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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. . . .

Comments

*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.

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Welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, wherein I devote my attentions to the novels and stories of Lois McMaster Bujold’s science-fictional saga of Miles Vorkosigan and company.

After having covered three novels, I pass now onto one of her novellas, “The Mountains of Mourning”, which is set after The Warrior’s Apprentice but before The Vor Game chronologically–quite close to the latter, in fact; ten days, according to the text.  Of course, Ms. Bujold wrote the series in a bit of a scattered order, so, for instance, the Miles novel Brothers In Arms, much later chronologically, came out before it, and there were two or three other novellas between that and The Vor Game itself.  Nonetheless, although I had seen her books around, and even roomed with a guy who had a copy of The Warrior’s Apprentice which I never read, “The Mountains of Morning” was the first Vorkosigan story I ever read, back when I was actually in the habit of buying SF magazines when I found them and then taking them home and reading them.  I had little idea who this guy was, but I did learn a lot about him in reading this…and then still didn’t read any other Bujold for years.  It forms an interesting contrast to the space opera of The Warrior’s Apprentice, nearer in spirit perhaps to parts of Barrayar with its close attention to the poorer folk of the Vorkosigan District, and was a definite sign, in retrospect, that there was more to the series than first met the eye…

The Mountains of Mourning

Miles is climbing back up from the lake at Vorkosigan Surleau when he hears a woman weeping.  She is trying to plead her case to the gate guard, who asks her to go to the village magistrate instead.  She says the magistrate won’t be back for weeks, and she’s already walked for four days.  She offers a pitiful bribe, but the guard, seeing Miles, refuses it.  Miles asks what’s going on, examining the woman as he approaches; she is young, with an obvious hillfolk accent, simply dressed and barefoot, breasts full but leaking milk with no baby in sight.

The guard tries to shoo the woman off, but she insists that it’s her right to see the Count, her father having been in the service.  She says she has a murder to report, and her village Speaker refuses to do anything about it.  Miles points out that she does have a right to appeal, to the magistrate or to the Count.  He authorizes the guard to admit her, and accompanies her up the path after the gates are open.

“Do you serve Count Vorkosigan, little man?” she asked cautiously.

Miles thought about that one a moment. “Yes,” he answered finally. The answer was, after all, true on every level of meaning but the one she’d asked it. He quelled the temptation to tell her he was the court jester. From the look of her, this one’s troubles were much worse than his own.

By the time they reach the residence, the woman is feeling less sure of herself, nervously asking Miles on how to behave around the Count; Miles just tells her to “stand up straight and speak the truth”.  At the entrance to the residence, he learns that the Count and Countess at breakfast, and hands his guest over to Armsman Pym, Bothari’s replacement, so she can join them.

Miles changes into his new Ensign’s uniform, and gathers a few items–a copy of his commission documents, his transcripts, his cadet’s insignia, and a brazier.  He takes them into the cemetery and sets up the brazier on his grandfather Piotr’s grave, burning the papers and cloth and a lock of his hair.

“So, Grandfather,” he purred at last. “And here we are after all. Satisfied now?”

All the chaos of the graduation ceremonies behind, all the mad efforts of the last three years, all the pain, came to this point; but the grave did not speak, did not say, Well done; you can stop now. The ashes spelled out no messages, there were no visions to be had in the rising smoke. The brazier burned down all too quickly. Not enough stuff in it, perhaps.

He stood, and dusted his knees, in the silence and the sunlight. So what had he expected? Applause? Why was he here, in the final analysis? Dancing out a dead man’s dreams—who did his Service really serve? Grandfather? Himself? Pale Emperor Gregor? Who cared?

“Well, old man,” he whispered, then shouted: “ARE YOU SATISFIED YET?” The echoes rang from the stones.

Pym clears his throat behind Miles, and informs him blandly that his father wishes him to attend.  Miles tells him not to touch the brazier, he’ll clean it up later.

As Miles heads over to the pavilion where his parents are eating, he thinks that he might go sailing on the lake in the afternoon.  He has ten days of leave, and he planned to go to Vorbarr Sultana with Ivan and buy himself a lightflyer.  He hopes for ship duty, but he resists asking his father to make sure of it.  Aral and Cordelia are sitting in the pavilion with the hillwoman, who looks upon Miles with a new understanding.

Count Vorkosigan spoke to the woman. “That is my son. If I send him as my Voice, would that satisfy you?”

“Oh,” she breathed, her wide mouth drawing back in a weird, fierce grin, the most expression Miles had yet seen on her face, “yes, my lord.”

The Count says hers is a most interesting case, and he can see why Miles sent her up.  Miles admits ignorance of her case, and the Count says it’s an infanticide case.  Miles realizes then where the missing baby is, and comments that it’s unusual for it to be reported.  The woman, Harra Csurik, says that her baby’s only deformity was “cat’s mouth”, which Cordelia recognizes as harelip and cleft palate, not even the type of mutation the infanticide customs were designed to combat.  Harra says she was going to take her baby to the hospital in Hassadar, but her husband, Lem, killed the baby first.

The Count says that if it is reported as a murder, they will treat it as one, and send a message throughout the District.  Though Miles pleads a lack of qualification, the Count thinks that sending Miles himself, deformed as he is, is also part of the message.

Harra is certain that her husband killed the baby, since her crying kept him awake, but he’d left the house for the night.  Harra had found the baby asleep in the morning, and went picking berries.  Later, when she went to feed the baby, Harra found her dead, with no mark, as if she’d been smothered.  The Speaker said she must have overlain the baby, even though she slept in a cradle Lem had made her, and wouldn’t take her complaint.

Cordelia takes Harra to wash, reluctantly, before sending her home, and the Count says that Miles should take Dr. Dea as medical examiner, and in case he suffers any accidents with his brittle bones, as well as an armsman as bodyguard and, possibly, executioner.  Miles proposes arriving in the aircar, a couple of hours’ flight, to get it over with quickly, but the Count vetoes that.  Miles protests that after days of tramping on foot, he’ll present a less than impressive figure, which the Count agrees to, but he has another idea.

So Miles, Armsman Pym, Dr. Dea, and Harra set off on horseback instead.  Miles’s own horse, Fat Ninny, is one he’s had since childhood.  Dr. Dea, a city man, is having more trouble with his horse; he falls off and then starts to chase after the horse, who easily canters out of reach.  Miles says he’ll have no look trying to outrun the horse, and warns Harra not to let her horse get away either.  Miles gets down off of Fat Ninny and digs in his pockets for sugar, giving some to Fat Ninny.  Dea’s mare wanders closer, interested, and Miles calmly takes her reins as she eats the sugar.

“No fair,” wheezed Dea, trudging up. “You had sugar in your pockets.”

“Of course I had sugar in my pockets. It’s called foresight and planning. The trick of handling horses isn’t to be faster than the horse, or stronger than the horse. That pits your weakness against his strengths. The trick is to be smarter than the horse. That pits your strength against his weakness, eh?”

Noting that Harra seems to be wavering in her determination as they head towards her home, Miles distracts her by asking about her family.  Her father was in the District Militia, but died during Vordarian’s Pretendership, leaving just her and her mother.  Miles is relieved at her lack of big strapping brothers to deal with, but she also tells him that her husband Lem has four brothers, which makes Miles more nervous.  When Miles had asked his father about that kind of situation, the Count had merely told him that he should have the cooperation of the Speaker and deputies, or else he should figure out how to obtain it.

She asks about Miles’s family, and Miles says that surely she knows he has no siblings.  She tells him some of the things she has heard about him, how his mutations spring from radiation, or a venereal disease from his parents, or off-worlder genes, but most agree that it was due to poisoning by the Count’s enemies, which Miles agrees with.  She goes into more outlandish rumours, about him having no legs, or being nothing more than a brain in a jar, and he realizes that she’s testing him, trying to reassure herself that he’s suitable and sufficient to her needs.

The woodland, fruit of many generations of terraforming forestry, opened out suddenly on a vale of brown native scrub. Down the middle of it, through some accident of soil chemistry, ran a half-kilometer-wide swathe of green and pink—feral roses, Miles realized with astonishment as they rode nearer. Earth roses. The track dove into the fragrant mass of them and vanished.

They hack through the roses, Miles thinking about the carefully planned terraforming of Barrayar by the original colonists, disrupted by the collapse of the warp point and the stranded settlers’ needs to survive.  Many native species were wiped out, but Miles thinks that the fittest of both worlds have found a new balance.

They camp overnight, then move on into areas Miles is less familiar with.  The next day they stop short of sunset, not wanting to arrive at Harra’s village in the dark, unannounced.  In the morning Miles puts on his dress uniform, and Pym unfurls the Count’s banner.  At midmorning, they arrive at the Speaker’s cabin, on the edge of a sugar maple grove.

Harra calls for the Speaker, Karal, who emerges talking about how worried they were at her disappearance, before stopping at the sight of her companions.  She tells Karal she took her case to the Count.

“Oh, girl,” Karal breathed regretfully, “that was a stupid thing to do. . . .” His head lowered and swayed, as he stared uneasily at the riders. He was a balding man of maybe sixty, leathery and worn, and his left arm ended in a stump. Another veteran.

“Speaker Serg Karal?” began Miles sternly. “I am the Voice of Count Vorkosigan. I am charged to investigate the crime Spoken by Harra Csurik before the Count’s court, namely the murder of her infant daughter Raina. As Speaker of Silvy Vale, you are requested and required to assist me in all matters pertaining to the Count’s justice.”

Karal asks Miles who he is, and Miles introduces himself as Lord Miles Vorkosigan, son of the Count.  Miles dismounts, Karal taking in his height, and asks to water their horses, which Karal sees to with the aid of his son Zed.  Karal invites them in and busies himself making tea.  Miles says they want to swiftly be about the investigation; Karal protests that the baby likely died a natural death, with no markings, and Miles comments on how often babies die “natural” deaths in the District.

“I begin to see,” Miles let his tone go ice cool, “why Harra Csurik found it necessary to walk four days to get an unbiased hearing. ‘You think.’ ‘You believe.’ ‘Who knows what?’ Not you, it appears. I hear speculation—accusation—innuendo—assertion. I came for facts, Speaker Karal. The Count’s justice doesn’t turn on guesses. It doesn’t have to. This isn’t the Time of Isolation. Not even in the back-beyond.

“My investigation of the facts will begin now. No judgment will be—rushed into, before the facts are complete. Confirmation of Lem Csurik’s guilt or innocence will come from his own mouth, under fast-penta, administered by Dr. Dea before two witnesses—yourself and a deputy of your choice. Simple, clean, and quick.”

He commands Karal to bring him Lem Csurik for questioning.  Karal says that most of the villagers will see fast-penta as nothing short of magic, and distrust it, and Miles says that Speaker Karal will have to reassure them, then.  The Speaker puts on his old uniform and prepares to go out, stopping to tell Miles that in all his time as Speaker nobody has had to take their justice even as far as the magistrate.  Miles counters that justice is for everyone in Silvy Vale, even those sickly, weak, and unable to speak for themselves.  Pym joins Karal, stunner at the ready.

Miles looks around the cabin, finding evidence of more children, and a radio set for picking up transmissions from Hassadar.  He wonders how far ahead the District would be if it hadn’t been for the nuclear destruction of Vorkosigan Vashnoi during the Cetagandan War.  Dr. Dea asks if he should break out the fast-penta, but Miles says that he doubts Lem Csurik will be brought in so easily, and says the autopsy kit will likely be needed first.  Indeed, though Karal and Pym return with another man, it is the Speaker’s deputy Alex, not Lem Csurik, who has eluded them.

Miles then proposes to go dig up Raina’s body for the autopsy.  Karal is reluctant, not wanting to disturb the dead, then pointing out that Lem is technically the next of kin, and they need his permission.  Miles just tells him to be careful the grave they dig is not his own.

Alex digs up the small crate with Raina’s body, upon which Pym and Alex find an excuse to be farther away.  Dr. Dea unwraps the body and begins his examination, Miles watching and Harra furtively retrieving the cloths for rewrapping.  Dea quickly determines that the baby’s neck was broken and then put back into place, which means it could not have been accidental; no great strength would even have been required.  He also says that even an experienced layman should have been able to discover this.  Karal admits that he suspected, but he thought that more grief would have come from making a fuss, that his duties were to the living.

“So are mine, Speaker Karal. As, for example, my duty to the next small Imperial subject in mortal danger from those who should be his or her protectors, for the grave fault of being,” Miles flashed an edged smile, “physically different. In Count Vorkosigan’s view this is not just a case. This is a test case, fulcrum of a thousand cases. Fuss . . .” He hissed the sibilant; Harra rocked to the rhythm of his voice, “you haven’t begun to see fuss yet.”

Dea restores Raina’s body, Harra wraps her back up, and Alex reburies her in the crate.  Harra cuts off a lock of her hair to burn as offering, and Miles expresses his regreat that he has nothing to contribute.  Harra is surprised he would even think to offer.

Peace to you, small lady, after our rude invasions. I will give you a better sacrifice, I swear by my word as Vorkosigan. And the smoke of that burning will rise and be seen from one end of these mountains to the other.

After sending Karal and Alex away to find Lem Csurik, Miles offers Harra a ride to her house on Fat Ninny.  Pym surreptitiously scans the bushes on the way.  At the house, they find signs of recent male habitation, which Harra absently begins to straighten up.  Miles gets Harra to show them where she picks her berries, and times how long it takes to get an idea how long the murderer would have had; he also notes that you couldn’t hear someone calling from the house.  He is frustrated to note that both method and opportunity are wide open, leaving only motive.

They leave Harra in her home, where she insists on staying despite the chance of Lem returning, wanting to be alone for a while.  Pym suggests they rouse the village to beat the bushes for Lem.  When Karal had taken him looking for Lem before, they found people who had been hunting for Harra already returning, Lem’s relatives among them.  Miles thinks that Karal knows more than he’s letting on; Pym suggests using fast-penta on him, but Miles says that that results in a loss of dignity that he’d rather avoid inflicting on the Speaker.

“I have facts. Physical facts. A great big pile of—meaningless, useless facts.” Miles brooded. “If I have to fast-penta every back-beyonder in Silvy Vale to get to the bottom of this, I will. But it’s not an elegant solution.”

“It’s not an elegant problem, m’lord,” said Pym dryly.

Speaker Karal’s wife is home and frantically preparing for her guests when Miles and Pym return.  She is indignant at Dr. Dea’s suggestion that her guests sleep in their tent and spurn her hospitality.  Dr. Dea suggests that they at least eat their packaged food, but Miles says they should be able to share the common pot safely enough.  Karal’s younges tson serves them tea, and asks if Miles will be sleeping in his bed.  Miles suggests they sleep in his tent, since they’re being put out anyway, and the boy runs off excitedly to pass on the news.

Miles makes himself comfortable, and Dr. Dea wonders if they’re knocking off for the day already.  Miles points out that either Lem Csurik is guilty, and there’s a possibility they’ll have to call in reinforcements to deal with his relatives, or he’s innocent, and there’s still a murderer.  He reminds Dea that running after something isn’t always the best way to catch it, and his duty is not merely to solve the crime, but to be seen as what he is–a “mutie”, a lord’s son, and a man.

Comments

“The Mountains of Mourning” doesn’t have chapters, though it does have a number of scene breaks.  This isn’t a particularly exciting place to stop, but it’s an oddly-paced story, with little in the way of physical excitement, so I decided to just pick somewhere about halfway through, since it’s much longer than any two chapters…

It is, in many ways, a murder mystery.  I don’t read a lot of straight mystery, but I’m sure someone out there has written a mystery set in a backwoods setting, which this would probably resemble.  The SF touches are fairly subtle–the tradition of infanticide, the legacy of generations of mutations brought on by radiation exposure.

I was going to say “after the destruction of Vorkosigan Vashnoi”, but then I realized that that was back in Count Piotr’s time, and the tradition was long-settled by that time.  There’s a part I didn’t quote, where Cordelia talks about the Barrayarans’ ancestors “pilgrimage through the Fire”.  While it does sound like some kind of journey through a radioactive zone, it may be merely metaphorical, since the problems probably didn’t start until after the first wormhole disappeared.  So maybe even the radiation was not responsible, as much as a desire to keep the gene pool from straying too far afield…?

I find it interesting that the story starts with Miles trying to decide whether or not he’s appeased his grandfather’s spirit–how literally I don’t know, since I don’t think that Miles seriously believes in ghosts or anything, but he has a sense of obligation to his ancestors nonetheless–and throughout the course of the story he takes on a new duty, that to the slain infant Raina Csurik.  For Count Piotr, Miles tried his hardest to make his peace with the ways of Barrayar of the past–the horses, the military, the service of the Emperor, the responsibilities of the Vor.  But for Raina, Miles has to try to bring the future to Barrayar, to allow it to shed the customs of its past that no longer make sense as Barrayar slowly assimilates the technology and knowledge of the greater galactic community.  One of the best scenes in Memory, for instance, is when Miles, with so much stripped away from him, makes a return pilgrimage to Raina’s grave.


We’ll wrap up the story next week, and then after that head on to The Vor Game, which is not my favourite of the series, but more on that later.  Until then…

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