quite the same uncanny insight, but good enough for a second-stringer, anyway. (Do we ever find out her first name? I can’t recall.) I do think that Ekaterin has a point–fleeing indecorously from a marriage proposal should, probably, be considered a “no”, but I suppose that her aunt also has a point, in that Ekaterin has avoided actually saying anything one way or the other.
Cordelia’s shrewd comparison of Miles’s hiring of Ekaterin being like an adult intentionally losing a game to a child hits right to the heart of the problem with Miles’s plan. The garden was never, really, Miles’s primary goal–that was, always, the conquest of Ekaterin’s heart. He wasn’t planning to _lie_ to her, exactly, about anything, except perhaps his reasons for spending time with her. Though he was also trying to present his best features to her, but that might be considered normal to someone one is dating, or courting. Is it acceptable for an employer-employee relationship? Perhaps–everyone wants to come off well, don’t they? Admittedly, back on Komarr they had already gotten past that stage, to some extent–Ekaterin saw him in the throes of a seizure, she saw him chained up outside the Waste Heat Station, she saw him soaking wet in the pond. So Miles was getting off track, trying to backpedal in his treatment of her, because he was beginning to see her a precious treasure to be won, rather than just a person that he was beginning to rely on. Not someone it was important to tell only the truth, but someone whose inconvenient emotional baggage was an obstacle that needed to be worked around. So, between Cordelia explicitly pointing out his mistake, and Ekaterin implicitly letting him know that he was way off base, Miles has been thrown off of that track. Maybe he can start thinking of her as a person again…
As for Mark…he did, indeed, have some reservations about just offering to spring for Kareen’s schooling. In some ways it would be the right thing to do, but it would only convey the proper message if they were both on the same page, relationship-wise. And it can’t really be used to put them on the same page. I’ve seen some real-world relationships where two people date, then live together, well enough, but then one of them has to move to another city for work… If they both make the move together, then it seems that either they get engaged shortly thereafter, or they break up. It’s a bit of a crucible for a relationship, it seems, and, with Kareen’s uncertainty about things since their return to Barrayar, Mark doesn’t know if it’ll work out for them any more. Maybe Kareen is overreacting to the idea of being put in the “wife” box, which is doubtless one that means different things on Barrayar than it does on Beta Colony, and probably a little, or large, bit different for every culture everywhere; after all, she hasn’t even had Ekaterin’s bad experience to make her gun-shy, and I don’t see any evidence that she’s even heard Ekaterin’s horror stories about Tien. But being back on Barrayar seems to be making her think of things in Barrayaran ways, even if on some level she may know that Mark doesn’t have that same level of indoctrination. I confess, Kareen is the POV character I have the most trouble sympathizing with here, but maybe that’s because I can see inside Mark’s head and know how he feels about her. Maybe Kareen knows that too, or maybe she doesn’t, and maybe I’m just being an ignorant straight white male here, but I keep feeling like she’s blowing everything out of proportion. Except that she seems to have been bang-on about her parents’ reactions, of course…
Two chapters, hurrah! Maybe things will pick up after this, and I can speed things up a little. You can hope, anyway. I’m not going to go so far as to make it a Resolution or anything, to do two chapters a week, but it could happen. As long as they’re not too long…