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.”
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…