Welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, wherein we conclude the first novel, Shards of Honour. You might say, “Already? George R.R. Martin or Robert Jordan would be just getting started by now! We might not even have met all the major characters in the first book!” Do recall that this book was published back in 1986, when science fiction books over 200 pages were still something they were trying out to see if they were financially viable. Not to mention that it was a first novel by a virtual unknown. Not that I’m saying her later books are necessarily sprawling epics, either, but some of them are maybe slightly longer…
Anyway, on to the final chapters of the novel. Well, actually, one more chapter, and then, oddly enough, a short story.
Cordelia and Aral are finally preparing for a vacation at Bonsanklar when Prime Minister Vortala arrives. They come downstairs to find Vortala talking with Aral’s father, and he congratulates them on their wedding. Vortala says he is bearing a message from the Emperor, and when Aral begins to leave, Vortala says the message is for Aral, not the Count, that he is “requested and required” to attend on the Emperor, and Cordelia as well. He says the Emperor is dying.
Vorkosigan blew out his breath. “He’s been dying for the last eleven months. Can’t he die a little longer?”
Vortala chuckled. “Five months,” he corrected absently, then frowned speculation at Vorkosigan. “Hm. Well, it has been very convenient for him. He’s flushed more rats out of the wainscotting in the last five months than the past twenty years. You could practically mark the shakedowns in the Ministries by his medical bulletins. One week: condition very grave. Next week: another deputy minister caught out on charges of peculation, or whatever.” He became serious again. “But it’s the real thing, this time. You must see him today. Tomorrow could be too late. Two weeks from now will definitely be too late.”
Vortala says that he plans to offer Aral a position in the upcoming Regency government; Aral can’t think of any that would tempt him, and Vortala says he’ll have to refuse in person. Cordelia admits to being curious to meet the Emperor, and Aral acquiesces. As they are changing clothes for the audience, though, Aral says that he’s never come out ahead on any dealings with Emperor Ezar.
At the Imperial Palace they are ushered into Ezar’s chambers, “half hospital, half antique display”, where the paper-white old man is hooked up to machines that keep him alive. The Emperor greets Aral, and is refreshed by his honesty at telling him how awful he looks. He tells Cordelia that he’s seen all her Betan records, and Mehta’s bizarre theories, which almost made Captain Negri hire her to generate ideas.
The Emperor talks to Aral about how long Aral has served him, which they date back to the day Aral’s mother was killed. He asks Aral what he said to Emperor Yuri when they executed him–Aral was given the first cut, but in the end he almost cut Yuri’s throat right away and spared him the suffering that was to come.
“I think he knew by my face I was funking out. He leered at me. ‘Strike, little boy. If you dare while you wear my uniform. My uniform on a child.’ That was all he said. I said, ‘You killed all the children in that room,’ which was fatuous, but it was the best I could come up with at the time, then took my cut out of his stomach. I often wished I’d said—said something else, later. But mostly I wished I’d had the guts to follow my first impulse.”
Ezar turns to the main purpose of the visit. He asks who should be Regent; Aral immediately offers Vortala, but the Emperor dismisses him as too old. Princess Kareen, the Emperor says could never deal with the General Staff. He ridicules Aral’s suggestion of Vordarian, having far too many shortcomings despite his military background. Aral suggests Quintillan, Minister of the Interior, but Vortala points out that the Council of Counts won’t support anyone who isn’t a Vor. Aral suggests making him a Vor, which horrifies Vortala and amuses Ezar.
“You can quit wriggling, Aral. You shall not wriggle out of this.
“Allow me to put it in a capsule. What the Regency requires is a man of impeccable rank, no more than middle-aged, with a strong military background. He should be popular with his officers and men, well-known to the public, and above all respected by the General Staff. Ruthless enough to hold near-absolute power in this madhouse for sixteen years, and honest enough to hand over that power at the end of those sixteen years to a boy who will no doubt be an idiot—I was, at that age, and as I recall, so were you—and, oh yes, happily married. Reduces the temptation of becoming bedroom Emperor via the Princess. In short, yourself.”
Aral is horrified at the prospect of stepping into the shoes of Prince Gregor’s father, which puzzles Vortala, not in the know. Aral says that all of the other candidates that he suggested are better suited than himself. Ezar reminds him that Aral has a better right to the throne than he does, though Aral protests that’s through his mother, and hence Salic descent. Ezar says that anyone who claims the right to the throne would have to get rid of Aral anyway, which he knows is harder than it looks; furthermore, he knows for certain that Aral doesn’t want to be Emperor himself. The best way for him to do that is to keep Gregor alive.
Count Vortala turned to Cordelia. “Lady Vorkosigan. Won’t you lend us your vote? You seem to have come to know him very well. Tell him he’s the man for the job.”
“When we came up here,” said Cordelia slowly, “with this vague talk of a post, I thought I might urge him to take it up. He needs work. He’s made for it. I confess I wasn’t anticipating that offer.” She stared at the Emperor’s embroidered bedspread, caught by its intricate patterns and colors. “But I’ve always thought—tests are a gift. And great tests are a great gift. To fail the test is a misfortune. But to refuse the test is to refuse the gift, and something worse, more irrevocable, than misfortune. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“No,” said Vortala.
“Yes,” said Vorkosigan.
Aral takes Cordelia aside and tells her that Regency would mean they’d be targets, and require constant guarding. He says that he was more fearless before, when he had no future and nothing to lose. Cordelia asks if he wants the position, and Aral says he does, but he doesn’t trust himself not to be corrupted. Finally, Aral acquiesces, and Ezar tells him that he should start assembling his staff right away, starting with Illyan. Aral suddenly has a great idea of who should be his personal secretary, and Ezar dismisses them, saying that Vortala will handle the details.
After a conference with Vortala, Negri and Illyan, they leave the Imperial Residence with new guards. Cordelia notes that Aral seems more energized and focused than she’s seen him in a long while. First, they head to Vorkosigan House, the local residence, where Aral goes up to his often-vacant room. Cordelia finds a stack of pen-and-ink drawings from when Aral was much younger, including some of his first wife, and of a younger Ges Vorrutyer. His medals and ribbons are oddly disarranged, with the earlier ones carefully preserved, and the later, more prestigious ones more haphazard. Finally Aral finds some of his old Lieutenant rank tabs.
Next they go to ImpMil hospital, where they are soon talking to Koudelka’s doctor. Aral tells the doctor that Koudelka’s being reassigned, to a desk job, and discharged. They go to see Koudelka himself, and find him preparing for bed. Aral asks him his plans, and Koudelka admits he’s not sure what he’ll do with himself after the discharge. Aral gives him his new orders, and his promotion, and Koudelka is surprised and delighted, more so when he realizes that the “Regent-elect” he’ll be working for is Aral.
Cordelia asks to put Koudelka’s collar tabs on, and then Aral says Koudelka can stay at Vorkosigan House that night so they can get an early start in the morning.
Later, lying warm in the darkness in Vorkosigan’s room in the Count’s town house, Cordelia remembered a curiosity. “What did you say to the Emperor, about me?”
He stirred beside her, and pulled the sheet tenderly up over her bare shoulder, tenting them together. “Hm? Oh, that.” He hesitated. “Ezar had been questioning me about you, in our argument about Escobar. Implied that you had affected my nerve, for the worse. I didn’t know then if I’d ever see you again. He wanted to know what I saw in you. I told him . . .” he paused again, and then continued almost shyly, “that you poured out honor like a fountain, all around you.”
“That’s weird. I don’t feel full of honor, or anything else, except maybe confusion.”
“Naturally not. Fountains keep nothing for themselves.”
Pretty nice ending–the “fountain of honour” thing is a great metaphor, and would have almost made a great title, except “Shards of Honour” is still better. Maybe David Weber can use it sometime. Of course, there were a number of places where the book could have ended, but this does well enough, I suppose. When I consider that Barrayar didn’t come out for five years after that, with four Miles Vorkosigan books in between (counting Borders of Infinity), plus Falling Free and Ethan of Athos… It avoids the usual prequel difficulties quite handily, trust me. But that’s for next time.
Short Story: “Aftermaths”
Pilot Officer Falco Ferrell looks from his ship at a broken ship in front of him, destroyed in the Barrayaran invasion of Escobar, which they call the “120 Day War”. He is a new officer, with less than a year of service, and is accompanied on the ship by Medtech Boni, who is in her mid-forties. Ferrell himself graduated three days too late to actually participate in the war.
Ferrell tells Boni that he is going to start his sweep, scanning for bodies floating in space. He asks if she wants to stand by, but Boni says the area has been picked over fairly thoroughly. He asks what minimum mass they should scan for–he suggests 40 kilograms, but she says one kilogram should suffice, for a body part big enough to identify, without being small enough to generate a lot of false positives. She retires to her cabin to nap. Their ship is a former courier, refurbished, also too late for the war, and Ferrell is not looking forward to his “garbage” duty. He nonetheless enjoys piloting, and sets a spiraling search course.
Hours later, Ferrell pages Boni to tell her he’s found something. She soon arrives on the bridge and activates the tractor beam. Ferrell comments on the low setting she is using, and Boni says that she likes a delicate touch to keep from damaging the bodies, since they are frozen and very brittle. She slows down the body’s spin, commenting that spinning too fast can’t be very restful.
His attention was pulled from the thing in the screen, and he stared at her. “They’re dead, lady!”
She smiled slowly as the corpse, bloated from decompression, limbs twisted as though frozen in a strobe-flash of convulsion, was drawn gently toward the cargo bay. “Well, that’s not their fault, is it?—one of our fellows, I see by the uniform.”
“Bleh!” he repeated himself, then gave vent to an embarrassed laugh. “You act like you enjoy it.”
Boni says that she’s been working in Personnel Retrieval and Identification for nine years, and finds it unobjectionable. She says vacuum work is better than planetary–there is decompression damage, but no decay. Ferrell asks Boni if they call them “corpse-sicles”; Boni says that some do, but she doesn’t–she just calls them “people”. She maneuvers the body into the cargo bay and sets the temperature for a slow thaw.
On his next break he pays a visit to the mortuary; Boni is there, but the body is not yet. They share their first names–Boni’s is “Tersa”, which Ferrell comments is quite common. She brings the dead man into the mortuary on a float pallet, and slides the body onto the table. Ferrell tells himself he should leave, but he lingers. She scans the body’s retinas and then its fingerprints, and identifies the man as Lieutenant Marco Deleo.
Ferrell is unnerved to hear Boni talking to the body, which Boni says she considers a “courtesy”; he says that it’s obscene, recovering these hunks of frozen meat rather than just leaving them in space. Boni goes through Deleo’s uniform pockets, which she likes, saying that it reminds her of going through a friend’s house. She notes that Deleo’s pockets contain only one non-regulation item, a vid disc from home. She packages them up and begins to wash the corpse, which Ferrell doesn’t stay for.
They don’t find another body for a full day; this time it’s a Barrayaran, and Ferrell suggests they throw him back, but Boni says they have an agreement with the Barrayarans. Boni spends extra effort trying to smooth his contorted facial muscles. In his pocket is a locket containing a clear liquid, which Boni says is probably a good luck charm, which many Barrayarans carry. She identifies it as “mother’s tears”, and notes it was given to the man as an ensign. He also has a pendant with a lock of hair, which Boni says is the mother’s “death lock”, so she is already dead. She says the oddest charm she found was a tiny skeleton of a fetus. She puts the Barrayaran back in his uniform, since they seem to like them so much, and identifies him as Commander Aristede Vorkalloner.
After three more days, they are reaching the end of their search pattern, but Boni asks Ferrell to go a little farther out; most of the bodies wouldn’t have gotten this far, but there might be some that had a little extra momentum. Ferrell doesn’t really want to look for more bodies, but he does want to spend more time piloting, so he accedes. They do find another body a few hours later, a female officer this time. Ferrell doesn’t really want to join her for this one, but Boni asks for his company, so he comes along.
After Boni prepares the body, she kisses it, which repulses Ferrell, who calls her a “lesbian necrophiliac”. Boni then proceeds to dress the body in a wedding dress, which she had brought with her, and decides to put her next to the Barrayaran, since Lieutenant Deleo was married. Ferrell is beginning to think that Boni has gone crazy. Suddenly he realizes that Boni hasn’t IDed the woman. He checks the ID and discovers that the woman is Ensign Sylva Boni, age twenty, the same age as Ferrell himself. Boni confirms that it’s her daughter, and that she’d asked for this sector on purpose. Ferrell apologies for his earlier remarks.
They run one more sweep and find another body, this one more grisly than the others. This time, Ferrell shyly offers to help with the cleaning.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “The dead cannot hurt you. They give you no pain, except that of seeing your own death in their faces. And one can face that, I find.”
Yes, he thought, the good face pain. But the great—they embrace it.
I often forget about this story tacked onto the end of Shards of Honour. It’s connected to it a little tenuously–by the battle, by the body of Aral Vorkosigan’s second officer, Vorkalloner, and thematically, by its references to motherhood. It’s self-contained, and as far as I can tell it was actually published three months before Shards itself, which of course is easily close enough for her to have written it afterwards. Apart from that, it doesn’t feel like there’s much to it.
So next week, definitely starting on Barrayar. I was initially deceived into thinking that it had an even number of chapters (22), but I forgot about the Author’s Afterword, so there’s actually only 21. Still more than Shards, though, but by 1991 people had gotten used to bigger books. I’ll probably try to squeeze another chapter in there…or perhaps I’ll slack off and do a one-week chapter. Maybe for the week when I’d otherwise be on vacation, for instance. But that’s not for a little while yet.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my reread of Shards of Honour, and I also hope that you were reading along. Of course, I was only doing two chapters a week, so if you wanted, you might have been managed to read the entire Vorkosigan Saga by this time.