Hello, and welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, where again the Muse of Witty Blog Post Openings has forsaken me for the night. (Tries to come up with a clever name for such a muse–Scalziope? Nah…) Anyway, for those who are arriving in the middle, this is where I go through the chapters of Lois McMaster Bujold’s outstandingly awesome Vorkosigan Saga, reread them, summarize them, and then try to make erudite-sounding comments on them. (If you are arriving in the middle, and you haven’t actually read Bujold’s books, then for heaven’s sake go and do that. What are you waiting for?) This week I cover two more chapters (which would seem more heroic if I didn’t do it so often, but some weeks it feels heroic), Chapter Fifteen and Chapter Sixteen, of A Civil Campaign, in which Nikki has an important chat with Miles’s friend Gregor, Ekaterin isn’t particularly happy to receive a visit from some relatives, and Cordelia tries to straighten out the Koudelkas with the aid of some old furniture.
Lord Auditor Vorthys bids farewell to his wife, while Ekaterin and Nikki wait; after he accompanies them to the palace, he’s heading directly to Komarr to work on some matters to do with the earlier investigation. She had been unprepared, last night, for when he told her that Miles’s friend with authority to talk about the matter was actually Emperor Gregor himself, who could understand Nikki’s loss of a father because of what happened to Prince Serg in the ill-fated Escobar invasion. She’s almost glad she hadn’t known before, or she probably wouldn’t have been able to deal with it.
They drive off in the groundcar–which Ekaterin now realizes is heavily armoured, and driven by an ImpSec chauffeur, because her uncle also moves in those rarefied levels. Uncle Vorthys reassures Nikki that he’ll be fine, and Gregor is a good fellow; he reassures Ekaterin as well. It’s not long before they’re at the Imperial Residence, where they are swiftly admitted and led through to the north wing.
Uncle Vorthys seemed indifferent to the museum-quality décor; he’d trod this corridor dozens of times to deliver his personal reports to the ruler of three worlds. Miles had lived here till he was six, he’d said. Had he been oppressed by the somber weight of this history, or had he regarded it all as his personal play set? One guess.
They are ushered into a large office where Miles and the Emperor are waiting for them. Miles cuts off what he was saying as Ekaterin and the others enter, and greets them stiffly. The Professor presents his relatives, and Gregor greets Ekaterin with a firm handshake, and Nikki the same, apologizing for the circumstances of the meeting, and hoping that they will have happier ones later. Ekaterin notes that Gregor seems to look at and really see her, which is both heartening and unnerving. Gregor invites them to sit down, and they do, Ekaterin and Nikki across him, Vorthys between them, Miles off to one side, seemingly at ease, though Ekaterin somehow guesses he’s more tense than he seems.
Gregor tells Nikki that Miles asked him to talk to Nikki about the rumours surrounding his father’s death. Vorthys grumbled that if it hadn’t been for those “gabbling fools” talking about it, they wouldn’t have had to drag him into it at all. Gregor starts out with a caution–Vorthys, by dint of his job, has a high level of security monitoring, and an alert caused by an unauthorized intruder could bring ImpSec there in less than two minutes. Ekaterin mutters about Vormoncrief, and Gregor says that he was, unfortunately, a known visitor. He tells Nikki that, after this conversation, he will himself be monitored more closely by ImpSec–not much different than what would happen in the Vorthys household, or Lord Vorkosigan’s. Any travel onplanet or off would have to be cleared with security, and he will have to go to a more exclusive school. They will, of course, be more protected from casual criminals, which means any that they do encounter are likely to be much more professional and dangerous.
Ekaterin caught her breath. “Miles didn’t mention that part.”
“I daresay Miles didn’t even think about it. He’s lived under exactly this sort of security screen most of his life. Does a fish think about water?”
Ekaterin darted a glance at Miles. He had a very odd look on his face, as though he’d just bounced off a force wall he hadn’t known was there.
“Off-planet travel.” Nikki seized on the one item in this intimidating list of importance to him. “But . . . I want to be a jump pilot.”
“By the time you are old enough to study for a jump pilot, I expect the situation will have changed,” said Gregor. “This applies mainly to the next few years. Do you still want to go on?”
They wait for Nikki’s response; he says he wants to know. Gregor says that his questions will be answered, but warns him that he will leave with more questions, and these ones they will be unable to answer for him, for his own safety. Finally he asks Nikki to swear, by his name’s word, to hold this conversation in confidence. Nikki, earnestly, swears the oath, he and Ekaterin both mesmerized by Gregor’s quiet intensity.
Gregor starts with the plain explanation of his father’s death. He tells Nikki that Miles and Tien met some thieves at the experiment station, who stunned the two men and chained them up outside the station. The thieves didn’t know that Tien’s reservoirs were low, and so didn’t intend his death–it was an accident, manslaughter, not murder. Nikki says that, then, Miles couldn’t share his breath mask because they were tied up; Miles confirms this, showing how far apart they were, and revealing the scars on his wrists.
Gregor says there’s more, and Ekaterin silently pleads with him to stop here. His mother wouldn’t tell Nikki this, he says, but his father had been taking bribes from the thieves. He’d wanted to become an Imperial Witness, which is why they’d gone out there; the thieves had been angry at his betrayal, which is why they’d chained them up, leaving data proving his guilt taped to his back. They’d called Ekaterin to pick them up, but too late. Gregor says that there’s other things about the thieves which make all of this a state secret, and tells Nikki the official cover story, which is that the two men got separated and Miles didn’t find Tien until after he’d suffocated.
“If anyone thinks Lord Vorkosigan had something to do with your da’s death, we are not going to argue with them. You may state that it’s not true and that you don’t wish to discuss it. But don’t let yourself be drawn into disputes.”
“But . . .” said Nikki, “but that’s not fair!”
“It’s hard,” said Gregor, “but it’s necessary. Fair has nothing to do with it. To spare you the hardest part, your mama and uncle and Lord Vorkosigan told you the cover story, and not the real one. I can’t say they were wrong to do so.”
His eye and Miles’s caught each other in a steady gaze; Miles’s eyebrows inched up in a quizzical look, to which Gregor returned a tiny ironic nod. The Emperor’s lips thinned in something that was not quite a smile.
Gregor says the thieves are in prison, and jsutice has been done. If Tien had been alive, he’d be in prison now too, but death cancels all debts. Ekaterin thinks that this a hard thing to tell Nikki, to destroy his father’s honour in his eyes, but then thinks that it could be worse, if he’d known how cowardly and venal Tien had been, scrambling to escape the consequences of his choices. But it doesn’t change the fact that he lost his father.
Nikki asks Miles what his two mistakes were. Miles said he’d neglected to call his security backup when he left the dome, and then he was a second too late in drawing his stunner. Nikki examines Miles’s wrists again, asks him about his own breath-mask, then sits back. Gregor asks him if he has any more questions, and Nikki shakes his head. Gregor then goes to his desk and gives Nikki a code card, which he says will give him access to talk to Gregor if he’s available, in case he has further questions or needs to talk the matter over.
Before the others can get up, Miles says that he’d offered Gregor his resignation, but Gregor had refused it. Vorthys is surprised, but Miles said that he’d always thought Imperial Auditors should appear honest above all else. Gregor says that that’s just an ideal–he inherited a couple of “shifty old sticks” from his grandfather, and he doesn’t think that Dorca the Just’s were any better, given the type of people they’d have to be able to stand up to. Gregor says that if his Counts and Ministers see fit to deal with Miles’s supposed crimes, they’re welcome to, but he won’t do their work for them. Miles is gratified at the support, but makes one last try, asking if Gregor thinks that he will still want Miles to stand in his wedding circle. Gregor says that he’ll be there if “General Alys” says he will, and otherwise he won’t get out of his duties that easily–and tells Miles to refer anyone who objects to Lady Alys herself.
Miles could not quite keep the malicious smile off his lips, though he tried valiantly. Fairly valiantly. Some. “I would pay money to watch.” His smile faded again. “But it’s going to keep coming up as long as—”
“Miles.” Gregor’s raised hand interrupted him. His eyes were alight with something between amusement and exasperation. “You have, in-house, possibly the greatest living source of Barrayaran political expertise in this century. Your father’s been dealing with uglier Party in-fighting than this, with and without weapons, since before you were born. Go tell him your troubles. Tell him I said to give you that lecture on honor versus reputation he gave me that time. In fact . . . tell him I request and require it.” His hand-wave, as he rose from his armchair, put an emphatic end to the topic. Everyone rustled to their feet.
Gregor shakes Ekaterin’s hand again, and says that he looks forward to seeing her again when he is less busy. He says that though they can’t give her more public recognition, he is well aware of the great debt the Imperium owes to her, and says she “may draw upon it at need and at will”. Ekaterin is taken aback, but thanks him for taking time for them, and Nikki awkwardly follows suit. Vorthys stays behind to talk to Gregor, and Miles offers to escort them out. On the way out, Ekaterin says that that was more than she had expected; Miles says he agrees, but he trusts Gregor’s judgement more than anyone else’s. Gregor also doesn’t think about the water he swims in, and endures great pressures on a daily basis; he overestimates others, and they, in turn, try not to disappoint them. Nikki says he’s just glad that the Emperor told him the truth.
Back at Vorkosigan House, Miles goes in search of his father, finding him in the library. He tells his father about the meeting with Gregor; they discuss whether Gregor was right to tell Nikki so much. Miles admits that anyone questioning Nikki would likely already know as much as him, and the rest is still closely held. He says he’d thought that Gregor would know, because of his own experiences with learning the truth about Prince Serg, how much to tell about his father’s crimes. Aral agrees that Prince Serg was a criminal and a madman, and talks about the “lucky shot” that spared Barrayar from him ever becoming Emperor; he’s glad to hear about Gregor’s good judgement about Tien, considering how badly they muffed it with Gregor himself.
“I think he handled Nikki . . . well. At any rate, Nikki won’t experience that sort of late shock to his world. Of course, compared to Serg, Tien wasn’t much worse than foolish and venal. But it was hard to watch. No nine-year-old should have to deal with something this vile, this close to his heart. What will it make him?”
“Eventually . . . ten,” the Count said. “You do what you have to do. You grow or go under. You have to believe he will grow.”
Miles drummed his fingers on the sofa’s padded arm. “Gregor’s subtlety is still dawning on me. By admitting Tien’s peculation, he’s pulled Nikki to the inside with us. Nikki too now has a vested interest in maintaining the cover story, to protect his late da’s reputation. Strange. Which is what brings me to you, by the way. Gregor asks—requests and requires, no less!—you give me the lecture you gave him on honor versus reputation. It must have been memorable.”
Aral, pleased that it stuck with Gregor–you never know if it’s going to, he says–describes it as less of a speech and more of a useful distinction. “Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.” The problem comes when the two are not the same. Miles says that, apart from a few impure thoughts about Ekaterin, and regrets over ineptitude on his part, his honour is fairly clear, so the problem is mostly in the realm of reputation, which feels like he’s being nibbled at by rats. Aral tells him that it’s worse–soul-destroying–when it’s the other way around, when your reputation soars while your honour lies in pieces. By comparison, this is mere annoyance, and he offers Miles some consolation.
“First, this too shall pass. Despite the undoubted charms of sex, murder, conspiracy, and more sex, people will eventually grow bored with the tale, and some other poor fellow will make some other ghastly public mistake, and their attention will go haring off after the new game.”
“What sex?” Miles muttered in exasperation. “There hasn’t been any sex. Dammit. Or this would all seem a great deal more worthwhile. I haven’t even gotten to kiss the woman yet!”
Aral adds that, after this, no lesser charge will raise eyebrows, so he’ll be able to get away with a lot more, if he wants to. Also, you can’t control what other people think anyway, so it’s futile to try with every stranger on the street. He should decide whose opinions matter, and concentrate on those; Miles immediately lists Ekaterin, Nikki, Gregor, and that’s it. Aral protests at being excluded from the list; Miles says that they’re not sinned against, so he’s not as much in need of their forgiveness. Aral says that, in the political arena of Vorbarr Sultana, Miles might find an reputation for ruthlessness useful; Miles asks if his father has found the “Butcher of Komarr” sobriquet useful, and Aral admits he made use of it from time to time, since he paid enough for it. Illyan, he says, has also made use of the reputation he inherited from Captain Negri, and Miles agrees that he can be unnerving, and not just because of Negri’s ghost.
Miles protests that the worst part is that his enemies think him so incompetent that he wouldn’t have done a better job of murder than that. Aral asks if he ever had to do anything of the sort for ImpSec, and Miles admits that there was one mission, which he doesn’t want to talk about, though more complicated than a simple assassination. He frets that his father is telling him the same as Galeni, that he just has to suck it up; Aral says he should worry about his honour, not his reputation, and outlast his enemies.
Miles asks about how his father dealt with things like this in his own past, and Aral recalls the way he was suspected of having killed his first wife for infidelity, the faint memory of which, he admits, may not be helping Miles any. She had killed herself, but after a gigantic blowup between the two of them–he’d been twenty-two, and hadn’t dealt with it very well. He admits that it was possible his own father had arranged her death, but he never asked. He dealt with it somewhat poorly, by diving deeper into depravity, trying to outdo the stories, until he became sick of himself and shaped up. Miles says the strategy doesn’t appeal to him, he has too much to lose.
“So, ah . . . when are we going to be permitted to meet this woman who has had such an invigorating effect on you? Her and her Nikki. Perhaps you might invite them to dinner here soon?”
Miles cringed. “Not . . . not another dinner. Not soon.”
“My glimpse of her was so frustratingly brief. What little I could see was very attractive, I thought. Not too thin. She squished well, bouncing off me.” Count Vorkosigan grinned briefly, at this memory. Miles’s father shared an archaic Barrayaran ideal of feminine beauty that included the capacity to survive minor famines; Miles admitted a susceptibility to that style himself. “Reasonably athletic, too. Clearly, she could outrun you. I would therefore suggest blandishments, rather than direct pursuit, next time.”
“I’ve been trying,” sighed Miles.
The Count regarded his son, half amused, half serious. “This parade of females of yours is very confusing to your mother and me, you know. We can’t tell whether we’re supposed to start bonding to them, or not.”
“What parade?” said Miles indignantly. “I brought home one galactic girlfriend. One. It wasn’t my fault things didn’t work out.”
Aral mentions the ones from Illyan’s reports, and Miles is temporarily speechless, not having realized that Illyan had been quite so thorough in those reports. He says he has told Ekaterin about them all, at least, out of sheer honesty.
“Honesty is the only way with anyone, when you’ll be so close as to be living inside each other’s skins. So . . . is this Ekaterin another passing fancy?” The Count hesitated, his eyes crinkling. “Or is she the one who will love my son forever and fiercely—hold his household and estates with integrity—stand beside him through danger, and dearth, and death—and guide my grandchildren’s hands when they light my funeral offering?”
Miles paused in momentary admiration of his father’s ability to deliver lines like that. It put him in mind of the way a combat drop shuttle delivered pinpoint incendiaries. “That would be . . . that would be Column B, sir. All of the above.” He swallowed. “I hope. If I don’t fumble it again.”
“So when do we get to meet her?” the Count repeated reasonably.
Miles puts him off again, for a little while. Aral doesn’t pursue the matter, just notes that it’s lucky for Miles that he met Ekaterin when he was old enough to know what he wanted; Miles agrees heartily.
The scene with Gregor is one of my favourites, but then Gregor is usually good for a good scene. Well, maybe not in the middle of The Vor Game, when he’s being a little petulant, wrestling with the Prince Serg thing, but by the end of that he’s much worthier. Obviously Gregor has gotten past it now. But I note that even in the conversation between Miles and Aral, Aral doesn’t own up to the fact that he helped engineer Prince Serg’s death in the Escobar invasion. That is still an explosive secret, too closely held to leak out. Who ever knew that one? Aral, Cordelia, Illyan…anyone else surviving?
I believe that we haven’t actually seen the story of this assassination that Miles pulled off for ImpSec. With the Dendarii, one presumes. Any inkling, even, of what that might be? It doesn’t sound like it quite fits with Jackson’s Whole, either. Oh, well, I guess we never did get the whole story on how Miles got his arms broken between Brothers in Arms and the Borders of Infinity framing story.
When was the last time we had a father-son conversation with Aral and Miles? Closest would be at the end of The Vor Game, I guess, though I think Illyan and/or Gregor were there too? Too lazy to look it up. Anyway, it’s a good talk, lots of practical advice being exchanged, and, unlike the earlier ones, they’re talking more like equals now.
Ekaterin is trying to make up a resumé that hides her near-total lack of experience, unwilling to include Miles as a reference, for a job with a nearby plant nursery. She is interrupted by the doorchime, and has a momentary vision of being kidnapped by enemy spies, but her visitors turn out to be her brother Hugo Vorvayne, and Tien’s cousin Vassily Vorsoisson, who she’d only met before at Tien’s funeral, when he’d officially signed over Nikki’s guardianship to her. She invites them inside and offers them refreshments, which they decline.
At the serious expression on Hugo’s face, she asks if everything’s all right with them, or her father; Hugo says that it’s her who’s the source of concern right now. He asks if her uncle is there; Ekaterin says he’s gone to Komarr and won’t be back until closer to Gregor’s wedding (absent-mindedly using his name, before she remembers to use his title instead). They discuss the wedding briefly, Hugo saying that Rosalie and her friends have gone crazy about it.
Vassily asks after Nikki, who Ekaterin says is off watching a regatta on the river with a friend. Vassily says that they’ve come because of some disturbing information about her and Lord Auditor Vorkosigan; Ekaterin realizes that the rumour has penetrated outside of the capital. He adds that he came to Hugo, and Rosalie seemed to corroborate the story; that it’s “common knowledge” among the Vor that Miles sabotaged Tien’s breath mask on Komarr. Ekaterin immediately responds that that’s just a lie made up by Miles’s political opponents, and they won’t be able to charge him with it, but Vassily interprets this as a statement about Miles’s political invulnerability due to his powerful connections.
Hugo says that they also heard that Miles attempted to force Ekaterin to marry him; Ekaterin admits that he did ask, very awkwardly, and is also forced to admit that she didn’t technically refuse him. Ekaterin asks where this information came from, and Vassily said it was “a friend”. Ekaterin can’t imagine any of her friends doing this, though. She admits that she finds Miles attractive, which the men, who saw him at Tien’s funeral, find incomprehensible.
“Kat,” said Hugo in a disconcerted tone, “the man’s a mutie. He barely comes up to your shoulder. He’s distinctly hunched—I don’t know why that wasn’t surgically corrected. He’s just odd.”
“Oh, he’s had dozens of surgeries. His original damage was far, far more severe. You can still see these faint old scars running all over his body from the corrections.”
Hugo stared at her. “All over his body?”
“Um. I assume so. As much of it as I’ve seen, anyway.” She stopped her tongue barely short of adding, The top half. A perfectly unnecessary vision of Miles entirely naked, gift-wrapped in sheets and blankets in bed, and her with him, slowly exploring his intricacies all the way down, distracted her imagination momentarily. She blinked it away, hoping her eyes weren’t crossing. “You have to concede, he has a good face. His eyes are . . . very alive.”
Hugo says that he and her family are there to help, if she’s in some kind of trouble with Miles, like blackmail or something. Ekaterin asks if he thinks that their uncle, the Lord Auditor, would be helpless to protect her. Hugo says that Uncle Vorthys and his wife are a little unworldly, and Ekaterin points out that her aunt is an expert on bloody political history, and her uncle’s discipline includes intimate knowledge of sabotage, not a particularly unworldly topic. They tell her that the capital seems to be full of unsavoury and dubious characters, including a woman in a man’s body; Ekaterin admits to having actually met Lord Dono, and dismays her visitors by listing his potential virtues as a Count.
Hugo tells her he’s concerned with her safety, and with Nikki’s, in the environment of the capital; Ekaterin thinks that having overcome armed terrorists, her definition of “safe” may be a little broader than his. He says she needs to be married, mistress of a good Vor household, solid, honest and loyal; Ekaterin asks if he’s sure she should have a house, rather than a planet, and accuses his goals of lacking scope. She realizes that her horizons have grown much wider than her brother’s.
Hugo said, “Damn, Kat. I thought that part of the letter was twaddle at first, but this mutie lord has turned your head around in some strange way.”
“And if it’s true . . . he has frightening allies,” said Vassily. “The letter claimed that Vorkosigan had Simon Illyan himself riding point for him, herding you into his trap.” His lips twisted dubiously. “That was the part that most made me wonder if I was being made a game of, to tell you the truth.”
“I’ve met Simon,” Ekaterin conceded. “I found him rather . . . sweet.”
A dazed silence greeted this declaration.
Ekaterin suddenly puzzles out who had sent them this letter, and realizes it must have been Alexi Vormoncrief. She tells Vassily that Vormoncrief is mostly just upset because Ekaterin refused his own proposal. Hugo says that he certainly wouldn’t force her to marry Vormoncrief, but he seemed genuinely concerned for her, and in love; Ekaterin says Vormoncrief didn’t even see her, just an available Vor widow, and he might not have noticed were she replaced by a straw woman.
Vassily says that he’s not concerned with Ekaterin and her marriage prospects; he’s more concerned with Nikki’s safety. Ekaterin recalls that Vassily has, ludicrously, the power to take Nikki away from her at a whim, and she would have to prove him an actively incompetent guardian to regain her son; Vassily may be a bachelor, but an unobjectionable one, and she wouldn’t have a chance. Ekaterin points out that Nikki would be a burden to him, and Vassily says that Tien’s mother could easily look after him as well.
She asks Vassily to define precisely what kind of lifestyle will be satisfactory for his wishes, so she knows what she should be trying to do. Vassily says that, obviously, betrothal to Miles is out of the question; Ekaterin repeats that the case against Miles is pure slander, and asks Vassily if he thinks she’s “lying, or just stupid” before reining in her temper. Vassily has a horrible power over her, with his ability to take Nikki away, and she reminds herself to try not to push him that far.
She chose her words with utmost caution. “So what do you mean by straightened out?”
Hugo and Vassily looked at each other uncertainly. Vassily ventured, “I beg your pardon?”
“I cannot know if I have toed your line unless you show me where you’ve drawn it.”
Hugo protested, “That’s not very kindly put, Kat. We have your interests at heart.”
“You don’t even know what my interests are.” Not true, Vassily had his thumb right down on the most mortal one. Nikki. Eat rage, woman. She had used to be expert at swallowing herself, during her marriage. Somehow she’d lost the taste for it.
Vassily asks that Nikki not be exposed to unsavoury characters; Ekaterin says she’ll be happy to keep him away from Alexi Vormoncrief, but Vassily insists he means Miles, who has been accused of murdering his cousin Tien. Ekaterin asks how, if Miles is never officially charged with this murder, Vassily could be satisfied that he’s not guilty of it; Vassily can’t answer, and decides to defer to Hugo on how best to keep his sister in check. Hugo flatly tells her to keep away from Miles until the rumour is settled. Ekaterin, not wanting to have Nikki’s life uprooted again, insists that they specify exactly how this would be “settled”. Hugo says she should at least avoid him for a while…Ekaterin eventually pins him down to “until the end of her mourning year”; when they agree to it, she wishes she’d tried for Winterfair instead. She insists that she will have to deliver this news to him in person, which they eventually agree to.
With this settled, they fall into uncomfortable silence, Ekaterin resolved not to offer them hospitality if she can avoid it, and they soon take the hint and mumble about having to go. She curls up by herself, wishing her aunt were there to vent to. She does give Hugo some small credit for not being swayed by the prospect of his sister becoming a Countess. She draws a disquieting parallel in her mind with a toy that Nikki never seemed to want until she tried to give it away; is she only so upset about Miles because she’s being forbidden to see him? She does have to see him sometime to tell him about the interdict, but she wants to put it off, if she can, because after that she might not get to see him for a long time…
Cordelia sends a luxurious groundcar to fetch Kareen and her parents, and her father is still muttering about how this is a bad idea, how the Countess will have their heads twisted around before they know it. Drou says she hopes things will be arranged sensibly, which Kareen heartily agrees with; Kou grumbles that “sensible” is one of her words. Drou says she wants to mend things with the Vorkosigans; Kou says he just doesn’t like the idea of a “fat, weird, half-mad clone” with Kareen. Kareen manages to keep her mouth shut.
At Vorkosigan House, Pym escorts them to the library. Furniture has been rearranged; Cordelia has a large, throne-like chair, with armchairs on either side, one for Kareen, and one already occupied by Mark. Across from Cordelia is an old, shabby couch that Kareen recognizes from hide-and-seek games in the attic; the Countess insists that Kou and Drou sit there. Kou accuses her of fighting dirty, but Drou stops him from leaving, and Cordelia outright orders him to sit, in what Kareen realizes must be her Ship’s Captain voice.
A long silence followed. Kareen could hear the old-fashioned mechanical clock ticking on the wall in the antechamber next door. Mark gave her a beseeching stare, Do you know what the hell is going on here? She returned it in kind, No, don’t you?
Her father rearranged the position of his swordstick three times, dropped it on the carpet, and finally scooted it back toward himself with the heel of his boot and left it there. She could see the muscle jump in his jaw as he gritted his teeth. Her mother crossed and uncrossed her legs, frowned, stared down the room out the glass doors, and then back at her hands twisting in her lap. They looked like nothing so much as two guilty teenagers caught . . . hm. Like two guilty teenagers caught screwing on the living room couch, actually. Clues seemed to float soundlessly down like feathers, in Kareen’s mind, falling all around. You don’t suppose . . .
“But Cordelia,” Mama burst out suddenly, for all the world as though continuing aloud a conversation just now going on telepathically, “we want our children to do better than we did. To not make the same mistakes!”
Ooh. Ooh. Oooh! Check, and did she ever want the story behind this one . . . ! Her father had underestimated the Countess, Kareen realized. That hadn’t taken any more than three minutes.
Cordelia says that, in her opinion, Kareen is doing much better, and hasn’t made any mistakes at all, that she’s noticed. Kou calls Mark a mistake, and Cordelia says they’ll get to him later. She says that Kareen is doing much better than they were at that age, partly because of the bright future they’d won for her. She then has Kareen tell her parents about getting her contraceptive implant on Beta Colony, and her hymen cut, and then being introduced to sex by a Licensed Practical Sexuality Therapist (a hermaphrodite, as it turned out); Cordelia contrasts this with awkward, uninformed fumble in the dark, and Kareen says that Barrayar’s approach seems awful. Cordelia reminds her that both cultures are trying to solve the basic problem of making sure that children will be cared for. Beta handles it by regulating female reproductive systems; Barrayar, which couldn’t, had to regulate the entire woman.
Kou grumbles that they should never have sent Kareen to Beta; Cordelia reminds him that Kareen’s trip to Beta was planned before meeting Mark, and reminds them that she might have ended up with a Betan native (of whatever gender). If she ends up with Mark, at least they’ll both have ties to Barrayar, and be likely to visit more frequently, which Drou finds a compelling argument. Kou says he wants Kareen to be safe, well, happy and financially secure. Cordelia says that the first few are things that it’s almost impossible to give your children, no matter how you try. Then she asks Kou what he thinks Mark’s financial situation is.
Da shook his head. “I thought he was broke. I assumed the family made him an allowance, like any other Vor scion. And that he ran through it—like any other Vor scion.”
“I’m not broke,” Mark objected strenuously. “It’s a temporary cash-flow problem. When I budgeted for this period, I wasn’t expecting to be starting up a new business in the middle of it.”
“In other words, you’re broke,” said Da.
“Actually,” Tante Cordelia said, “Mark is completely self-supporting. He made his first million on Jackson’s Whole.”
She explains how Mark is busily investing his money in a number of schemes, some of them less speculative than others, some of which she supports herself. Mark explains how he’s paying Kareen in _shares_ so he won’t have to withdraw money and lose all that interest… He says he’d willingly pay a dowry for Kareen if that’s what’s expected; Kareen says that he’s got it the wrong way around, and anyway she doesn’t want to be bought like a Jacksonian slave. Kou stoutly claims that he doesn’t care about the money, whether in marks or Betan dollars–he wants what’s best for his daughter.
Cordelia asks what exactly he wants from Mark, then–should he offer to marry Kareen? Kou would probably be happier if Mark were to just go away, but he stops short of actually saying it. Mark says he will, if she wants to, but he didn’t think she did; Kareen says she doesn’t, since she’s still trying to find out who she is, and still growing as a person. Cordelia asks if she thinks marriage wil stop that, and Kareen says that the stories always seem to end with marriage, and she doesn’t want an ending. Her parents try to reassure her that marriage isn’t really like that, though they sound a little uncertain themselves.
Mark reiterates that he’ll do whatever Kareen wants, whether that be to marry her, or not, or go away (which she emphatically does not want), or whatever. Cordelia asks Kareen if betrothal will do, but she says that’s giving an oath which locks you into marriage anyway, and she takes her oaths seriously. Cordelia asks Kareen what she wants. She struggles to put it into words, and finally declares that she wants an option on Mark. Her parents aren’t certain about this, if it’s some weird offplanet custom, but Kareen says she just made it up.
Cordelia asks her to specify the terms of the option. Mark willingly agrees for it to be a mutual option, and Kareen wants a year for her to see what happens between them, with nobody else interfering. Kou expresses concern about whether Mark is safe for his daughter to be around. Cordelia agrees that Mark has been through some Betan therapy, but paints him, to Koudelka, as a soldier, conscripted young and unwillingly, who has been fighting his own wars, and needs time to heal; this gets through to Kou at last.
“Kou, I wouldn’t have encouraged this relationship if I thought it was unsafe for either of our children.”
He looked back. “You? I know you! You trust beyond reason.”
She met his eyes steadily. “Yes. It’s how I get results beyond hope. As you may recall.”
He pursed his lips, unhappily, and toed his swordstick a little. He had no reply for this one. But a funny little smile turned Mama’s mouth, as she watched him.
Cordelia declares the matter settled with the option, until next year, when they can re-evaluate and consider an extension. Kou isn’t pleased that the two of them will be “carrying on”, but Drou reminds him of their own carrying on, which they mostly felt safe doing because their relatives lived outside the city. One by one, they all agree, Kou most reluctantly, with a “codicil” that he’ll hunt Mark down if Mark hurts his daughter. Kareen can sense Mark’s Black Gang exulting inside his head; she pulls out her Betan earrings and puts them on, as a declaration of herself.
Obviously one of the scenes in this chapter is more pleasant than the other–can you guess which? Yes, that’s right–now that Mark has marshaled Cordelia to his side, his and Kareen’s problems–with her parents, at least–are dealt with handily. Mostly what Cordelia has to do is make them realize how hypocritical they’re being, given their own history. The point about Mark’s finances is also well taken–I guess that Kou just leapt from the fact that Mark didn’t seem to have any _real_ money to throw around to him probably being broke. But it took Cordelia recasting Mark as a wounded soldier to really get Kou starting to come over to his side, since of course Kou himself required a fair bit of healing after his own wars. Anyway, this scene ties up Kareen‘s plotline, pretty much, though not Mark’s, quite, because there are still issues with butter bugs to come…
Ekaterin’s scene, on the other hand, is much less pleasant. Her brother, and Tien’s cousin, are still fairly provincial Vor–maybe not quite Conservatives, but probably more on that side than the Progressives, considering the sources they consider authoritative for the rumours about Miles. It would be funnier if it weren’t for that little thing about Vassily Vorsoisson being able to rescind her guardianship of Nikki. (I believe I mentioned, probably in the last book, how ludicrous a rule that is, for a man’s cousin to have more rights to the man’s son than his own wife does. But I guess that’s Barrayar for you.) So she has to, unfortunately, take them at least a little seriously, though I’m sure even they could tell that she was doing it quite reluctantly. (Just noticed the parallel–Ekaterin and Kareen both negotiating with unwilling relatives to keep from losing a loved one… The difference being that Kareen’s parents are, in the end, swayed by logic.)
I was beginning to think, before Ekaterin did, that the very fact of being told she had to stay away from Miles was making her appreciate him more. But I don’t really think it’s as much that she only wants him more the more she’s told she can’t have him, though. It’s more that she’s starting to contrast “what life would be like with him” with “what life would be like without him” the more she experiences the latter and is deprived of the former.
Not that many chapters left, just five, I think, so, with any luck, three more weeks. We must be getting close to the climax now. Which I think I recall fairely well, with the Council of Counts vote and the events leading up to, and during, it. Should be a hoot.