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Archive for February, 2014

Vorkosigan takes the faceoff…he gets the puck away from Vordarian, passes it to Bothari…Bothari takes it across the blue line, skates past Vorrutyer, passes it back to Vorkosigan…Vorkosigan shoots…he scores!  Okay, yes, it’s been a little hockey-crazy in Canada this past week or so, and even if I didn’t get up at 5:00 to watch the final game, it makes a nice intro, doesn’t it?  (Why don’t they play hockey on Barrayar, anyway?  What sports do they play?)  Anyway, welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, my tribute to the works of Lois McMaster Bujold, as we continue through her novella “Winterfair Gifts”, watching the events surrounding Miles Vorkosigan’s long-awaited wedding, through the eyes of his junior Armsman, Roic.

Winterfair Gifts (Part 2)

At dawn the next morning, Roic is called down to accompany one of Lord Vorkosigan’s guests for morning exercise; it turns out to be Taura, dressed in gray ship knits.  She smiles to see him, trying to hide her mouth, but Roic says she doesn’t have to.

Her fangs glinted. “I hope they didn’t drag you out of bed. Miles said his people just used the sidewalk around this block for their running track, since it was about a kilometer. I don’t think I can go astray.”

Roic intercepted a Look from Pym. Roic hadn’t been called out to keep m’lord’s galactic guest from getting lost; he was there to deal with any altercations that might result from startled Vorbarr Sultana drivers crashing their vehicles onto the sidewalk or each other at the sight of her.

“No problem,” said Roic promptly. “We usually use the ballroom for a sort of gymnasium, in weather like this, but it’s being all decorated for the reception. So I’m behind on my fitness training for the month. It’ll be a nice change to do my laps with someone who’s not so much older, um, that is, so much shorter than me.” He sneaked a glance at Pym.

Pym’s wintry smile promised retribution for that dig as he coded open the doors for them. “Enjoy yourselves, children.”

Roic regrets his teasing as Taura’s effortless loping leaves him wheezing and struggling to keep up.  After half a dozen laps, they slow down, and Roic suggests a detour through the garden to cool down.  Taura is struck by the beauty of the icy garden, and points out some men preparing for the wedding, some unpacking ice sculptures, others artistically spraying the vegetation to create icicles.  Roic says they’re having the wedding outdoors, to Taura’s surprise, but he says that M’lord is adamant on having the wedding in Ekaterin’s garden, no matter the temperature, even if all they will actually do outside is say their vows.

Taura says she’s looking forward to the wedding, including the intricate Barrayaran outfit Lady Alys picked out for her; she’s decided it’s a type of uniform, but she can’t tell if she’s “a recruit or a spy”.  There’s so much to learn about Barrayaran society, she says, and envies Roic having grown up with it.  Roic says he actually grew up working-class in Hassadar, and ended up becoming a street guard when he was eighteen, a job that he explains deals with everything from traffic jams and upset people to stolen property and rowdy drunks.

Then, one day, a crazy began shooting up the city square at rush hour with an auto-needler, and Roic disarmed him–even though he was off-duty at the time, and unarmed.  He tries to downplay it, saying that he must have been crazy to do it, and Taura must have seen worse than that in her work; Taura says that she wasn’t that keen on going up against needlers herself.  As a result of the incident, he ended up coming to Pym’s attention, and getting recruited as an Armsman, even though he thinks he fit in better in Hassadar.  Taura says that Miles always liked having large backup, like her, to loom at people.  She also demonstrates a more threatening version of her smile, which causes a passing workman to fall into a snowbank; Taura saves his ice sculpture and Roic helps him up.  If that doesn’t work, she continues, she could always pick them up and hold them at arm’s length until they subsided, or of course just stun them.

Roic says that, with her strength, she could always find work as a fire-fighter; his brother is one, in Hassadar, and that kind of muscle would be useful.  Taura thanks him for the suggestion, but says she’s happy as a mercenary, seeing new planets.

“How many have you seen?”

“I think I’ve lost count. I used to know. Dozens. How many have you seen?”

“Just t’ one,” he admitted. “Though hanging around m’lord, this one keeps getting wider till I’m almost dizzy. More complicated. Does that make sense?”

She threw back her head and laughed. “That’s our Miles. Admiral Quinn always said she’d follow him halfway to hell just to find out what happened next.”

Roic is surprised to hear that Admiral Quinn is female; Taura says she is, and worked her way up, too, though not through sexual favours.  Though she lets slip that she was another one of Miles’s lovers, which shocks Roic; she tells him how, with the uncertain life of a mercenary, you take what you can, when you can.  It was Miles’s injuries and discharge from ImpSec that separated them–when he could no longer be the Admiral, and she refused to come to Barrayar for him.

“Elli Quinn’s got no one but herself to blame for any chances she threw away. Though some people are born with more chances to waste than others, I’ll admit. I say, grab the ones you’re issued, run with them, and don’t look back.”

“Something might be gaining on you?”

“I know perfectly well what’s gaining on me.” Her grin flashed, oddly tilted this time. “Anyway . . . Quinn might be more beautiful, but I was always taller.” She gave a satisfied nod.

She says that Miles must surely be satisfied with Roic’s height, and his broad shoulders are a recruiter’s dream.  Roic says that M’lord, and Pym, must think he’s an idiot and a screwup; he admits, when Taura asks, that nobody actually died, but explains about how, in trying to keep Lord Mark’s biologist from being extradited, he ended up in the front foyer, mostly naked and covered in bug butter, when M’lord brought his new fiancée home, with her relatives…

He sighed. “If you see one of those damned vomit bugs still around, squash it on sight. Hideous bioengineered mutant things, kill ’em all before they multiply.”

Her laughter stopped cold.

Roic re-ran his last sentence in his head, and made the unpleasant discovery that one could do far worse things to oneself with words than with dubious food products, or possibly even with needlers. He hardly dared look up to see her face. He forced his eyes right.

Taura’s face has gone blank, and Roic restrains himself from trying to cover up his gaffe; she just says it’s cold and she wants to go back in.

Roic sleeps all day, trying to get back onto night shift, though he regrets missing getting to see what Madame Vorsoisson’s staid relatives would make of M’lord and his odd friends, especially Taura.  When he gets up, Ma Kosti’s kitchen is in a frenzy preparing for the next day’s wedding, though that night, at least, she was off the hook because all the guests were at the Winterfair Ball at the Imperial Residence.  Roic is thus surprised to see M’lord and Taura returning before midnight.  As they enter, Taura is saying that she feels okay, just tired and a little jump-lagged, and is more concerned about Madame Vorsoisson.

M’lord paused on the steps, three up, and leaned on the banister to speak face to face with Taura, who was watching him in concern. “She wasn’t sure even last week about attending the Emperor’s bonfire tonight, though I thought it would be a valuable distraction. She insisted she was all right when I talked to her earlier. But her Aunt Helen says she’s all to pieces, hiding in her room and crying. This is just not like her. I thought she was tough as anything. Oh, God, Taura. I think I’ve screwed up this whole wedding thing so badly . . . I rushed her into it, and now it’s all coming apart. I can’t imagine how bad the stress must be to make her physically ill.”

“Slow down, dammit, Miles. Look. You said her first marriage was dire, yes?”

“Not bruises and black eyes bad, no. Draining the blood of your spirit out drop by drop for years bad, maybe. I only saw the very end of it. It was pretty gruesome by then.”

“Words can cut worse than knives. The wounds take longer to heal, too.”

She didn’t look at Roic. Roic didn’t look back.

M’lord wonders if he should go see her or not, or if that’s bad luck.  Taura reminds him of pre-combat jitters, and how it can be worse the second time than it is the first time.  She says she saw how Ekaterin looks at Miles, and swears that he’s not the problem–it’s more likely the first husband’s fault.  She encourages him to go be with her and be himself.  M’lord decides she’s probably right, and tells Roic to get a car to bring him over to the Vorthyses’ house while he changes out of his holiday finery.

Roic asks Taura what’s going on, and she says that Ekaterin’s aunt said that she seems to be having some sort of breakdown or something.  She asks Roic if he knows of any pharmaceutical labs that would be open, and Roic, baffled, asks if she’s sick too, because he can always call in the family’s physician; nothing much commercial is going to open on the holiday, except hospital emergency rooms, which will probably be busy.  Taura says she’s not sick herself, she was just wondering, because of something she thought of earlier…  She heads upstairs, and Roic goes off to get M’lord a car, thinking that Taura was, at least, talking to him like normal, so maybe he hadn’t blown it entirely…

Professora Vorthys lets them in; when M’lord asks, she admits he hadn’t told Ekaterin he was coming, but she encourages him to go up and just be with her.  Roic waits in the hall–reflecting that he’d never seen a bad crime scene in a house like this one, rife with books–until the Professora comes back down.  Roic asks if Madame Vorsoisson was sick, and the Professora says she has been, mostly a bad headache, though she’d claimed to be doing better this morning.  She did, at least, agree to see Lord Vorkosigan; the Professora relays his orders for Roic to go back home and wait for him.

When Roic arrives back at Vorkosigan House, nobody else has returned from the Imperial Residence yet.  The house is quiet, which is the best part of night shift, in Roic’s opinion.  He checks the security monitors, then makes a physical pass through the house.  In the entry hall, he hears a creak in the library; he sneaks as quietly as he can over to the doorway and peers inside.  Inside he sees Taura bending over the gifts, and is shocked to see her wrapping up the triple strand of pearls in cloth and pocketing them.

But I liked her. I really liked her. Only now, in this moment of hideous revelation, did he realize just how much he’d come to . . . to admire her in their brief time together. Brief, but so damned awkward. She was really beautiful in her own unique way, if only you looked at her right. For a moment it had seemed as though far suns and strange adventures had beckoned to him from her gold eyes; just possibly, more intimate and exotic adventures than a shy backcountry boy from Hassadar had ever dared to imagine. If only he were a braver man. A handsome prince. Not a fool. But Cinderella was a thief, and the fairytale was gone suddenly sour.

Sick dismay flooded him, as he imagined the altercation, the shame, the wounded friendship and shattered trust that must follow this discovery—he almost turned away. He didn’t know the value of the pearls, but even if it were a city’s ransom he was certain m’lord would trade them in a heartbeat for the ease of spirit he’d had with his old followers.

Knowing they’ll be missed in the morning anyway, Roic turns on the light; Taura, startled, whirls around, and relaxes when she sees it’s him.  Roic tells her to put the pearls back, and she grimaces and tenses up again.  She says she doesn’t dare put them back, but she promises to bring them back tomorrow.  Roic, confused, says it’d need to go through a security check, and Taura asks what kind of checks have already been run on it.  Roic says everything is scanned for explosives and electronics, and the comestibles checked for biologicals and chemicals.  Taura says she wasn’t stealing it, just…borrowing it; Roic asks her to give them to him, and Taura says he mustn’t touch it.  He asks why not, and she asks him how he feels about Miles; Roic tries to explain how he is a Vorkosigan armsman, and how he’s sword to serve his liege lord.  Taura asks then if he could keep a secret from his liege lord that would hurt him, even if he asked…  Roic temporizes, and says she needs to trust him for him to trust her.

She takes the pearls back out and asks him what he sees.  He says he sees pearls, white and shiny; she says she may be a “hideous bioengineered mutant”, but among her modifications is an enhanced visual spectrum, and to her, the pearls look different, like they’re dirty.  And, an hour after Ekaterin put them on for a few minutes, she became so ill she could barely stand.  Roic is shaken when he realizes she’s right, and he says they’ll have to be checked out.  Taura says the problem is that this is Elli Quinn’s gift, and she and Miles had loved each other strongly; if Quinn sent them, then knowing that would wound Miles deeply.  Roic says it was the bride they were meant to kill, or maybe they were only meant as a prank, to make her sick; Taura says that she wouldn’t bet on that, considering how bad Ekaterin is after only a short contact.  Roic says that Taura is the one who knows Elli Quinn, and asks if she thinks this is something Quinn would do.  Taura says maybe, if she was angry enough; Roic says that if she didn’t do it, they should clear her name, and if she did, she doesn’t deserve them to protect it, and waits, tensely, for her response.

Taura says that sometimes people do rash things that they later regret; that’s why she’d wanted to check them in secret, hoping she was wrong.  Roic says that ImpSec can check the gift, everything about it, and find out who’s really behind it…then hunt them down without mercy.  Taura says that they might do that to Quinn, if they decide she’s responsible, and if they’re mistaken…

“ImpSec is competent.”

“Roic, I’m an ImpSec employee. I can absolutely guarantee you, they are not infallible.”

He ran his gaze down the crowded table. “Look. There’s that other wedding gift.” He pointed to the folds of shimmering black blanket, still piled in their box. The room was so quiet, he could hear the live fur’s gentle rumble from here. “Why would she send two? It even came with a dirty limerick, hand-written on a card.” Not presently on display, true. “Madame Vorsoisson laughed out loud when m’lord read it to her.”

A reluctant smile twitched her mouth for a moment. “Oh, that’s Quinn, all right.”

“If that’s truly Quinn, then this”—he pointed at the pearls—”can’t be. Eh? Trust me. Trust your own judgment.”

Comments

There are two plotlines in the story–one the romance plotline with Roic and Taura, and one the mystery plotline with the pearls.  Which is one more than you’d tend to get in a true short story, of course.  The mystery–well, it’s not a murder, as they usually tend to be (except in kids’ books, I suppose), just an attempted murder; those would tend to be easier to solve if the intended victim saw their attacker, so to make it a real mystery you have to make the attack a subtle one, such as this attempted poisoning.  And the romance–well, it doesn’t feel like a romance, to me, at least; I’m not a real authority, not having read more than a handful, but the modern ones that I’ve read tend to have a stronger physical attraction, and in this story it’s fairly subdued.

But some would say that the true definition of romance would be that the emotional relationship between the main characters is at the heart of the story.  It doesn’t start with a magnetic attraction between the two of them, but their relationship does evolve.  Roic is worldly enough that he doesn’t react with unthinking revulsion and hatred at Taura’s blatant mutations, but he still has to overcome his first impressions to see the woman inside the super-soldier.  Taura herself mostly just sees Roic as one of Miles’s many hired hands, but they get thrown together in a few situations–at Estelle’s, at the tea shop, and then doing the run around the block, where a careless comment damages her opinion of him, but perhaps also makes her have to try to assess her own feelings about him, the way that Ekaterin did after Miles’s dinner party.

Which brings us to the central scene of the story–Roic discovering Taura with the pearls.  First it wounds his opinion of her, to think of her as a thief.  He still gives her the benefit of the doubt, which gives her the opportunity to explain her suspicions…which leads into the mystery.  Now he just has to convince her that she can’t keep this to herself, just because the pearls have Elli Quinn’s name on them.  I remember being surprised, at first, that Quinn wasn’t at the wedding, whether she just couldn’t deal with watching Miles marry someone else, but it didn’t quite seem like her.  Anyway, here’s where Roic and Taura begin to trust each other, both of their initial images of the other having been damaged, and maybe the top layer of the social facade peeled away.

Is this the climax of the story?  Obviously it’s not quite over yet, and I’m not sure if the rest of the story is nothing more than denouement, but I can’t think of any other real turning points that come after this, so maybe it is…  Oh, and by the way, apparently Ekaterin’s Aunt Vorthys’s first name is “Helen”.  Don’t think we knew that before…


I’m really taking it easy here, strolling through “Winterfair Gifts” at a leisurely pace, so there’s still one more week, and then I’m sure I’ll take yet another week off.  Then into Diplomatic Immunity…but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Until next week, then…

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As snow, accustomed or unaccustomed, blankets much of North America, we must turn to indoor pursuits to keep us warm and entertained.  So let’s…read a story set in the middle of winter?  Well, at least it’s mostly indoors…  I am, of course, referring to Lois McMaster Bujold’s novella “Winterfair Gifts”, a somewhat interstitial story which actually depicts the wedding strongly implied by the ending of A Civil Campaign…which, of course, ended with a completely different wedding.  The novella originally appeared in the anthology Irresistible Forces, dedicated to science fiction and fantasy romance tales (later reprinted, of course, in the omnibus Miles in Love, as were the two previous novels), and as such is a romance…though not, this time, starring Miles Vorkosigan, despite the fact that it’s his wedding we’re here to see…

Winterfair Gifts (Part 1)

After notification by the gate guard, Armsman Roic drops the house shields and prepares to admit Lord Vorkosigan and his guests.  He checks that his uniform is spotless, flashing back, as he does so, to the horrible humiliation when Lord Vorkosigan had arrived with other guests, to find Roic clad only in briefs and bug butter.  He’s afraid that Lord Vorkosigan thinks he’s an idiot, and castigates himself for not having blocked the Escobarans’ incursion in the first place, even though he hadn’t been on duty at the time.

The groundcar arrives, and Armsman Pym emerges, glancing inside as if to assure himself that there won’t be a repeat of the previous drama for M’Lord’s Important Off-World Wedding Guests.  Pym has also seemed to treat him like an idiot since the bug-butter incident.  Roic stands to attention as Lord Vorkosigan enters with his guests, and Roic identifies them to himself.  The couple with the baby are the Bothari-Jeseks, and Pym has informed Roic that Elena Bothari-Jesek has full rights to the house, as the daughter of a former Armsman.  The man with the jump pilot implants must be the Betan, Arde Mayhew.  The other one…

The hulking figure unfolded from the groundcar and stood up, and up. Pym, who was almost as tall as Roic, did not come quite up to its shoulder. It shook out the swirling folds of a gray and white greatcoat of military cut, and threw back its head. The light from overhead caught the face and gleamed off . . . were those fangs, hooked over the out-slung lower jaw?

Sergeant Taura was the name that went with it, by process of elimination. One of m’lord’s old military buddies, Pym had given Roic to understand, and—don’t be fooled by the rank—of some particular importance (if rather mysterious, as was everything connected with Lord Miles Vorkosigan’s late career in Imperial Security.) Pym was former ImpSec himself. Roic was not, as he was reminded, oh, three times a day on average.

Sergeant Taura enters with the rest, and Roic is startled to discover, after the removal of the greatcoat, that Taura is female.  Lord Vorkosigan asks Roic about his parents, and Roic informs him that they have arrived home from their earlier engagement.  Miles tells Elena that he’ll have to take her and Baby Cordelia up to meet her namesake right away, or else.  He tasks Roic with showing Mayhew and Taura to their rooms, and says they’ll all meet up in the library later.  Roic manages to ask Taura if he can carry her bag, and she acquiesces; he carries it up the stairs for her, though it’s much heavier than he’d expected.  Mayhew, tired and jump-lagged, goes to his room first, and Roic shows Taura to hers.

Taura asks if Winterfair weddings are a custom, and Roic explains it’s mostly because Madame Vorsoisson is a student, between semesters–though a widow, not a young student.  He asks her if Mayhew likes children, since Nikki Vorsoisson is mad for jump pilots; Taura admits that she’s not sure, since the fleet doesn’t encounter that many, and Roic makes a mental note to make sure Nikki doesn’t meet up with a rebuff.  Taura muses that it makes sense for Miles to wed a Vor woman, though she’s not sure what that means, precisely; she asks Roic to explain Vor to her, but he has difficulty articulating it.

“Now that Barrayar has modernized, isn’t a hereditary aristocracy resented by the rest of your classes?”

“But they’re our Vor.”

“Says the Barrayaran. Hm. So, you can criticize them, but heaven help any outsider who dares to?”

“Yes,” he said, relieved that she seemed to have grasped it despite his stumbling tongue.

She asks Roic if this Madame Vorsoisson loves Miles, and Roic assures her that she does, though privately he wonders at her dark and pensive mood of late.  Taura asks if he’s served Lord Vorkosigan long, and Roic says he’s been there about a year, brought up from the Hassadar Municipal Guard when a vacancy came open.  He asks her the same question, and she says she’s served Miles all her life–all her real life, at least–and asserts that he’s a great man.  Roic isn’t sure of that, but Count Vorkosigan certainly is, of course.  He likes Lord Vorkosigan well enough, and sympathizes with the challenges he’s faced because of his…birth injuries.  He tells her the way to the library, says she doesn’t need to dress formally, and takes his leave.

He makes a security circuit of the house, and then returns to the library, where Taura and Mayhew are examining the wedding gifts that have arrived so far–each of them unwrapped, checked by Pym, and rewrapped before the bride and groom even get to see them.  Some of them have been unwrapped again, and Mayhew and Taura look for their own, and Elli Quinn’s–who is not attending.  Taura holds up Elli’s gift–a bioengineered cat blanket–and they speculate on whether it’s the same one that Miles once gave to Elli, or if it’s a new one, and what message she’s trying to send by it; Taura tells Mayhew not to say anything of this to the bride, or else.

Lord Vorkosigan pokes his head out of the library and says that Elena is feeding the baby, and they’ll be down in a little while; he tells Taura to come in and try his cook’s hors d’oeuvres.  As M’Lord looks up at Taura, Roic is suddenly struck that regular women are, to M’Lord, the same proportion as Taura is to Roic.  As Taura heads in, Lord Vorkosigan tells Roic that, tomorrow, he’ll be escorting Taura to Alys Vorpatril’s modiste in the Old Town to get her a proper lady’s wardrobe.  Roic is daunted with the prospect of being in the formidable Lady Alys’s presence, and asks how he managed it; M’Lord says that she relishes and challenge, and hopes that she’ll be able to convince Taura to wear something other than the wholly unsuitable colour pink, which she clings to because it’s supposed to be non-threatening.

He tells Roic to be sure to endorse whatever Lady Alys picks, and also to be sure to try and safeguard Taura from any insult or snub that might make her uncomfortable, as much as possible.  He’d be there himself, but he won’t have time this close to the wedding.  Roic asks after Lady Vorsoisson, thinking of a crying jag he’d come across in a back corridor; M’Lord says she’s under a lot of stress, which he’s trying to minimize, and Roic wonders if he knows too.

M’lord brightened. “Anyway, I want Sergeant Taura to have a great time on her visit to Barrayar, a fabulous Winterfair season. It’s probably the only chance she’ll ever have to see the place. I want her to look back on this week like, like . . . dammit, I want her to feel like Cinderella magicked off to the ball. She’s earned it, God knows. Midnight tolls too damned soon.”

Roic tried to wrap his mind around the concept of Lord Vorkosigan as the enormous woman’s fairy godfather. “So . . . who’s t’ handsome prince?”

M’lord’s smile went crooked; something almost like pain sounded in his indrawn breath. “Ah. Yes. That would be the central problem, now. Wouldn’t it.”

Lady Vorpatril’s modiste is identified by only a single plaque reading Estelle, and Roic is a little daunted as he leads Taura up the stairs.  They enter a room that looks like nothing more than a Vor lady’s drawing room; Lady Vorpatril is already there with another woman, and turn to greet Taura and Roic as they enter; they seem to take Taura in stride, obviously having been pre-warned, but aren’t quite so equable about her pink pantsuit.  Roic not being sure how to do the introductions, Lady Alys takes matters into her own hands and greets Taura warmly; Taura, a little shyly, says she hadn’t known what to expect–someone older and not so beautiful, perhaps.

“I’m very happy to have a chance to visit Miles’s—Lord Vorkosigan’s homeworld,” Taura told them. “Although when he invited me to come for the Winterfair Season, I wasn’t sure if it was hunting or social, and whether I should pack weapons or dresses.”

Lady Vorpatril’s smile sharpened. “Dresses are weapons, my dear, in sufficiently skilled hands. Permit us to introduce you to the rest of our ordnance team.” She gestured toward a door at the far end of the room, through which presumably lay more utilitarian work rooms, full of laser scanners and design consoles and bolts of exotic fabrics and expert seamstresses. Or magic wands, for all Roic knew.

Roic asks, in mild panic, what he should do, and Lady Alys just tells him to wait.  Not daring to sit on the furniture, he keeps standing, in a position he can maintain for hours if necessary.  Lady Alys returns shortly with Taura’s pink outfit, and gives them to Roic with instructions to see them hidden, or burned, so that they won’t fall into Taura’s hands again.  She dismisses him and tells him to come back in about four hours; ornamental as he is, there’s no need for him to clutter up the reception room.  When he returns, he has to wait for a little longer before Lady Alys emerges, watching carefully for his reaction.

A stunning vision in hunter green stepped through behind her.

Oh, it was still Taura, certainly, but . . . the skin that had been sallow and dull against the pink was now revealed as a glowing ivory. The green jacket fit very trimly about the waist. Above, her pale shoulders and long neck seemed to bloom from a white linen collar; below, the jacket skirt skimmed out briefly around the upper hips. A narrow skirt continued the long green fall to her firm calves. Wide linen cuffs decorated with subtle white braid made her hands look, if not small, well-proportioned. The pink nail polish was gone, replaced by a dark mahogany shade. The heavy braid hanging down her back had been transformed into a mysteriously knotted arrangement, clinging close to her head and set off with a green . . . hat? feather? anyway, a neat little accent tilted to the other side. The odd shape of her face seemed suddenly artistic and sophisticated rather than distorted.

“Ye-es,” said Lady Vorpatril. “That will do.”

Roic closed his mouth.

Taura asks how she’s supposed to bodyguard anyone in an outfit like this; Lady Alys says that men will be lining up to deal with annoying people, which Roic enthusiastically agrees with.  Taura asks if it’s effective, and Roic agrees that it’s terrifying; this dampens Taura’s enthusiasm, and she complains that she already terrifies people, and asks if she shouldn’t wear the pink after all…  Lady Alys desperately tries to persuade her that that’s for younger girls, and she herself would never wear pink bows…  Taura will just have to settle for braver men, she says; Taura says she already knew that, but hoped that fewer of them would be put off.  Although the one she wants is already taken, she says, and Roic wonders what giant of a man she’s referring to.

Lady Alys then takes them to an exclusive tea room, at least partly to refuel Taura’s metabolism, but also for Lady Alys to brief her on proper conduct and manners; Taura absorbs the instruction with fair ease, before Roic’s eyes.  Roic is used as a practice gentleman in some examples, bringing him in for some correction himself, but he reassures himself that next to Taura he’s almost invisible.

During Lady Alys’s brief absence, Taura says that she’s obviously very good at what she does, as Miles’s people generally are.  Just then, a woman passes by the table with a small child, who points out Taura to her mother; Taura tries a reassuring smile, but the child screams in fear, and her mother swiftly takes her out of the tea room.  Taura’s mood seems utterly deflated, and Roic castigates himself for not having dealt with the incident, which was exactly the kind of thing Lord Vorkosigan had tasked him to do.  Lady Alys returns and tries to reassure Taura, but Taura starts to withdraw into herself and try to hide her mouth.  Roic wishes he was back in Hassadar.

He feels much the worse for wear when he arrives back at Vorkosigan House with Lady Alys and Taura, carrying an armload of parcels (and that only a part of what they had bought at Estelle’s).  M’lord calls them in to the library, where he introduces Taura to Madame Vorsoisson, who greets the large galactic woman with aplomb despite her visible fatigue.  M’lord compliments Taura’s new outfit and hairdo, though Taura points out that she does use dye to hide the gray.  Voices from the hall turn out to be Pym admitting Simon Illyan, who takes Lady Alys’s arm and tells Taura he’s glad to actually meet her at last.

Illyan tells Miles that ImpSec has arrested Lord Vorbataille as he was trying to sneak off the planet, and Miles is relieved to hear it, having hoped to get the case closed before Winterfair.  Taura asks for details, and M’lord explains that Lord Vorbataille, heir to a Countship, had gotten in deep with a Jacksonian smuggling ring; the Jacksonians have been dealt with, but Vorbataille was still at large until now.  M’lord expects that the Lord will either be given the chance for a proper suicide, or else merely executed.  The Emperor had, after the hijacking of the Princess Olivia, and the deaths of its passengers, been especially fervent in his desire to see them all brought to justice.  Roic wishes to himself that he’d been able to take part in the case, but Pym has had him on night duty for weeks and weeks.

To change the subject, M’lord encourages Madame Vorsoisson to open her next gift, another one from Elli Quinn, according to the card.  It turns out to be a triple-strand pearl choker, all the way from Earth; she puts it on just for a moment, but takes them off after a brief look in the mirror, saying that they’ll go better with her wedding outfit, and Lady Alys heartily agrees.  M’lord seems relieved to hear this, but Taura frowns.  M’lord says he needs to speak to Illyan, and Lady Alys takes Taura off to freshen up; Madame Vorsoisson says that Nikki is monopolizing Arde Mayhew, and heads off to rescue the pilot.

Roic asks Madame Vorsoisson if she knows how old Sergeant Taura is; she says Taura is twenty-six.  Roic wonders why she had gray hairs, if she’s bioengineered and all, and Madame Vorsoisson says it’s not hers to say.  She can tell him that Miles rescued her a super-soldier project on Jackson’s Whole, and adds that she’s become a valued operative and occasional lover.  Roic is surprised that she seems fine with that, and she says that it was before her time, and now that she’s met Taura, she thinks Miles was bragging a little when he told her of it.  Madame Vorsoisson refuses to comment on Roic’s incredulous queries on the logistics of it, apart from saying that “a height differential matters much less when two people are lying down”.

Only an hour later, Roic is asked to bring the ground-car around, to take Madame Vorsoisson back home; she seems to be feeling poorly, but she insists it’s just a headache, no fever.  M’lord hesitantly suggests that it might just be nerves; Madame Vorsoisson isn’t sure.  M’lord apologizes if the pressures of the wedding are getting too great, and says he’ll call it off if she wants him to.  She says she needs to get home in case she get seriously ill, and Roic takes her arm; M’lord says he’ll send Nikki home later as Roic helps her into the groundcar, where she sits with her head cradled in her hands.

Comments

This novella is such an odd duck for the Vorkosigan stories.  Roic as a viewpoint character, a plot as much concerned with the developing relationship between him and Taura as it is with the mystery of Ekaterin’s sudden illness…  Actually, in some ways I think of it was more of a novelette than a novella–a long short story, rather than a short novel.  The scene and timeframe are fairly compressed, the action somewhat more slight–I don’t think there’s really a physical confrontation at all, for instance.  “The Mountains of Mourning” might be on a similar scale, i suppose, as opposed to the more robust adventure of “Labyrinth” or “The Borders of Infinity”.  The “Weatherman” novella, drawn from the beginning of The Vor Game, might be even closer.

At this point we’d barely seen Roic, just as one of the new Armsmen from A Civil Campaign, and the one who got himself into the biggest mess (literally) at the end.  (I’m reminded of how Pym is “the new Armsman” back in “Mountains of Mourning”, which I suppose is a few years ago by now…)  It’s nice to see him with a little different background, a Hassadar police officer rather than retired ImpSec or other military service, though he is still a little awkward among the nobility.  I read this story somewhat after Diplomatic Immunity, where we see a little more of Roic, though not POV there either.

One of the struggles in doing things from Roic’s POV, for me, is trying to call the characters what he would call them.  So, not just using “Miles” or “Ekaterin”, but “Lord Vorkosigan” (thankfully, usually abbreviated to “M’lord”) and “Madame Vorsoisson”.  I confess I’m usually not nearly that scrupulous–even from Miles’s POV, I’ll usually just call his parents “Aral” and “Cordelia”, but I’ll try to keep it up for Roic’s story here.


I confess I may be a bit lazy in splitting the story up into three parts, as I am, but I found the long chapters of A Civil Campaign somewhat wearying, at times, and I’m happy enough to pull back a little.  I mean, some of those chapters were over 10,000 words–almost half the length of this novella–so maybe I could do it in one installment, but I’d wear myself out.  So I’ll pace myself more this time, and split it–at scene breaks, at least–into rough thirds.  Until next week, then…

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Urg.  Is it time already?  Okay, okay.  So.  Lois McMaster Bujold, Vorkosigan Saga, reread.  A Civil Campaign, a couple more chapters.  Miles Vorkosigan, his brother Mark, Ekaterin Vorsoisson, Kareen Koudelka, and Ivan Vorpatril.  This week, the last full chapters plus an Epilogue–not a usual thing for a Bujold book, as I recall.  So, anyway, yeah, let’s do it.

Chapter Nineteen

In less than four minutes, two ImpSec officers have arrived at the Vorthys household; Ekaterin considers pointing out Gregor had promised them two minutes, but decides that would be rude.  Vassily and Hugo are shocked at their arrival, wondering who exactly Nikki called.  One of the ImpSec men, who Professora Vorthys recognizes as Captain Sphaleros, says he’d been given to understand that there was an altercation, and he’s instructed to detain all of them–except for Aunt Vorthys, of course, whose presence is merely earnestly requested.  Hugo and Vassily identify themselves, and insist there must be some mistake, but Sphaleros says he has his orders.  He knocks on the bathroom door and identifies himself to Nikki, who emerges.  The Professora agrees to come along, and Sphaleros and his sergeant escort them to the front door (with a brief delay to find Nikki’s shoes).  Sphaleros clarifies that they’re not being arrested, just detained for questioning, but will tell them little more than that.

Outside, the ImpSec officers escort them to a black aircar parked on the sidewalk, which takes off once they’re all inside, flying at high speed and low altitude to Vorhartung Castle.  Ekaterin spots the Counts’ banners, and after a brief search locates the Vorkosigan sigil, the silver leaf-and-mountain on brown.  They land outside, to be escorted in by a familiar man in Gregor’s livery.  He leads them to a small conference room, where he directs them to stand behind chairs (except the Professora, who is allowed to sit).

“Where are we?” Ekaterin whispered to her aunt.

“I’ve never actually been in this room before, but I believe we are directly behind the Emperor’s dais in the Counts’ Chamber,” she whispered back.

“He said,” Nikki mumbled in a faintly guilty tone, “that this all sounded too complicated for him to sort out over the comconsole.”

Who said that, Nikki?” asked Hugo nervously.

Gregor enters, to Hugo and Vassily’s shock, and dismisses Sphaleros; he sits at the head of the table and asks the others to sit as well.  He apologizes for bringing them in so peremptorily, but he can’t get away from the proceedings just yet.  Then he asks why Nikki claims he was being kidnapped away from his mother.  Vassily eventually manages to stammer out what Alexi Vormoncrief had told him, and admits he was the one to suggest Vassily take Nikki out of the city.  Gregor asks his man to make a note to do something with Vormoncrief to put him somewhere less troublesome.  He then tells Vassily that it’s a full-time ImpSec job separating truth from rumour, and says that he’s been informed that the rumour against Miles is not founded in actual events on Komarr, but on the schemes of a group of disgruntled men trying to bring him low for their political advantage.

Gregor let Vassily and Hugo digest this for a moment, and continued, “Your panic is premature. Even I don’t know which way today’s vote is going to fall out. But you may rest assured, Lieutenant, that my hand is held in protection over your relatives. No harm will be permitted to befall the members of Lord Auditor Vorthys’s household. Your concern is laudable but not necessary.” His voice grew a shade cooler. “Your gullibility is less laudable. Correct it, please.”

“Yes, Sire,” squeaked Vassily. He was bug-eyed by now. Nikki grinned shyly at Gregor. Gregor acknowledged him with nothing so broad as a wink, merely a slight widening of his eyes. Nikki hunkered down in satisfaction in his chair.

Another ImpSec officer knocks on the door and is admitted, speaking to Gregor briefly; Gregor tells him to bring “him” directly there.  He smiles at his guests, and says he is about to be rather busy, so he will release them to the visitor’s gallery, and any further concerns will have to be addressed later.  He pauses to murmur to Vassily that Ekaterin has his full confidence, to Hugo and Vassily’s astonishment.

On their way out they pass by a scruffy-looking Byerly Vorrutyer, who greets Ekaterin ironically; Ekaterin, maliciously, introduces him as one of her suitors, hoping to make Miles look better by contrast.  They are led out to the gallery, where Gregor’s Armsman forcibly ousts a group of young gentlemen from the front row; Hugo and Vassily remain daunted by their surroundings.  Ekaterin’s gaze roves across the floor, until she finds Miles, who hasn’t seen her yet; she knows she’s not allowed to just call down from the gallery.  She pleased to see that he seems at ease among the Counts and their representatives.

He’s talking to René Vorbretten, who calls Miles’s attention to her; he looks up, somewhat concerned at her company, but Ekaterin tries to give him a reassuring gesture.  Richars Vorrutyer catches this interchange and also spots Ekaterin; she frowns back at him, annoyed that he’s already dressing as if he were Count.  Gregor still seems to be closeted with Byerly, and Dono doesn’t seem to have arrived yet…

But then he does, dressed more properly, as heir rather than Count, but with a pronounced limp, accompanied by Ivan Vorpatril and four other Counts.  Ekaterin asks Lady Vorthys to identify them for her–they are Falco Vorpatril, Count Vorfolse, Count Vorhalas, and one of Vorhalas’s Conservative compatriots, Count Vorkalloner.  Ivan seems very pleased with himself, though Miles doesn’t seem quite sure what to make of Dono’s company.

Miles begins to berate Ivan, but Ivan tells him he’s saved his ass again; Miles asks what he brought the other Counts in for, and Ivan tells him to watch.  Sure enough, as they file past Boriz Vormoncrief’s desk, Richars tries to greet them effusively, but the four Conservative Counts breeze past him with nothing more than a frown from Vorkalloner.  A second attempt is met with a reprimand from Falco Vorpatril for not having been good enough to not get caught in his unethical ploy, and another from Vorfolse castigating him for trying to use his premises for it.  After that, Ivan relents and tells Miles and René what happened.

Miles wonders if they’ll be able to pin anything on Richars, though, who’s usually so careful to distance himself from his pawns, but Ivan said that Richars’s right-hand man, Byerly Vorrutyer, has turned Imperial Witness, and is confessing to setting the whole thing up.  Though moving it to Vorfolse’s hadn’t been his idea–he’d planned the attack for Vorsmythe’s instead.  Miles is surprised that By was working for Richars after all, but Ivan said he’d always been suspicious of him.

Gregor emerges as the Conservative foursome are bending the ear of Count Vormoncrief, and the Lord Guardian of the Speaker’s Circle gently ejects Ivan, who heads up to the gallery.  Dono asserts his right to sit on the bench with Richars, and tells Richars that the municipal guardsmen will be waiting to arrest him after the vote.  Richars hisses back that they won’t be able to touch him when he’s Count, and Miles’s allies will all have turned on him soon enough.  As he leaves the chamber, Ivan suddenly remembers that the usual reward for a job well done is…a harder job, and has to control a sudden impulse to flee.

In Vorkosigan House, Kareen and Martya fling their bug butter tubs at the Escobarans; some of these, being from a cheaper batch, burst on impact, showering the men, and the corridor, with bug butter.  Muno is driven to release Enrique and start flinging some tubs from their end of the hallway back at them; Enrique crawls back towards the lab.  Just then, Armsman Roic, still in his underwear, appears at the other end of the hallway, promising vengeance on whoever had had him woken up.  Gustioz attempts to flee, and Roic reflexively pins him to the floor; Muno begins dragging Enrique back down the hallway, forcing Martya and Kareen to grab his arms in a tug-of-war.  The struggle is inconclusive until Kareen kicks Muno’s wrist to loosen his group, and the three of them manage to lock themselves in the lab.  Kareen, at Martya’s urging, places a comconsole call to Mark.

Miles glances up at the gallery, to where Ivan secures himself a seat next to Ekaterin.  He’s still not sure why Hugo and Vassily are there with them, whether they’re still hassling Ekaterin about her son.  Olivia Koudelka shows up and sits in the back row.  Why are Ekaterin and her party there at all, and why had a Vorbarra armsman escorted them to their seat?

The Lord Guardian calls the session to order, and Count Vormoncrief comes up to present his plea to make Sigur Count Vorbretten; Miles notes that he makes no reference to Richars’s case, which he hopes means a rift between the former allies.  The Lord Guardian calls on René to respond, and René, as planned, yields to Lord Dono.  Dono comes forward and makes his case for the Countship, referring to the medical evidence and affidavits of gender that they had all already been presented with.  He then carries on to tell the story of how he was attacked in the street in an attempt forestall this vote, and how sworn testimony has tied this attack to his cousin Richars.

“Government by thugs in the Bloody Centuries gave Barrayar many colorful historical incidents, suitable for high drama. I don’t think it’s a drama we wish to return to in real life. I stand before you ready and willing to serve my Emperor, the Imperium, my District, and its people. I also stand for the rule of law.” He gave a grave nod toward Count Vorhalas, who nodded back. “Gentlemen, over to you.” Dono stood down.

Years ago—before Miles was born—one of Count Vorhalas’s sons had been executed for dueling. The Count had chosen not to raise his banner in rebellion over it, and had made it clear ever since that he expected like loyalty to the law from his peers. It was a kind of moral suasion with sharp teeth; nobody dared oppose Vorhalas on ethical issues. If the Conservative Party had a backbone that kept it standing upright, it was old Vorhalas. And Dono, it appeared, had just put Vorhalas in his back pocket. Or Richars had put him there for him . . . Miles hissed through his teeth in suppressed excitement. Good pitch, Dono, good, good. Superb.

Miles spots more new arrivals in the gallery–his parents, fresh from their formal breakfast, who end up seated in the row behind Ekaterin and the Professora.  Ivan greets them, but Ekaterin is riveted to the vote below, where Richars is getting up to make his rebuttal.  Richars describes himself as the logical successor to Count Pierre, and dismisses “Lord Dono” as an invention of his overwrought cousin, and a sign of the kind of galactic corruption that they need to keep out of Barrayar–including Miles in that corruption by gesture.  Not getting the kind of approval he’d hoped for, he dares Lady Donna to bring her charges against him as Count, through her “stalking horse”, Miles–then going on to mention the crimes that Miles is “accused” of.

Miles pounces on the point, mentioning that he is only slandered, not accused.  Count Vorhalas adds that he’d be happy to lay the charge against Richars himself.  The Lord Guardian restores order, and Richars continues, though clearly thrown.  He motions to Ekaterin, talking about Miles’s audacity in acting so unashamed when his victim’s wife is looking down at him.  Ekaterin pales at being drawn into the affair, and Miles stiffens in outrage, but reminds himself he can’t just leap across the chamber to throttle Richars.

Ekaterin, in cold fury, tells Richars that he is mistaken, and not for the first time; Richars asks her why, then, she fled from Miles’s proposal.  She parries further verbal sallies from Richars until they are interrupted.

The Lord Guardian banged his spear. “Interjections from the gallery are not permitted,” he began, staring up at her.

Behind Ekaterin, the Viceroy of Sergyar stared down at the Lord Guardian, tapped his index finger suggestively against the side of his nose, and made a small two-fingered sweeping gesture taking in Richars below: No; let him hang himself. Ivan, glancing over his shoulder, grinned abruptly and swiveled back. The Lord Guardian’s eyes flicked to Gregor, whose face bore only the faintest smile and little other cue. The Lord Guardian continued more weakly, “But direct questions from the Speaker’s Circle may be answered.”

Richars’s questions had been more rhetorical, for effect, than direct, Miles judged. Assuming Ekaterin would be safely silenced by her position in the gallery, he hadn’t expected to have to deal with direct answers. The look on Richars’s face made Miles think of a man tormenting a leopardess suddenly discovering that the creature had no leash. Which way would she pounce? Miles held his breath.

Ekaterin leaned forward, gripping the railing with her knuckles going pale. “Let’s finish this. Lord Vorkosigan!”

Miles jerked in his seat, taken by surprise. “Madame?” He made a little half-bow gesture. “Yours to command . . .”

“Good. Will you marry me?”

A kind of roaring, like the sea, filled Miles’s head; for a moment, there were only two people in this chamber, not two hundred. If this was a ploy to impress his colleagues with his innocence, would it work? Who cares? Seize the moment! Seize the woman! Don’t let her get away again! One side of his lip curled up, then the other; then a broad grin took over his face. He tilted toward her. “Why, yes, madame. Certainly. Now?”

She tells him they’ll discuss that later, and that they should finish this business first; she present a gaping Richars with that evidence.  Gregor is amused, Nikki is excited, and the gallery in general breaks up in amusement, Miles’s parents not excluded.  Richars finishes weakly and incoherently, and the Lord Guardian calls for the vote.  Gregor passes, in case his vote is needed later.  Miles is so distracted–mostly doodling “Lady Ekaterin Nile Vorkosigan”–that he misses his turn to vote and has to be prompted by René, much to everyone’s continued amusement.  Lord Dono wins with a narrow majority, but with many of Richars’s supporters abstaining, and Gregor not needing to vote either.  Richars desperately calls for an appeal, which Gregor denies, and Richars is escorted out into the arms of the police.

Miles exults at how Richars had done himself in, though of course with the help of Ivan and Olivia, and…Byerly, he supposes, though there’s still something about that affair that doesn’t quite add up.  Perhaps, later, he’ll take the case as Imperial Auditor and question Byerly himself…  Dono formally assumes the Countship, thanking his colleagues, and returns the vote to René.  Miles, glancing up at the gallery, happens to catch his parents’ first actual introduction to Ekaterin and Lady Vorthys, which catches Ekaterin quite off guard, but she eventually rallies and introduces her relatives as well.  Cordelia and Lady Vorthys seem to almost know each other already, which makes Miles wonder…

René comes forward and makes his case, drawing Miles’s attention back to the floor.  Gregor passes again, and René, with Dono’s support, manages to just reach his majority without requiring the Emperor’s vote either.  Count Vormoncrief’s appeal is also denied, and Sigur Vorbretten seems somewhat relieved to have lost; they greet René as gracious losers, and the Lord Guardian calls the session closed.  Miles restrains himself from dashing up to the gallery, assuring himself that his parents will make sure Ekaterin makes her way down to him safely, and spends some time dealing, somewhat automatically, with the congratulations and other remarks of the various Counts in the chamber.

At last, he heard his father call his name. Miles’s head snapped around; such was the Viceroy’s aura that the crowd seemed to melt away between them. Ekaterin peered shyly into the mob of uniformed men from between her formidable outriders. Miles strode over to her, and gripped her hands painfully hard, searching her face, Is it true, is it real?

She grinned back, idiotically, beautifully, Yes, oh, yes.

“You want a leg up?” Ivan offered him.

“Shut up, Ivan,” Miles said over his shoulder. He glanced around at the nearest bench. “D’you mind?” he whispered to her.

“I believe it is customary . . .”

His grin broadened, and he jumped up on it, wrapped her in his arms, and gave her a blatantly possessive kiss. She embraced him back, just as hard, shaking a little.

“Mine to me. Yes,” she whispered fiercely in his ear.

Count Vormuir rushes into the chamber suddenly, crying out that he’s too late.  Ivan asks Dono how he did that, and Dono disclaims responsibility, though he suspects that the Countess may have staged a well-timed reconciliation with her husband…with the aid of a powerful Betan aphrodisiac.

Nikki confronts Miles, asking him to be sure he makes his mamma happy, which Miles gravely agrees to.  Miles turns to Hugo and Vassily and invites them for lunch at Vorkosigan House so they can straighten some matters out, which they accept, somewhat overwhelmed.  The Lord Guardian comes over to tell them at Gregor has asked for Miles and Ekaterin’s company, for an Auditorial task, and Miles obliges.  Gregor asks Ekaterin if her domestic affairs have been settled, and she says that they should be fine now.  He congratulates the two of them, and then gives Miles an official document to relay to Count Vormuir.

Miles glances at the document, then takes it over to Vormuir, telling him the Emperor has agreed to grant him guardianship of his daughters; Vormuir says it’s about time.  Miles leads Ekaterin and his lunch guests out of the hall, summoning Pym with his car; they pause just in time to hear Vormuir howl about having to pay dowries for all 118 of his daughters…

Back at Vorkosigan House, Mark confronts Roic about the Escobaran trespassers; Roic says they do seem to have a proper warrant, which Gustioz obliges by showing him, bug butter-spattered as it is.  Mark talks to Kareen and the others in the lab, and they unbarricade and open the somewhat battered door.  He rushes to check on Kareen, also bug-butter spattered, and wishes he had her alone to experiment more with the amatory properties of bug butter…but first there’s these Escobarans to deal with.

Mark tells them that he thought he had the right to take Enrique when he paid his bail, and Gustioz says that Escobar doesn’t have slavery; Mark admits that he’s more used to Jacksonian law.  Mark racks his brain for some way to keep Enrique with him…he asks Gustioz to stay and meet his mother, who he’s sure can find some way to deal with this, but Gustioz declines.  Mark realizes they’re gently ushering them all towards the front door of the house, and Enrique looks to be on the verge of becoming tug-of-war rope between Muno and Martya again.  In the entry hall, Mark digs in his heels and refuses to let Enrique go; Gustioz says he’ll find a way to charge Mark as well, no matter who his relatives are.  The argument escalates, and Mark begins to feel the Killer persona beginning to emerge.

The front doors swing open, revealing Miles, in his full livery, and a party of others–including Ekaterin, and some others that Mark doesn’t recognize.

“Who is that?” whispered Gustioz uneasily. And there just wasn’t any question which who he referred to.

Kareen snapped back under her breath, “Lord Miles Vorkosigan. Imperial Auditor Lord Vorkosigan! Now you’ve done it!”

Miles’s gaze traveled slowly over the assembled multitude: Mark, Kareen and Martya, the stranger-Escobarans, Enrique—he winced a little—and up and down the considerable length of Armsman Roic. After a long, long moment, Miles’s teeth unclenched.

“Armsman Roic, you appear to be out of uniform.”

Roic stood to attention, and swallowed. “I’m . . . I was off-duty. M’lord.”

Miles first introduces them all to Vassily and Hugo, with an undertone of hoping that things aren’t as bad as they look.  He asks what’s going on, which breaks the dam, as everyone begins talking at once.  Miles, somehow, manages to glean enough information from this barrage and then halts it, asking if the Escobarans really want to take Enrique away to lock him up.  Gustioz presents him with the warrants, and Miles takes them to a table to look them over.  Mark suddenly notices that Miles and Ekaterin’s relationship seems to have suddenly improved since the last time he saw them, and Miles seems to be unaccountably happy over something.

Miles leafs through the pages, stuck together as many of them are, noting that everything seems to be in order, even all eighteen of the jump-point permissions…  He pauses to ask Mark if it’s true that Ekaterin, and Ma Kosti, and the others, are all getting paid in shares of the bug-butter business…  Miles then turns to Gustioz and says that while everything he has seems to be in order, he is missing a most crucial permission.  Vorkosigan House, he says, is legally part of Vorkosigan’s District, not Vorbarr Sultana itself, and so, therefore, Gustioz needs permission from Count Vorkosigan’s Voice before he can take Enrique from the premises.

Gustioz was trembling. “And where,” he said hoarsely, “can I find the nearest Vorkosigan’s District Count’s Voice?”

“The nearest?” said Miles cheerily. “Why, that would be me.”

The Parole Officer stared at him for a long moment. He swallowed. “Very good, sir,” he said humbly, his voice cracking. “May I please have an order of extradition for Dr. Enrique Borgos from, the, the Count’s Voice?”

Miles looked across at Mark. Mark stared back, his lips twisting. You son of a bitch, you’re enjoying every second of this . . . .

Miles vented a long, rather regretful sigh—the entire audience swayed with it—and said briskly, “No. Your application is denied. Pym, please escort these gentlemen off my premises, then inform Ma Kosti that we will be sitting, um,” his gaze swept the entry hall, “ten for lunch, as soon as possible. Fortunately, she likes a challenge.”

As Pym is escorting them out, Gustioz screams that Enrique will have to leave the house sometime; Miles says they’ll use the Count’s official aircar.  Ekaterin offers to show the lab to her relatives, but at Kareen’s hasty warning she changes this to the interesting historical aspects of the library instead, leaving her aunt to take them and Nikki off while she stays with Miles.  Enrique thanks Miles for his rescue; Miles forestalls any enthusiastic gestures, and Martya leads Enrique off to start cleaning upthe lab.

Mark thanks Miles for his support, knowing how he feels about the butter bugs, and Miles gruffly says he doesn’t want to lose his cook.  Mark asks if the house is really Vorkosigan District soil, and Miles just tells him to look it up.  He asks them not to spring any more surprises to disturb his future in-laws, and Kareen congratulates him.  He says she asked him, and points out to Ekaterin his helpful demonstration on how one should respond to a marriage proposal.  They head off to the library; as Mark and Kareen are heading upstairs to wash the bug butter off of her, they spot the Vorkosigan-livery queen bug scurrying out of sight again, and decide not to mention it to Miles.

Comments

It’s always dicey trying to remember exactly what I thought the first time I read the book, but I’m pretty sure that I didn’t predict Ekaterin derailing Richars’s accusation by proposing to Miles right there in the chamber.  It is a great moment–though, arguably, not as great as Nikki calling ImpSec on Vassily Vorsoisson, and Gregor calling them in to settle the whole matter.  That is a scene I look forward to for the entire book, let me tell you.  And Ivan’s coup in winning over Vorhalas and the others for Lord Dono’s side…  Well, this is the final chapter, so all of the major conflicts have to be settled, don’t they?  Even Enrique’s…

Mark and Kareen’s romantic plot was already tied up, of course, so I almost forget that there’s still something to come with their having to keep Enrique from being extradited.  I’m not entirely sure that I buy it when Mark claims he thought paying Enrique’s bail meant he could take him with him when he left the planet, though.  He spent enough time studying the Barrayaran legal system, at least, as part of his learning to play Lord Vorkosigan, that he must realize that the Jacksonian model isn’t the only one…though I guess I don’t know if Barrayar has a “bail” system…  Or maybe it would have come up in his business courses on Beta Colony?  Well, anyway, Miles manages to finess him out of that one, at least.  I don’t recall seeing Enrique in later books, but one supposes that he gets to live a happy life on Barrayar, in Vorkosigan’s District, though one wonders if there’s Escobaran bail bondsmen lurking around from time to time trying to see if they can snatch him up.  If Escobar has a statue of limitations, too, though, then they’d have to give up after a few years.  (And now I’m picturing Gustioz like Dreyfus from the Pink Panther movies, going insane from his inability to collar Enrique…and eventually starting his own plot to close the wormhole to Barrayar or something…)

Epilogue

From Miles’s point of view, the two weeks to the Imperial wedding sped past, though he suspected that Gregor and Laisa were running on a skewed relativistic time-distortion in which time went slower but one aged faster. He manufactured appropriate sympathetic noises whenever he encountered Gregor, agreeing that this social ordeal was a terrible burden, but, truly, one that everyone must bear, a commonality of the human condition, chin up, soldier on. Inside his own head, a continuous counterpoint ran in little popping bubbles, Look! I’m engaged! Isn’t she pretty? She asked me. She’s smart, too. She’s going to marry me. Mine, mine, all mine. I’m engaged! To be married! To this woman! an effervescence that emerged, he trusted, only as a cool, suave smile.

He manages to spend some time with Ekaterin and her family, eating dinner together at the Vorthyses and Vorkosigan House, before the pre-wedding social calendar truly descends.  Ekaterin limits the number of social events she attends with him, probably, Kareen opines, because she doesn’t want to show up her limited wardrobe.  At one such event, their departure is obstructed by a drunken Lord Vormurtos, one of Richars’s supporters, who comments snidely about how being a Vorkosigan apparently means you can get away with murder.

Ekaterin stiffened unhappily. Miles hesitated a fractional moment, considering responses: explanation, outrage, protest? Argument in a hallway with a half-potted fool? No. I am Aral Vorkosigan’s son, after all. Instead, he stared up unblinkingly, and breathed, “So if you truly believe that, why are you standing in my way?

Vormurtos’s inebriated sneer drained away, to be replaced by a belated wariness. With an effort at insouciance that he did not quite bring off, he unfolded himself, and opened his hand to wave the couple past. When Miles bared his teeth in an edged smile, he backed up an extra and involuntary step. Miles shifted Ekaterin to his other side and strode past without looking back.

Ekaterin glanced over her shoulder once, as they made their way down the corridor. In a tone of dispassionate observation, she murmured, “He’s melted. You know, your sense of humor is going to get you into deep trouble someday.”

“Belike,” Miles sighed.

The wedding itself is an intricate operation that Miles is heartily glad he’s not in charge of.  Due to space limitations, and luckily thanks to good weather, the ceremony is held outside on a large parade ground.  At breakfast Gregor announces his plan to escape after dinner, drowning his pursuers in a lake of wine; nobody except the couple themselves, and their ImpSec guards, know where they’re spending the wedding night.

The ceremony starts with Gregor, mounted on a glossy black steed, leading a white horse to the Komarran delegation, where Miles formally calls for the bride to be brought out, after which she is deployed carefully onto the white horse, and led back by her father to the circle of coloured groats.  Miles is in the inner circle, with the parents and Laisa’s Second; he has little to do but watch the exchange of vows, and watch his father actually cry, whether out of the ambient sentimentality or sheer political relief he can’t tell.  Once the vows are done, Miles opens up the circle of groats and lets the new married couple out…then, after being the first to wish them well, he makes his way to seek out Ekaterin.

At the reception, each District has erected an outdoor kiosk to offer their own particular food and drink; the Vorkosigans are mostly donating wine, but Mark and Kareen have also set up a bug-butter “maple ambrosia” kiosk, with a few Glorious Bugs on display.  When Ivan, Miles and Ekaterin arrive, Kareen tells them that everyone loves the Glorious Bugs, and they’ve had to lock them up to keep women from stealing them to wear as hair ornaments.  Kareen offers some to Ivan, who comments on its kick; Kareen says it’s got maple mead in it, and Ivan is shocked that Ma Kosti has made something so great out of such disgusting ingredients.

Mark says that he’s made a deal with Lord Vorsmythe to solve their cash-flow problem, and offers to redeem Ekaterin’s shares at twice face value; Ekaterin is about to accept, but Kareen advises her to hold onto them instead, and use them as collateral if she needs to convert them into cash at some point.  In the meantime, she can hold onto them as the stock price skyrockets, and maybe use them  to finance Nikki’s jump pilot training…Kareen herself plans to use them to finance her return to Beta Colony.  Ekaterin agrees with Kareen’s idea, and Mark grumbles about the loss of his stock majority.  Kareen congratulates Ma Kosti about the idea of using the maple mead to win Miles over, since he actually likes it; Ma Kosti says that it’s actually Miles’s meadery, back in the mountains, that’s supplying the mead in the first place, which was his idea.

Mark returns to Kareen the groats from the wedding circle that he’d been keeping for her, and asks what they’re for; Kareen says they’re just a souvenir, to be kept and passed down.  Miles adds that their numbers will mysteriously multiply over time, and Mark speculates that one could take the real weddings groats, mix them in with other ones, and make a tidy profit by selling them as “genuine”, and not even be lying.

Miles greets Kou and Drou, who are passing by, but seeming a little subdued; Drou says that Olivia has just announced her engagement…to Dono Vorrutyer, which will take some getting used to.  She and Delia are now fighting over who gets married first, and Kou winces over his poor beleaguered wedding budget.

Commodore Koudelka edged closer to Mark, and lowered his voice. “Mark, I, ah . . . feel I owe you an apology. Didn’t mean to be so stiff-necked about it all.”

“That’s all right, sir,” said Mark, surprised and touched.

The Commodore added, “So, you’re going back to Beta in the fall—good. No need to be in a rush to settle things at your age, after all.”

“That’s what we thought, sir.” Mark hesitated. “I know I’m not very good at family yet. But I mean to learn how.”

The Commodore gave him a little nod, and a crooked smile. “You’re doing fine, son. Just keep on.”

Kareen’s hand squeezed his. Mark cleared his suddenly inexplicably tight throat, and considered the novel thought that not only could you have a family, you might even have more than one. A wealth of relations . . . “Thank you, sir. I’ll try.”

Olivia and Dono arrive to try the ambrosia and accept congratulations; Olivia says that the Vorbrettens have started their first child, a boy, in a uterine replicator, a topic which draws the women together in interested consultation.  Ivan complains that now he’s losing old girlfriends two at a time.  Kou, still wrestling with the idea, muses that Dono is old enough to be Olivia’s father–or mother–and he’d expected his daughters to marry military officers.  There’s Duv Galeni, at least, he supposes, and Martya’s still possible…but Mark spots Martya with Enrique and privately thinks perhaps not.  Martya will be overseeing the business when he and Kareen return to Beta, and spending a lot of time with Enrique…  He muses to himself that the four girls may end up, between them, splitting the world of accomplishment between them–military, economic, political, and scientific.  He makes a note to maybe send Kou and Drou on a trip to the Orb for Winterfair, if he can afford it…allowing them to visit their daughter as well, to make the offer more irresistible.

Ivan, who has spotted an oddly unincarcerated Byerly Vorrutyer wandering the reception, waits until By is finished chatting with Dono before joining him.  He asks Byerly why he isn’t in jail, and By points out he’s turned Imperial Witness; Dono has forgiven him, since it was Richars’s plan in the first place, and Richars is the one who got arrested.  Ivan asks if they can talk somewhere more private, and leads a reluctant By into a sheltered nook (where they evict a young ensign and his girl).  Ivan begins to grill By ruthlessly, asking why he’s at the reception, and what was really going on when Dono was attacked.  By claims that Dono got him in, which Ivan doubts, saying that he knows By is lying, but can’t tell about what.

By says that he had helped set up the attack, but he’d also scheduled a squad of guards to intercept the attack–but only at Vorsmythe House, which is why he was thrown when the action was at Vorfolse’s instead.  His intention was to stampede public support to Dono, and he left Dono in the dark to make his reactions more authentic.  He thanks Ivan for, along with Olivia, saving his plan.  Ivan asks if Gregor ordered all this, and By said he tried very hard to keep Imperial Security out of it, since they wouldn’t have had a plan with nearly the same political flair.  He’d already talked to Miles about it, who had critiqued By’s plan, pointing out its flaws.

Ivan was almost lured into sympathetic agreement. But not quite. He pursed his lips. “So, By . . . who’s your blind drop?”

By blinked at him. “My what?”

“Every deep cover informer has a blind drop. It wouldn’t do for you to be seen tripping in and out of ImpSec HQ by the very men you might, perhaps, be ratting on tomorrow. How long have you had this job, By?”

“What job?”

Ivan sat silent, and frowned. Humorlessly.

By sighed. “About eight years.”

It all fits now, with By actually working for ImpSec; his shenanigans on Dono’s behalf have left him somewhat eclipsed, but Ivan is sure he’ll recover.  Somewhere, in the bowels of ImpSec, someone is surely in charge of Byerly Vorrutyer, and Ivan hopes to make their acquaintance sometime.  The identity of the blind drop nags him, though, since he feels it should be somebody he knows; By says he should surely be able to guess.  Ivan reasons that it has to be someone in high Vor society, but not somebody By is closely tied to…hidden in plain sight.  By refuses to tell, but gives a little bow to Lady Alys and Simon Illyan as they pass by, and Lady Alys nods back…

Miles returns to Ekaterin’s side after a brief absence, and chuckles wickedly; he tells her that he’s just found out where Alexi Vormoncrief’s next posting is–laundry officer, Kyril Island.  He explains the situation there to reassure her that it’s truly a suitable punishment.  They walk about the reception, and Miles asks if she wants a large wedding.  Primed by his mother, she says that she’d be happy to have one…if he can wait until her mourning year is over; Miles agrees that a quiet wedding, sooner, would be better, and suggests Vorkosigan Surleau, or perhaps her own garden outside Vorkosigan House.

Ekaterin spots the Cetagandan delegation, which includes an actual haut-lady from the capital, as well as the governor of Rho Ceta.  The haut-lady and her ghem-general companion come over to speak to them, and Miles greets haut Pel and ghem-general Benin.  Pel actually fades her bubble briefly, so Ekaterin can catch a glimpse of the woman inside; Miles introduces Ekaterin to them.  Benin congratulates him, and then expresses Emperor Giaja’s personal condolences on the death of his friend Admiral Naismith, and trusts that he will remain dead; Miles replies that he trusts that his resurrection will not be necessary.  After the Cetagandans leave, Miles says that he apparently retired the Naismith identity just in time, since the Cetagandans seem to have figured it out.  Ekaterin wonders briefly what would have happened if they’d met when they were younger, before she was with Tien…and decides that they would probably have passed right by each other, being on different trajectories.

And she could not unwish Nikki, or all that she had learned, not even realizing she was learning, during her dark eclipse. Roots grow deep in the dark.

She could only have arrived here by the path she’d taken, and here, with Miles, this Miles, seemed a very good place to be indeed. If I am his consolation, he is most surely mine as well. She acknowledged her years lost, but there was nothing in that decade she needed to circle back for, not even regret; Nikki, and the learning, traveled with her. Time to move on.

Comments

This kind of story is supposed to end with a wedding, isn’t it?  Well, it’s not the main characters, but they have an engagement, at least, and the other relationships seem to be moving in promising directions.  Order is restored, all is right with the world, the villains have gotten their comeuppance.  In this case, I suppose the villains would be Richars Vorrutyer and Alexi Vormoncrief.  Sigur Vorbretten seemed to repent, at the last–I’m not sure if he was really the power behind that scheme, or if it was Boriz Vormoncrief, but he doesn’t seem to have lost more than any other member of his party.

I suppose that Ekaterin is right that she and Miles probably wouldn’t have hit it off had they met when they were younger…but I seem to recall that her general conclusion turned up in one of those books of logical fallacies that I’ve been reading these days.  People tend to, in general, conclude that their current life is practically the best of all possible worlds.  Fewer people than one would expect would change anything substantial about their lives, because most people can think of something about their life that they wouldn’t want to give up.  I remember a story from OnSpec magazine some years ago called “The Other Rat”, that Google tells me was written by David Barr Kirtley, about a man who could rewind time whenever he wanted to…but once he had children of his own, he couldn’t bear the thought of taking their lives away from them, so stopped using his ability.  There’s also Ken Grimwood’s novel Replay, where a man is forced to rewind his life several times and restart it from his younger days, and ends up taking quite different choices.  So much of what happens in the world is contingent, that I think that most choices would end up being just fine for everyone who makes them…but it’s hard to avoid attachment to what we have now.

I was completely surprised by the reveal of Byerly Vorrutyer’s role with ImpSec the first time around, and maybe even the second.  I wasn’t sure what to make of the guy, really, especially given that we’re given so few positive portrayals of Vorrutyers in the series.  I guess Lord Dono is okay, too, but by Barrayaran standards, going offplanet to get a sex change operation is a wee bit extreme.  Well, we get to see By return in Ivan’s book, which was good.

Overall Comments

I found myself reading ahead in this book less than I did in Memory, and, perhaps because of the longer chapters, I found it tougher going, to keep up with my standard two-chapter-a-week pace.  I don’t think I enjoyed it as much, reading it at the slower pace, perhaps because it takes longer to get past the less fun parts in the middle and back into the upswing.  But it does still have more than its share of Moments of Awesome–it’s just that, because of traditional book pacing, they tend to cluster towards the end.  Ah, well.  Oh, and I confess my sympathies are largely with Miles, in that butter bugs would probably give me the willies.


Next week off, and then back for “Winterfair Gifts”.  Which I tend to think of as shorter than the other novellas, but I’m not sure if it is.  I’ll have to do some word-count calculations to decide how many weeks to stretch it over, but at this point I’ll probably err on the longer side.  And after that it’ll be Diplomatic Immunity, which will be the last one I’ve actually read more than once.  Also, A Civil Campaign was the last of my “favourite” Vorkosigan books, so it feels like I’m on the downward slope here.  Maybe the newer ones will hold up better on reread, but I guess we’ll have to see…

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