The last post was sent by “past me”, but this post feels like it was actually written in the past. Like I was sent back in a time machine and had to prepare it with stone knives and bearskins. Which is to say, rather than having a convenient PDF copy of the book that I put side-by-side on my current ludicrously-wide monitor next to my editing window, I have to settle for a physical, paper copy of the book, a hardcover one, no less, which I have to put to one side and wrench my neck while writing. Plus I can’t just copy and paste any quotes I do, I have to manually retype them. So don’t be surprised if there’s more typos in them. Also, this is the first time I’m rereading this particular book, so it will be a different experience, and with all that, I’m only expecting to be able to handle a chapter a week, at least for now.
What I’m talking about, of course, is the latest book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. As one might surmise from the title, it’s one of the few books in the series which does not focus on Miles Vorkosigan. Of course, he does share POV in some of the books he does appear in, like Komarr, A Civil Campaign, and Mirror Dance, but in this one, he appears only as a guest star, leaving his cousin, and fan favourite, Captain Ivan Vorpatril, to carry the bulk of it. So let’s see how he does with his first chapter…
It’s close to midnight on Komarr, but Ivan Vorpatril is still awake, suffering from jump-lag; when his door buzzer sounds, he’s reluctant to answer it, and his reluctance is justified when he finds Byerly Vorrutyer on his doorstep. Before Ivan can muster the impetus to keep him out, Byerly is inside Ivan’s rented luxury flat in downtown Solstice; he polarizes the windows and pulls the curtains.
Ivan asks Byerly what he’s doing on Komarr, and he says he’s working. Ivan is one of the few who’s aware that Byerly Vorrutyer is not just a dissolute town clown, but also an informer for ImpSec. He reluctantly offers his guest something to drink, but By says he just wants some water, and then some sleep. By asks Ivan what he’s doing on Komarr, and Ivan says he’s here at a conference with his boss, Admiral Desplains, with some fleet inspections thrown in as a bonus, but then he realizes that Byerly must know this already. Byerly asks if Ivan is still ducking promotion, and Ivan says he’s happy enough to be a Captain.
Ivan only wished it were true. It seemed barely months ago, though it was over a year, that the latest flare-up of tentsions with Barrayar’s most traditional enemy, the Cetagandan Empire, had pinned Ivan to military headquarters 26.7 hours a Barrayaran day for weeks on end, sweating out all the most horrific possibilities. Designing death in detail. War had been averted through nontraditional diplomacy, mostly on the part of Barrayaran emperor Gregor’s weaseliest Imperial Auditor and, to give credit where it was due, his wife.
Ivan contemplates his distant relation Byerly, less brawny than himself (Admiral Desplains is constantly at Ivan to keep up his recruiting-poster physique), though with the startling Vorrutyer eyes. He asks Byerly what he wants, apart from going to bed (Byerly twits him about where that’s supposed to be an invitation…), and Byerly admits he has a little task for Ivan. It’s right up his alley, though–he wants Ivan to go pick up a girl, someone that people he’s currently investigating seem to have a certain interest in, and he gives Ivan a picture of her.
The background was too fuzzed to make out, but the picture showed a striking young woman striding down a sidewalk. Apparent age could be anything between twenty and thirty standard years, though that was no certain clue as to real age. Tumbling black hair, bright eyes, skin glowing an interesting cinnamon brown against a cream tank top. Decided nose, determined chin; either the natural face she was born with, or the work of a real artist, because it certainly didn’t bear the stamped-from-the-same-mold blandness of the usual body sculpture, a biological ideal that lost its appeal with repetition. Long legs in tan trousers that hugged in all the right places. A nicely full figure. Nicely full. If the face was natural, might the other prominent features be, too? With weakening reluctance, Ivan said, “Who is she?”
Byerly says she’s supposedly a Komarran named Nanja Brindis, just moved to Solstice from another dome, but he suspects that’s just a cover identity, and he’d love for Ivan find out. He says he doubts she’s a professional, so Ivan might be able to weasel it out of her. Ivan insists that Byerly give him more information, and Byerly gives in and tells him that he’s looking into a smuggling operation. Ivan points out that the Komarrans police themselves, and nobody cares what the non-Barrayaran transients do, which only leaves the Imperial Fleet–which is something that Service Security should be all over. Byerly agrees, saying that he’s more or less scouting the situation out for them, minimizing the chance of influential Vor scions getting accused mistakenly. Ivan notes that military personnel who get into regular crime then become blackmail targets for more serious offenses, too.
Byerly enjoins Ivan from telling Desplains any of this, unless he should turn up dead sometime in the near future. Ivan asks about the girl, and Byerly says she’s not with the Barrayarans he’s investigating, she’s not with the offworlders they’re dealing with, but she’s also not a simple Komarran citizen. Ivan asks if someone’s trying to kill her, which might explain why Byerly, who does possess the vestiges of Vor chivalry deep down inside, wants someone to look after her; Byerly warns Ivan to be careful, for Lady Alys’s sake.
“So where am I to find this so-called girl?”
“I am fairly certain she’s a real girl, Ivan.”
“You think? With you, one never knows.” He eyed By dryly, and By had the grace to squirm just a bit, in acknowledgement of his cousin Dono née Donna of lamented memory.
By tells Ivan that she works as a packing clerk at Swift Shipping, and gives him her work address as well as her unlisted home address, though of course using that will likely tip her off. He asks Ivan to make acquaintance before tomorrow night, without fail. By bids him farewell and leaves him to study the picture and wonder how many of Byerly’s suspicions are going to be proved out.
At Swift Shipping, Tej notices the tall, good-looking customer as soon as he comes in, only ten minutes before closing. She’s been hyperalert of most people who come into the shop, and wishes she could have mustered a job which wasn’t so much of a public position, but with her fake references it was all she could come up with. There have been hints of a promotion to the back room, but it’s been slow in coming. He browses around until she becomes available, then steps up to her counter.
“Hi, there”–with difficulty, he dragged his gaze from her chest to her face–“Nanja.”
It didn’t take that long to scan her nametag. Slow reader, are you? Why, yes, I get a lot of those. Tej returned the smile with the minimum professional courtesy due a customer who hadn’t, actually, done anything really obnoxious yet.
He hoisted his bag to the counter and withdrew a large, asymmetrical, and astonishing ugly ceramic vase. She guessed the design was supposed to be abstract, but it was more as if a party of eye-searing polka dots had all got falling-down drunk.
He gives her the address he’d like it shipped to–Vorkosigan House, Vorbarr Sultana–and she realizes he must be a Barrayaran, a group they don’t see much of in this low-rent area of town. She wonders that he’s willing to pay the exorbitant shipping to send this to another planet, but he decides not to spring for the premium shipping when she assures him it won’t make it any less likely to get broken; she does talk him into the insurance, though. He insists on staying to watch her wrap it up, though all she needs to do is put it into a machine which packs it in flexifoam.
She read his name from his credit chit, “Ivan Vorpatril”, and realizes he’s one of the Vor. He says he won’t need a note–it’s intended for Lady Vorkosigan, a gardener who specializes in poisonous plants. The packaging done, Tej and Dotte close up the shop, Dotte remaining behind to help her usher Ivan out. Some areas of Solstice are more like space station corridors and some more like city streets; Swift Shipping is on a more streetish area, luckily.
Ivan offers to buy her a drink–then, when she turns that down, he offers dinner, ice cream, a walk in the park, a boat ride on the lake… Tej pointedly spurns his offers and heads off with Dotte to the bubble-car station, even though her apartment is actually in walking distance. Ivan persists, offering a puppy, a kitten, or a pony, which amuses Dotte, but not Tej, who tries to ignore him. Dotte tells Tej she’d have accepted any of those offers readily enough, except maybe the pony, even though Tej is pretty sure she’s married; Tej says too many guys try to pick her up, though Dotte says most of them aren’t that cute, or that tall.
At the station, she takes a random bubble-car for ten minutes, then gets off and takes another car to a stop on the other side of her neighbourhood, in case Ivan is still hanging around the first station. He isn’t, but when she gets to her apartment building she spots him loitering on the steps outside. She slows her pace and places a call to Rish on her wristcom, telling her that she’s being followed, and that somehow he seems to have found her address. Rish tells her to lure him into a foyer in a minute and she’ll take of him there.
He greets “Nanja” when she walks up; when she asks how he found where she lived, he offers to take her out somewhere so they can talk about it. Waiting to answer until she judges Rish will have made it downstairs, she invites him inside. In the lift-tube foyer, a shawl-draped female figure sits on the bench; when she pulls out a stunner, Ivan pushes Tej out of the way, which just makes it easier for Rish (for it is she) to take Ivan out.
The stun beam kneecapped him neatly, and he fell, Tej supposed, the way a tree was said to, not that she’d ever witnessed a tree do such a thing. Most of the trees she’d seen before she’d fetched up on Komarr had lived in tubs, and did not engage in such vigorous behaviour. In any case, he crashed to the tiles with a vague thrashing of upper branches and a loud plonk as his head hit. “Owww…” he moaned piteously.
The attack doesn’t seem to have attracted anyone’s attention, but Rish covers Tej while she searches Ivan, not quite unconscious but definitely woozy; he seems muzzily reassured that the attacker is actually Tej’s friend. She’s alarmed to find the picture of her in his pocket; she asks him if he’s a hired killer, and after some thought he admits he probably is. Further search turns up nothing more lethal than a stunner, though; they inspect his wallet and find out who he is–Captain Ivan Xav Vorpatril, Barrayaran Imperial Service, and the military identity fits with his stunner and his shoes.
Rish says he looks authentic, but Tej points out that the best cappers would; Ivan recognizes the slang term as Jacksonian, and mumbles that if there’s hired killers after her, that explains a lot. Tej asks what they should do with him, and Rish says they’ll have to take him upstairs to the apartment.
As they dragged him inside, he remarked to the air, “Hey, made it inside her door on t’ first date? Are things lookin’ up for Ma Vorpatril’s boy, or what?”
“This is not a date, you idiot,” Tej snapped at him.
To her annoyance, his smile inexplicably broadened.
He says that some people would consider a date, and while he’s not one of them, he can be flexible. Tej asks if he ever gives up, and he says that he won’t until she laughs–first rule of picking up girls. He apologizes for making her suspicious of him, and insists he’s not there to attack her. Rish takes off her outer coverings and Ivan is taken aback at her skin, which is blue with gold veins, like lapis lazuli. Ivan asks if that was body-mod or genetic engineering, since the former would be fine, but not the latter; Tej is reminded of weird Barrayaran anti-mutant prejudices, and Rish says that she’s happy with it no matter what he may think of it. Ivan apologizes, pleading surprise, and Tej thinks that a real assassin would surely have known all about Rish.
Tej asks if they have any fast-penta left, but Rish says they used the last of it on Pol Station, and it’s too dangerous for them to try to get more right now. She suggests torture, and Ivan suggests they ask politely; Tej says that torture would be too noisy. It occurs to her that Ivan doesn’t seem to be trying to scream for help, and wonders if that makes it more or less likely that he’s on the level; at the very least, he doesn’t seem to be afraid of them.
They tie him up with scarves, which Ivan approves of, as long as they don’t bring out the ice cubes, but he informs them that his disappearance, on Komarr, is likely to cause a certain amount of panic, and bring out the security folk looking for him, which he gathers they might not want. Rish points out that whoever gave him her picture and address undoubtedly knows where he is; when Tej asks him, he says that one of his friends sent him to look after her, thinking she might be in danger. Rish points out that they took him out pretty easily, for a protector, and Ivan says he has a thing about hitting girls, except that one time with Delia Koudelka when they were kids…
Rish complains that nothing about him makes sense, even if he’s telling the truth, so they decide to have supper and then figure out what to do with him.
After A Civil Campaign, one would have high hopes for an Ivan-focused book, and the appearance of Byerly right off the bat can’t help but raise those hopes even higher, since they did play off each other quite well. The title, of course, as well as early buzz about the book, promised that Ivan would finally find that elusive girlfriend, romantic liaison, possibly even bride.
The second viewpoint in the chapter, then, is the mysterious Tej (a.k.a. Nanja), not a native Komarran, on the run, or at least hiding from somebody. With her busty good looks (don’t look at me, the author makes her buxomness quite clear several times in the first chapter, and I’m quite certain it’s something Ivan would notice right away), she’s used to being hit on, but Ivan finding her apartment obviously makes her suspicious, so she calls in her backup.
Rish isn’t explained, because this is Tej’s point of view, though we do get a paragraph of description anyway, since even Tej has to admit to herself that Rish’s appearance is unusual and striking. There is one reference to her being “one of the Baronne’s own Jewels”, and Ivan recognizing Jacksonian slang makes it seem likely that that is their point of origin. Jackson’s Whole has Barons (though presumably it’s not the only place in the entire universe that does), and probably Baronnes as well, and it’s also known for producing both odd genetic constructs and body modifications, so it does fit. From our previous experience, we’re primed to think of either House Bharaputra or House Ryoval, but there are other Houses as well, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
So far so good, and we’ll see how hard it really is for me to do these chapters, and maybe you’ll get two chapters a week one of these days. Twenty-five chapters in the book, plus an epilogue, in 422 pages, so less than 20 pages in a chapter… Well, who knows. In any event, at least one more chapter of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance next week.