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Posts Tagged ‘Aral’

Generally things are numbered up, instead of down, because most of the time you don’t know how many things there are going to be, in total.  You would feel foolish to start with Chapter Fifty of your book and end on Chapter Three, or reach Chapter One and still have chapters to go.  And yet, this is the end of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, so it feels a little bit like we’ve reached Zero in the countdown…or, as we always did as kids, “Blastoff!” or “Ready or not, here I come!”  The last novel to date, CryoBurn, has reached its end, with the sucker-punch of revealing the death of Count Aral Vorkosigan, and all that’s left is the Aftermaths.

Aftermaths

The last five hundred words, or so, of CryoBurn of course require special treatment.  After the bombshell of the last three words of Chapter Twenty, the author decided, quite wisely, not to leave us hanging; however, probably also not wanting to overshadow the rest of the book, she confined herself to five hundred-word “drabbles”.  Quite frankly, I feel that she failed in not overshadowing the rest of the book, because these last 503 words pack more of a punch than the rest of the book put together, IMHO.  It’s like the spearpoint effect, except that these spearpoints are all tipped with scalpels.  Probably laser-scalpels.

Also, because of their extreme brevity, I’m tempted to just quote them wholesale, but I probably shouldn’t.  I was reading about somebody who got sued for lifting one brief passage from Gerald Ford’s biography of Nixon–and lost, because that one passage was the most important one in the book.  So I won’t just quote them, except perhaps for the best bits; in fact I’m not sure it’ll work to just summarize them, because they’re so short that it’d really just be paraphrasing them entirely.  In other words, bear with me here, I’m not sure what I’m doing.

First, we get Mark’s immediate reaction to Miles’s reaction to the news; he’s reminded of the time he shot “a man” with a nerve disrupter, and saw the life drain from the eyes.  Later he realizes that he did see a death, the death of “Lord Vorkosigan”.  I find it interesting that nowhere in that passage does he seem to consider that the man he shot was, surely, Ser Galen, his own father-figure at the time.  I feel like there’s something there–Miles reacting to the death of his father like Mark’s own “father” when he died.  Perhaps it’s more significant that he thinks of Count Aral Vorkosigan as “their” father, in a way that may have seemed inconceivable at the time of Mirror Dance

Second, we get Count Miles Vorkosigan, now on a fast courier to Sergyar, swearing at his reflection and snarling at Roic, asking why they’re in such a hurry now that there’s nothing to be done.  Roic tells him that Cordelia is waiting for them on Sergyar, though he stumbles over calling her “the Countess” or the “Dowager Countess” before settling on “your mother”.  This is, quite frankly, the slightest of the drabbles–I get more of an impression of Miles’s state of mind from Ivan’s piece, later, quite frankly.  But then, I feel like we know Miles the best, after all this time, so I feel that I have a pretty good idea what’s going on inside his head in the first place.

And speaking of inside his head, he says “I feel like my brain’s been pulled out, and there’s nothing in my skull but loose wires waving from my spinal cord.”  This feel uncomfortably reminiscent of the loose wires pulled from the brain of the pilot on Auson’s ship, back in The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles’s first kill (via Bothari, but I’m sure Miles still counts it as such)

Third, we get Cordelia; she was the one who’d found him, two hours dead of a brain aneurysm on a warm afternoon.  Miles is asking her why she didn’t cryoprep him anyway, in case technology was one day advanced enough to revive him, but she said he wouldn’t have wanted to live as a vegetable.  She thinks privately to herself that his memories themselves were almost as much of a horror, and then apologizes to Ensign Dubauer.

It does feel like a turnabout, after she kept Aral from euthanising Dubauer way back in Shards of Honour, to have made another choice for Aral himself, although it is in accordance with Aral’s expressed wishes on the subject.  Is she sorry for the fact that she couldn’t bring herself to try preserving as much of Aral as she did of Dubauer?  Or is she retrospectively wishing she had let Dubauer die rather than trying to keep his body alive?

Also, the thought that his memories were so much of a horror that death would be preferable; was it really that bad?  Okay, from the period of Mad Yuri’s War and the death of so much of his family, to the violent end of his first marriage, his travels with Ges Vorrutyer…and then his betrayal of Prince Serg and sacrifice of so much of his honour in the name of Emperor Ezar, Gregor and the Imperium, there was a lot of bad stuff in there.  And his feud with his father over Miles.  But was there nothing in the last few decades of his life that outweighed that?  Gaining another son, and grandchildren, seeing Miles grow up and achieve so much, seeing Gregor grow up and achieve so much…nothing worthwhile?  Okay, perhaps Cordelia knew him best, perhaps nothing could dent his ongoing torment of his shattered honour, but…somehow I just don’t see it.  Who shaves the barber?

Fourth, we get Ivan.  Not sure if Tej was a gleam in the author’s eye at this point, but certainly there’s no mention of a wife, or any children of their own.  But Ivan himself is not really the focus of this scene.  He watches Miles go up to present the eulogy, almost deciding to toss away the carefully-prepared speech and do the whole thing off the cuff instead.  But instead he sees his children, calms down, and reads the speech after all.  And Ivan “wonders what the old Miles would have said”.

The whole scene is from Ivan’s POV, and I’m not sure why; perhaps just that we’d already done Miles, and we wanted to see that Ivan was there.  The last thought, about the old Miles, is perhaps a little unkind.  Would it have been better for Miles to babble away about his father in front of all those people?  Perhaps Ivan isn’t thinking it would have been better for the “old Miles” to have taken over, but he’s just curious.  He’s a little wary of his cousin, perhaps, after all this time, and may very well have been avoiding him a little; Lady Alys is mentioned (later) as being in charge of the arrangements, of course, so perhaps there hasn’t been the opportunity.  Ivan’s been on Ylla for a few years by now, hasn’t seen much of his cousin in a while, maybe misses the old familiar Miles who would order him to use his initiative.  But this is also the Ivan who dealt with Miles after getting fired from ImpSec, the one who ruthlessly subjected him to an ice-water bath to pull his head out of his ass; he probably just wants to pull Miles out of himself again, in case he’s shuttering up his grief.  But maybe he doesn’t have the freedom to do that anymore, as father and as Count.

Fifth, and last, we get Gregor, at the interment at Vorkosigan Surleau.  And here I will quote a bit.

The grave was double but only one side dug; the earth waited like a bridal bed. The pallbearers were six: Ivan, Illyan, and Koudelka, of course; Duv Galeni for Komarr; Admiral Jole for Sergyar. And one other.

Lady Alys tells the Emperor that he should be one of the mourners, but Gregor tells her that it’s his turn to carry Aral Vorkosigan now, for a change, and she gives way.

I gather that the “chief mourners” are Miles and Cordelia, perhaps Mark, as the immediate family.  Ivan, as nephew (well, first cousin once removed, really), must be far enough away to be spared for pallbearing.  Illyan and Koudelka make sense as his longtime subordinates and friends, and one presumes that he was well acquainted with Jole after all spending several years on Sergyar.  (How long was that?  Ten years, from _Memory_ to _CryoBurn_?)  Or, actually, looking it up in the Companion, it turns out that there was a Jole who was Aral’s aide-de-camp in _The Vor Game_, likely the same guy; possibly even the same Gentleman Jole from the forthcoming book?  And Galeni?  Is he just there as a token Komarran?  It doesn’t seem like he could have had a particularly close relationship with Count Aral Vorkosigan, especially since he didn’t achieve prominence in ImpSec until after the events of _Memory_…but they had to have one Komarran in there, or else risk whispers about how none of them wanted to carry The Butcher’s coffin, so I guess Galeni was the best bet.

Did Alys had another choice for sixth, that Gregor displaced?  Not sure who that would be…another of the Counts, or an Admiral or General?  Miles and Mark are out; not only are they likely “chief mourners”, but, well, height matters…  Not Mrs. Koudelka, surely; that would be indecorous.  Would Armsmen count?  Was it Pym or somebody who was being replaced?

Also, “bridal bed”?  Shudder.

And so the series ends, at least for now, with the passing of one of its earliest characters.  Like Taura, there’s only so long you can put off killing off a character whose health has been at risk for several books now…


It’s been four years, to the month, at least, since I started this reread.  As you may have gathered, the last two books have been more burdensome, and it’ll be a bit of a relief to be done.  (I’ve made promises to try to do some actual writing with the time that I’ve been devoting to the blog entries, but we’ll see how well I do at that.)  Will I return when Gentleman Jole comes out?  Perhaps, but no promises.  I have no plans to take the blog down right away or anything, but this may be my last post here ever, so…farewell, loyal readers.

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It was the best of blogs, it was the worst of blogs, it was the beginning, it was the end, it was fire, it was ice, it was life, it was death, but most of all, it was the Vorkosigan Saga Reread.  And it is, indeed, almost the end, as we reach the last chapter of Lois McMaster Bujold’s CryoBurn, but not, quite, the very end.  Because the book has a coda, “Aftermaths” as they’re called.  But first, here’s the math:

Chapter Twenty

Jin’s Aunt Lorna joins the Satos, and Consul Vorlynkin, for an outdoor lunch in the back garden of the consulate; Jin was a little worried about her being there, but they end up allies, because she doesn’t want him back living with her either.  She and his mother do agree that it was wrong for him to run away like that, leaving them worrying what had happened to him; Jin points out that if he hadn’t run away, he’d never have met Miles-san, and she would still be frozen.

Consul Vorlynkin has been looking more relaxed since Miles left the day before, which Jin supposes makes sense, given how quiet it’s been since the Lord Auditor left.  There have been lots of people coming to talk to them, police and lawyers and journalists, but they haven’t taken his mother away, so that’s something.

Min comes running out of the house with the box Lady Murasaki lives in, announcing that her babies have hatched; the adults seem less than impressed, and Lieutenant Johannes decrees that the baby spiders have to stay out in the garden.  As Mina is trying to find them a pretty place to live, Jin tries to reassure Johannes that the chickens will likely eat a lot of the spiderlings.

Raven comes outside, and introduces himself to Aunt Lorna, who seems taken with him; after admiring the spiderlings, he tells Lisa that her friends Mr. Kang and Ms. Khosla have been successfully revived, and Lisa thanks him sincerely.  They will also need time for their immune systems to recover, but in a couple of days they should be able to give statements to the police; in the meantime, Kareen is dealing with their security, which her family apparently has a certain talent for.

“Yes, I believe Lord Vorkosigan did say something about that, before he left. He does seem to know the most extraordinary range of people. Only to be expected, given his background.”

“What is this Lord Unpronounceable you keep talking about, anyway?” asked Aunt Lorna.

“What, or who?” said Raven-sensei. “Although I gather that for him, the two are nearly inextricable.”

“Either. Both.”

“He investigates insurance fraud for somebody,” Jin supplied. “His boss is named Gregor. He talks about him a lot.”

Vorlynkin then fills in a few gaps in Jin’s conception of Miles, informing him that “Gregor” is the Barrayaran Emperor, and Miles’s job as Auditor has a much wider scope than mere insurance fraud, in addition to his illustrious parents, the Viceroy and Vicereine of Sergyar; Jin begins re-evaluating Miles from his earliest impressions, and wonders what it would be like to be an adult and still have a living father.  Mina asks what a Viceroy is, and Vorlynkin explains it to her, and then she says he has an important job and an important family.  Aunt Lorna says that he probably has the job because of the family, but Vorlynkin says he also has a talent for ferreting things out, which leads to Jin wishing for a ferret; Vorlynkin points out that he does have a sphinx, and that should be enough for now.  Jin decides that having a mother back is also pretty good, though a ferret would be nice…

Mina is a little alarmed when they find Nefertiti eating violets, and Jin worries that the Consul will be upset, but Vorlynkin says that candied violets are often put on salads, so as long as she doesn’t eat too many at a time, she should be okay.  Jin thinks that he really likes Vorlynkin, who knows all sorts of stuff, and his mom also seems to like him…so maybe he’ll stick around for a while.

Miles and Roic meet up with Mark at the Escobar transfer station; Miles has a few hours to kill before his ship leaves for home, so Mark agrees to join him, even though they’ve already spent days together on the ship from Kibou-daini, even if a lot of that was working separately.  Mark says Kareen had sent him a message from Kibou-daini, where she and Raven are getting the new Durona clinic started; he tells Miles about the two friends of Lisa Sato that have been revived, and are now testifying, and Oki has also agreed to testify in exchange for leniency.  Miles’s name has so far managed to stay out of the issue entirely, though Mark twits him about his supposed reluctance to stay in the shadows.

Mark says when he gets back to Escobar he’ll have a lot of unanticipated work for the Duronas, and he should have the first batch sent off within a week.  He plans to give Ted Fuwa a lot of work doing repairs on the clinic, in part to keep his mind off the sale price Mark talked him into.  Miles says he had planned to stop on Sergyar to visit their parents, but his case has run late, and he’ll probably need to spend a few days on Komarr laying the trap for WhiteChrys, so he might not get the chance to see them until Winterfair.  He asks Mark if he’ll be home then, perhaps to pitch the anti-age treatment to the Count in person, and Mark says he’ll have to see how the preliminary results look.

Miles contemplating his still-unanticipated clone, mentions the uncle they never met, Aral’s elder brother who was killed by Mad Yuri’s men; Mark says he never learned much about him, since he wasn’t important to the planned impersonation scheme, and Miles says their father never talked about it much either.  It would have been so different, him not being the Count, maybe not even deciding to go into the military…  He suggests they get the Count to talk about his brother, as one of the few people who’ll still remember him, and Mark agrees.

Miles asks if Mark and Kareen are thinking about marriage and children yet; the pressure is mostly off them, the other Koudelka sisters all having children by now.  Mark admits that he’s terrified of children, since his experiences of being parented were by a psychotic terrorist with displacement issues; Miles says that at least Kareen is sane enough to be a good parent.

“There is that,” Mark admitted. “So what’s your greatest terror, now you’re a Da yourself?”

“What if . . .” Miles pulled at his hair, looking up cross-eyed to see if he could spot any of the sneaky gray ones, but this cut was still too short. “What if my children find out I’m not really a grownup? How dreadfully disappointed would they be?”

This time, Mark laughed out loud. It was a very good sound, Miles thought, and he grinned back ruefully at his brother.

“I think your wife already knows,” said Mark.

Miles asks Mark if he thinks that Vorlynkin and Madame Sato will hit it off, since he’d gotten the impression that the Consul was interested, but wasn’t as sure about her; Mark says he has no idea.

Roic spots Colonel Vorventa further down, ImpSec liaison at the embassy on the transfer station; when Vorventa spots them, he gestures for them to stay where they are and heads for a lift tube.  Miles says he’s probably there for one of them, most likely him, and he hopes that this isn’t a new assignment, since he really wants to go home now.  Roic notes that Vorventa is decked in his full dress greens, unlike his usual civilian clothes.

Vorventa’s steps slowed as he approached, and his eyes searched his quarry, though his face remained stiff. He halted at the table’s side, cast Mark and Roic a grave nod, came to attention, and offered Miles a very formal salute, though Miles was in no kind of uniform at all except his gray trousers and jacket.

The messenger moistened his lips, and said, “Count Vorkosigan, sir?”

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This chapter is, of course, our true denouement.  First the cozy get-together on Kibou-daini, even Aunt Lorna there; I can’t help but compare her and her husband with the Dursleys, and at least they come off well in that comparison, but then they’re not caricatures.  We don’t get to see them much except through Jin’s eyes, which are not the most sympathetic, so I’m sure that they’re not monsters, but they could perhaps have been nicer to their niece and nephew.

Not much else in that scene; even Raven’s news about Lisa Sato’s reawakened friends is also relayed to Mark in the next scene.  In orbit over Escobar, destroying the unity of place which has heretofore kept everything on Kibou-daini, but it gives time for some things to have happened, and is a better place for the finale to take place.  The conversations about their plans for Winterfair with their father, getting him to talk about his brother, pitching the life-extension scheme to him…and not knowing that it’s already too late.

At this point I can’t remember if I was expecting anything like this when I read this the first time.  Had it already been spoiled for me?  Had I glimpsed it while paging ahead to find out how many pages there were in the book?  Probably.  Those three words, so innocuous, are one of Bujold’s spearpoints, a tiny pinprick whose setup over how many books makes it pierce your heart that much harder.  Count Aral was on the verge of death back in _Mirror Dance_, and he’s never been all that young, but it’s never a good time.


 

The full force of that spear comes, of course, in the aftermaths.  But that’s for next week…

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Hello, future readers!  I am sending you this message from the past–a time capsule of sorts, if you will–because prior commitments, also made in the past, will make it impossible, or at least inconvenient, to publish this manually at my usual time, which is to say “as close to my personal deadline as I can possibly manage”.  Soon enough I will catch up with this future, but right now this “past me” writing this.  So let “past me” welcome you back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, in which the writings of Lois McMaster Bujold, and specifically those comprising the saga involving Vorkosigans, are dealt with in a certain amount of detail.  This week I deal with the final chapter and epilogue of Diplomatic Immunity, in which certain people continue to survive, receive recognition for their efforts, and execute an alarming transition in their perceived place in the universe.

Chapter Eighteen

Miles wakes up to find himself in an unfamiliar place.  There’s no tubes in his nose, and only vague memories of the desperate flight of his convoy, and the messages they heard about the escalating tensions between the two empires.  Ekaterin is bending over his bed, oddly enough, and with no medical mask or anything.  He sits up on one elbow and sees a room filled with obviously Cetagandan decor, including plants and a seascape out the window–almost certainly a simulated one, because he’s pretty sure he’s still on a spaceship.  Miles remembers the horrifying story they’d heard, of a batch of a thousand empty Star Crèche replicators found near Vorbarr Sultana, and asks urgently if they managed to head off the war yet.

Ekaterin pushes him back down on the bed and assures him that the urgent matters have been taken care of–mostly by her, even though strictly speaking Admiral Vorpatril shouldn’t have listened to her.  She kept insisting that Pel and Benin be given Miles’s messages, and once Benin was on the case matters got cleared up quickly.  Benin discovered that the ba had been quietly smuggling those replicators out a few at a time as part of its backup plan.  The Cetagandans have declared the affair an internal matter, and tensions are easing.  She says that without Pel’s name–and “Vorkosigan”–she probably wouldn’t have gotten through.

Miles says that last thing he remembers was four days out from Quaddiespace, and being very cold; Ekaterin says that the blood filter was barely keeping up with the infection, and his metabolism was losing energy.  In desperation, they put Bel and Miles into cold stasis, which put the parasites into hibernation, so they weren’t forced to resort to actual cryofreeze, to Miles’s relief.  She says they’ve been in orbit around Rho Ceta for about a day; Miles can tell she hasn’t been sleeping well.

Ekaterin says that Pel brought in a woman who seems to have cleared all of the parasites out of his system, and Bel’s; right now they’re on Pel’s own Star Crèche ship.  There was some unpleasantness about the Cetagandans refusal to let Roic, Clogston, or any of the Barrayaran men on board the ship, but they eventually settled for allowing Ekaterin and Nicol on.  Miles asks if Gupta was also cleared of any remnants of parasites–he hadn’t been that keen on getting back into Cetagandan hands, but Miles had convinced him of it–and Ekaterin says he’s been treated as well.  In fact, the Cetagandans are intensely interested in how he survived the bioweapon in the first place, but the Barrayarans still have him in their possession for the nonce.

He hesitated, and cleared his throat. “Um . . . I also seem to remember recording some messages. To my parents. And Mark and Ivan. And to little Aral and Helen. I hope you didn’t . . . you didn’t send them off already, did you?”

“I set them aside.”

“Oh, good. I’m afraid I wasn’t very coherent by then.”

“Perhaps not,” she admitted. “But they were very moving, I thought.”

“I put it off too long, I guess. You can erase them now.”

“Never,” she said, quite firmly.

“But I was babbling.”

“Nevertheless, I’m going to save them.” She stroked his hair, and her smile twisted. “Perhaps they can be recycled someday. After all . . . next time, you might not have time.”

Pel enters with another haut woman, undoubtedly her friend who had cured them of the parasites–no force bubbles, so obviously they consider themselves effectively in the heart of the Star Crèche itself.  She greets him and says she was surprised to meet him again, though it was not unwelcome; she assures him that the fetuses in the replicators have been checked and seem to be in good health.

Ekaterin asks Pel’s physician companion about the possible long-term effects of the infection, and she says she there will be some micro-scarring, which may lead to circulatory problems later in life; Miles wonders how this will interact with his existing seizure disorder.  Bel apparently suffered even more severe damage, and its muscles may be permanently damaged, so she recommends it stay in a low-gravity environment as much as possible, which it turns out won’t be that hard.  Miles vows to himself to get Bel a medical discharge from ImpSec and pension.

The physician leaves, and Pel says that Benin would like to talk to Miles; Miles agrees wholeheartedly, and asks about what happened to the ba.  Pel says that the ba has been returned to the Star Crèche, and they’re grateful for Benin’s assistance in dealing with any of its collaborators; Miles senses she doesn’t want to say much more about the ba, but he’s not ready to drop the subject yet.  He asks about the ba’s kidnapping of the child-ship, and Pel admits that the ba seemed to have been planning this for a long time, and poisoned the rest of the ship’s inhabitants before sending it into the sun–which she at least concedes as a fitting funeral pyre.

Miles asks about the bioweapons the ba was carrying; Pel tells him in no uncertain terms that this is not a suitable topic, but Miles persists, saying that they will need assurances that there will be no further contagions on the Idris or Graf Station, and Pel finally grudgingly admits that the rest of the consort’s “supplies” were destroyed by their keeper before the ba could get its hands on them.  Miles suspects that that “keeper” might have been Pel’s physician’s counterpart on the Rho Cetan ship, and files this information away for later.

Pel also refuses to answer Miles’s questions on the ba’s motives, so he happily supplies her with his own theory–that this ba, a genetic sibling of Emperor Fletchir Giaja, was probably involved in the Dowager Empress’s earlier scheme, and saw this as some sort of continuation of the project.  Pel calls this close enough, and informs them that, the Emperor being pleased with them, they will be given the unprecedented honour of being present at the upcoming ceremony when the child-ship delivers the fetuses to the planet.  Miles says he’d rather just understand what was really going on in the ba’s head.

“Bear with me. I don’t think I’ve quite got it, yet. I suspect the haut—and the ba—are not so post-human yet as to be beyond self-deception, all the more subtle for their subtlety. I saw the ba’s face, when I destroyed that freezer case of genetic samples in front of it. Something shattered. Some last, desperate . . . something.” He had slain men’s bodies, and bore the mark, and knew it. He did not think he’d ever before slain a soul, yet left the body breathing, bereft and accusing. I have to understand this.

Pel was clearly not pleased to go on, but she understood the depth of a debt that could not be paid off with such trivialities as medals and ceremonies. “The ba, it seems,” she said slowly, “desired more than Lisbet’s vision. It planned a new empire—with itself as both emperor and empress. It stole the haut children of Rho Ceta not just as a core population for its planned new society, but as . . . mates. Consorts. Aspiring to even more than Fletchir Giaja’s genetic place, which, while part of the goal of haut, does not imagine itself the whole. Hubris,” she sighed. “Madness.”

“In other words,” breathed Miles, “the ba wanted children. In the only way it could . . . conceive.”

Pel admits that the Dowager Empress made a pet of the ba, treated it almost as a child, perhaps unwisely.  Miles can imagine the ba’s thinking, then, wondering why it doesn’t get everything that its half-sibling the Emperor does, coveting it…  Miles asks about the ba’s name, and Pel says that as punishment for its crime, its name will be forgotten and stricken from records.

The next morning, before local dawn, they are brought down to the surface of Rho Ceta in a lift van, to a grassy amphitheatre on a slope across from the planet’s capital city, filled with mourning-white haut-lady bubbles, and less-visible haut men.  Miles contemplates ghem-General Benin, in the van with them, and thinks that Benin’s recent experiences must have been immeasurably more stressful than Miles’s own, with the child-ship’s inexplicable disppearance, and the tantalizing clues leading to Komarr and Barrayar…  He had gladly answered Benin’s questions, but held firm on refusing to give up Gupta to the Cetagandans, and apparently his current esteem on Rho Ceta is enough to earn that much for him.

Nevertheless, Miles wondered where to drop Guppy when this was all over. Housing him in a Barrayaran jail was a useless expense to the Imperium. Turning him loose back on Jackson’s Whole was an invitation for him to return to his old haunts, and employment—no benefit to the neighbors, and a temptation to Cetagandan vengeance. He could think of one other nicely distant place to deposit a person of such speckled background and erratic talents, but was it fair to do that to Admiral Quinn . . . ? Bel had laughed, evilly, at the suggestion, till it had to stop to breathe.

Miles is helped into a floater, his strength not quite up to standing for very long yet, and he wants to husband it for the ceremony proper; Bel, not in any better shape, is in his own floater, accompanied by Nicol.  Benin leads them all up to meet the current Rho Cetan governor–a Degtiar, not one of the ones Miles had met at the Dowager Empress’s funeral–who greets them with a startlingly deep bow and offer of his household’s service.  After a brief conversation with Benin, the shuttle from the child-ship drops down to the amphitheatre, landing not too far from Miles and the others; the waiting Cetagandan haut quiet in anticipation.

Ekaterin and Roic help Miles out of his floater and he stands on his own for the ceremony.  The shuttle opens to disgorge a translucent, empty haut-bubble, in honour of the murdered Consort, followed by more bubbles, lead by Pel.  She stops in front of Benin and enjoins him to convey the Emperor’s thanks to the outlander guests.  Benin gives a thankfully subdued Bel Thorne a prized honour, Warrant of the Celestial House, and the same to Ekaterin.

“My Lord Vorkosigan,” Benin spoke.

Miles stepped forward a trifle apprehensively.

“My Imperial Master, the Emperor the haut Fletchir Giaja, reminds me that true delicacy in the giving of gifts considers the tastes of the recipient. He therefore charges me only to convey to you his personal thanks, in his own Breath and Voice.”

First prize, the Cetagandan Order of Merit, and what an embarrassment that medal had been, a decade ago. Second prize, two Cetagandan Orders of Merit? Evidently not. Miles breathed a sigh of relief, only slightly tinged with regret. “Tell your Imperial Master from me that he is entirely welcome.”

“My Imperial Mistress, the Empress the haut Rian Degtiar, Handmaiden of the Star Crèche, also charged me to convey to you her own thanks, in her own Breath and Voice.”

Miles bowed perceptibly lower. “I am at her service in this.”

Pel moves forward and announces to Miles that the Star Crèche is “calling him up”–requesting a sample to be added to the haut gene-banks.  He’s sure that they probably already have a sample of his material from his previous visit–and his current one–but the formal addition is a great honour.  Pel takes a blood sample with skilled fingers, and ritually adds it to a freezer case.  Miles tells Pel that his talents are probably not genetic, but she shushes him gently.

Next the replicators themselves are offloaded by ghem-women and ba servitors, and haut men come forward to accept their new offspring, which Miles knows may will have been engendered without their participation, or probably even their consent; the Governor himself is among them.  The men take the replicators to their haut-mothers, whose bubbles change from white to any of a riotous assortment of colours.  The children will be delivered to their caretakers, and may never meet their parents again.  Miles wonders about these children’s eventual fates, and wonders if, in the future, one of them will turn into Barrayar’s greatest enemy, and the thought unsettles him.  The ceremony over, Miles says that it’s time to go home.

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And so it proves that the ba’s plot was, in some ways, an offshoot of the plot of Cetaganda, the Dowager Empress’s plan to disperse the haut gene bank, although twisted by a somewhat deranged mind.  The ba was apparently pampered and indulged by the Empress, which they seem to regard as the only excuse for its behaviour, which implies they normally keep a much tighter rein on them.  And yet, they use them as prototypes for the haut genome–what do they expect, as the genetic sibling of someone thought suitable of being the Emperor himself?

Good to see Benin and Pel again; Benin must be in essentially the same position as Simon Illyan was, head of security for the Star Crèche vs. head of ImpSec…  And yet, he seems to get along well with Miles, or at least they understand each other well.  And Pel is certainly one of the more daring of the haut-ladies, and understands Miles well enough to accede to his wishes to fill in the gaps in his understanding of the case.  Even though she doubtless realizes that ImpSec will get their hands on all of this information.  Or maybe not; Rian seemed a little unworldly when she talked to Miles in Cetaganda, but then I suppose Pel is older and wiser.

Miles gets yet another layer of health problems here, because that was totally something he needed.  After all, all he had up to now was all that bone fragility from before he was born, and then the aftereffects of his death and cryorevival, including the seizures.  Oh, and I suppose there were those bleeding stomach ulcers, and his weird fast-penta reaction, but those are hardly worth mentioning.  And now he’s got “micro-scarring” in his muscles and blood vessels.  I can’t remember if that ever comes up as a concern in CryoBurn, but I guess I’ll find out in a few months…

Epilogue

They return to Komarr with Bel and Nicol, where Bel is given its final ImpSec debrief.  Miles comes along to try to make sure the herm doesn’t tire itself out unduly, but ends up being dragged off by Ekaterin when his stamina fails first.  Afterwards, Miles invites them, not for the first time, down to see Vorkosigan House, and experience Ma Kosti’s cooking.  Roic is patrolling in a hyperalert state, and Miles makes a mental note that Roic deserves a vacation when they get home.  Nicol says she’d prefer to go somewhere where she’s not going to need armsmen to protect her from the locals, and Ekaterin points out that they’re tired, homesick, and Bel needs to get home and relax.

Bel tells Miles to stick to less dangerous work from now on, since it doubts he’s going to get a third chance.  Miles says that he’s likely to have lots of tedious work at home to keep him busy, like his last job, coming up with new bio-law for Barrayar.  He asks Bel to keep an eye on Corbeau, and Nicol says that she’d heard from Garnet Five that he’s not doing too bad so far; Bel says that they can come visit Quaddiespace again sometime.  They bid Bel and Nicol farewell, and then are drawn to the Kestrel, to take them home, with birth-clocks ticking madly in their heads.  Gregor has invited them to a reception upon their return, but they’ve also heard that the doctors can’t keep their children in the replicators much longer, so first things first.

Miles gets in some practice with a cane instead of a floater during the trip back from Komarr, and his strength is returning slightly, but he’s still not at full strength when they arrive back at Vorkosigan House; he contemplates getting a sword-cane like Koudelka’s.  They enter to be greeted by Cordelia, Aral and Nikki; Miles is disconcerted to find himself looking up into Nikki’s face.  Cordelia relays messages from Beta Colony–Mark’s, awkward but heartfelt, as well as her mother’s.  Ekaterin’s brother Will Vorvayne is recording everything on video.  Aral congratulates Ekaterin on her diplomatic work, and says they can likely find a job for her if she wants, but she says she’s going to have enough work on her hands soon enough.  They wash up quickly and then head to the nursery.

With the addition of the birth team—an obstetrician, two medtechs, and a bio-mechanic—the small chamber overlooking the back garden was as full as it could hold. It seemed as public a birth as those poor monarchs’ wives in the old histories had ever endured, except that Ekaterin had the advantage of being upright, dressed, and dignified. All of the cheerful excitement, none of the blood or pain or fear. Miles decided that he approved.

Miles asks how they do this, and Cordelia says they can just each lift one latch, like they did with him.  They do so on both replicators, Ekaterin luminous with joy, and the obstetrician goes to work.  He takes Aral Alexander out first, and Miles holds his breath until he hears Aral’s first cry, tearing up; Cordelia has to fight to keep her hands to her sides, and Will Vorvayne jockeys around trying take his videos until his sister firmly tells him to stay back.  Ekaterin takes baby Aral while the obstetrician extracts baby Helen; Miles tries to absorb the existence and reality of this tiny baby, the little person which is now his.  Ekaterin hands the baby to Miles, who decides he should sit down first.  Helen Natalia cries much louder than her brother when she comes out.

With two babies to go around, all the people lined up to hold them would have their chances soon enough, Miles decided, accepting Helen Natalia, still making noise, from her grinning mother. They could wait a few more moments. He stared at the two bundles more than filling his lap in a kind of cosmic amazement.

“We did it,” he muttered to Ekaterin, now perching on the chair arm. “Why didn’t anybody stop us? Why aren’t there more regulations about this sort of thing? What fool in their right mind would put me in charge of a baby? Two babies?”

Her brows drew together in quizzical sympathy. “Don’t feel bad. I’m sitting here thinking that eleven years suddenly seems longer that I realized. I don’t remember anything about babies.”

“I’m sure it’ll all come back to you. Like, um, like flying a lightflyer.”

He had been the end point of human evolution. At this moment he abruptly felt more like a missing link. I thought I knew everything. Surely I knew nothing. How had his own life become such a surprise to him, so utterly rearranged? His brain had whirled with a thousand plans for these tiny lives, visions of the future both hopeful and dire, funny and fearful. For a moment, it seemed to come to a full stop. I have no idea who these two people are going to be.

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Tradition holds that a TV series jumps the shark when they add new babies to the plot.  I’m not convinced that’s always true, though I can see some of the logic behind it.  Still, it’s a logical development in many people’s lives–committed relationship to marriage to parenthood is still a dominant sequence of events in Western culture, even if it’s not nearly as universal as it used to be.  It does often signal a transition in life from adventure, having fun, staying out till all hours, going out to movies whenever you want, and feeling the freedom to take stupid risks, in favour of being responsible.  Or maybe that’s just me.

I certainly empathize with Miles’s realization of his change of viewpoint in the last paragraph that I quoted there.  Sometimes parenthood is also a signal that a character is going to move back into the wings, to let their offspring take center stage.  As far as jumping the shark goes…well, I haven’t liked the last three Vorkosigan books as much as I did the four or five before that, but I don’t think I’d blame the babies for that.  Would it help to revitalize the series if we moved further forward, to let Aral Alexander and Helen Natalia, and their siblings, become main characters?  Maybe there’s too much soft-heartedness there.

So much of Miles’s storyline was driven by the awful things that happened before his birth, and with Bujold’s stated maxim of doing the worst possible thing to her characters, it may be that the only way to make his children interesting characters would be to do awful things to Miles himself, or Ekaterin, or Barrayar.  Would I want to read a book where half of the character we’d met on Barrayar get killed off by Cetagandans, or Jacksonians, or Cavilo?  Probably not.  Or one of the children could get kidnapped, and then they have to find him or her…  I don’t know.  I don’t have a good idea where the series should go next, and maybe there aren’t a lot of good stories left to tell about the Vorkosigans that aren’t either insanely dull or horribly painful.  So I’ll trust the author to keep trying, or not, as she wants, and try to judge each book on its own merits.


And on that note, let’s wrap up Diplomatic Immunity.  Not my favourite, though definitely exciting at points, and tying together all sorts of interesting threads from Cetaganda, “Labyrinth”, Mirror Dance, Falling Free, and most of the books in the series, really.  My usual week off, and then I’ll start on Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, the first book in the reread that I’ve only read once, so far.  I think I’m going to take it a chapter at a time, at least to start, for a number of reasons, not least of which being that this is another one I only have a print copy of, so I’ll have to hand-type quotes or something, and hold the book open with one hand or weight down the pages…it just seems like it’ll be more work.  I’ll have to see how that turns out…

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Hello, and welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, where again the Muse of Witty Blog Post Openings has forsaken me for the night.  (Tries to come up with a clever name for such a muse–Scalziope? Nah…)  Anyway, for those who are arriving in the middle, this is where I go through the chapters of Lois McMaster Bujold’s outstandingly awesome Vorkosigan Saga, reread them, summarize them, and then try to make erudite-sounding comments on them.  (If you are arriving in the middle, and you haven’t actually read Bujold’s books, then for heaven’s sake go and do that.  What are you waiting for?)  This week I cover two more chapters (which would seem more heroic if I didn’t do it so often, but some weeks it feels heroic), Chapter Fifteen and Chapter Sixteen, of A Civil Campaign, in which Nikki has an important chat with Miles’s friend Gregor, Ekaterin isn’t particularly happy to receive a visit from some relatives, and Cordelia tries to straighten out the Koudelkas with the aid of some old furniture.

Chapter Fifteen

Lord Auditor Vorthys bids farewell to his wife, while Ekaterin and Nikki wait; after he accompanies them to the palace, he’s heading directly to Komarr to work on some matters to do with the earlier investigation.  She had been unprepared, last night, for when he told her that Miles’s friend with authority to talk about the matter was actually Emperor Gregor himself, who could understand Nikki’s loss of a father because of what happened to Prince Serg in the ill-fated Escobar invasion.  She’s almost glad she hadn’t known before, or she probably wouldn’t have been able to deal with it.

They drive off in the groundcar–which Ekaterin now realizes is heavily armoured, and driven by an ImpSec chauffeur, because her uncle also moves in those rarefied levels.  Uncle Vorthys reassures Nikki that he’ll be fine, and Gregor is a good fellow; he reassures Ekaterin as well.  It’s not long before they’re at the Imperial Residence, where they are swiftly admitted and led through to the north wing.

Uncle Vorthys seemed indifferent to the museum-quality décor; he’d trod this corridor dozens of times to deliver his personal reports to the ruler of three worlds. Miles had lived here till he was six, he’d said. Had he been oppressed by the somber weight of this history, or had he regarded it all as his personal play set? One guess.

They are ushered into a large office where Miles and the Emperor are waiting for them.  Miles cuts off what he was saying as Ekaterin and the others enter, and greets them stiffly.  The Professor presents his relatives, and Gregor greets Ekaterin with a firm handshake, and Nikki the same, apologizing for the circumstances of the meeting, and hoping that they will have happier ones later.  Ekaterin notes that Gregor seems to look at and really see her, which is both heartening and unnerving.  Gregor invites them to sit down, and they do, Ekaterin and Nikki across him, Vorthys between them, Miles off to one side, seemingly at ease, though Ekaterin somehow guesses he’s more tense than he seems.

Gregor tells Nikki that Miles asked him to talk to Nikki about the rumours surrounding his father’s death.  Vorthys grumbled that if it hadn’t been for those “gabbling fools” talking about it, they wouldn’t have had to drag him into it at all.  Gregor starts out with a caution–Vorthys, by dint of his job, has a high level of security monitoring, and an alert caused by an unauthorized intruder could bring ImpSec there in less than two minutes.  Ekaterin mutters about Vormoncrief, and Gregor says that he was, unfortunately, a known visitor.  He tells Nikki that, after this conversation, he will himself be monitored more closely by ImpSec–not much different than what would happen in the Vorthys household, or Lord Vorkosigan’s.  Any travel onplanet or off would have to be cleared with security, and he will have to go to a more exclusive school.  They will, of course, be more protected from casual criminals, which means any that they do encounter are likely to be much more professional and dangerous.

Ekaterin caught her breath. “Miles didn’t mention that part.”

“I daresay Miles didn’t even think about it. He’s lived under exactly this sort of security screen most of his life. Does a fish think about water?”

Ekaterin darted a glance at Miles. He had a very odd look on his face, as though he’d just bounced off a force wall he hadn’t known was there.

“Off-planet travel.” Nikki seized on the one item in this intimidating list of importance to him. “But . . . I want to be a jump pilot.”

“By the time you are old enough to study for a jump pilot, I expect the situation will have changed,” said Gregor. “This applies mainly to the next few years. Do you still want to go on?”

They wait for Nikki’s response; he says he wants to know.  Gregor says that his questions will be answered, but warns him that he will leave with more questions, and these ones they will be unable to answer for him, for his own safety.  Finally he asks Nikki to swear, by his name’s word, to hold this conversation in confidence.  Nikki, earnestly, swears the oath, he and Ekaterin both mesmerized by Gregor’s quiet intensity.

Gregor starts with the plain explanation of his father’s death.  He tells Nikki that Miles and Tien met some thieves at the experiment station, who stunned the two men and chained them up outside the station.  The thieves didn’t know that Tien’s reservoirs were low, and so didn’t intend his death–it was an accident, manslaughter, not murder.  Nikki says that, then, Miles couldn’t share his breath mask because they were tied up; Miles confirms this, showing how far apart they were, and revealing the scars on his wrists.

Gregor says there’s more, and Ekaterin silently pleads with him to stop here.  His mother wouldn’t tell Nikki this, he says, but his father had been taking bribes from the thieves.  He’d wanted to become an Imperial Witness, which is why they’d gone out there; the thieves had been angry at his betrayal, which is why they’d chained them up, leaving data proving his guilt taped to his back.  They’d called Ekaterin to pick them up, but too late.  Gregor says that there’s other things about the thieves which make all of this a state secret, and tells Nikki the official cover story, which is that the two men got separated and Miles didn’t find Tien until after he’d suffocated.

“If anyone thinks Lord Vorkosigan had something to do with your da’s death, we are not going to argue with them. You may state that it’s not true and that you don’t wish to discuss it. But don’t let yourself be drawn into disputes.”

“But . . .” said Nikki, “but that’s not fair!”

“It’s hard,” said Gregor, “but it’s necessary. Fair has nothing to do with it. To spare you the hardest part, your mama and uncle and Lord Vorkosigan told you the cover story, and not the real one. I can’t say they were wrong to do so.”

His eye and Miles’s caught each other in a steady gaze; Miles’s eyebrows inched up in a quizzical look, to which Gregor returned a tiny ironic nod. The Emperor’s lips thinned in something that was not quite a smile.

Gregor says the thieves are in prison, and jsutice has been done.  If Tien had been alive, he’d be in prison now too, but death cancels all debts.  Ekaterin thinks that this a hard thing to tell Nikki, to destroy his father’s honour in his eyes, but then thinks that it could be worse, if he’d known how cowardly and venal Tien had been, scrambling to escape the consequences of his choices.  But it doesn’t change the fact that he lost his father.

Nikki asks Miles what his two mistakes were.  Miles said he’d neglected to call his security backup when he left the dome, and then he was a second too late in drawing his stunner.  Nikki examines Miles’s wrists again, asks him about his own breath-mask, then sits back.  Gregor asks him if he has any more questions, and Nikki shakes his head.  Gregor then goes to his desk and gives Nikki a code card, which he says will give him access to talk to Gregor if he’s available, in case he has further questions or needs to talk the matter over.

Before the others can get up, Miles says that he’d offered Gregor his resignation, but Gregor had refused it.  Vorthys is surprised, but Miles said that he’d always thought Imperial Auditors should appear honest above all else.  Gregor says that that’s just an ideal–he inherited a couple of “shifty old sticks” from his grandfather, and he doesn’t think that Dorca the Just’s were any better, given the type of people they’d have to be able to stand up to.  Gregor says that if his Counts and Ministers see fit to deal with Miles’s supposed crimes, they’re welcome to, but he won’t do their work for them.  Miles is gratified at the support, but makes one last try, asking if Gregor thinks that he will still want Miles to stand in his wedding circle.  Gregor says that he’ll be there if “General Alys” says he will, and otherwise he won’t get out of his duties that easily–and tells Miles to refer anyone who objects to Lady Alys herself.

Miles could not quite keep the malicious smile off his lips, though he tried valiantly. Fairly valiantly. Some. “I would pay money to watch.” His smile faded again. “But it’s going to keep coming up as long as—”

“Miles.” Gregor’s raised hand interrupted him. His eyes were alight with something between amusement and exasperation. “You have, in-house, possibly the greatest living source of Barrayaran political expertise in this century. Your father’s been dealing with uglier Party in-fighting than this, with and without weapons, since before you were born. Go tell him your troubles. Tell him I said to give you that lecture on honor versus reputation he gave me that time. In fact . . . tell him I request and require it.” His hand-wave, as he rose from his armchair, put an emphatic end to the topic. Everyone rustled to their feet.

Gregor shakes Ekaterin’s hand again, and says that he looks forward to seeing her again when he is less busy.  He says that though they can’t give her more public recognition, he is well aware of the great debt the Imperium owes to her, and says she “may draw upon it at need and at will”.  Ekaterin is taken aback, but thanks him for taking time for them, and Nikki awkwardly follows suit.  Vorthys stays behind to talk to Gregor, and Miles offers to escort them out.  On the way out, Ekaterin says that that was more than she had expected; Miles says he agrees, but he trusts Gregor’s judgement more than anyone else’s.  Gregor also doesn’t think about the water he swims in, and endures great pressures on a daily basis; he overestimates others, and they, in turn, try not to disappoint them.  Nikki says he’s just glad that the Emperor told him the truth.

Back at Vorkosigan House, Miles goes in search of his father, finding him in the library.  He tells his father about the meeting with Gregor; they discuss whether Gregor was right to tell Nikki so much.  Miles admits that anyone questioning Nikki would likely already know as much as him, and the rest is still closely held.  He says he’d thought that Gregor would know, because of his own experiences with learning the truth about Prince Serg, how much to tell about his father’s crimes.  Aral agrees that Prince Serg was a criminal and a madman, and talks about the “lucky shot” that spared Barrayar from him ever becoming Emperor; he’s glad to hear about Gregor’s good judgement about Tien, considering how badly they muffed it with Gregor himself.

“I think he handled Nikki . . . well. At any rate, Nikki won’t experience that sort of late shock to his world. Of course, compared to Serg, Tien wasn’t much worse than foolish and venal. But it was hard to watch. No nine-year-old should have to deal with something this vile, this close to his heart. What will it make him?”

“Eventually . . . ten,” the Count said. “You do what you have to do. You grow or go under. You have to believe he will grow.”

Miles drummed his fingers on the sofa’s padded arm. “Gregor’s subtlety is still dawning on me. By admitting Tien’s peculation, he’s pulled Nikki to the inside with us. Nikki too now has a vested interest in maintaining the cover story, to protect his late da’s reputation. Strange. Which is what brings me to you, by the way. Gregor asks—requests and requires, no less!—you give me the lecture you gave him on honor versus reputation. It must have been memorable.”

Aral, pleased that it stuck with Gregor–you never know if it’s going to, he says–describes it as less of a speech and more of a useful distinction.  “Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.”  The problem comes when the two are not the same.  Miles says that, apart from a few impure thoughts about Ekaterin, and regrets over ineptitude on his part, his honour is fairly clear, so the problem is mostly in the realm of reputation, which feels like he’s being nibbled at by rats.  Aral tells him that it’s worse–soul-destroying–when it’s the other way around, when your reputation soars while your honour lies in pieces.  By comparison, this is mere annoyance, and he offers Miles some consolation.

“First, this too shall pass. Despite the undoubted charms of sex, murder, conspiracy, and more sex, people will eventually grow bored with the tale, and some other poor fellow will make some other ghastly public mistake, and their attention will go haring off after the new game.”

What sex?” Miles muttered in exasperation. “There hasn’t been any sex. Dammit. Or this would all seem a great deal more worthwhile. I haven’t even gotten to kiss the woman yet!”

Aral adds that, after this, no lesser charge will raise eyebrows, so he’ll be able to get away with a lot more, if he wants to.  Also, you can’t control what other people think anyway, so it’s futile to try with every stranger on the street.  He should decide whose opinions matter, and concentrate on those; Miles immediately lists Ekaterin, Nikki, Gregor, and that’s it.  Aral protests at being excluded from the list; Miles says that they’re not sinned against, so he’s not as much in need of their forgiveness.  Aral says that, in the political arena of Vorbarr Sultana, Miles might find an reputation for ruthlessness useful; Miles asks if his father has found the “Butcher of Komarr” sobriquet useful, and Aral admits he made use of it from time to time, since he paid enough for it.  Illyan, he says, has also made use of the reputation he inherited from Captain Negri, and Miles agrees that he can be unnerving, and not just because of Negri’s ghost.

Miles protests that the worst part is that his enemies think him so incompetent that he wouldn’t have done a better job of murder than that.  Aral asks if he ever had to do anything of the sort for ImpSec, and Miles admits that there was one mission, which he doesn’t want to talk about, though more complicated than a simple assassination.  He frets that his father is telling him the same as Galeni, that he just has to suck it up; Aral says he should worry about his honour, not his reputation, and outlast his enemies.

Miles asks about how his father dealt with things like this in his own past, and Aral recalls the way he was suspected of having killed his first wife for infidelity, the faint memory of which, he admits, may not be helping Miles any.  She had killed herself, but after a gigantic blowup between the two of them–he’d been twenty-two, and hadn’t dealt with it very well.  He admits that it was possible his own father had arranged her death, but he never asked.  He dealt with it somewhat poorly, by diving deeper into depravity, trying to outdo the stories, until he became sick of himself and shaped up.  Miles says the strategy doesn’t appeal to him, he has too much to lose.

“So, ah . . . when are we going to be permitted to meet this woman who has had such an invigorating effect on you? Her and her Nikki. Perhaps you might invite them to dinner here soon?”

Miles cringed. “Not . . . not another dinner. Not soon.”

“My glimpse of her was so frustratingly brief. What little I could see was very attractive, I thought. Not too thin. She squished well, bouncing off me.” Count Vorkosigan grinned briefly, at this memory. Miles’s father shared an archaic Barrayaran ideal of feminine beauty that included the capacity to survive minor famines; Miles admitted a susceptibility to that style himself. “Reasonably athletic, too. Clearly, she could outrun you. I would therefore suggest blandishments, rather than direct pursuit, next time.”

“I’ve been trying,” sighed Miles.

The Count regarded his son, half amused, half serious. “This parade of females of yours is very confusing to your mother and me, you know. We can’t tell whether we’re supposed to start bonding to them, or not.”

What parade?” said Miles indignantly. “I brought home one galactic girlfriend. One. It wasn’t my fault things didn’t work out.”

Aral mentions the ones from Illyan’s reports, and Miles is temporarily speechless, not having realized that Illyan had been quite so thorough in those reports.  He says he has told Ekaterin about them all, at least, out of sheer honesty.

“Honesty is the only way with anyone, when you’ll be so close as to be living inside each other’s skins. So . . . is this Ekaterin another passing fancy?” The Count hesitated, his eyes crinkling. “Or is she the one who will love my son forever and fiercely—hold his household and estates with integrity—stand beside him through danger, and dearth, and death—and guide my grandchildren’s hands when they light my funeral offering?”

Miles paused in momentary admiration of his father’s ability to deliver lines like that. It put him in mind of the way a combat drop shuttle delivered pinpoint incendiaries. “That would be . . . that would be Column B, sir. All of the above.” He swallowed. “I hope. If I don’t fumble it again.”

“So when do we get to meet her?” the Count repeated reasonably.

Miles puts him off again, for a little while.  Aral doesn’t pursue the matter, just notes that it’s lucky for Miles that he met Ekaterin when he was old enough to know what he wanted; Miles agrees heartily.

Comments

The scene with Gregor is one of my favourites, but then Gregor is usually good for a good scene.  Well, maybe not in the middle of The Vor Game, when he’s being a little petulant, wrestling with the Prince Serg thing, but by the end of that he’s much worthier.  Obviously Gregor has gotten past it now.  But I note that even in the conversation between Miles and Aral, Aral doesn’t own up to the fact that he helped engineer Prince Serg’s death in the Escobar invasion.  That is still an explosive secret, too closely held to leak out.  Who ever knew that one?  Aral, Cordelia, Illyan…anyone else surviving?

I believe that we haven’t actually seen the story of this assassination that Miles pulled off for ImpSec.  With the Dendarii, one presumes.  Any inkling, even, of what that might be?  It doesn’t sound like it quite fits with Jackson’s Whole, either.  Oh, well, I guess we never did get the whole story on how Miles got his arms broken between Brothers in Arms and the Borders of Infinity framing story.

When was the last time we had a father-son conversation with Aral and Miles?  Closest would be at the end of The Vor Game, I guess, though I think Illyan and/or Gregor were there too?  Too lazy to look it up.  Anyway, it’s a good talk, lots of practical advice being exchanged, and, unlike the earlier ones, they’re talking more like equals now.

Chapter Sixteen

Ekaterin is trying to make up a resumé that hides her near-total lack of experience, unwilling to include Miles as a reference, for a job with a nearby plant nursery.  She is interrupted by the doorchime, and has a momentary vision of being kidnapped by enemy spies, but her visitors turn out to be her brother Hugo Vorvayne, and Tien’s cousin Vassily Vorsoisson, who she’d only met before at Tien’s funeral, when he’d officially signed over Nikki’s guardianship to her.  She invites them inside and offers them refreshments, which they decline.

At the serious expression on Hugo’s face, she asks if everything’s all right with them, or her father; Hugo says that it’s her who’s the source of concern right now.  He asks if her uncle is there; Ekaterin says he’s gone to Komarr and won’t be back until closer to Gregor’s wedding (absent-mindedly using his name, before she remembers to use his title instead).  They discuss the wedding briefly, Hugo saying that Rosalie and her friends have gone crazy about it.

Vassily asks after Nikki, who Ekaterin says is off watching a regatta on the river with a friend.  Vassily says that they’ve come because of some disturbing information about her and Lord Auditor Vorkosigan; Ekaterin realizes that the rumour has penetrated outside of the capital.  He adds that he came to Hugo, and Rosalie seemed to corroborate the story; that it’s “common knowledge” among the Vor that Miles sabotaged Tien’s breath mask on Komarr.  Ekaterin immediately responds that that’s just a lie made up by Miles’s political opponents, and they won’t be able to charge him with it, but Vassily interprets this as a statement about Miles’s political invulnerability due to his powerful connections.

Hugo says that they also heard that Miles attempted to force Ekaterin to marry him; Ekaterin admits that he did ask, very awkwardly, and is also forced to admit that she didn’t technically refuse him.  Ekaterin asks where this information came from, and Vassily said it was “a friend”.  Ekaterin can’t imagine any of her friends doing this, though.  She admits that she finds Miles attractive, which the men, who saw him at Tien’s funeral, find incomprehensible.

“Kat,” said Hugo in a disconcerted tone, “the man’s a mutie. He barely comes up to your shoulder. He’s distinctly hunched—I don’t know why that wasn’t surgically corrected. He’s just odd.”

“Oh, he’s had dozens of surgeries. His original damage was far, far more severe. You can still see these faint old scars running all over his body from the corrections.”

Hugo stared at her. “All over his body?”

“Um. I assume so. As much of it as I’ve seen, anyway.” She stopped her tongue barely short of adding, The top half. A perfectly unnecessary vision of Miles entirely naked, gift-wrapped in sheets and blankets in bed, and her with him, slowly exploring his intricacies all the way down, distracted her imagination momentarily. She blinked it away, hoping her eyes weren’t crossing. “You have to concede, he has a good face. His eyes are . . . very alive.”

Hugo says that he and her family are there to help, if she’s in some kind of trouble with Miles, like blackmail or something.  Ekaterin asks if he thinks that their uncle, the Lord Auditor, would be helpless to protect her.  Hugo says that Uncle Vorthys and his wife are a little unworldly, and Ekaterin points out that her aunt is an expert on bloody political history, and her uncle’s discipline includes intimate knowledge of sabotage, not a particularly unworldly topic.  They tell her that the capital seems to be full of unsavoury and dubious characters, including a woman in a man’s body; Ekaterin admits to having actually met Lord Dono, and dismays her visitors by listing his potential virtues as a Count.

Hugo tells her he’s concerned with her safety, and with Nikki’s, in the environment of the capital; Ekaterin thinks that having overcome armed terrorists, her definition of “safe” may be a little broader than his.  He says she needs to be married, mistress of a good Vor household, solid, honest and loyal; Ekaterin asks if he’s sure she should have a house, rather than a planet, and accuses his goals of lacking scope.  She realizes that her horizons have grown much wider than her brother’s.

Hugo said, “Damn, Kat. I thought that part of the letter was twaddle at first, but this mutie lord has turned your head around in some strange way.”

“And if it’s true . . . he has frightening allies,” said Vassily. “The letter claimed that Vorkosigan had Simon Illyan himself riding point for him, herding you into his trap.” His lips twisted dubiously. “That was the part that most made me wonder if I was being made a game of, to tell you the truth.”

“I’ve met Simon,” Ekaterin conceded. “I found him rather . . . sweet.”

A dazed silence greeted this declaration.

Ekaterin suddenly puzzles out who had sent them this letter, and realizes it must have been Alexi Vormoncrief.  She tells Vassily that Vormoncrief is mostly just upset because Ekaterin refused his own proposal.  Hugo says that he certainly wouldn’t force her to marry Vormoncrief, but he seemed genuinely concerned for her, and in love; Ekaterin says Vormoncrief didn’t even see her, just an available Vor widow, and he might not have noticed were she replaced by a straw woman.

Vassily says that he’s not concerned with Ekaterin and her marriage prospects; he’s more concerned with Nikki’s safety.  Ekaterin recalls that Vassily has, ludicrously, the power to take Nikki away from her at a whim, and she would have to prove him an actively incompetent guardian to regain her son; Vassily may be a bachelor, but an unobjectionable one, and she wouldn’t have a chance.  Ekaterin points out that Nikki would be a burden to him, and Vassily says that Tien’s mother could easily look after him as well.

She asks Vassily to define precisely what kind of lifestyle will be satisfactory for his wishes, so she knows what she should be trying to do.  Vassily says that, obviously, betrothal to Miles is out of the question; Ekaterin repeats that the case against Miles is pure slander, and asks Vassily if he thinks she’s “lying, or just stupid” before reining in her temper.  Vassily has a horrible power over her, with his ability to take Nikki away, and she reminds herself to try not to push him that far.

She chose her words with utmost caution. “So what do you mean by straightened out?”

Hugo and Vassily looked at each other uncertainly. Vassily ventured, “I beg your pardon?”

“I cannot know if I have toed your line unless you show me where you’ve drawn it.”

Hugo protested, “That’s not very kindly put, Kat. We have your interests at heart.”

“You don’t even know what my interests are.” Not true, Vassily had his thumb right down on the most mortal one. Nikki. Eat rage, woman. She had used to be expert at swallowing herself, during her marriage. Somehow she’d lost the taste for it.

Vassily asks that Nikki not be exposed to unsavoury characters; Ekaterin says she’ll be happy to keep him away from Alexi Vormoncrief, but Vassily insists he means Miles, who has been accused of murdering his cousin Tien.  Ekaterin asks how, if Miles is never officially charged with this murder, Vassily could be satisfied that he’s not guilty of it; Vassily can’t answer, and decides to defer to Hugo on how best to keep his sister in check.  Hugo flatly tells her to keep away from Miles until the rumour is settled.  Ekaterin, not wanting to have Nikki’s life uprooted again, insists that they specify exactly how this would be “settled”.  Hugo says she should at least avoid him for a while…Ekaterin eventually pins him down to “until the end of her mourning year”; when they agree to it, she wishes she’d tried for Winterfair instead.  She insists that she will have to deliver this news to him in person, which they eventually agree to.

With this settled, they fall into uncomfortable silence, Ekaterin resolved not to offer them hospitality if she can avoid it, and they soon take the hint and mumble about having to go.  She curls up by herself, wishing her aunt were there to vent to.  She does give Hugo some small credit for not being swayed by the prospect of his sister becoming a Countess.  She draws a disquieting parallel in her mind with a toy that Nikki never seemed to want until she tried to give it away; is she only so upset about Miles because she’s being forbidden to see him?  She does have to see him sometime to tell him about the interdict, but she wants to put it off, if she can, because after that she might not get to see him for a long time…

Cordelia sends a luxurious groundcar to fetch Kareen and her parents, and her father is still muttering about how this is a bad idea, how the Countess will have their heads twisted around before they know it.  Drou says she hopes things will be arranged sensibly, which Kareen heartily agrees with; Kou grumbles that “sensible” is one of her words.  Drou says she wants to mend things with the Vorkosigans; Kou says he just doesn’t like the idea of a “fat, weird, half-mad clone” with Kareen.  Kareen manages to keep her mouth shut.

At Vorkosigan House, Pym escorts them to the library.  Furniture has been rearranged; Cordelia has a large, throne-like chair, with armchairs on either side, one for Kareen, and one already occupied by Mark.  Across from Cordelia is an old, shabby couch that Kareen recognizes from hide-and-seek games in the attic; the Countess insists that Kou and Drou sit there.  Kou accuses her of fighting dirty, but Drou stops him from leaving, and Cordelia outright orders him to sit, in what Kareen realizes must be her Ship’s Captain voice.

A long silence followed. Kareen could hear the old-fashioned mechanical clock ticking on the wall in the antechamber next door. Mark gave her a beseeching stare, Do you know what the hell is going on here? She returned it in kind, No, don’t you?

Her father rearranged the position of his swordstick three times, dropped it on the carpet, and finally scooted it back toward himself with the heel of his boot and left it there. She could see the muscle jump in his jaw as he gritted his teeth. Her mother crossed and uncrossed her legs, frowned, stared down the room out the glass doors, and then back at her hands twisting in her lap. They looked like nothing so much as two guilty teenagers caught . . . hm. Like two guilty teenagers caught screwing on the living room couch, actually. Clues seemed to float soundlessly down like feathers, in Kareen’s mind, falling all around. You don’t suppose . . .

“But Cordelia,” Mama burst out suddenly, for all the world as though continuing aloud a conversation just now going on telepathically, “we want our children to do better than we did. To not make the same mistakes!”

Ooh. Ooh. Oooh! Check, and did she ever want the story behind this one . . . ! Her father had underestimated the Countess, Kareen realized. That hadn’t taken any more than three minutes.

Cordelia says that, in her opinion, Kareen is doing much better, and hasn’t made any mistakes at all, that she’s noticed.  Kou calls Mark a mistake, and Cordelia says they’ll get to him later.  She says that Kareen is doing much better than they were at that age, partly because of the bright future they’d won for her.  She then has Kareen tell her parents about getting her contraceptive implant on Beta Colony, and her hymen cut, and then being introduced to sex by a Licensed Practical Sexuality Therapist (a hermaphrodite, as it turned out); Cordelia contrasts this with awkward, uninformed fumble in the dark, and Kareen says that Barrayar’s approach seems awful.  Cordelia reminds her that both cultures are trying to solve the basic problem of making sure that children will be cared for.  Beta handles it by regulating female reproductive systems; Barrayar, which couldn’t, had to regulate the entire woman.

Kou grumbles that they should never have sent Kareen to Beta; Cordelia reminds him that Kareen’s trip to Beta was planned before meeting Mark, and reminds them that she might have ended up with a Betan native (of whatever gender).  If she ends up with Mark, at least they’ll both have ties to Barrayar, and be likely to visit more frequently, which Drou finds a compelling argument.  Kou says he wants Kareen to be safe, well, happy and financially secure.  Cordelia says that the first few are things that it’s almost impossible to give your children, no matter how you try.  Then she asks Kou what he thinks Mark’s financial situation is.

Da shook his head. “I thought he was broke. I assumed the family made him an allowance, like any other Vor scion. And that he ran through it—like any other Vor scion.”

“I’m not broke,” Mark objected strenuously. “It’s a temporary cash-flow problem. When I budgeted for this period, I wasn’t expecting to be starting up a new business in the middle of it.”

“In other words, you’re broke,” said Da.

“Actually,” Tante Cordelia said, “Mark is completely self-supporting. He made his first million on Jackson’s Whole.”

She explains how Mark is busily investing his money in a number of schemes, some of them less speculative than others, some of which she supports herself.  Mark explains how he’s paying Kareen in _shares_ so he won’t have to withdraw money and lose all that interest…  He says he’d willingly pay a dowry for Kareen if that’s what’s expected; Kareen says that he’s got it the wrong way around, and anyway she doesn’t want to be bought like a Jacksonian slave.  Kou stoutly claims that he doesn’t care about the money, whether in marks or Betan dollars–he wants what’s best for his daughter.

Cordelia asks what exactly he wants from Mark, then–should he offer to marry Kareen?  Kou would probably be happier if Mark were to just go away, but he stops short of actually saying it.  Mark says he will, if she wants to, but he didn’t think she did; Kareen says she doesn’t, since she’s still trying to find out who she is, and still growing as a person.  Cordelia asks if she thinks marriage wil stop that, and Kareen says that the stories always seem to end with marriage, and she doesn’t want an ending.  Her parents try to reassure her that marriage isn’t really like that, though they sound a little uncertain themselves.

Mark reiterates that he’ll do whatever Kareen wants, whether that be to marry her, or not, or go away (which she emphatically does not want), or whatever.  Cordelia asks Kareen if betrothal will do, but she says that’s giving an oath which locks you into marriage anyway, and she takes her oaths seriously.  Cordelia asks Kareen what she wants.  She struggles to put it into words, and finally declares that she wants an option on Mark.  Her parents aren’t certain about this, if it’s some weird offplanet custom, but Kareen says she just made it up.

Cordelia asks her to specify the terms of the option.  Mark willingly agrees for it to be a mutual option, and Kareen wants a year for her to see what happens between them, with nobody else interfering.  Kou expresses concern about whether Mark is safe for his daughter to be around.  Cordelia agrees that Mark has been through some Betan therapy, but paints him, to Koudelka, as a soldier, conscripted young and unwillingly, who has been fighting his own wars, and needs time to heal; this gets through to Kou at last.

“Kou, I wouldn’t have encouraged this relationship if I thought it was unsafe for either of our children.”

He looked back. “You? I know you! You trust beyond reason.”

She met his eyes steadily. “Yes. It’s how I get results beyond hope. As you may recall.”

He pursed his lips, unhappily, and toed his swordstick a little. He had no reply for this one. But a funny little smile turned Mama’s mouth, as she watched him.

Cordelia declares the matter settled with the option, until next year, when they can re-evaluate and consider an extension.  Kou isn’t pleased that the two of them will be “carrying on”, but Drou reminds him of their own carrying on, which they mostly felt safe doing because their relatives lived outside the city.  One by one, they all agree, Kou most reluctantly, with a “codicil” that he’ll hunt Mark down if Mark hurts his daughter.  Kareen can sense Mark’s Black Gang exulting inside his head; she pulls out her Betan earrings and puts them on, as a declaration of herself.

Comments

Obviously one of the scenes in this chapter is more pleasant than the other–can you guess which?  Yes, that’s right–now that Mark has marshaled Cordelia to his side, his and Kareen’s problems–with her parents, at least–are dealt with handily.  Mostly what Cordelia has to do is make them realize how hypocritical they’re being, given their own history.  The point about Mark’s finances is also well taken–I guess that Kou just leapt from the fact that Mark didn’t seem to have any _real_ money to throw around to him probably being broke.  But it took Cordelia recasting Mark as a wounded soldier to really get Kou starting to come over to his side, since of course Kou himself required a fair bit of healing after his own wars.  Anyway, this scene ties up Kareen‘s plotline, pretty much, though not Mark’s, quite, because there are still issues with butter bugs to come…

Ekaterin’s scene, on the other hand, is much less pleasant.  Her brother, and Tien’s cousin, are still fairly provincial Vor–maybe not quite Conservatives, but probably more on that side than the Progressives, considering the sources they consider authoritative for the rumours about Miles.  It would be funnier if it weren’t for that little thing about Vassily Vorsoisson being able to rescind her guardianship of Nikki.  (I believe I mentioned, probably in the last book, how ludicrous a rule that is, for a man’s cousin to have more rights to the man’s son than his own wife does.  But I guess that’s Barrayar for you.)  So she has to, unfortunately, take them at least a little seriously, though I’m sure even they could tell that she was doing it quite reluctantly.  (Just noticed the parallel–Ekaterin and Kareen both negotiating with unwilling relatives to keep from losing a loved one…  The difference being that Kareen’s parents are, in the end, swayed by logic.)

I was beginning to think, before Ekaterin did, that the very fact of being told she had to stay away from Miles was making her appreciate him more.  But I don’t really think it’s as much that she only wants him more the more she’s told she can’t have him, though.  It’s more that she’s starting to contrast “what life would be like with him” with “what life would be like without him” the more she experiences the latter and is deprived of the former.

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Not that many chapters left, just five, I think, so, with any luck, three more weeks.  We must be getting close to the climax now.  Which I think I recall fairely well, with the Council of Counts vote and the events leading up to, and during, it.  Should be a hoot.

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Happy New Year (for those of you following the Gregorian calendar, anyway), and welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread!  This is the start of the fourth calendar year of my reread of Lois McMaster Bujold’s exquisite Vorkosigan Saga, following Miles Vorkosigan and his friends, family and confederates through their adventures.  As the Christmas holidays draw to a close (for me, at least), I manage to persevere and to pull off two whole chapters this time–one of them a fairly unpleasant one, at that, as Miles’s dinner party turns into an unmitigated disaster.  Please join me for Chapters Nine and Ten of A Civil Campaign, if you dare…

Chapter Nine

Miles considers a number of potential outfits for the dinner party, rejecting his House and Imperial uniforms–briefly considering his Dendarii uniform, but afraid what Ivan and Illyan will say about it–before going back to his first choice, one of his normal gray Imperial Auditor suits.  Pym approves his choice, and Miles gets dressed, inspecting himself in the mirror and resisting the urge to pluck out gray hairs.

He goes the recheck the arrangements in the dining room, where he has carefully planned the seating so that Ekaterin is next to Miles, Kareen next to Mark, and Ivan in the middle far from either of them.  Lady Donna should be able to occupy all of Ivan’s attention anyway.  Miles recalls Ivan’s affair with Lady Donna, which he’d watched enviously, and Lady Alys had been quite disapproving of.  Of course, these days Lady Donna would still be able to have a child, no matter her age; he wonders if Lady Alys and Illyan are planning to have one, and makes a note to suggest it to Ivan at some appropriate moment–like when his mouth is full.  And on some other night.

Mark wanders in, dressed in black, and considers the place cards; Miles sternly warns him to leave them alone, and Mark asks if he can at least move Duv and Delia  farther away from him.  Miles says he needs to keep René Vorbretten next to Lady Alys, as a favour, and tells Mark he needs to be prepared to deal with Duv as part of the family, if he’s serious about Kareen.  Mark says that Duv must have mixed feelings about him.  Miles wonders how serious Mark really is about Kareen, and decides he should ask the Countess.

Pym announces the arrival of Alys and Illyan; Alys inspects the place settings, pronouncing a qualified approval but noting that the sexes aren’t matched–nine men and ten women–before going to talk with Ma Kosti.  Miles greets Illyan and asks if Alys has explained about Ekaterin to him.

“Yes, and Ivan had a few comments as well. Something on the theme of fellows who fall into the muck-hole and return with the gold ring.”

“I haven’t got to the gold ring part yet,” said Miles ruefully. “But that’s certainly my plan. I’m looking forward to you all meeting her.”

“She’s the one, is she?”

“I hope so.”

Illyan’s smile sharpened at Miles’s fervent tone. “Good luck, son.”

“Thanks. Oh, one word of warning. She’s still in her mourning year, you see. Did Alys or Ivan explain—”

He is interrupted by the announcement of the Koudelkas’ arrival, and goes to greet them in the library, Mark following him closely.  Armsman Roic brings out hors d’oeuvres and drinks, Mark talks to Kareen’s parents, and Illyan and Alys join them shortly thereafter.  Miles listens for the door, disappointed by the arrival of the Vorbrettens.  The next arrivals prove to be the Vorthyses and Ekaterin at last, and Miles eagerly goes to welcome them himself.

Ekaterin is wearing the Barrayar pendant he’d given her, and taking off garden gloves; she announces she’s just planted the first Barrayaran plan in his garden.  Miles says he’ll have to go see it later, and offers her his arm.  He escorts her to the library, where she is somewhat anxious, but he introduces her to the Vorbrettens, then to Alys and Illyan; she seems somewhat nervous at meeting the legendary former ImpSec head, but Illyan puts her at her ease, and seems to approve of her.

Enrique arrives, done up quite respectably, and shyly asks Ekaterin if she read his dissertation.  Ekaterin says most of it went over her head, and comments on the abstract being done in verse; Enrique says he’s sure she got most of it.  Miles notices that they’re using first names with each other, and that Ekaterin reacted to a compliment on her intelligence the way she never would on her appearance; he suddenly realizes that Enrique may be another rival for her affections.

Miles almost misses the announcement of Ivan and his guest, before realizing the Pym had said “Lord Dono” Vorrutyer…  He wonders why Ivan has pulled this last-minute substitution on him, and who this fellow is; mid-handshake the penny drops, and he smoothly asks if Lord Dono has been to Beta Colony.  As he introduces Dono to Ekaterin his mind begins to work through the implications of Dono’s change–obviously he hadn’t cloned Pierre after all.  Dono asks to discuss it with Miles at more length; Miles says that as an Imperial Auditor he has to remain neutral, but he recommends Dono talk to René Vorbretten, who also has a pending suit, as well as Professora Vorthys, who specializes in Barryaran political history, and Lady Alys and Simon Illyan.  Dono thanks him appreciatively and moves on.

Miles snags Ivan and asks if Gregor knows about Dono yet.  Ivan says he made sure of that right away, and Miles correctly guesses Gregor’s intent to “see what happens”.  Ekaterin asks what that was all about, and why Miles seems amused; Miles takes her aside and brings her up to speed on the Lady Donna/Lord Dono situation.  Miles admits he was caught off-guard, but in retrospect it makes an absurd sort of sense; Ekaterin objects mildly to the term ‘absurd’, and drifts towards where Dono is now surrounded with the Koudelka women.

Ivan returns to Miles, who twits him about his taste in dates; Ivan tells him how By Vorrutyer set him up.  Duv, Koudelka and Professor Vorthys join them; the women begin laughing, glancing at the men in amusement.  Miles decides that now is the time to serve dinner, to break this up before it gets too out of hand.  As they are leaving the library, though, Miles sees Mark and Ivan emerging from the dining room, where it emerges they have been reshuffling the carefully-ordered place settings.

All his carefully rehearsed conversational gambits were for people now on the other end of the table. Seating was utterly randomized—no, not randomized, he realized. Reprioritized. Ivan’s goal had clearly been to get Lord Dono as far away from himself as possible; Ivan now was taking his chair at the far end of the table by Mark, while Lord Dono seated himself in the place Miles had intended for René Vorbretten. Duv, Drou, and Kou had somehow all migrated Miles-ward, farther from Mark. Mark still kept Kareen at his right hand, but Ekaterin had been bumped down the other side of the table, beyond Illyan, who was still on Miles’s immediate left. It seemed no one had quite dared touch Illyan’s card. Miles would now have to speak across Illyan to converse with her, no sotto voce remarks possible.

Aunt Alys, looking a little confused, seated herself at Miles’s honored right, directly across from Illyan. She’d clearly noticed the switches, but failed Miles’s last hope of help by saying nothing, merely letting her eyebrows flick up. Duv Galeni found his future mother-in-law Drou between himself and Delia. Illyan glanced at the cards and seated Ekaterin between himself and Duv, and the accompli was fait.

Miles kept smiling; Mark, ten places distant, was too far away to catch the I-will-get-you-for-this-later edge to it.

After that, the dinner itself proceeds well enough; Ekaterin seems unconcerned with her ImpSec neighbours.  The menu seems a bit odd, though–a creamy soup, a creamy salad dressing, an aromatic herb spread for the bread…  Miles realizes that the meal is full of bug butter, and so does Ekaterin, though she determinedly pretends nothing is wrong.  Miles decides not to warn off his guests, though he avoids it himself.

Enrique gets up and taps on his glass to make an announcement.  He thanks Vorkosigan House for its hospitality, and says that he has a gift to give them in return, which fills Miles with dread.  Enrique takes out a box and sets it down next to Miles; the ImpSec men tense up, prepared for the worst.  He opens it, and it proves to contain three butter bugs, but changed; their carapaces are now adorned with a perfect replica of the Vorkosigan crest in brown and silver.  At Lord Dono’s puzzlement, Enrique explains the butter bugs, and how the bug butter they produce has been the basis for the food they’ve been eating.  He also says that the design was added genetically, and should breed true.  Pym seems quite distressed that the insignia he wears so proudly is now decorating repulsive insects; Miles tells him quietly that it wasn’t intended as an insult.

Miles tries his hardest to control his response; Ekaterin’s opinion is paramount, and from what he recalls of Tien, the man was probably given to displays of vicious temper.  He takes a deep breath and compliments Enrique’s talent, asking him to put the “girls” away for now; Ekaterin breaths a sigh of relief.  Enrique returns to his seat and happily tells his neighbours, the Vorbrettens, all about the bugs, but the rest of the conversation has ground to a halt.  Miles sends Pym to the kitchen for the next course, but asking him to check it for bug butter first.  What emerges is poached salmon garnished with lemon slices, instead of the buttery sauce that was doubtless meant to accompany it.

Ekaterin, trying to break the ice, asks Duv, as a Komarran in ImpSec, about his family’s opinion of his career; Duv, initially taken aback, merely replies that his new family approves of it.  Ekaterin picks up that she’s committed a faux pas, but doesn’t know what it is.  Koudelka changes the subject to the Komarran soletta repairs, which seems like a safer subject.  Before the conversation can get going again, though, everyone hears Enrique talking loudly to Kareen about how, with butter bug profits, she’ll surely be able to go back to the Orb of Unearthly Delights back on Beta Colony–again–with Mark.  Commodore Koudelka, obviously aware of the Orb’s reputation as a pleasure dome where almost everything was available for the asking, spews his mouthful of wine across the table and begins to choke.

Kou got just enough breath back to gasp at Mark, “You took my daughter to the Orb?”

Kareen, utterly panicked, blurted, “It was part of his therapy!”

Mark, panicked worse, added in desperate exculpation, “We got a Clinic discount . . .”

Galeni freezes at the news that Mark may be a prospective brother-in-law, and Koudelka begins to hyperventilate; Drou, who had gotten up to help her husband, deliberately sits back down, with a glare that conveys that they will discuss this later.  Lady Alys tries gamely to resume the soletta conversation, only to be interrupted by the arrival of a pair of kittens in the dining room, one of them carrying a Vorkosigan-liveried bug in its mouth.  Enrique tries to rescue it–too late–and Miles begins to wonder how the kitten managed to get hold of a butter bug, if they were all secured…  He asks Enrique and Mark, and Enrique, caught by a sudden thought, suddenly excuses himself and dashes away; Mark follows, and so does Miles, hastily instructing Lady Alys to take over as host.

In the laboratory, he finds Enrique kneeling by a butter bug house, its lid knocked askew, and only one brown-and-silver bug therein.  Enrique says the cats must have knocked it over–most of the bugs have escaped, close to two hundred.  Miles contemplates all the places a butter bug can hide, and says that at least they should all be neuter workers, since the queens can’t move.

“Um,” said Enrique.

Miles chose his words carefully. “You assured me the queens couldn’t move.”

Mature queens can’t move, that’s true,” Enrique explained, climbing to his feet again, and shaking his head. “Immature queens, however, can scuttle like lightning.”

Miles thought it through; it took only a split-second. Vorkosigan-liveried vomit bugs. Vorkosigan-liveried vomit bugs all over Vorbarr Sultana.

There was an ImpSec trick, which involved grabbing a man by the collar and giving it a little half-twist, and doing a thing with the knuckles; applied correctly, it cut off both blood circulation and breath. Miles was absently pleased to see that he hadn’t lost his touch, despite his new civilian vocation. He drew Enrique’s darkening face down toward his own.

He gives Enrique an ultimatum–to get all the bugs back, including their queen, by six hours before his parents are due to return home, because after that he’s going to call in professional exterminators.  At Ekaterin’s shocked exclamation, he involuntarily releases Enrique’s collar, but Kareen steps forward to berate the Escobaran for mentioning the Orb.  Ekaterin assures Enrique that Miles can be reasonable, and offers to stay and help him hunt.  Miles, arrested by this unwelcome image, grudgingly agrees that, after dinner, they should all help look for the bugs, including the armsmen.

Mark offers to stay and help Enrique, but Kareen says that she refuses to deal with her parents and sisters all by herself.  Miles asks what Mark was doing, taking a young Barrayaran lady to the Orb in the first place.  Kareen calls Miles a hypocrite, since his grandmother said he’d been there several times; Miles insists that it was all for intelligence-gathering purposes.  He cuts off further argument by saying they should return to dinner, before Ma Kosti gets annoyed with them, and this shuts them up.

They return to the table, Pym serves more wine, and conversation is more-or-less successfully directed to the topic of the Emperor’s wedding, though Mark and Koudelka mostly just eye each other warily.  Ekaterin seems subdued, except for laughing at a few of Dono’s jokes.  After the main course, also bug-butter-free, the dessert proves to be a frozen creamy concoction; Pym tells Miles that Ma Kosti was already upset about her sauces, and refused to budge on the dessert.  Miles resolutely takes a spoonful, and is somewhat annoyed to find that it’s incredibly delicious; Ekaterin and Kareen seem especially delighted about this.

Miles has just finished a rousing anecdote about acquiring his District’s wedding gift–a life-size maple-sugar sculpture of a guerrilla–and is preparing to ask her a leading question about her garden, when Illyan innocently asks Ekaterin about how long Miles has been courting her.  Half the people at the table wince; Olivia says, confused, that she’d thought they weren’t supposed to talk about that yet.  Miles sees that Ekaterin’s face is freezing into stone; in a last-ditch effort, he asks her to marry him.

Ekaterin made no response at all, at first. For a moment, it seemed as though she had not even heard his words, and Miles almost yielded to a suicidal impulse to repeat himself more loudly. Aunt Alys buried her face in her hands. Miles could feel his breathless grin grow sickly, and slide down his face. No, no. What I should have said—what I meant to say was . . . please pass the bug butter? Too late . . .

She visibly unlocked her throat, and spoke. Her words fell from her lips like ice chips, singly and shattering. “How strange. And here I thought you were interested in gardens. Or so you told me.”

You lied to me hung in the air between them, unspoken, thunderously loud.

So yell. Scream. Throw something. Stomp on me all up and down, it’ll be all right, it’ll hurt good—I can deal with that—

Instead, she gets up from the table, bids farewell to her aunt, and walks quickly out of the room.  Miles follows her, catching her up in the entry hall, saying they need to talk.  Ekaterin agrees, then tells him she resigns as his landscape designer, though she will pass on her designs for whoever he picks to finish her garden–if a garden was what he wanted in the first place.  Miles says that he wanted the garden and to spend time with her, but he couldn’t tell her all of that, because she wasn’t close to being healed from Tien’s treatment of her.  Ekaterin flinches at the truth of that, but excoriates him for playing on her vanity.

“Not vanity,” he protested. “Skill, pride, drive—anyone could see you just needed scope, opportunity—”

“You are used to getting your own way, aren’t you, Lord Vorkosigan. Any way you can.” Now her voice was horribly dispassionate. “Trapping me in front of everyone like that.”

“That was an accident. Illyan didn’t get the word, see, and—”

“Unlike everyone else? You’re worse than Vormoncrief! I might just as well have accepted his offer!”

“Huh? What did Alexi—I mean, no, but, but—whatever you want, I want to give it to you, Ekaterin. Whatever you need. Whatever it is.”

“You can’t give me my own soul.” She stared, not at him, but inward, on what vista he could not imagine. “The garden could have been my gift. You took that away too.”

Miles wants to follow up this last statement, but a large groundcar is pulling up outside, and Ekaterin takes advantage of this distraction to insist that Pym let her out.  As Ekaterin turns to flee, she bumps directly into the early-returned Count Aral Vorkosigan.  He and Cordelia express concern at the young lady’s distress, assure her that they will call a cab for her directly, and ask Miles what is going on.  Miles says his dinner party is just breaking up; he tries to introduce Ekaterin to her, but is interrupted by Ekaterin’s abrupt retreat from the house.  The Koudelkas soon follow suit, insisting that Kareen come home with them, and stay out of Vorkosigan House, despite Kareen’s insistence that she works there; Mark tries to insist it’s his fault.

Commodore Koudelka’s eye fell on the returnees as the rolling altercation piled up in the hallway. “Ha—Aral!” he snarled. “Do you realize what your son has been up to?”

The Count blinked. “Which one?” he asked mildly.

The chance of the light caught Mark’s face, as he heard this off-hand affirmation of his identity. Even in the chaos of his hopes pinwheeling to destruction, Miles was glad to have seen the brief awed look that passed over those fat-distorted features. Oh, Brother. Yeah. This is why men follow this man—

Olivia is allowed to leave with the Vorbrettens instead, who try to sneak out quietly; Lord Dono makes a point of complimenting Miles on his interesting dinner party.  Enrique wanders into the entry hall, with some kind of unpleasantly-scented lure on a stick, searching for his bugs.

“Pym!” The Countess spotted a new victim, and her voice went a little dangerous. “I seconded you to look after Miles. Would you care to explain this scene?”

There was a thoughtful pause. In a voice of simple honesty, Pym replied, “No, Milady.”

“Ask Mark,” Miles said callously. “He’ll explain everything.” Head down, he started for the stairs.

Comments

Hoo boy, that was an ordeal.  It’s painful to read.  As I said before, when I first read the book, I was looking forward to this scene, getting all these characters together in one room–it would be a lot of fun.  Like one of those Emperor’s Birthday or Winterfair scenes from other books–which often had their share of unpleasantness, but nothing like the meltdown that happens here.  I guess that didn’t fit in with the plot, though.  Enrique and Illyan between them manage to say just the wrong things, bringing Miles and Kareen’s secrets to light–Kareen about the exact nature of her relationship with Mark, and Miles’s singularly unsecret campaign for Ekaterin’s heart.  In hindsight, of course, it’s inevitable, because in both cases the secrets have been shared so widely that almost everyone but the person/people that they were supposed to be secret from knew about them.

It’s almost a little off, that even Miles is judgemental about Mark and Kareen having a sexual relationship, or maybe it’s just that the Orb is taking it too far.  He should know that Mark hasn’t internalized a true Barrayaran value system–his upbringing by Ser Galen probably included a fair chunk of it, but I’m sure it didn’t thoroughly take.  The Koudelkas, of course, aren’t true Vor, but they probably wish they were, on some level, and prefer to emulate the true Vor value system as much as possible–like Bothari, everything has to be right for their girls.  It’s more than a little hypocritical for both of them, but as I recall we get to that a little later.

At some point in this chapter Miles thinks to himself that he was no good at poetry (apart from limericks), being much better at planning combat drop missions.  This obviously shows, because his campaign for Ekaterin is like one of those combat drop missions, where he tries to plan every detail, getting potential rivals out of the way (and sharing too much vital intelligence on the way), and then suddenly everything goes pear-shaped, just like Mark’s clone-rescue on Jackson’s Whole back in Mirror Dance.  Or, if I may venture into an entirely different mythos, like Phil Connors’s calculated attempts to woo Rita, over and over, in “Groundhog Day”.

At least this is the low point.  Miles and Mark’s love lives are as screwed up as they can get–but now Countess Cordelia is there, and she can help them untangle themselves.  Yes, I know, sometimes it seems a little pat, having her as the fix-it person, but right now it’s a positive relief…

Chapter Ten

Countess Cordelia wakes Mark up the next afternoon, bringing him tea, but not food.  Mark had sought refuge in Gorge and Howl last night after fleeing the party, eating his way through several tubs of bug butter.  Cordelia says that Miles sought his refuge, more traditionally, in wine, and they shouldn’t expect to see him again before evening.  Mark’s last memory of the party were Koudelka calling Mark’s grandmother a “Betan pimp” and Kareen refusing to ride home with “uncultured Barrayaran savages”.

Cordelia says she had a most enlightening conversation with the Vorthyses, particularly the Professora, who she wished she’d known earlier.  Simon Illyan was quite distraught at spilling the beans; he’d apparently thought that he’d forgotten something important that Miles had told him.  The Countess is annoyed at Miles for setting Illyan up like that, and also for not passing on more information about Ekaterin in his brief missives.  She had also had a talk with Enrique; she says his work seems sound, and she promised to keep Miles from killing his bugs.  They found a couple in their bedroom that morning, one of which got squished by accident, but neither of them was the queen.

She tells Mark she feels some responsibility for Kareen, being perfectly aware of what choices she would have available to her on Beta Colony.  She adds that she would be perfectly happy to have Kareen as a daughter-in-law, and that she trusts Mark’s intentions to be honorable.  Mark says he doesn’t think that the Koudelkas would be that keen to see him in the family.

“You are a Vorkosigan.”

“A clone. An imitation. A cheap Jacksonian knock-off.” And crazy to boot.

“A bloody expensive Jacksonian knock-off.”

Cordelia says she’s more than happy to help him and Kareen, if they can only tell her what it is they want.  Mark, cautious about what problems he aims his mother at, says that he wants what Kareen wants, but that seems to have gotten confused since their return to Barrayar.  He tells her that Kareen wants time to be herself, and Barrayar seems to be trying to push her into a box–even “wife” would be a box, here.  She asks what his own goals are, and if they’ve changed with his time on Beta.  Mark says his therapy has made progress, and it’s encouraged him; economics school was helpful, and he’s gotten some good ideas about what to do to make the Jackson’s Whole clone-body replacements less desirable, including some potential life-extension treatments the Duronas have come up with.

He’s pumping money into the Durona Group, but he wants enough to maintain financial independence as well, and so he’s looking into his “agribusiness” venture on Barrayar.  Cordelia notes that they could come in handy on Sergyar too, though she admits that they should remove the Vorkosigan crest before pitching them seriously to Aral.  Mark says that it’ll all come to nothing if he and Kareen can’t get back to Beta Colony.  He’d probably be able to pay her way back, but he doesn’t think that would be a good idea, putting her in his debt like that.  Cordelia finds that interesting, but points out that if they both give each other everything, then it evens out.

The Countess finished her tea and put down her cup, “Well. I don’t wish to invade your privacy. But do remember, you’re allowed to ask for help. It’s part of what families are all about.”

“I owe you too much already, milady.”

Her smile tilted. “Mark, you don’t pay back your parents. You can’t. The debt you owe them gets collected by your children, who hand it down in turn. It’s a sort of entailment. Or if you don’t have children of the body, it’s left as a debt to your common humanity. Or to your God, if you possess or are possessed by one.”

“I’m not sure that seems fair.”

“The family economy evades calculation in the gross planetary product. It’s the only deal I know where, when you give more than you get, you aren’t bankrupted—but rather, vastly enriched.”

Mark asks if she can help Miles; she says that’s more difficult, because she doesn’t know about the Ekaterin side of the equation.  She’s of the opinion that he dug his own hole, he’ll have to dig his way out.

After she leaves, Mark tries calling the Koudelka household on the comconsole, preparing various conversational gambits for whoever may answer, but it turns out they’ve blocked him entirely.

Ekaterin has somewhat of a hangover the day after the dinner party as well–with Pym topping up her wineglass, she was sure she’d drunk several times her usual two-glass limit.  At least it had given her the courage to run out.
She’s prepared all the notes on the Barrayaran garden, but she hesitates on the final act of sending it to Miles and closing off that chapter of her life entirely.  She ponders the model of Barrayar that Miles had given her, remembering the shopping trip on Komarr with its watery climax, and the way he’d awarded it to her in the transfer station.  She convinces herself that it was really an award, not a gift, because if it was a gift she should never have accepted it, and therefore she earned it, and doesn’t have to get rid of it.

She’d almost gone back to the garden and taken her skellytum rootling back out, but she’d been afraid of running afoul of Vorkosigan House security, who would likely have been quite embarrassed.  Miles didn’t care about it, in any case–after all, he hadn’t gone out to look at it, had he?  She’d carried it around long enough, it had survived enough mishaps and moves, and now she was done with it–she would leave it to its fate in the garden.  Though she does add an appendix about its requirements to the garden instructions.

Nikki thumps into the room, making her wince; she’s glad she hadn’t brought him along to the dinner party, where she might have been trapped, unable to retreat with him complaining about not having finished his dessert.  He asks if she’d settled on when she could go out to Vorkosigan Surleau and ride Miles’s horse, a topic which had come up during one of his visits to Vorkosigan House.  Miles had generously allowed Nikki to visit the house sometimes when Ekaterin had to bring him to work, playing with Armsman Pym’s son, and sometimes Armsman Roic, eating Ma Kosti’s food, even helping Kareen in the lab, and had made this offhand invitation at the end of one such day.  Now she wonders how calculated this invitation had been.

She tries to put Nikki off by telling him they can’t impose on him, and suggests they try somewhere closer if he wants to ride horses.  Nikki says that Miles offered to let him try flying his lightflyer on the way down, too; Ekaterin says he’s too young, but Nikki says that Miles first flew when he was younger than that.  He presses her to ask Lord Vorkosigan next time she goes to work, and finally she has to tell him that she quit her position.  When Nikki asks her why, she says it was an ethical issue.

“What? What issue?” His voice was laced with confusion and disbelief. He twisted himself around the other way.

“I found he’d . . . lied to me about something.” He promised he’d never lie to me. He’d feigned that he was very interested in gardens. He’d arranged her life by subterfuge—and then told everyone else in Vorbarr Sultana. He’d pretended he didn’t love her. He’d as much as promised he’d never ask her to marry him. He’d lied. Try explaining that to a nine-year-old boy. Or to any other rational human being of any age or gender, her honesty added bitterly. Am I insane yet? Anyway, Miles hadn’t actually said he wasn’t in love with her, he’d just . . . implied it. Avoided saying much on the subject at all, in fact. Prevarication by misdirection.

“Oh,” said Nikki, eyes wide, daunted at last.

Aunt Vorthys ushers Nikki out of the room, telling him his mother has a hangover, which is a concept he has some trouble getting his mind around.  She returns a while later with water and painkillers, which Ekaterin takes dutifully.  She says, mournfully, that it must have been the Count and Countess Vorkosigan last night, that she had bumped into and fled past.  Her aunt agrees, and says she had quite a nice conversation with them.  Ekaterin says they must think she’s a lunatic, the way she ran out like that.  But she can’t believe what Miles did to her, either.

Her aunt says that she didn’t have much choice but to run out–otherwise, she’d have had to answer Miles’s question.  Ekaterin is confused–wasn’t her departure answer enough?

“He knew it was a mistake the moment the words were out of his mouth, I daresay, at least judging from that ghastly expression on his face. You could see everything just drain right out of it. Extraordinary. But I can’t help wondering, dear—if you’d wanted to say no, why didn’t you? It was the perfect opportunity to do so.”

“I . . . I . . .” Ekaterin tried to collect her wits, which seemed to be scattering like sheep. “It wouldn’t have been . . . polite.”

After a thoughtful pause, her aunt murmured, “You might have said, `No, thank you.’ ”

Ekaterin rubbed her numb face. “Aunt Vorthys,” she sighed, “I love you dearly. But please go away now.”

She does realize, after her aunt leaves, that she was right–she hadn’t actually answered the question, and she hadn’t realized it.  She recognizes her feeling, heartsickness, all too familiar from her rows with Tien, the cold feeling after the argument broke down.  She doesn’t want to return to that state again.  She’s not sure who she is anymore, where her home could be.  She has felt moments of deep calm in Miles’s presence, and also extreme exasperation.  But she doesn’t trust her own judgement anymore.

She considers adding a note to the garden plans, but decides that just sending them will be message enough, and sends them without further ado, then goes to lie down.

After a day of sulking in his bed, Miles emerges in the evening, and enters the library to find his parents there.  He mumbles a greeting to them, and after a moment asks them about their trip home; his mother says it was quite uneventful, at least until their arrival.  She says they missed him at mealtimes that day; Miles says he spent a lot of time throwing up, which wouldn’t have been much fun.

The Countess added astringently, “Are you done with that now?”

“Yeh. It didn’t help.” Miles slumped a little further, and stretched his legs out before him. “A life in ruins with vomiting is still a life in ruins.”

“Mm,” said the Count in a judicious tone, “though it does make it easy to be a recluse. If you’re repulsive enough, people spontaneously avoid you.”

The Count asks Miles if he has any Auditing to do; Miles says no, fortunately for them.  Aral says that Alys gave them a heavily editorialized account of the dinner party, and says she hopes he wouldn’t have retreated from a losing battle the way he did last night.  Cordelia says that a woman running screaming from Miles’s marriage proposal isn’t a good sign, but from what she heard Miles didn’t leave her much choice.  She asks Miles how bad Ekaterin’s prior marriage was; Miles says that from what he could tell, Tien Vorsoisson played so many head games with his wife that she must have been half-convinced she was crazy, a type that Cordelia says she recognizes well.

He admits he panicked when Illyan spilled the beans, never wanting to ambush her like that.  He starts to explain his brilliant plan, to use her interest in gardens to keep her in proximity to him by hiring her to put one in the lot next door.

“Is that what that crater is,” said his father. “In the dark, from the groundcar, it looked as though someone tried to shell Vorkosigan House and missed, and I’d wondered why no one had reported it to us.”

“It is not a crater. It’s a sunken garden. There’s just . . . just no plants in it yet.”

“It has a very nice shape, Miles,” his mother said soothingly. “I went out and walked through it this afternoon. The little stream is very pretty indeed. It reminds me of the mountains.”

“That was the idea,” said Miles, primly ignoring his father’s mutter of . . . after a Cetagandan bombing raid on a guerilla position . . .

Miles suddenly remembers the skellytum Ekaterin said she’d planted, and panic briefly over what might have happened to it, before deciding it was just another reason she was mad at him.  Cordelia paraphrases his plan as trying to keep a destitute widow from other romantic opportunities by manipulating her purse strings, which Miles considers an uncharitable description.  He can’t believe she’d just quit working on the garden after all the time she’d devoted to it.

Cordelia reminds him of an incident from his youth, where he’d won a game of cross-ball against Armsman Esterhazy, his first win ever, only to find out later that Esterhazy had lost on purpose.  He’d been furious, and never forgiven the insult; Cordelia says that Esterhazy had done it to cheer him up, but Miles said it stole his victory from him, and poisoned any later victory he happened to achieve.  His mother lets this sink in for a few seconds.

The light dawned. Even with his eyes squeezed shut, the intensity of the glare hurt his head.

“Oh. Noooo,” groaned Miles, muffled into the cushion he jammed over his face. “I did that to her?”

His remorseless parent let him stew in it, a silence sharper-edged than words.

I did that to her . . .” he moaned, pitifully.

He realizes what she’d meant about the garden being her gift…he’d just been hoping they were finally getting into the real matter, so they could have a real argument…so that, as his father supplies, he could win.  Aral says you can’t win that war except by surrendering.  Miles said he tried to surrender; his mother points out that she wasn’t lowering herself to Miles’s level, and hopes that sometime they can actually properly meet this woman.  Miles says she sent the garden plans to him, no message or anything, and asks what he should do now.  Cordelia asks if she’s going to actually listen to his advice, because otherwise she won’t give it; Miles swallows his anger and humbly says that he’s listening.

Cordelia says he owes Ekaterin an apology.  He says Ekaterin won’t even talk to him, and she admits that he can’t go over to the Vorthys house in person, or even make a live comconsole call, without being too invasive.  She suggests he write a short note of apology, as abject as he can manage.  Handwritten, if he can make it legible, without having a secretary do it.

Miles says he doesn’t even have a secretary, since his workload hasn’t required it yet; Aral says that he can’t wish Miles had more problems to solve, and after all, solving the Komarr soletta problem should have earned him some time off.  Cordelia wonders what Ekaterin earned for her own contribution, and Miles grumbles that she should have earned the gratitude of the Empire, except that the whole thing has been classified.  She was heroic, she didn’t fold under the pressure, she did what she had to–and she doesn’t get the recognition for it.  Cordelia points out that everyone has some pressure they’ll fold under, it’s just not the same kind of pressure for everyone.

Miles heads out to water the skellytum, which takes him some time to find, and wonders if it’s hardy enough to survive out here.  He ponders what his life will be like when the skellytum is full-grown again–reclusive bachelor, or proud paterfamilias?  He heads back inside, determined to nail this damned “abject” if it kills him.

Comments

Professora Vorthys seems to be a wise woman too, someone who Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan gets along with instantly, with perhaps not quite the same uncanny insight, but good enough for a second-stringer, anyway.  (Do we ever find out her first name?  I can’t recall.)  I do think that Ekaterin has a point–fleeing indecorously from a marriage proposal should, probably, be considered a “no”, but I suppose that her aunt also has a point, in that Ekaterin has avoided actually saying anything one way or the other.

Cordelia’s shrewd comparison of Miles’s hiring of Ekaterin being like an adult intentionally losing a game to a child hits right to the heart of the problem with Miles’s plan.  The garden was never, really, Miles’s primary goal–that was, always, the conquest of Ekaterin’s heart.  He wasn’t planning to _lie_ to her, exactly, about anything, except perhaps his reasons for spending time with her.  Though he was also trying to present his best features to her, but that might be considered normal to someone one is dating, or courting.  Is it acceptable for an employer-employee relationship?  Perhaps–everyone wants to come off well, don’t they?  Admittedly, back on Komarr they had already gotten past that stage, to some extent–Ekaterin saw him in the throes of a seizure, she saw him chained up outside the Waste Heat Station, she saw him soaking wet in the pond.  So Miles was getting off track, trying to backpedal in his treatment of her, because he was beginning to see her a precious treasure to be won, rather than just a person that he was beginning to rely on.  Not someone it was important to tell only the truth, but someone whose inconvenient emotional baggage was an obstacle that needed to be worked around.  So, between Cordelia explicitly pointing out his mistake, and Ekaterin implicitly letting him know that he was way off base, Miles has been thrown off of that track.  Maybe he can start thinking of her as a person again…

As for Mark…he did, indeed, have some reservations about just offering to spring for Kareen’s schooling.  In some ways it would be the right thing to do, but it would only convey the proper message if they were both on the same page, relationship-wise.  And it can’t really be used to put them on the same page.  I’ve seen some real-world relationships where two people date, then live together, well enough, but then one of them has to move to another city for work…  If they both make the move together, then it seems that either they get engaged shortly thereafter, or they break up.  It’s a bit of a crucible for a relationship, it seems, and, with Kareen’s uncertainty about things since their return to Barrayar, Mark doesn’t know if it’ll work out for them any more.  Maybe Kareen is overreacting to the idea of being put in the “wife” box, which is doubtless one that means different things on Barrayar than it does on Beta Colony, and probably a little, or large, bit different for every culture everywhere; after all, she hasn’t even had Ekaterin’s bad experience to make her gun-shy, and I don’t see any evidence that she’s even heard Ekaterin’s horror stories about Tien.  But being back on Barrayar seems to be making her think of things in Barrayaran ways, even if on some level she may know that Mark doesn’t have that same level of indoctrination.  I confess, Kareen is the POV character I have the most trouble sympathizing with here, but maybe that’s because I can see inside Mark’s head and know how he feels about her.  Maybe Kareen knows that too, or maybe she doesn’t, and maybe I’m just being an ignorant straight white male here, but I keep feeling like she’s blowing everything out of proportion.  Except that she seems to have been bang-on about her parents’ reactions, of course…


Two chapters, hurrah!  Maybe things will pick up after this, and I can speed things up a little.  You can hope, anyway.  I’m not going to go so far as to make it a Resolution or anything, to do two chapters a week, but it could happen.  As long as they’re not too long…

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Are you still shell-shocked from watching this season’s Game of Thrones?  Full of schadenfreude from having known what was going to happen for years?  Trying to avoid spoilers (good luck with that!), or just not caring about the whole thing?  Why not come visit a story where weddings are, in general, less fraught–Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga?  Admittedly, there are no actual weddings in Memory, though some people are certainly thinking matrimonial thoughts.  So let’s cover another couple of chapters, picking up Miles during his visit to the Dendarii Mountains and following him to where the real plot of the book…doesn’t quite start yet.  But Miles is almost recovered enough to be able to deal with it when it does.

Chapter Eleven

Miles points out a clearing in front of a nearby cabin–Speaker Karal’s, last time he visited, and Martin lands the lightflyer there.  A man comes out of the cabin–not Speaker Karal, though, but a younger man with a proprietary air.  Miles gets out of the lightflyer uncertainly, briefly wishing for an actual bodyguard, but the stranger recognizes him and comes to greet him.  Miles says it’s merely a social visit; the man asks if Miles recognizes him, then introduces him as Zed Karal, who was just a boy for Miles’s last visit.  Miles asks after his parents, uncertain, and Zed says they stay with his brother and sister-in-law for the winter.

“Is . . . Karal not the Speaker of Silvy Vale anymore, then?”

“No, we have a new Speaker, as of about two years ago. A young hotshot full of Progressive ideas he picked up living in Hassadar, just your type. I think you’ll remember him all right. Name’s Lem Csurik.” Zed’s smile broadened.

Miles smiles for the first time that day and says he’d like to see Lem.  Zed offers to guide them to the new clinic, where Lem will be working, and hops into the lightflyer to guide Martin and a bemused Miles.  Over the next ridge they set down in front of the frame of a six-room building under construction.  Lem recognizes Miles instantly (of course), and greets him happily.  He tells Miles about the new clinic, which they hope to have finished before winter, after which they’ll have an actual doctor, one of the Countess’s scholarship students from Hassadar.

Miles asks about the dam, and Lem says they built it themselves, after giving up waiting for the District giving them a receiver for satellite power.  They looked over a dam from another village, figured out how they could make one themselves, subcontracting the tricky parts to an engineer from Hassadar in exchange for a summer cabin.  Lem says that this was the best site for the dam, and has made it possible for the village to improve, so they can have power for the clinic.

“You didn’t let anything stop you, did you?”

“Well, m’lord, you know who I learned that from.”

Harra, his wife, of course. Raina’s mother.

Miles asks after Harra, who he’s now starting to want to talk to as much as he had Raina; Lem says she’s teaching at the school, along with another girl Harra’s training.  Lem says Harra will doubtless want to see Miles as well, and get in the lightflyer for his own turn as guide.  They arrive at the log cabin labelled as the Raina Csurik School.  Harra is teaching a class of teenagers, their wooden desks nonetheless holding comconsole links, but she interrupts the class to greet Miles, hugging him warmly.  He did attend her graduation from teacher’s college in Hassadar, but hasn’t seen her since then.  Harra introduces her to his class, who view him with interest more than revulsion; in fact, at the front of the class are three pictures–the Emperor and their Count, by regulation, but Miles as well.  Miles feels a little self-conscious about his shabby clothes, but he gives an impromptu rah-rah speech before Harra shows him to the younger class as well.

Miles tells Harra that he’d really come to burn an offering on Raina’s grave, but he wouldn’t be able to do that now without setting his boat on fire, unless they moved her grave somewhere else.  Harra says they did move most of the graves to a ridge above the lake–not her mother, of course, dishonoured by Raina’s murder, and not Raina, because they couldn’t find her tiny body and makeshift coffin.  Instead, she considers the school Raina’s memorial, and teaching like burning an offering.  She asks after his health, and he says he’s recovering from illness.  Harra invites him for lunch to meet their own children, after dismissing the classes early.

They descended by lightflyer unannounced upon Lem’s sister, who rose to the challenge smoothly. The lunch she provided was, thank God, light. Miles dutifully met and admired Csurik children, nieces, and nephews. He was hijacked by them and taken on a stroll through the woods, and viewed a favorite swimming hole. He waded gravely along with them on the smooth stones with his boots off, till his feet were numb with the chill, and in a voice of Vorish authority pronounced it a most excellent swimming hole, perhaps the finest in his District. He was obviously an anomaly of some fascination, an adult almost their own size.

They return to the school in later afternoon, where a gathering is already well underway, a celebration of his presence, and he realizes he’s getting a party that day after all.  They’re not getting out that night, and, given the maple mead being pased around, probably not until the next afternoon.  By the time the bonfire’s blazing and he’s had a few sips of mead himself, Miles finds himself actually beginning to relax.  Martin is teaching city dances to eager teenagers, and perhaps not taking it easy enough on the mead, but Miles decides to let him learn about that himself.  Miles dances with Harra and a number of other women, feeling glad to be an excuse for their celebration.

As the party begins to die down, though, he feels a lack of closure, that he hasn’t accomplished what he came up here to do.  He still needed that talk with Raina, somehow, possibly with a jug of mead, but he’s afraid to get too close to the reservoir and break his oath to Ivan by throwing himself in.  Instead he goes with Lem and Harra.

It was not the dead Miles needed to talk to, in the dark, he realized. It was the living. Useless to confess to the dead; absolution was not in their power. But I’ll trust your Speaking, Harra, as you once trusted mine.

He says he wants to talk to them about something; Harra asks if he’s sick or dying, and Miles says he kind of did it backward.  He explains about his death and revival, and the seizures, and how he screwed things up for himself by trying to hide them.  Now he feels like he’s thrown a big chunk of his life away.  Harra says it’ll do some good if it means he spends more time in the district; she knows all about shame, and waste.

Harra was silent for long enough for Lem to pass around the stone jug one last time, in the dim moonlight and shadows. Then she said, “You go on. You just go on. There’s nothing more to it, and there’s no trick to make it easier. You just go on.”

“What do you find on the other side? When you go on?”

She shrugged. “Your life again. What else?”

“Is that a promise?”

She picked up a pebble, fingered it, and tossed it into the water. The moon-lines bloomed and danced. “It’s an inevitability. No trick. No choice. You just go on.”

Noon the next day a very hung-over Martin pilots the lightflyer, very delicately back to Vorkosigan Surleau.  He asks Miles if he found what he was looking for; Miles says it wasn’t there anymore.  Lem and Harra are the kind of heroes the Dendarii Mountains need, not Admiral Naismith.  He asks Martin how old “middle age” is, and Martin answers thirty; Miles thinks that his mother always considered it “ten years older than you are”.

“I had a professor at the Imperial Service Academy once,” Miles went on, as the hills grew more gentle beneath them, “who taught the introduction to tactical engineering course. He said he never bothered changing his tests from term to
term to prevent cheating, because while the questions were always the same, the answers changed. I’d thought he was joking.”

“Unh?” said Martin dutifully.

“Never mind, Martin,” Miles sighed. “Just go on.”

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In case I thought I was past the parts of the book that made me cry…Harra Csurik’s “You just go on” speech there does it for me.  I’m not sure why, but I guess it’s just that the two of them, each having known loss, connect on a deep level, and Harra’s lesson (which I’ve heard from survivors in my own life) is just: “You just go on”.  Well, in reality there’s two choices–to stop, or to go on–but if you have the strength to avoid the first choice, then the second is all you’re left with.

And the Csuriks, and Silvy Vale, have gone on.  They refused to stay the thing he remembered from his past, the isolated village and the baby’s grave.  Miles apparently attended Harra’s graduation in Hassadar, at what point I’m not sure, but apparently he happened to be onplanet for that one.  And Lem went from suspected murderer to respected community leader; they took action and built a dam, moving their graves out of the way, choosing the future over the past.  He doesn’t need to just mourn the loss of the future he expected; he can take action and find a different future for himself.

How would the Csuriks’ lives have been different if Harra’s mother hadn’t killed Raina, if Raina hadn’t had a harelip and grown up as a normal girl?  Would they have become the same community leaders that they are in this timeline, or is it only because of their adversity, and perhaps Miles’s example, that they managed to achieve so much?  (Hint: Lem wasn’t talking about Harra when he was talking about how he learned not to let anything stop him.)  It’s hard to prove counterfactuals, especially fictional counterfactuals, so let’s pretend that Miles played a crucial part, that this is like his “It’s A Wonderful Life” moment, showing him how much he improved things, just when his life has been at its darkest ebb.  (Barrayarans, not being particularly religious, don’t believe in angels, though, I’d imagine, except perhaps Father Frost.)

Chapter Twelve

Back at the lake house, Miles makes himself face the video birthday greetings forwarded from Vorbarr Sultana.  Gregor’s is serious, Ivan’s is cautiously mocking; Mark’s, sent from Beta Colony, is somewhat stilted, and possibly oft-revised, but Miles allows that this may be Mark’s first chance to send a birthday greeting ever.  Miles realizes that now he’ll have to send Mark a reply, and somehow tell him what’s happened without seeming to blame him for it.

Last is the message from his parents, which was sent through the government comm relays from Sergyar and would be little more than a day old; they’d be reacting to the most recent news to reach them.  Even before they speak, Miles can tell from their expressions that they don’t know about his change of circumstance, though they seem to know that he is back on Barrayar.  They congratulate him on reaching thirty alive, and try blaming their gray hairs on him, and ask him to route his next mission via Sergyar so he can come visit.  They also ask why they haven’t heard from him yet–Lady Alys hasn’t passed on anything about him yet either.  The subject turns to Gregor and Laisa, asking him for his opinions, and stating their support.

“Alys said she’ll do,” said the Countess, “and I trust Alys’s judgment. Though I don’t
know if the young lady quite realizes what she’s getting into. Please assure Dr. Toscane of my full support, Miles, whatever she decides to do.”

“Surely she’ll accept, if Gregor asks her,” said the Count.

“Only if she’s so head-over-heels in love as to have lost all sense of self-preservation,” said the Countess. “Believe me, you have to have lost your mind to marry a Barrayaran Vor. Let’s hope she has.” Miles’s parents exchanged peculiar smiles.

They reminisce about what they were doing at age thirty–Cordelia in the Betan Astronomical Survey, just missing promotion to captain, while Aral was already a captain, on ship duty.  They demand that he send them a reply, and sign off.  Miles promises himself he won’t put it off much longer.

They fly back to Vorbarr Sultana the next day, and Miles is just trying to compose the message when Ivan calls, happy to see him back in town.  He badgers Miles about making a medical appointment to get his head looked at, having been ordered by Gregor by Lady Alys.  Miles says it hasn’t seemed that urgent, since it wasn’t likely to get him back into ImpSec or the Dendarii if he gets them fixed.  Ivan says that if he doesn’t want to go to ImpMil, there’s plenty of other clinics around, and he offers Miles their names and locations, though Miles has already done his own search.  Ivan says he’s surprised that Miles isn’t up and running at this newest obstacle, determined to overcome it like usual.  He says he’d half expected Miles to go running back to the Dendarii, and to hell with the treason charge and breaking his oath to Gregor, if he never planned to come back to Barrayar.

Miles promises to make an appointment by the end of the week, and Ivan says he’ll hold him to that.  After the call, Miles wonders at his behaviour as well.  He thinks that he was delaying his appointment to buy time, but he’s not sure for what.  Facing reality perhaps, facing the possibility that his seizures can’t be cured, or facing the possibility that they can be, and the temptation to flee to the Dendarii will resurface.  Has being killed scared him so much that he’s arranged this whole situation to keep from having to take dangerous missions again?  He never had before, he’s proved his bravery over and over.  Does he really need to keep on proving it?

Suppose he got his head fixed, here or on Komarr or on Escobar, it didn’t matter where. And suppose he took off, and ImpSec declined to assassinate their renegade Vor, and they achieved some unspoken agreement to ignore each other forevermore. And he was all and only Naismith.

And then what?

I face fire. Climb that wall.

And then what?

I do it again.

And then what?

Again.

And then what?

It’s logically impossible to prove a negative.

I’m tired of playing wall.

He decides it’s not cowardice, but he’s still not sure why he’s delaying.  He turns to the message to his parents, and it comes out more stilted than Mark’s birthday message, but, refusing to put it off any longer, he sends it off…though by regular mail, so it’ll take a couple of weeks to get to Sergyar.  He makes a slightly modified version to send to Quinn, whose birthday message had been demure, guarded, and anxious.

Ivan comes around for the dinner the next night, where he seems less concerned with nagging Miles about his medical appointment and more with winning over Ma Kosti.  During dessert, Martin announces an “ImpSec stiff-rod” calling for Miles.  Miles wonders by Simon Illyan would be calling him, but it turns out to be Duv Galeni instead.

“You smarmy goddamn little pimp,” said Galeni, in a dead-level voice.

Miles’s own bright, innocent, panicked, “Hi, Duv, what’s up?” tripped over this and fell very flat, and just lay there, withering under Galeni’s glare. Galeni’s face was neither red nor pale, but livid, gray with rage. I should have stayed at Vorkosigan Surleau one more week, I think.

Galeni outright accuses Miles of setting up the whole Laisa and Gregor thing, though Miles insists he couldn’t have known that Gregor would taken an interest.  Galeni rails against Vor thievery, his dialect slipping back into gutter Komarran, though Ivan interjects to ask if Galeni is sure he wants to have this conversation over the com.  Miles shushes Ivan, not sure he wants Galeni there in person when he’s this mad.  He asks how Galeni found out, and Galeni says that Gregor and Laisa just called him, her “best friend” on the planet, to announce their engagement.  He’d kept his cool then, congratulating them, saving his ire for Miles.  Ivan asks Galeni how he’d managed to court Laisa for five months without her seeming to realize it, and Galeni said he had to prove himself worthy of her, and he had a timetable in mind, proposal at six months.

Galeni’s mad is winding down; he asks Miles if there’s any chance he could intercede to change Gregor’s mind, though he realizes himself that it’s hopeless.  Miles says that he owes Gregor, and he really does want Gregor to get some heirs for his own peace of mind.  He reminds Galeni that it’s Laisa’s decision, not anybody else’s, no matter what Galeni’s timetable was, and Galeni signs off.  Ivan is relieved to get that over with, since he’s been avoiding Galeni for weeks, and accuses Miles of having done essentially the same in Vorkosigan District.  Ivan suggests returning to dessert, but Miles says that he’s probably high on Gregor and Laisa’s call list as well, so they might as well wait.

Sure enough, they call a few minutes later, glowing with happiness, and inform Miles–and Ivan, when they find him there–of their engagement.  Miles asks who else knows; Gregor says Lady Alys was the first, and informed Simon Illyan, and of course they called Duv Galeni.

“He agreed it might be good for planetary accord,” said Gregor, “which, considering his background, I find most heartening.”

In other words, you asked him point-blank, and he said, Yes, Sire. Poor, excellent Duv. No wonder he called me. It was that or explode. “Galeni . . . is a complex man.”

“Yes, I know you like him,” said Gregor.

They’d also sent a message to Aral and Cordelia, letting them know; Miles tells them that they already had an inkling from Alys, and passes on their expressions of support.  Laisa is terribly interested to meet Lady Vorkosigan.  Gregor asks Miles to be his Second, which he accepts.  He asks about the date, and Gregor says, sadly, that Lady Alys, is insisting in making this as elaborate as possible, possibly involving an actual wedding on each planet.  Alys is already en route to Komarr to contact Laisa’s parents, and she’s insisting on no formal betrothal for a month, and almost a year until the wedding.  Miles recommends that they listen to her, because she’ll win over the Old Vor before he knows it.  Gregor says he’d like to have Lady Cordelia there for the betrothal as well, and Miles assures him she’s not likely to miss it.

Gregor grinned. “Congratulations to you too, Miles. Your father before you needed a whole army to do it, but you’ve changed Barrayaran history just with a dinner invitation.”

Miles shrugged helplessly. God, is everybody going to blame me for this? And for everything that follows? “Let’s try to avoid making history on this one, eh? I think we should push for unalleviated domestic dullness.”

After they sign off, Ivan agrees that it’s Miles’s fault, because it was his idea to invite Duv Galeni along.  They compromise on blaming it all on Lady Alys for asking Ivan for more guests in the first place.  While searching for some booze to truly celebrate the affair, Ivan asks Miles if he thinks Galeni will do something stupid.  Miles thinks about it for a long time before saying he won’t.

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Duv Galeni calling Miles a smarmy little pimp is one of the scenes I always remember from this book.  Because it’s so unlike the usually reserved Galeni, and given what he proved himself capable of in Brothers In Arms, Miles is right to be cautious of him.  Poor guy–it can’t be easy for your girlfriend to fall for someone else, to not even realize that she was your girlfriend, and not just a friend…  Oh, well, he’ll get over it.

At least Miles finally managed to send messages to his parents, and to Quinn.  He’s learned that keeping secrets=bad, I guess.  Sending video messages seems to be the thing on Barrayar, which seems more plausible now than it did back then, really.  Now everybody’s got a netbook or smartphone with a camera, and sending video messages may not be routine yet, but it can’t be too far away.  Sending them offplanet means that you can precompose them, like an email, though of course if your performance or recitation falters, you’ll either have to edit them heavily or do several takes.

This chapter also includes some soul-searching on Miles’s part.  It’s interesting to consider that he might have been subconsciously sabotaging himself, out of fear or insecurity, trying to give himself a good excuse to bow out of the Dendarii.  But if that wasn’t the case, then we have to see him come up with a reason not to take the easy out back to the Dendarii, at least assuming he gets his head fixed and stops being a liability.  He begins to realize that it wouldn’t accomplish anything–if he disconnects the Dendarii from Barrayar, from service to something larger, then all it is is “playing wall”, showing that he can overcome challenges.  (That may, in fact, be part of the reason that I find some of the pure adventure stories to be a little dissastisfying.  We need what my wife calls “public stakes” and “personal stakes”, so that the central issues in the plot matter to the main character, as well as being important to others.)

So he’s at least ruled out one possible future, but we still don’t know what he is going to do with himself.  Become a Vor drone?  Go into politics?  Study accounting?  I guess we’ll find out…


It may not be fair to characterize what happens next as the beginning of the “real plot”.  Character stories are real stories too, and I thoroughly enjoy Miles’s personal journey in this book, as I may have indicated.  But there are public stakes showing up in this book as well, and we’ll see them shortly.  Plus, the title will soon begin to make a little more sense…

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The train crested the hill some time ago, and has been coasting downhill for a while; now it’s finally pulling into the station and coasting to a stop.  That’s how it feels to do these last two chapters of Mirror Dance, my current novel in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, at any rate.  Chapters Thirty-Two and Thirty-Three are our denouement, our heroes, Miles and Mark Vorkosigan, back on Barrayar and ready for the healing to begin.

Chapter Thirty-Two

In the library of Vorkosigan House, Miles surreptitiously studies his reflection, dressed in parade red-and-blues.  The scars on his necks from his cryo-chamber prep are not quite concealed, but he hopes they’ll look innocuously medical.  The uniform is still a little loose on him, though his mother and Mark have had some success in getting him more fleshed out.  Mark joins him, dressed in new civilian clothes from Gregor’s tailor.

The colors honored Winterfair, sort of; a green so dark as to be almost black was trimmed with a red so dark as to be almost black. The effect was somewhere between festive and sinister, like a small, cheerful bomb.

Mark says he looks better, and Miles says the same of him; Mark says he’s settled on his final weight, which is why he’s invested in the wardrobe.  He takes comfort in the idea that not even the most myopic of assassins could mistake him for Miles.

Cordelia joins them, visibly exulting in her two sons; she tells them the Count is still getting ready.  She’s sworn to get him out of the party by midnight, though he will have to prove he hasn’t lost his strength, and will drive Prime Ministery Racozy crazy watching over his shoulder.  She hopes to get them down to Hassadar soon.  Miles predicts that he’ll dance twice, to prove he can, and after that he’ll want to sit down.  Cordelia notes that Barrayar doesn’t know yet what to do with its men when they retire rather than dying in harness.

She mentions that Gregor has had the horrible idea of offering them the viceroyalty of Sergyar, since the current viceroy is pleading to come home.  She calls it a thankless job, but Miles points out that she did discover the planet herself, and Cordelia begins to talk about the ecological problems, like the worm plague, and how they need a little Betan know-how…

Miles and Mark looked at each other. It wasn’t telepathy. But the thought that perhaps Aral Vorkosigan wasn’t the only over-energetic aging expert Gregor might be glad to export from his capital was surely being shared between them, right this second.

Mark’s brows drew down. “How soon might this be, ma’am?”

“Oh, not for at least a year.”

The Count appears, looking trim with his medical weight loss, good colour apart from his completely white hair, but Miles knows his stamina won’t last.  In retrospect, his father’s near-death experience has scared Miles, demonstrating that he might not even be there when his father dies.  Throwing dignity to the wind, he gives his father a hug, which embarrasses him slightly, but Count is also clearly revelling in his biological wealth.

The Countess attached herself to her husband’s arm. “Lead on, love. Vorkosigans Victorious.”

Vorkosigans Convalescent, was more like it, Miles reflected, following. But you should see what the other guys look like.

Simon Illyan is there to greet them at the Residence, which reassures Aral, who notes that there must be no major crises in progress.  Illyan comes over to brief Aral, out of habit, and is embarrassed when Aral points out he should be talking to Racozy instead.  Cordelia pulls Aral away, and Illyan turns his attention to Miles and Mark; Miles takes pains to appear healthy, so his return to duty in two months won’t be delayed further.  After all, those convulsions have probably stopped by now.

Mark asks Illyan if his Winterfair gifts to the clones have arrived–just money, since he doesn’t know them well enough for more, but he decides it also gives them the gift of choice.  The million marks he gave ImpSec were earmarked for the clones’ education and other needs, but the gifts are separate.  He confides to Miles that it is better to give than to receive, to be “Father Frost”.  He asks what they give Gregor, who has everything, and Miles says that traditionally they give him a large shipment of maple syrup; Aral is even worse, and Miles says sometimes you can’t pay back, you have to pay forward.

Miles feels the eyes on them as they enter the reception hall, and he thinks that Barrayar doesn’t know what’s going to hit it.  He hopes he can teach Mark to care for Barrayar as he does, dangerous as that sometimes is, and looks forward to having Mark as a friend and ally.  He reminds himself that now, on some level, he’s expendable, but he feels that Mark has done well, learning from his example.

Mark asks Miles about Lord Vorsmythe, an industrialist that Mark has been wanting to talk to, and asks Miles to introduce him.  Mark intends to invest two-thirds of his money domestically on Barrayar, and rest galactic–Lilly Durona’s medical firm on Escobar, to be precise, to work on a medical solution for the longevity problem, though he’s willing to bet she’ll turn a profit as well.  Miles performs the introduction, and Vorsmythe is surprised and delighted to have an actual interested audience in Mark.  Miles leaves them to it and heads in the direction of Delia Koudelka.

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So here is where we get the first mention of the viceroyalty of Sergyar, and the worm plague, for that matter.  This may have been where I clued in, first time through, that Sergyar was the same planet from the beginning of Shards of Honour.  It did have some interesting fauna, as I recall, though luckily we didn’t get to see the worm plague back then.  It is an ideal position for Aral and Cordelia, as Gregor shrewdly noticed–Aral as viceroy of Komarr would probably be just a teensy tiny bit more fraught.

Miles is, indeed, falling into the thought patterns that Cordelia had predicted, in having some perhaps unrealistic expectations about his future relationship with Mark, “potential ally” and all that.  Mark, of course, is looking forward more to keeping his brother down to earth and teasing him mercilessly.  Also, he’s thinking very wishfully about the prognosis of his little seizure problem…and setting up a large chunk of the next book’s plot in the process.  I’m sure that Bujold was, even now, thinking to herself “What’s the worst thing I can do to Miles next?”

Mark is also exercising his new identity–distinguishing himself physically from Miles in an unambiguous fashion.  I’m not sure if the ability to pick a weight and maintain it effortlessly, presumably with pharmaceutical aid, is widespread on Barrayar or more of a galactic thing; I suspect more of the latter, or perhaps it’s one of those things that is only gradually making inroads.  I suspect that Barrayar would make more out of keeping oneself naturally fit.  Being fat then becomes a lifestyle choice, and presumably not a particularly popular one, but Mark has his reasons, of course.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Lady Vorsmythe eventually retrieves her husband from his fascinating discussion with Mark.  Mark looks around to see if Miles is also overexerting himself.  Miles has been surreptitiously using Mark to check for gaps in his memory, and Mark realizes how desperately frightened Miles is of having permanently lost some piece of his past.  It bothers him to see Miles so unsure, and Mark hopes he’ll recover his obnoxious self-confidence soon.  Mark has enough things he’d gladly forget.  He’ll have to get Miles to show him around, get him to play the expert for a while; he’d rather let Miles’s ego recover a bit before doing his brotherly duty of cutting it down to size.

He finally spots Miles in the company of Delia Koudelka, and realizes that Kareen’s probably there too.  He finds the Countess, and asks her if she talked to Kareen, and, if so, what she said.  Cordelia says it was a long conversation, but it boiled down to Mark being an intelligent man who’d had some bad experiences, but she thought he’d be suitable for Kareen if he turned his mind to solving his problems.  Mark wonders if she’s talking about Betan-style therapy, but he’s afraid any therapist’s notes would end up in ImpSec hands.  Cordelia says she could make sure that didn’t happen, even if she couldn’t see the reports herself, and gives him her word on it.

She says she didn’t tell Kareen any sordid details, since she’s still a little young for that–still in school, and thus not ready for a long-term commitment.  Mark says that he’s managed to acquire a whole new set of problems since then anyway, worse ones.  Cordelia says that he seems much more relaxed to her since getting back from Jackson’s Whole.

“I don’t regret knowing myself, ma’am. I don’t even regret . . .  being myself.” Me and the black gang. “But I do regret . . . being so far from Kareen. I believe I am a monster, of some sort. And in the play, Caliban does not marry Prospero’s daughter. In fact, he gets stomped for trying, as I recall.” Yes, how could he possibly explain Gorge and Grunt and Howl and Killer to someone like Kareen, without frightening or disgusting her? How could he ask her to feed his abnormal appetites, even in some dream or fantasy play? It was hopeless. Better not to try.

The Countess smiled wryly. “There are several things wrong with your analogy, Mark. In the first place, I can guarantee you are not subhuman, whatever you think you are. And Kareen is not superhuman, either. Though if you insist on treating her as a prize and not as a person, I can also guarantee you will run yourself into another kind of trouble.” Her raised brows punctuated the point. “I added, as condition to my blessing on your suit, the suggestion that she take the opportunity during her schooling on Beta Colony next year for some extra tutoring. A little Betan education in certain personal matters could go a long way, I think, to widening her perceptions enough to admit, um, complexities without choking. A certain liberality of view an eighteen-year-old simply cannot acquire on Barrayar.”

Mark says he’d thought of going to school on Beta Colony himself, for the benefit of future qualifications, and Cordelia approves of his plan.  He still has to deal with the evening ahead, though.  Cordelia says he should go ahead and dance with Kareen; this is not the play, and Prospero has more than one daughter.  Kareen seems to find him interesting, at least, and young people are gifted with romance rather than prudence.

Walking across the hall to meet Kareen requires all his fortitude, but he is rewarded with enthusiasm on her part.  She has saved a number of dances for him, and Mark has purposely learned the steps to a minuet for the purpose.  They move onto the dance floor, Mark marvelling at the color coordination of her dress with his outfit until he realizes their mothers must have compared notes.  Mark suppresses Grunt’s more lustful assessments of Kareen, and channels it into his dancing.

All true wealth is biological, the Count had said. Mark finally saw exactly what he meant. For all his million Betan dollars, he could not buy this, the light in Kareen’s eyes. Though it couldn’t hurt . . . what was that damned Earth bird or other, that built wildly elaborate nests to attract a mate?

Mark asks her, feigning nonchalance, what she thinks is most important in a man; she answers “Wit”.  She turns the question back on him, and he answers “Trust”.  He has a wonderful evening after that, making her laugh several times, eating enough to sate Gorge, dancing even with some of Kareen’s friends, but eventually his feet get tired and he retrieves a wilted Miles and Armsman Pym drives them home, the Count and Countess having already left.

Mark and his brother were alone in the compartment. Mark counted the number of people present. One, two. Three, four, five, six, seven. Lord Miles Vorkosigan and Admiral Naismith. Lord Mark Vorkosigan and Gorge, Grunt, Howl, and Killer.

Admiral Naismith was a much classier creation, Mark thought with a silent sigh of envy. Miles could take the Admiral out to parties, introduce him to women, parade him in public almost anywhere but Barrayar itself. I suppose what my black gang lacks in savoir faire, we make up in numbers. . . .

Mark apologizes for getting Miles killed, and Miles said the drop mission was a mistake in the first place.  Vasa Luigi hadn’t wanted to ransom Mark, though, probably already planning to sell him to Ryoval.  Miles said it didn’t make much difference in the end, but Mark disagrees.  They discuss future plans; Miles says that their parents will be going down to Hassadar, where it’s somewhat warmer, and Miles plans to divide his time between there and Vorbarr Sultana until ImpSec lets him back to work, and he invites Mark along.  Mark accepts, and says that he’s thinking of taking a few courses in the college in Hassadar, as much to learn about how to deal with less than enlightened fellow students as for the actual education, though he yearns to know as much as he can.

The groundcar turned in at the gates of Vorkosigan House, and slowed. “Maybe I’ll get up early,” said Mark. “There’s a lot to do.”

Miles grinned sleepily, puddled down in his uniform. “Welcome to the beginning.”

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And here we are at the end.  Shorter chapters, mostly, but more of them, not to mention that gap in the middle, so it took longer than some of the other books.  But it was worth it.  Mark has had a great journey, from a bad counterfeit Admiral Naismith afraid of Barrayar to facing the planet on his own terms.  Miles is really a secondary character in the book, his own challenges mostly against his own infirmity, attempting to overcome adversity to get back to where he was, rather than to conquer new ground.  Don’t worry, he’ll have time for that soon enough.

You can’t help but cheer for Mark and Kareen–you want Mark to get the girl, though of course there’s more of it for Kareen than just being the prize.  Which is probably a lot of the reason for their plotline in A Civil Campaign, which we’ll get to…well, not soon enough, but eventually, at least.  At least Mark is not indoctrinated with the usual Vor dose of Barrayaran sexism, so he has less to get over in that respect than some of the people Kareen could have ended up with.

You know, I almost wish we could’ve seen Miles and Ivan’s reunion.  I suppose it would have been underwhelming, since Ivan wouldn’t let on how relieved and happy he was for Miles to be back among the living without the influence of a lot of alcohol.  But some mention, at least…

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After this, my usual week off before I start on Memory.  And, as I’ve said, it will be a little different doing this one, because I don’t have an electronic copy of this one like I have for all the others I’ve done so far, courtesy of that lovely CD that came with Cryoburn.  In fact, Memory is one I still have in mass-market paperback, so it’ll be much harder to hold it open and type, so: fewer quotes, I expect.  On balance Memory may be my favourite book in the series, though Mirror Dance and A Civil Campaign are close runners.  Let’s see if it holds up in the reread this time…

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