Welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, wherein the works in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga are summarized and commented upon piece by piece, a couple of chapters or so at a time. This week I will complete my treatment of her novella “The Mountains of Mourning”, which fits chronologically in between The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game and so is included in the omnibus volume Young Miles in between those two novels. It’s a sort of murder mystery, and other things besides, and is science-fictional mostly because it takes place on another planet and features a few pieces of futuristic technology, but it’s a good story. It also doesn’t have any chapter breaks, so here I pick up after last post’s arbtirary stopping point about halfway through.
The Mountains of Mourning, cont.
As Miles, Pym and Dea sit on Speaker Karal’s porch, the inhabitants of Silvy Vale begin to come by, starting with women, bringing dishes of food, which Ma Karal set back of her own, and offers of assistance, which she refused politely. After nervously greeting Miles, they sent their children to play in the woods, though some came back to peek at Miles. He tolerated their curiosity, until young Zed Karal tells a friend that Miles is there to kill Lem Csurik.
Miles summons Zed over, and he comes warily. Miles asks Zed to repeat what he’d said, and then says it’s a dangerous lie. He says he’s looking for the person who killed Raina Csurik, who may not be Lem. Zed protests that Harra thinks it’s Lem, but Miles says she could be mistaken; his truth drugs, though, will allow him to be sure, and keep him from executing the wrong person. Miles continues to ask Zed why Lem would want to kill the baby, and Zed says that she’s “only a mutie”. Miles tries to think of how to get across to Zed that that attitude is wrong; finally he asks Zed if he’s proud that his father served the Emperor
Miles forged on. “Well, these practices—mutie-killing—shame the Emperor, when he stands for Barrayar before the galaxy. I’ve been out there. I know. They call us all savages, for the crimes of a few. It shames the Count my father before his peers, and Silvy Vale before the District. A soldier gets honor by killing an armed enemy, not a baby. This matter touches my honor as a Vorkosigan, Zed. Besides,” Miles’s lips drew back on a mirthless grin, and he leaned forward intently in his chair—Zed recoiled as much as he dared—”you will all be astonished at what only a mutie can do. That I have sworn on my grandfather’s grave.”
He then dismisses Zed, obviously cowed, to go play. Dr. Dea says that the hillfolk are ignorant; Miles counters that they are his hill-folk, and alleviating their ignorance is his responsibility. “Don’t kill your babies” isn’t 5-space math, they should be able to understand it. Dr. Dea protests that it’s not fair to ask them to feed “marginal” people when they have to slittle, but Miles points out that they are no longer on the verge of famine every winter, and conditions will continue to improve. He suddenly notices Ma Karal standing nearby, having been listening in, probably since he called Zed over; they exchange a nod of acknowledgement.
Speaker Karal and Alex return by suppertime, leaving some men still searching, but Karal opines that Lem is hiding in the scrublands. Miles asks if he’d risk contacting some relative, and Karal says they’d have a hard choice, what to do with their fugitive kin. Miles thinks of the contrast between Lem’s prior condition, reasonably successful by Silvy Vale standards, and his current ones, on the run with his baby dead and his wife thinking him the murderer. Would he linger near Silvy Vale, or decide there was nothing left for him? He wonders if he should call in the Hassadar police force, but that wouldn’t be much better than having arrived in an aircar in the first place. Miles realizes his father wants him to be conspicuously clever. He tells Karal to call off the search for the night.
After supper, men begin to drift in, some bring musical instruments, and somehow the gathering segues into a party. Miles tries to appreciate the music, but his mood is frequently broken by the hillfolk being visibly anxious that he not disapprove, though one song about lost love makes him yearn for Elena. At one point he sees a group of young girls making much of Fat Ninny, and later Speaker Karal brings Ma Csurik, Lem’s mother, to see him. After an awkward silence, she tells Miles that she’s sure Lem didn’t kill the baby, that they never did that in their family. Miles tells her that he should come in then, and let Miles clear his name; he reiterates strongly that he won’t execute Lem unless he convicts himself under fast-penta. One of Lem’s brothers tells her to come away, that the “mutie lord” has obviously come for a killing. Before the end of the evening, Ma Mattulich, Harra’s mother, comes to see Miles as well; she appraises him silently, and Miles tries to reassure her that there will be justice. She tells him that it’s too late for justice.
By midnight, the party winds down, the hillfolk disperse, and they begin to bed down, Karal’s boys in the tent and Pym, Miles and Dea in the loft. Miles ponders his strategy, wonders if he should be trying to go faster, or if he would just bog down. Late at night, he awakens to see a glow outside in the inght. He wakes up Pym and tells him to bring his stunner. They look out at the yard to see a torch burning on top of Miles’s tent, which is thankfully quite fireproof. Pym goes out to scan the surroundings as Speaker Karal wakes up, returning to report nobody within a kilometer; they douse the torch and awaken the boys in the tent, who are quite excited at the attempted assassination until their mother forces them to sleep inside. Karal apologizes on behalf of his community for the outrage.
Miles attempts to go back to sleep, and is on the verge of giving up when he hears a shrill squeal of pain from Fat Ninny. As they run to help, Ninny kicks Pym in the chest; while trying to calm the horse down, Miles finds its neck all bloody, and calls for the doctor, who comes to look at the damage and then returns with his medkit.
“I took tests,” Dea complained sotto voce as he worked. “I beat out twenty-six other applicants, for the honor of becoming the Prime Minister’s personal physician. I have practiced the procedures of seventy separate possible medical emergencies, from coronary thrombosis to attempted assassination. Nobody—nobody—told me my duties would include sewing up a damned horse’s neck in the middle of the night in the middle of a howling wilderness. . . .” But he kept working as he complained, so Miles didn’t quash him, but kept gently petting Ninny’s nose, and hypnotically rubbing the hidden pattern of his muscles, to soothe and still him. At last Ninny relaxed enough to rest his slobbery chin on Miles’s shoulder.
“Do horses get anesthetics?” asked Dea plaintively, holding his medical stunner as if not sure just what to do with it.
“This one does,” said Miles stoutly. “You treat him just like a person, Dea. This is the last animal that the Count my grandfather personally trained. He named him. I watched him get born. We trained him together. Grandfather had me pick him up and hold him every day for a week after he was foaled, till he got too big. Horses are creatures of habit, Grandfather said, and take first impressions to heart. Forever after Ninny thought I was bigger than he was.”
Pym and Karal inspect the ground around the horse-lines, but don’t find anything. Ma Karal watches Dea repack his medkit, and Miles realizes that she has just seen more done for a horse than she’s seen done for many people. Pym goes inside to get his chest taped, and Miles stays on sentry duty on the porch with a stunner, wondering if now was the time to call in the troops, with his bodyguard hurt and two attacks already.
He sees movement in the bush and leaves the porch to go stalking it. He finds a lean young man looking up at the cabin for several minutes before he pulls an apple out of his pocket and begins to eat it. The noise attracts Fat Ninny, and the man gives Ninny half the apple, only then noticing the dressing on the horse’s neck with surprise. Then he turns and sees Miles, who addresses him as Lem Csurik.
Lem asks him if he keeps his word; he says he didn’t kill Raina, and he wants to confess, but he’s heard that under fast-penta you can’t hold anything back. He offers to submit to the interrogation, but only if Miles swears on his honour not to ask him about anything else. He says he doesn’t know who killed his daughter, but he has suspicions. Miles muses that it would be nice to solve the case by deduction rather than using truth drugs, and gives Lem his word. He leads Lem to the cabin, introduces him to the surprised inhabitants, and tells Dea to get out the fast-penta.
Dr. Dea muttered under his breath to Miles as he got out the hypospray. “How’d you do that?”
Miles’s hand brushed his pocket. He pulled out a sugar cube and held it up, and grinned through the C of his thumb and finger. Dea snorted, but pursed his lips with reluctant respect.
Dea gives Lem the injection, and after he relaxes, Miles begins the questioning, with easy questions first, according to his training. Under his guidance, Lem tells them that he returned to the cabin about midmorning, finding Harra gone and the baby asleep, but soon the baby started crying, wanting milk. He says that he didn’t even touch the baby, but went down the path looking for Harra, then headed for his sister’s. Miles asks if he met anyone on the path, and Lem says he did, and then Miles tells Dea to administer the counteragent before Lem can tell them who it was. Once the fast-penta has worn off, Dea asks Lem who he met on the path, but Lem doesn’t answer. Miles says he already knows, that it was Harra’s murderer, and he asks the Karals to witness that Lem didn’t tell him.
Miles sends people out to gather the witnesses. Ma Csurik is first, with two of her sons, relieved to see her son, though not happy that he had to take that “poison drug”. Miles tells her that far from being poison, it saved his life, then asks which of her sons threw the torch on his tent. The Csurik boys clumsily deny it while making it clear that they did. Miles says they should apologize to Zed and his brothers, and warns them that it could be treated as a case of attempted assassination on a Count’s heir, though the boy, Dono, protests that he didn’t think it’d kill him, just frighten him. Miles holds the treason charge, but tells Dono that Speaker Karal and his parents will have to keep an eye on his behaviour. He tells Pym that he doesn’t think the Csuriks were behind the attack on the horse, though.
Next to arrive is Harra. Miles tells her that Lem is innocent, but she protests that she knows he’d been there, that he’d taken his tools with him. Miles says that Raina was still crying when Lem left, but that Harra was focusing so hard on Lem so she wouldn’t think too hard about other suspects. He asks Dr. Dea to prepare another dose of fast-penta, but doesn’t tell him who to administer it too. He asks Dea and Pym if they’ve figured it out yet, but neither has.
“I suppose it’s because neither of you ever met my grandfather,” Miles decided. “He died just about a year before you entered my father’s service, Pym. He was born at the very end of the Time of Isolation, and lived through every wrenching change this century has dealt to Barrayar. He was called the last of the Old Vor, but really, he was the first of the new. He changed with the times, from the tactics of horse cavalry to that of flyer squadrons, from swords to atomics, and he changed _successfully_. Our present freedom from the Cetagandan occupation is a measure of how fiercely he could adapt, then throw it all away and adapt again. At the end of his life he was called a conservative, only because so much of Barrayar had streamed past him in the direction he had led, prodded, pushed, and pointed all his life.
“He changed, and adapted, and bent with the wind of the times. Then, in his age—for my father was his youngest and sole surviving son, and did not himself marry till middle-age—in his age, he was hit with me. And he had to change again. And he couldn’t.
He tells them how his grandfather had urged his parents to have Miles aborted, and the rift that it had created between them, though to some extent he’s just killing time until the last visitor arrives. More footsteps approach the cabin, and Miles tells Dea to fast-penta the next person to come through the door. He does, administering the shot to Ma Mattulich. She is outraged, but the drug overtakes her quickly, though not quickly enough to conceal her anguish. Lem tells Miles that he hadn’t dreamed that she shouldn’t be left alone with the baby; Harra has gone white.
Miles begins the interrogation, more difficult than Lem’s, leading her gradually to when Raina was born. She says she wasn’t there until it was too late, after people had already seen the babe with her dirty mutation. Jean, the midwife, wouldn’t leave Ma Mattulich alone with the baby, and she didn’t want to do the deed in front of Harra either. Harra had been her only clean baby; two others had been stillborn, and the other two she’d killed herself, with her own mother watching to be sure she did it right, but now she realizes that Harra had the poison in her too, must have gotten it from her father… The others in the room are frozen as she rambles on, Harra and the younger ones horrified, the older ones ashamed. Miles asks if she had murdered two other babies as well.
“Murdered?” said Ma Mattulich. “No! I cut them out. I had to. I had to do the right thing.” Her chin lifted proudly, then drooped. “Killed my babies, to please, to please . . . I don’t know who. And now you call me a murderer? Damn you! What use is your justice to me now? I needed it then—where were you then?” Suddenly, shockingly, she burst into tears, which wavered almost instantly into rage. “If mine must die then so must hers! Why should she get off so soft? Spoiled her . . . I tried my best, I did my best, it’s not fair. . . .”
Miles asks why she broke Raina’s neck rather than any other method, and she said it was to hide the truth from Harra. Miles comments that she wasn’t the only one; Lem says he didn’t want to be the one to say, and Speaker Karal says he wanted to save her grief. Miles says they all have underestimated Harra’s strength, and they exchange nods of acknowledgement. When Miles asks Ma Mattulich, she admits the attack on the horse too, since she couldn’t get at Miles himself, the mutie lord, the ultimate slap in the fact after all her suffering. Miles pronounces the mystery solved, but has to deliberate over the administration of justice.
He takes a walk to visit Raina’s grave, and asks her what he should do. He ponders Barrayaran law, how the intent of the law was so often valued over the letter, the judgement of the man on the spot over any precedent. What would be gained by killing an old woman? Should he sacrifice the needs of Silvy Vale’s people in the service of making a political statement? Speaker Karal comes to speak with him, and Miles admits his dilemma, though he says that the truth was still better than Karal’s attempt to gloss the matter over. He wishes he could make a difference, and Karal points out the differences between Harra and her mother, or even the harridan that was her grandmother. And if the village gets onto the worldwide network, then the future will come rushing in. And Miles himself has been an example, an inspiration, a sign of what can be accomplished.
“I think,” said Karal, “Barrayar needs you. To go on being just what you are.”
“Barrayar will eat me, if it can.”
“Yes,” said Karal, his eyes on the horizon, “so it will.” His gaze fell to the graves at his feet. “But it swallows us all in the end, doesn’t it? You will outlive the old ones.”
“Or in the beginning.” Miles pointed down. “Don’t tell me who I’m going to outlive. Tell Raina.”
Miles once more presides from Karal’s porch, with everyone they could manage to find assembled in the Speaker’s yard. He summarizes the charges against Ma Mattulich, and says that they will be announced in every corner of Silvy Vale. He announces that she has earned a sentence of death, but he suspends the sentence indefinitely; instead, she will be legally dead, with all her possessions actually owned by Harra, in her daughter’s care as if an invalid, and never left alone with any other child. Finally, she will die without any sacrifice on her grave.
Afterwards, he makes a proposition to the Csuriks. He offers to find Harra a scholarship to attend a teaching college in Hassadar, and tells Lem that if he’s a carpenter, there’s plenty of construction work in the city as well. They are both interested, but worried about leaving Silvy Vale. Miles says that the condition of the offer is that they will have to return. He will provide a small comm unit that they can use for picking up educational broadcasts, which won’t cost him much more than that new lightflyer he’d been planning to buy… Miles suggests that when they set up the school, they can name it after Raina, which finally manages to bring Harra to tears. He adds that he’ll send up a temporary teacher until Harra is ready to take over.
Harra scrubbed her eyes, and looked up—not very far up—at him. “You went to the Imperial Academy.”
“I did.” His chin jerked up.
“Then I,” she said shakily, “can manage . . . Hassadar Teacher’s College.” The name was awkward in her mouth. At first. “At any rate—I’ll try, m’lord.”
The next day an aircar arrives to take Dr. Dea, Pym, and two of the horses back home, and leaves Armsman Esterhazy behind to ride back with Miles. That night they camp by the river of roses, and Miles contemplates giving more than just a lightflyer’s worth of money to Silvy Vale…but he doesn’t have enough for every little village, and after all of the training the District’s tax money has bought for him, he should do something more with it. He remembers how, after he swore fealty to the Emperor, he pictured defending the Emperor and Barrayar through blazing battle…but now Barrayar has a different symbol in his mind.
Peace to you, small lady, he thought to Raina. You’ve won a twisted poor modern knight, to wear your favor on his sleeve. But it’s a twisted poor world we were both born into, that rejects us without mercy and ejects us without consultation. At least I won’t just tilt at windmills for you. I’ll send in sappers to mine the twirling suckers, and blast them into the sky. . . .
*sniff* again. Powerful story, emotionally, though on some levels hardly anything happens. Miles rides into a rural community, investigates a half-condoned infanticide, survives a couple of half-hearted attempts on his life, dispenses justice, and helps out a young couple in need. But Miles changes as a result of his experiences, from trying to satisfy his grandfather to trying to be worthy of Raina Csurik, from coveting glory and a new lightflyer to feeling his duty to his people, even the smallest. Silvy Vale itself is changed by his visit, the judgement called against the ancient custom of killing deformed babies, the counterexample and inspiration of Miles himself.
As far as the mystery goes…well, I was never any good at mysteries. I tend to come up with a random guess and then count myself lucky if I guess right. I’m still not quite sure how Miles becomes so certain of the killer–something about how Lem wouldn’t tell? How Harra was so focused in her husband as the only suspect? It’s only the surface plot, though, in many ways.
Whenever I read this I wonder at the concept of the Barrayaran legal system, so at odds with our modern concept–the spirit of the law vs. the letter. The whole problem with following “the spirit” is that it does rely on one person’s individual judgement, and so it only works if there exists the concept of such a person whose judgement is incorruptible and bound by honour. It’s a far cry from “checks and balances”, and, as Cordelia often says, it’s inconceivable for it to work. Obviously there are corrupt folk, like Vordarian, Vordrozda, etc., but if you can manage to get a good and honourable person at the top, it could just work… Like any autocracy, it works as long as the autocrat is trustworthy. Which I suppose is why they have to overthrow them once in a while, as they did with mad Yuri.
Of course, with the wonderdrug that is fast-penta, at least there is less guesswork involved. Admittedly, fast-penta’s shortcomings are added later, the induced allergies, and Miles’s own idiosyncratic reaction, first seen in Brothers In Arms, but in general it’s a good source of justice, because if you can question someone with it, then you can trust everything they say to be the truth. And the Barrayaran justice system is, surely, a little looser with, say, requiring warrants, given the powers granted to ImpSec and Imperial Auditors (to be introduced much later).
Interesting to think that while Barrayarans are thought of throughout the galaxy as madmen, obsessed with honour (and killing their deformed children), they would doubtless think of those with more elaborate justice systems as treacherous, honourless bastards who can’t trust each other and so have to place so many safeguards between each other.
One other thing that I never realized–I always assumed that “The Mountains of Mourning” was just a reference to a place name. But it’s the Dendarii Mountains where the story takes place, isn’t it? It’s a title that is never referred to in the story, though I guess that what it is talking about is all of the children that they had to kill, and how they mourned them… I think I liked it better as a place name. (Okay, I admit it, I’m not always crazy about her titles…)
That’s it for the interlude that was “The Mountains of Mourning”. Next week it’s back into novels, with The Vor Game. Until then, live your life with honour and don’t spend all your money on new lightflyters.