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Archive for March, 2014

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, he says that inspiration is like neutrinos.  There are vast numbers of inspiration particles streaming through the cosmos all the time, and only occasionally do they actually interact with solid matter.  In even rarer circumstances is that solid matter living, or sentient.  Which is to say, inspiration can be highly unpredictable.  And, as you may have gathered by now, I was not, in fact, struck with one of these particles while preparing this blog post tonight.  I mean, I’m quoting Terry Pratchett while introducing the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, which was not written by Terry Pratchett, but in fact by Lois McMaster Bujold.

This week we carry on through the novel Diplomatic Immunity, and I’m struck by one fact in particular about this book: it has an odd number of chapters.  Or, to put it another way: I only managed to do one chapter this week, I’m afraid.  Sorry about that.  So, without further ado (and there has, as William Shakespeare might have said, been much ado about nothing already), here it is…

Chapter Three

Miles and Ekaterin enjoy the view out the ports at Graf Station proper as _Kestrel_ manoeuvres to dock there. The station’s hidden heart is a small metallic asteroid, and parts of the original jumpship that brought the first quaddies here. They’ve been expanding throughout the asteroids of the system for over two centuries now; most of their habitats remain zero-gee, except for the few that deal with “legged humans”, such as Graf Station, or their “capital”, Union Station. Their government is highly democratic, and Miles hopes that he won’t have to deal with a committee.

Roic hasn’t been offplanet before, and Ekaterin hasn’t been outside the Empire, and Miles is glad he sent them for zero-gee and space training before they left Barrayar; his own experiences in bod pods encouraged him to give them better choices than that. They make sure they’ve all had their antinausea pills, Miles missing the biochip on his vagus nerve that he lost when he got killed on Jackson’s Whole.

“So, Roic. If some quaddies visiting Hassadar made themselves obnoxious enough to win a visit to the Municipal Guard’s gaol, and then a bunch more quaddies popped up and tried to bust them out with military-grade weapons, and shot up the place and torched it and burned some of your comrades, just how would you feel about quaddies at that point?”

“Um . . . not too friendly, m’lord.” Roic paused. “Pretty pissed, actually.”

“That’s what I figured.” Miles sighed. “Ah. Here we go.”

They dock at the station and emerge into the zero-gee environment; Miles knows that that is intended to put them off balance, since a true welcome would doubtless have been in a section with gravity. The large docking bay is cylindrical, and half a dozen quaddies with shouldered weapons are visible at various angles, most of them in Union Militia uniforms. The actual dignitaries are three quaddies and one downsider, who Miles instantly recognizes, to his shock, as Bel Thorne, who he immediately surmises must be ImpSec’s local informant.

The quaddie dignitaries introduce themselves as Senior Sealer Greenlaw, Security Crew Chief Venn, Boss Watts of Graf Station Downsider Relations, and Assistant Portmaster Bel Thorne. Miles ignores Greenlaw’s pointed reference to the “victims” on the station and introduces Ekaterin and Roic; he notes Bel’s own shock at discovering Ekaterin is Miles’s wife, and wonders if this will be awkward, given Bel’s own longtime crush on Miles.

“Portmaster Thorne, ah . . .” Miles felt himself scrambling for firm footing in more ways than one. His voice went brightly inquiring. “Have we met?”

“I don’t believe we’ve ever met, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, no,” returned Bel; Miles hoped his was the only ear that detected the slight emphasis on his Barrayaran name and title in that familiar alto drawl.

“Ah.” Miles hesitated. Throw out a lure, a line, something . . . “My mother was Betan, you know.”

“What a coincidence,” Bel said blandly. “So was mine.”

Bel admits he hasn’t been back to Beta Colony in some time, and Miles says cordially that he’d be happy to share more recent news sometime.
Sealer Greenlaw ushers them towards a conference chamber, and they proceed, Roic a little awkwardly in the zero-gee, but, Miles notes with satisfaction neither he nor Ekaterin requires assistance from their quaddie escort. The conference room itself has a large glass wall facing outside the station, probably intended to daunt downsiders; Miles pointedly goes right up to the window and admires the view. Most of the honour guard has been left outside, though Roic uncomfortably shares a handhold with one of the pair that remain; Ekaterin is inspecting some hydroponic flowers. The room features several arched posts, like flower stems, which seem to provide comlink controls and the like, as well as anchors in the room’s centre.

After refreshments are served, Miles asks about the significance of Greenlaw’s title, and how much authority goes with it; she says she’s like a “minister plenipotentiary for the state department”, and notes that she’s travelled to neighbouring systems, and has been working for her department for forty years. Her “work gang” is the Board of Directors of the union, who are the ones who will approve her decisions; Miles allows himself guarded optimism that she might be flexible.

She asks in turn about what Imperial Auditor, and “Emperor’s Voice” means; he explains that the Voice part is figurative, though it does mean that the Emperor is the only one has to answer to, but as an Auditor his role is mostly to listen. Venn asks if that means he’s in charge of the Barrayaran troops in the area, and Miles allows that it does.

“So are you saying that if you ordered it, those thugs out there would shoot?” said Venn sourly.

Miles managed a slight bow in his direction, not easy in free fall. “Sir, if an Emperor’s Voice so ordered it, they’d shoot themselves.”

This was pure swagger—well, part swagger—but Venn didn’t need to know it. Bel remained straight-faced, somehow, thank whatever gods hovered here, though Miles could almost see the laugh getting choked back. Don’t pop your eardrums, Bel. The Sealer’s white eyebrows took a moment to climb back down to horizontal again.

Miles adds that it’s more important to keep them from shooting, which is what discipline is really for. As such, he plans to listen carefully, and asks what the events looked like from their point of view. Venn says it started when they were called to arrest a couple of Barrayarans who had broken into a quaddie woman’s living quarter and roughed her up, in the course, apparently, of trying to retrieve Ensign Corbeau. Venn says that Corbeau had become “friends” with Garnet Five, a zero-gee ballet dancer, and he was in her quarters at her invitation.

Greenlaw adds that Corbeau had, as soon as he heard of the imminent arrival of an Imperial Auditor, requested political asylum in the Union, which is news to Miles. Miles asks if they’re thinking of granting the request; Watts says that they haven’t ruled it out yet, though Venn doesn’t think it’s a good idea. Miles asks to speak to Corbeau as soon as possible, and Venn says obviously he doesn’t want to talk to Miles. Miles insists that he needs to get as much firsthand information as possible, and asks to speak to the rest of the Barrayaran detainees for the same reason.

“It’s not that complex,” said Venn. “A bunch of armed thugs came charging onto my station, violated customs, stunned dozens of innocent bystanders and a number of Station Security officers attempting to carry out their duties, tried to effect what can only be called a jailbreak, and vandalized property. Charges against them for their crimes—documented on vid!—range from the discharge of illegal weapons to resisting arrest to arson in an inhabited area. It’s a miracle that no one was killed.”

That, unfortunately, has yet to be demonstrated,” Miles countered instantly. “The trouble is that from our point of view, the arrest of Ensign Corbeau was not the beginning of the sequence of events. Admiral Vorpatril had reported a man missing well before that—Lieutenant Solian. According to both your witnesses and ours, a quantity of his blood tantamount to a body part was found on the floor of a Graf Station loading bay. Military loyalty runs two ways—Barrayarans do not abandon our own. Dead or alive, where is the rest of him?”

Venn says that they’ve looked for Solian, but he’s not on Graf Station, and his body isn’t anywhere nearby. Miles asks how easily a downsider could disappear, and Bel speaks up; it says that ship travel is fully controlled, and it would difficult, if not impossible, to pass through customs and immigration without being recorded somehow–and Lieutenant Solian has not shown up anywhere. Bel admits that travel within the system is less regulated, but in most of the area downsiders tend to stick out, and Solian hasn’t been seen there either.

Miles asks about the blood, and Bel says that whoever created that scene most likely came through an external airlock, and left the same way. Venn says that means it was probably their own people who did it, then, bringing their own trouble with them. Miles asks if they could see if; Watts says it’s on the other side of the station, and Miles asks if Bel could show him around, offering him a ride in his own ship, which Bel accepts.

After that, Miles has to wait, somewhat impatiently, while the rest of the formalities play out, including the official presentation of the charges and fines being levied upon Vorpatril and his forces. Miles notes that while he is physically accepting the information, he is holding judgement on actually acceding to the charges, etc., though he promises to review them as soon as he can; the quaddies are not best pleased about this, but Miles is happy not to have committed himself to anything yet. He needed some better handle on these events, and he hopes that Bel can give him one. The meeting over, the guards escort the Barrayarans and Bel back to the Kestrel.

Comments

Bel Thorne showing up was a bit of a surprise, first time I read it, but then I suppose it makes sense, especially since Nicol was his only real attachment that we saw outside of the Dendarii. And as our only quaddie character before this, it would be highly disappointing for her to not actually show up in this book, and so Bel’s appearance is not unexpected. For him to be in a position of authority, as opposed to just some kind of local resident, is a bit more surprising, but I guess he’s got skillz.  It’s nice to have at least one more familiar character, since, being off Barrayar and all, there’s going to be a shortage of the folks who turned up in Memory and A Civil Campaign.

I wonder at what point it occurred to the author that Miles’s handy vagus nerve chip would not have survived the needle grenade attack of the rest of Miles’s internal organs…  I guess he was just taking antinausea meds during any of his zero-gee excursions in the meantime.  It almost seemed a bit of a handwave to say that by the way, Ekaterin and Roic both had zero-gravity training…but I suppose I’ll allow it this time, since it is the kind of thing that Miles might want to do, and enough supporting details are added.  And I don’t believe it’s too convenient to the plot.  And it’s not being introduced during a moment of crisis, if it is, and by this point I’m becoming almost hypersensitive to foreshadowing in these books…


Maybe I’ve blown my single-chapter week a little early, but these chapters are much shorter than A Civil Campaign ones, so with any luck I’ll be able to keep up.  Hoping for not many repeats of today, anyway.  I’ll try hard to get you guys two chapters next week, in any case.

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Good evening, morning, night, or noon, and welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, that weekly feature wherein I devote myself to synopsizing and musing on chapters in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.  This week we begin a new novel, Diplomatic Immunity, wherein the now-married Miles Vorkosigan encounters adventure on the way back from his honeymoon, as the Emperor orders to solve a problem one of their fleets has gotten into on Graf Station, home of the four-armed (and zero-legged) quaddies…

Chapter One

Miles watches video of his sperm fertilizing Ekaterin’s egg, cheering them on, much to Ekaterin’s amusement.  She chides him for looking at “baby pictures”, and burbling on about them as if he’d invented reproduction, just as his mother had warned her he would, and says it’s a good thing they’re on honeymoon, or he’d be fussing around the uterine replicators just as badly.  Miles notes she spent a lot of time studying next to the replicators herself…

They had celebrated their first anniversary by starting their first two children, Aral Alexander and Helen Natalia; Miles is still secretly holding out for twelve children, though he’ll only admit to six, which most women he knows still consider insane, but Ekaterin merely agreed to start with two.

A message light starts blinking, to Miles’s puzzlement; their ship is between wormholes, three jumps out from Earth en route to Tau Ceti, then Escobar, then home.  He’s not expecting anyone to be contacting him right now.  He accepts the message, which proves to be the ship’s captain, telling him that a Barrayaran Imperial courier, the Kestrel, is overtaking them and asking to lock on, with an urgent message for Miles.  This doesn’t bode well, thinks Miles.

The captain’s dark Tau Cetan features vanished, to be replaced after a moment by a man in Barrayaran Imperial undress greens with lieutenant’s tabs and Sector IV pins on his collar. Visions surged through Miles’s mind of the Emperor assassinated, Vorkosigan House burned to the ground with the replicators inside, or, even more hideously likely, his father suffering a fatal stroke—he dreaded the day some stiff-faced messenger would begin by addressing him, Count Vorkosigan, sir?

The lieutenant addresses him merely as Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, and introduces himself as Lieutenant Smolyani; he quickly reassures Miles and Ekaterin that he’s not bringing news of war or death.  There is an urgent request for Miles in an Auditorial capacity, though.  A Komarran trade fleet has apparently been impounded at Graf Station, part of an independent system called the “Union of Free Habitats”, and they are to bring Miles there at all haste.  It seems to be a legal entanglement, not a quarantine; they have a sealed message from Emperor Gregor which should explain further.

Smolyani brings Miles a disk later, and then goes to help Roic deal with the Vorkosigans’ luggage while Miles and Ekaterin watch the message.  Gregor apologizes for interrupting their honeymoon, though he notes they should be on their way home anyway.  Miles happens to physically closest to the mess at Graf Station.  The Komarran fleet, and its Barrayaran escort, put in at Graf Station for a standard resupply stop, but one of the Barrayaran officers disappeared.  The men sent to find and retrieve him encountered trouble with the locals, “shots were fired”, and people on both sides were injured.

Reports, unfortunately, differ as to what’s going on, between the fleet commander, the Komarran cargomasters, and the ImpSec observers.  Barrayarans are being held hostage, or arrested, and the entire fleet is being locked down–with docking fees accruing–until the mess can be resolved.  Gregor notes that the fleet is half owned by the Toscanes–his wife’s family–so he has to satisfy them while still managing to appear impartial.  He requests and requires Miles to resolve the issue, without starting a war or bankrupting his budget, and also to find out who’s telling the truth about the situation; things could get dicey if the fleet commander, an Admiral Eugin Vorpatril, turns out to be lying to them.  And, in the meantime, the Cetagandans seem to be stirred up around Rho Ceta, so he’d prefer Miles to be back home before that turns into anything.

After the message finishes, Miles asks Ekaterin if she wants to come with him; he says she certainly can, if she wants to, and she asks if she’d be anything more than a distraction.  Miles says that she may recall that sometimes people try to obliquely pass him information through her, and he’d love to have her around to bounce ideas off of, or at least vent to.

“D’you think you can stand it? It could get pretty thick. Not to mention boring.”

“You know, you keep claiming your job is boring, Miles, but your eyes have gone all bright.”

He cleared his throat and shrugged unrepentantly.

Ekaterin reminds him that their children are scheduled to be born in about six weeks; their original schedule would have them home in two, but now they’ll be heading in the opposite direction.  Miles does some calculations and says, with the speed of their fast courier, he should have a couple of weeks at Graf Station to clear things up and still make it home in time.  Ekaterin says that however unnecessary she truly is to the replicator birth, she would feel bad missing the birth of her own children; Miles says that if necessary he can send her home on her own, but he would of course also like to be there.

He asks if it’s different for her, having gone through it already, sort of, with Nikki; Ekaterin says Nikki was a body-birth, and she can’t help feel like she’s shortchanging the others somehow by using a replicator.  Miles’s mother is of course strongly in favour of them, and Miles himself owes his life to the replicator; he points out that they’ll have their hands full enough once they’re out of the replicators.  She agrees to come along with Miles, for his sanity, and asks to send a message to Nikki warning him they’ll be late.  He should be well taken care of by both sides of the family, in any case, even Miles’s parents, who were also planning to attend the birth.  Miles notes that Nikki hasn’t sent them much, and Ekaterin asks him if he’s contacted his own mother recently…

They’re forced to leave most of their luggage behind, as well as two armsmen and a maid to accompany them back to Barrayar; they bring Armsman Roic with them, and the bare minimum of luggage.  They sit in the cramped cabin on the fast courier and Miles starts reading through the reports that Gregor had sent him.  He soon realizes that Graf Station is in Quaddiespace, and he explains the quaddies to Ekaterin, their origins and their physical peculiarities.  Barrayarans, with their sensitivity to mutations, will of course be having some trouble adjusting.  He skims over the details of how exactly he had run across them before, but mentions their rescue of Nicol the musician.

Comments

Aral Alexander, as Miles’s firstborn, must of course be following the usual naming rules, paternal and maternal grandfathers, so I guess Ekaterin’s father’s name is Alexander.  Helen Natalia…well, Ekaterin’s Aunt Vorthys is a Helen, so it’s unlikely that her mother is as well, which means that firstborn daughters must have less stringent requirements.  Which makes sense, since girls are so unimportant to the succession, after all.  *rolls eyes*

When I first read this book, before having read “Winterfair Gifts”, I only really knew Roic as the guy from the bug-butter battle at the end of A Civil Campaign, but I guess he wasn’t a total stranger.  I still liked Pym better, but I suppose he can’t go everywhere…  I don’t remember if Roic has any big moments in this book, but it’s not impossible, I suppose…

Chapter Two

Miles dresses in his Vorkosigan House uniform–including the riding boots–and, the cabin in the fast courier having no mirror, lets Ekaterin judge his appearance instead.  He says he’ll come back and change into his civilian suit after he’s talked to the military officers.  She asks what she should wear, and he suggests pants or leggings because of the occasional null-gee sections.

Roic knocks at the door and Miles squeezes out past his wife.  Roic asks hopefully if they’ll be moving onto the flagship now, but Miles says he’d rather stay on the courier, to maintain their autonomy a little longer, though he is aware that Roic, with his greater height, is much less comfortable in the cramped quarters.  Roic says he should have brought a real veteran, like Jankowski, and Miles gathers his civilian background is causing him some discomfort among the military occupants of the ship.

Miles, about to lead off down the short corridor, instead leaned against the wall and folded his arms. “Look, Roic—there’s scarcely a man in the Imperial Service your age or younger who’s faced as much live fire in the Emperor’s employ as you have in the Hassadar Municipal Guard. Don’t let the damned green uniforms spook you. It’s empty swagger. Half of ’em would fall over in a faint if they were asked to take down someone like that murderous lunatic who shot up Hassadar Square.”

“I was already halfway across the plaza, m’lord. It would’ve been like swimming halfway across a river, deciding you couldn’t make it, and turning around to swim back. It was safer to jump him than to turn and run. He’d ‘a had the same amount of time to take aim at me either way.”

“But not the time to take out another dozen or so bystanders. Auto-needler’s a filthy weapon.” Miles brooded briefly.

Miles notes that Roic habitually masks his social discomfort in dull stolidity; he assures Roic that they’ll be impressed by the Barrayaran Armsman’s outfit, with its redolence of the ghost of General Piotr.

Lieutenant Smolyani tells them that they’re ready to transfer to the Prince Xav, and Miles and Roic head to the personnel hatch.  Roic heads through first into the zero-gee flex tube, Miles close behind, and they swing along into the flagship’s roomier bay.  General Vorpatril waits with three other men, one of them a civilian, and all of them doubtless forewarned about Miles’s odd appearance.  Admiral Vorpatril greets him and introduces him to Captain Brun, commander of Fleet Security and leader of the problematic patrol onto Graf Station; Komarran Senior Cargomaster Molino; and Ensign Deslaurier, the fleet legal officer.  Miles expresses surprise at Deslaurier’s rank and youth, and Deslaurier says his chief left the fleet earlier on compassionate leave, and admits this is his first galactic voyage.

Vorpatril leads them to a briefing room, and, once they’re seated, asks how they may serve.  Miles asks the admiral to explain the events from his point of view.  Vorpatril says that they’d planned to dock at Graf Station for five days, and, believing the quaddies to be non-hostile, he granted station leaves.  Miles nods, knowing part of the purpose of escorting the Komarran trade fleets is to give young Barrayaran soldiers experience with galactic cultures, as well as covert intelligence gathering, as well as attempting to lighten the tensions between the Barrayarans and Komarrans.

One of the Komarran ships, Idris, turned out to take longer than expected to repair because of problems with the replacement parts for the jump drive…and then its Barrayaran security liaison officer, Lieutenant Solian, disappeared.  Captain Brun says Solian was in his department, but was fairly new; he didn’t know him well, but he was highly recommended.  Molino adds that he got along well with everyone, and mentions that Solian was also Komarran, which Miles realizes gives his disappearance added wrinkles.

Brun says that Solian simply went off-shift one day and then disappeared, though with no record of leaving the ship; a search of his quarters showed a valise and some personal effects missing, so the working theory was desertion.  Miles asks if he was unhappy, and Brun says he got the usual chaff from both sides, being a Komarran in Imperial service.  Molino says he hadn’t noticed any particular mistreatment from the Komarrans.  Vorpatril says Solian, as a Komarran in the service, was likely hand-picked, and so less likely to desert despite the increased pressures.

They’d contacted the Graf Station authorities, who Brun says were unhelpful, merely saying that they’d seen so sign of him anywhere, and no record of him leaving the station.  Vorpatril says that the repairs on the Idris were finished, but he insisted on staying, not wanting to leave one of his men behind.  Molino protests that it made no sense to tie up the fleet over one man, when they could have left a small team behind to look for Solian; Vorpatril says he had orders not to split the fleet.

“But we haven’t suffered a hijacking attempt in this sector for decades,” argued Molino. Miles felt he was witnessing round n-plus-one of an ongoing debate.

“Not since Barrayar began providing you with free military escorts,” said Vorpatril, with false cordiality. “Odd coincidence, that.” His voice grew firmer. “I don’t leave my men. I swore that at the Escobar debacle, back when I was a milk-faced ensign.” He glanced at Miles. “Under your father’s command, as it happened.”

Uh-oh. This could be trouble. . . . Miles let his brows climb in curiosity. “What was your experience there, sir?”

Vorpatril snorted reminiscently. “I was a junior pilot on a combat drop shuttle, orphaned when our mothership was blown to hell by the Escos in high orbit. I suppose if we’d made it back during the retreat, we’d have been blown up with her, but still. Nowhere to dock, nowhere to run, even the few surviving ships that had an open docking cradle not pausing for us, a couple of hundred men on board including wounded—it was a right nightmare, let me tell you.”

Miles says that he’s sure the Admiral did the best he could, once he was forced to assume command, and Vorpatril concedes that, but says that he spent a year in a prison camp on Escobar, which was not exactly fun.  So he refuses to leave his own men behind without a good reason–better than mere profits.  He thought he was right to stay for Solian…but then there was an odd incident on the station.

An airlock cycled in the cargo bay, next to where the Idris was docked, with no ship to account for it.  When Station Security checked it out, they found a large pool of blood, and signs of something being dragged; the blood turned out to match Solian’s.  There were no footprints, but Vorpatril notes that the quaddies often use personal floaters in areas with gravity.  Brun admits that no body has been found, and they’ve checked any possible trajectory out of that airlock.  Miles notes that a deserter may want to fake his death; Brun protests that there was too much blood for that to be plausible, but Miles points out that putting someone in a cryo-chamber involves withdrawing as much of the patient’s blood as possible.  Brun says it’s a bit of a complicated scenario, and Miles concedes that, but he notes that cryo-revival also involves synthesizing large quantities of blood, which would superficially match the patient’s, but a good examination should be able to spot the difference.  Brun says the quaddies did the check with their scanner, but he believes they have another sample that they could cross-check.

Vorpatril said he honestly believed that Solian had been killed, and Miles says it’s still possible he was.  Vorpatril says that with that prospect, he put the fleet on alert status, cancelling leaves and detaching from the dock.  Molino protests that there had been no explanation; Vorpatril says that as the commander he expected his orders to be obeyed nevertheless, but says there was a “communications breakdown”.  Miles senses a smokescreen coming up…  Vorpatril says that they had sent a two-man patrol to retrieve Ensign Corbeau, who was late reporting in, but the patrol was detained by the quaddies–by Station Security, he admits when Miles presses.  Miles clarifies that Ensign Deslaurier was not consulted, and did not volunteer any advice, before Vorpatril told Brun to send in strike teams–armed with plasma arcs–to try to retrieve his “captive” men.

Miles asks if any of the men had any previous run-ins with Graf Station security, and Brun admits that three men had been arrested for drunk float-chair racing; Deslaurier had paid their fines, bailed them out, and gave his word they’d be confined to quarters.  Miles asks what happened to Brun’s patrol, and he says that shots were exchanged, but the Barrayarans were overpowered and taken captive.

The “swarming” quaddies had included, not unnaturally in Miles’s view, most of the Graf Station professional and volunteer fire brigades. Plasma fire. In a civilian space station. Oh, my aching head.

“So,” said Miles gently, “after we shot up the police station and set the habitat on fire, what did we do for an encore?”

Vorpatril says that since the Komarrans didn’t obey orders to cast off, and were instead locked down by the quaddies, he’d lost the initiative, and the quaddies had gained too many hostages.  After two days in a standoff, they were informed of the Auditor’s impending arrival and told to stand down.  Brun said that they couldn’t have blown up the station anyway, with their ships in dock; Miles points out that that would have been a criminal order, and he and Emperor would flip a coin for which one got to shoot him first.

Miles thanks the Admiral for cooling down, at least; he can’t comment on any effects on their future careers, though he privately swears revenge if they make him miss his children’s birth.  He says his job is to free as many Imperial subjects from the quaddies he can, and ideally leave it so that their trade fleets can ever dock there again in the future.  Vorpatril asks about Lieutenant Solian, and Miles promises to look into his disappearance as well.

“But, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan!” Cargomaster Molino put in urgently. “Graf Station authorities are trying to fine our Komarran vessels for the damage done by Barrayaran troops. It must be made plain to them that the military stands alone in this . . . criminal activity.”

Miles hesitated a long moment. “How fortunate for you, Cargomaster,” he said at last, “that in the event of a genuine attack, the reverse would not be true.” He tapped the table and rose to his feet.

Comments

If we weren’t so tied to Miles’s point of view, it might almost have been more interesting to see these events, rather than just be told about them.  Especially with some different viewpoints in there–Brun’s a little less than entirely free of anti-mutant prejudice, and of course quaddies set that off with alarm bells, despite the fact that they’re really a race to themselves these days…  Not to mention some anti-Komarran prejudice lurking in there too, influence the conclusions that everybody jumps to.  Of course, Molino isn’t much better, trying to disassociate himself from the Barrayarans’ behaviour, and obviously feeling like his fleet doesn’t really need them around…

The setup reminds me, in some ways, of Komarr…if only because the initial problem which draws Lord Auditor Vorkosigan into the affair is only the tip of the iceberg.  The real plot of the book emerges a few chapters in, and the initial concerns take a bit of a back seat by that point.  In this case, it’s mostly Lieutenant Solian’s disappearance that is the real mystery–everything else stems from that, exacerbating poor relations between the Barrayarans, Komarrans and quaddies.

Roic’s civilian background is covered here, and his heroism in Hassadar, though of course not in as much detail as “Winterfair Gifts”, which, apparently, was published a couple of years after the novel…  This is far from the first timeline-jumping that Bujold has done, of course, though I’m not sure whether she had the full events of Miles’s wedding in mind; still, she did refer to it as “that memorable, difficult, mid-winter wedding” in the first chapter, so, if she hadn’t written the novella yet, she had something like that in mind.


Short, snappy chapters, that’s what I like.  So, with any luck, two a week will not be a crippling pace to maintain.  See you back next week…

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As Canada continues to shiver in the grips of winter, I can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, through the thaumaturgical principles of Sympathy, I can help to dispel the cold by means of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread.  After all, this week I am wrapping up the novella “Winterfair Gifts”, wherein Miles Vorkosigan gets married, in the middle of winter…and so, after that, it’s got to get warmer, right?  If only thaumaturgy wasn’t complete bunk.  (Well, I suppose if it wasn’t, then science would be out the window, and I like science, and besides, not everyone would use it for the pure purposes that I would.)  This week, as I mentioned, brings the last installment, as Roic and Taura alert Barrayaran Imperial Security about the peculiar contamination Taura found on one of the wedding presents…

Winterfair Gifts, Part 3

Roic debates waiting for Pym’s return, but decides that he is a Vorkosigan armsman, and senior on the scene, so he contacts ImpSec HQ as soon as possible.  Within half an hour, an ImpSec captain has arrived to take their statements and other evidence; Roic tries to be a clear and straightforward witness, though he does elide his initial suspicions of Taura.  He takes care to emphasize their doubts that Elli Quinn actually sent the gift, and the captain duly takes the cat blanket as evidence, as well as the pearls and any associated packaging; he’s done and gone before another half hour has passed.  Roic asks Taura if she wants to go get some sleep, but she says she wouldn’t be able to.  They settle down to wait.

“Quiet around here at night,” she said after a moment.

She was speaking to him again. Please, don’t stop. “Yeah. I sort of like it, though.”

“Oh, you too? The night watch is a philosophical kind of time. Its own world. Nothing moving out there but maybe people being born or people dying, necessity, and us.”

“Eh, and the bad night people we’re put on watch against.”

He asks her about Quinn, and she tells him how Quinn was “original equipment” with the Dendarii, and they’ve been through a lot over ten years together.  He expresses sympathy with her for her earlier dilemma, likening it to finding out his liege lord was conspiring against the Emperor, or trying to kill the Empress.  She says that as soon as she thought of it she couldn’t enjoy the party, as much as Miles wanted her to, and had to come back home.  She asks Roic what he would do, and he admits it’s a puzzle, but the Count has always said that there’s a “higher honour”, so they shouldn’t obey unthinkingly. Taura says that must be where Miles gets it from, and Roic quotes Mark as saying that integrity is a disease you can only catch from someone else who has it.  Roic says that he hopes he’d have the courage to turn on his lord if he had to.

He’s trying to bring himself to actually take Taura’s hand when he’s notified that the Vorkosigans and their party are returning from the Residence.  Pym, in attendance on the Countess, asks Roic absently if there’s anything to report, but his attention is caught when Roic tells him seriously that there is.  Once he has Pym alone, he gives him a summary of the night’s events; Pym isn’t certain there’s anything wrong, because he’d checked the necklace himself–though he didn’t touch it himself–but he allows that Roic was right to act on the suspicion, and ImpSec can handle the work.  Taura is a little disappointed by Pym’s reaction, but Roic says that’s probably the best they can hope for based on the little evidence they have.

Taura asks if she can stay with Roic until they hear back, and Roic agrees; he takes her down to the kitchen for refueling, guessing correctly that she’s running low on fuel again.  As they finish up, Pym comes to find them, looking almost sick as he tells them that ImpSec in fact found a designer Jacksonian neurotoxin on the pearls, designed to be activated by body heat and enough to kill anyone who wore it for as little as half an hour.  Roic says that Madame Vorsoisson had them on for about five minutes, and asks if she’s in danger; Pym says ImpSec is dispatching an expert to check her for symptoms, but says that she would be dead by now if the poison was going to kill her.  He thanks Roic again, several times, and says he’s going to brief Lord Vorkosigan on the situation.

Taura notes that the Jackson’s Whole origin doesn’t prove much, since they’ll sell to anyone, but Miles did make some enemies there as Admiral Naismith; by now that cover identity was pretty much blown.  She yawns, impressively, and Roic is struck not only by how tired she must be, but how lonely, in such a strange place.  He asks her if she could sleep, if he promises to wake her up if there’s any news; she says she could give it a try.

He escorted her to her door, past m’lord’s dark and empty suite. When he clasped her hand briefly, she clasped back. He swallowed, for courage.

“Dirty pearls, eh?” he said, still holding her hand. “Y’know . . . I don’t know about any other Barrayarans . . . but I think your genetic modifications are beautiful.”

Her lips curved up, he hoped not altogether bleakly. “You are getting better.”

When she let go and turned in, a claw trailing lightly over the skin of his palm made his body shudder in involuntary, sensual surprise. He stared at the closing door, and swallowed a perfectly foolish urge to call her back. Or follow her inside . . . he was still on duty, he reminded himself.

It’s close to dawn when M’lord returns to the house, looking more ghastly and strung-out than Roic has ever seen him, even after the disastrous dinner party.  He thanks Roic effusively, and tells him that Madame Vorsoisson was feeling better after the ImpSec doctor left; he castigates himself for having missed the signs of poisoning, from the necklace he’d put on her himself, which is like metaphor for this whole wedding.  Both of them had thought it was just her nerves, which he says can’t be a good sign.  He says there won’t be any long-term effects, luckily.  Roic is about to bring up the crying fit he’d witnessed before the pearls arrived, but thinks better of it.  Roic tells him that ImpSec has already come to check all of the other gifts, just in case, and hopes to have them back by afternoon.

He asks M’lord if he thinks Elli Quinn could have done it, and M’lord says it’s impossible–she’d beat Miles up personally if she was that mad at him; in any case, he’d broken up with Quinn months before even meeting Ekaterin, so jealousy doesn’t make sense.  Actually, he points out that it’s odd for the attempted poisoner to use Quinn’s name at all, because she’s linked to Admiral Naismith rather than Lord Vorkosigan, and hopes that that will give ImpSec a lead to use.

M’lord thanks Roic profusely for saving this wedding, and thus saving the whole future of the Vorkosigan house.  Roic admits that it was Taura who found the initial evidence, and Miles blesses her, saying he should kiss her all over.

Roic was beginning to think that line about the barbed wire choke chain wasn’t such a joke after all. All this frenetic tension was, if not precisely infectious, starting to get on what was left of his nerves. He remarked dryly, in Pym-like periods, “I was given to understand you already had, m’lord.”

M’lord jerked to a halt again. “Who told you that?”

Under the circumstances, Roic decided not to mention Madame Vorsoisson. “Taura.”

“Eh, maybe it’s the women’s secret code. I don’t have the key, though. You’re on your own there, boy.” He snorted a trifle hysterically. “But if you ever do win an invitation from her, beware—it’s like being mugged in a dark alley by a goddess. You’re not the same man, after. Not to mention critical feminine body parts on a scale you can actually find, and as for the fangs, there’s no thrill quite like—”

They are interrupted then by the Countess, somewhat to Roic’s embarrassment, though he reminds himself that the Vicereine is Betan, after all.  Miles begins telling her all about the poisoning, and threatening the culprit with dismemberment, before the Countess cuts him off, saying she’s been kept fully apprised, and recommending that he get some sleep so he’s not a total loss at his own wedding.  Miles insists he has to check everything first.

“The garden is fine. Everything is fine. As you have just discovered in Armsman Roic, here, your staff is more than competent.” She started down the stairs, a distinctly steely look in her eye. “It’s either a sleeptimer or a sledgehammer for you, son. I am not handing you off to your blameless bride in the state you’re in, or the worse one it’ll be if you don’t get some real sleep before this afternoon. It’s not fair to her.”

“Nothing about this marriage is fair to her,” m’lord muttered, bleak. “She was afraid it would be the nightmare of her old marriage all over again. No! It’s going to be a completely different nightmare—much worse . How can I ask her to step into my line of fire if—”

“As I recall, she asked you. I was there, remember. Stop gibbering.” The Countess took his arm, and began more-or-less frog-marching him upstairs. Roic made a mental note of her technique, for future reference. She glanced over her shoulder and gave Roic a reassuring, if rather unexpected, wink.

Roic goes to get some sleep himself, since he will also need to be rested for the afternoon’s events.  He’s woken up early by Armsman Jankowski though, summoned to a briefing in M’lord’s suite, right away, so he doesn’t stop to shave or do more than put on last night’s clothes.  He arrives to find M’lord waiting with Taura and Ivan Vorpatril, his cousin and Second; he recalls how a stern warning from the Count had suppressed Ivan’s mischievous nature, and Roic was betting, literally, on it lasting quite a while.  They are joined by General Allegre of ImpSec and the Count, and then the Countess and Ekaterin.

Allegre gives M’lord back the pearls, which he says have been thoroughly cleaned and pronounced safe; M’lord asks who precisely he has to think for this thoughtful gift.  Allegre says that the packaging shows that it came from Barrayar itself–not Escobar as the forged stamps claimed–but the pearls were of Earth origin, which helped to narrow it down.  The purchase has been traced to Lord Vorbataille, but they followed it further back to Vorbataille’s Jacksonian consultant, a man named Luca Tarpan, who they have also apprehended.  M’lord doesn’t recognize the name, but Allegre says he’s linked to the Bharaputrans; M’lord says that explains how he knew about both Quinn and Lord Vorkosigan, but isn’t sure that explains the vicious attack.  Allegre says it was just an attempt to sow confusion, ideally to cover their escape, but Vorbataille was already in custody by that point.  He apologizes for not having turned up this scheme in Vorbataille’s fast-penta interrogation; M’lord says pointedly they’d have found out about it in about an hour, and Allegre agrees, and proffers an apology to Madame Vorsoisson and the Vorkosigans.

He looked up at Roic and Taura, sitting side by side on the sofa opposite. “Fortunately, ImpSec was not your last line of defense.”

“Indeed,” rumbled the Count, who had seated himself on a straight chair turned backwards, arms comfortably crossed over its back, listening intently but without comment till now. Countess Vorkosigan stood by his side; her hand touched his shoulder, and he caught it under his own thicker one.

Allegre said, “Illyan once told me that half the secret of House Vorkosigan’s preeminence in Barrayaran history was the quality of the people it drew to its service. I’m glad to see this continues to hold true. Armsman Roic, Sergeant Taura—ImpSec salutes you with more gratitude than I can rightly express.” He did so, in a sober gesture altogether free of his sporadic irony.

Roic isn’t sure if he’s supposed to say something in response to that, like when he had to give a speech after the incident in Hassadar.  Conversation moves on, though, M’lord asking Madame Vorsoisson that that was her last warning.  He says he’ll have the pearls destroyed, but Madame Vorsoisson insists that she will wear them after all, as a defiance to their enemies.  The Countess reminds them that they still have to get dressed for the wedding, and ushers them out; Roic tells her that M’lord seems to be looking better, and she confides to him that they’d slipped him a double dose of tranquilizers, which seems to have calmed him down sufficiently.

Taura tells Roic that she hadn’t been sure Ekaterin was a match for Miles, but now she sees that Ekaterin has this “Vor” thing, which Elli never could understand, deep in her bones; Roic agrees.  She asks what he’s doing later, and he says that he has night duty all week…and probably for the rest of her stay on the planet.  He then dashes off to get changed.

By the time Roic makes his way downstairs to take his place next to Pym, guests are starting to arrive.  Already present had been Lady Alys and Simon Illyan, the Bothari-Jeseks, Mayhew and Nikki, and some Vorvaynes who hadn’t been able to fit in the Vorthyses’ house.  Duv and Delia Galeni arrive with the Vorbrettens and Vorrutyers, then the Koudelkas; Martya is standing in for her sister Kareen as Ekaterin’s Second.  Mark and Kareen were unable to attend because of their classes and the travel time, but Mark had sent a gift certificate for a Betan vacation as his wedding present, to encourage them to visit.  Martya heads upstairs while Dr. Borgos is searched for any contraband bugs, but she comes back downstairs sooner than Roic would have expected.  The rest of the Vorvaynes arrive, and Nikki proudly shows off his new jump-pilot friend Arde to his cousins, convincing him to hold forth with exciting war stories.

Finally, Gregor and Laisa show up, in attendance as Count and Countess Vorbarra so as not to outrank the Vorkosigans, and to grant them more social freedom.  Shortly thereafter, all hundred and twenty guests head back outside for the ceremony proper.

The air was cold but not bitter, and thankfully windless, the sky a deepening clear blue, the slanting afternoon sun liquid gold. It turned the snowy garden into as gilded, glittering, spectacular and utterly unique a showplace as m’lord’s heart could ever have desired. The flowers and ribbons were concentrated around the central place where the vows were to be, complementing the wild brilliance of the ice and snow and light.

Although Roic was fairly sure that the two realistically-detailed ice rabbits humping under a discreet bush were not part of the decorations m’lord had ordered . . . they did not pass unnoticed, as the first person to observe them immediately pointed them out to everyone within earshot. Ivan Vorpatril averted his gaze from the cheerfully obscene artwork—the rabbits were grinning—a look of innocence on his face. The Count’s menacing glower at him was alas undercut by an escaping snicker, which became a guffaw when the Countess whispered something in his ear.

In the center of the garden, on a circle of brick decorated with the Vorkosigan crest, are the circles of groats, and the groom’s party take their places.  Roic, with the armsmen, is concerned not to see Taura among the guests anywhere.  The bride’s party make their way out on foot, Miles having been dissuaded from fetching his bride out on horseback in Old Vor style; Lady Alys is in the lead, followed by Ekaterin on her father’s arm, still defiantly wearing her pearls.  Roic’s gaze is immediately caught by Taura, walking in the procession as the bride’s Second, and he spots Martya Koudelka with the rest of the guests, watching Taura almost smugly.

Taura’s dress was everything that Lady Alys had promised. Champagne-colored velvet exactly matched her eyes, which seemed to spring to a brilliant prominence in her face. The jacket sleeves and long swinging skirt were decorated on their margins with black cord shaped into winding patterns. Champagne-colored orchids coiled in her bound-back hair. Roic thought he’d never seen anything so stunningly sophisticated in his life.

Everyone took their places. M’lord and m’lady-to-be stepped into the inner circle, hands gripping hands like two lovers drowning. The bride looked not so much radiant as incandescent; the groom looked gobsmacked. Lord Ivan and Taura were handed the two little bags of groats with which to close the circle, then stood back to their star points between Count and Countess Vorkosigan and Vorvayne and his wife. Lady Alys read out the vows, and m’lord and m’lady-to . . . m’lady repeated their responses, her voice clear, his only cracking once. The kiss was managed with remarkable grace, m’lady somehow bending her knee in a curtsey-like motion so m’lord didn’t have to stretch unduly. It suggested thought and practice. Lots of practice.

Ivan opens up the groat circle and collects his kiss from the bride as Lord and Lady Vorkosigan make their way out, past the row of armsmen, saluting with their sword, Pym leading the Armsmen’s Shout; Taura follows on Ivan’s arm, followed by the rest of the guests.  Pym looks like he wants to faint in sheer relief at how perfectly the ceremony came off.

The main dining room of the house seats ninety-six, with the overflow in an adjacent room joined by an archway.  Roic is on duty, not serving at table, but to deal with any emergencies or miscellaneous guest needs; Taura is sitting at the head table between Ivan and Gregor, glowing from the attention, and Roic wishes he was in their place.

Martya Koudelka comes up and greets him, noting how wonderful Taura looks; she explains how she heard the story of what happened last night, and Ekaterin asked her to let Taura take her place.  She was happy enough to do it, since it meant she wouldn’t have to sit with Ivan; Ekaterin said it was one honour she could bestow of herself.  She gives Roic a kiss on the cheek for his own part in the night’s events, for saving them from having to live with a really crazy Miles Vorkosigan.

At the dance afterwards, Taura sits out, commenting to Roic as he passes by that she doesn’t know any of the dances anyway.  Roic says he can’t dance, being on duty and all, but also admits he doesn’t know them either.

On the sixth number, m’lady danced past Roic with her eldest brother Hugo.

“Splendid necklace, Kat. From your spouse, is it?”

“No, actually. From one of his . . . business associates.”

“Expensive!”

“Yes.” M’lady’s faint smile made the hairs stir on Roic’s arms. “I expect it to cost him everything he has.”

Before the evening is too advanced, the bridal couple make their escape via aircar to their Vorkosigan Surleau honeymoon retreat.  The rest of the guests will mostly stay in the capital for a few more days, though the galactic guests will make their way down to Vorkosigan Surleau as well–Elena in particular, to burn a death-offering for her father.  Armsman Jankowski is flying the aircar; Pym, who would normally be doing it, informs Roic that he’s shuffled the duty schedule.  Pym himself, who apparently feels he hasn’t been getting the blame he deserves for letting the pearls slip past, is punishing himself with the night shift, and giving Roic, at m’lady’s request, the week off with double pay, as soon as the Vorbarras leave.  The sendoff is capped with fireworks, both official and unofficial; the latter batch, discreetly supplied by the Count, are administered by Arde Mayhew and, mostly, Taura.

The party winds down slowly, sleepy children being carried off, the Vorbarras and their discreet ImpSec servants leaving, and the younger generation taking over the dance floor with more energetic music while their remaining elders head off to quieter rooms for wine and conversation.  Roic happens upon Taura going through a platter of treats in a side room, and asks if she’d had a good time; she says it was wonderful, and enthuses about her visit to Barrayar.  Roic reminds himself he’s off-duty and sits down with her.

She’s there for ten more days, he realizes, which doesn’t seem like it would be enough time to spend with her.  He asks her if she thought of staying there, finding a place for herself; she says she already has a place, and Roic asks if she’s sure being a mercenary is much of a future.  After a moment, she tells him how her genetic modifications include a shortened lifespan; she says that the doctors tell her that she only has a year left, but she adds that they’ve been saying that for several years already, and the lifespan of a soldier is uncertain anyway.

“Part of me wishes the medics would get it settled. Part of me says, the hell with it. Every day is a gift. Me, I rip open the package and wolf it down on the spot.”

He looked up at her in wonder. His grip tightened, as though she might be pulled from him as they sat, right now, if he didn’t hold hard enough. He leaned over, reached across and picked off the fragile petal, touched it to his lips. He took a deep, scared breath. “Can you teach me how to do that?”

Her fantastic gold eyes widened. “Why, Roic! I think that’s the most delicately-worded proposition I’ve ever received. S’ beautiful.” An uncertain pause. “Um, that was a proposition, wasn’t it? I’m not always sure I parlay Barrayaran.”

Desperately terrified now, he blurted in what he imagined to be merc-speak, “Ma’am, yes, ma’am!”

This won an immense fanged smile— not in a version he’d ever seen before. It made him, too, want to fall over backwards, though preferably not into a snow bank. He glanced around. The softly-lit room was littered with abandoned plates and wineglasses, detritus of pleasure and good company. Low voices chatted idly in the next chamber. Somewhere in another room, softened by the distance, a clock was chiming the hour. Roic declined to count the beats.

They floated in a bubble of fleeting time, live heat in the heart of a bitter winter. He leaned forward, raised his face, slid his hand around her warm neck, drew her face down to his. It wasn’t hard. Their lips brushed, locked.

Several minutes later, in a shaken, hushed voice, he breathed, ” . . . wow . . .”

Several minutes after that , they went upstairs, hand in hand.

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Once they’ve settled on notifying ImpSec, most the “action” the occurs after that is offscreen.  ImpSec gathers information and then manages to identify and chase down the culprits.  Who are, perhaps unsurprisingly, related to the Auditor case that Miles has just been working on, which can now be seen to be a sort of Chekov’s Gun–if they weren’t important to the plot, why had they been brought up earlier?  Sort of like the offhand mention near the beginning of The Warrior’s Apprentice of the conspirators who show up at the end.  There is some tension–first, about whether Taura’s guess is correct, and then, about what’s going to happen to Ekaterin–and then, I suppose, on whether this is going to quash the wedding entirely.  But Ekaterin reaffirms her dedication to life with Miles, however risky it will be, and all is well again.

Duv and Delia are already married by this point, apparently, having managed to sneak their wedding in between Gregor’s and Miles’s, and Martya and Enrique still seem to be together, too.  And the reference to “the Vorrutyers” makes me wonder if Dono and Olivia are already wed, too.  Or maybe that was supposed to be Dono and Byerly…probably not, since I’m not convinced that By was invited.  Maybe he was; on some level, perhaps, Miles and Ekaterin may owe their getting together to him.  After all, without By’s efforts, would Richars have ended up provoking Ekaterin into proposing?  Well, that’s a little questionable, though.  I’m inclined to think that Roic would have made some comment about By’s presence, so perhaps he wasn’t there after all.  Or maybe the author just didn’t want to reintroduce him…

The romance plotline winds up after the wedding; Roic and Taura were already mostly reconciled after his earlier gaffe about mutations, after joining forces over the pearls, so all it takes is for him to actually have an opportunity to seize.  Pym’s guilt provides him the opportunity, and then he actually takes it.  I’m always surprised that Roic doesn’t find out about Taura’s reduced life expectancy until right at the end there, but I guess it’s not something that she necessarily advertises.  I confess that I’m not convinced that the resolution of the plot is going to be true love or anything, but a certain amount of seizing of the moment, at least, perhaps a ten-day fling.  (Is that a week, on Barrayar, to coincide with Roic’s vacation?  I can’t remember.)  Roic and Taura’s long-term relationship prospects are about as good as Miles and Elli’s were, for about the same reasons…but they can have something, if not a life together.

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And now, having wrapped up “Winterfair Gifts”, and Miles In Love, I will once again be taking a week off before heading into Diplomatic Immunity.  I may have mentioned that we’re out of the Vorkosigan stories that I love, and into the ones that I like somewhat, or are okay.  Of course, Diplomatic Immunity is the only one I’ve read more than once, so maybe I’ll like the others better on reread, but who knows.  In any case, I might as well keep going…after my week off, of course.

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