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Posts Tagged ‘Droushnakovi’

As Canada continues to shiver in the grips of winter, I can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, through the thaumaturgical principles of Sympathy, I can help to dispel the cold by means of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread.  After all, this week I am wrapping up the novella “Winterfair Gifts”, wherein Miles Vorkosigan gets married, in the middle of winter…and so, after that, it’s got to get warmer, right?  If only thaumaturgy wasn’t complete bunk.  (Well, I suppose if it wasn’t, then science would be out the window, and I like science, and besides, not everyone would use it for the pure purposes that I would.)  This week, as I mentioned, brings the last installment, as Roic and Taura alert Barrayaran Imperial Security about the peculiar contamination Taura found on one of the wedding presents…

Winterfair Gifts, Part 3

Roic debates waiting for Pym’s return, but decides that he is a Vorkosigan armsman, and senior on the scene, so he contacts ImpSec HQ as soon as possible.  Within half an hour, an ImpSec captain has arrived to take their statements and other evidence; Roic tries to be a clear and straightforward witness, though he does elide his initial suspicions of Taura.  He takes care to emphasize their doubts that Elli Quinn actually sent the gift, and the captain duly takes the cat blanket as evidence, as well as the pearls and any associated packaging; he’s done and gone before another half hour has passed.  Roic asks Taura if she wants to go get some sleep, but she says she wouldn’t be able to.  They settle down to wait.

“Quiet around here at night,” she said after a moment.

She was speaking to him again. Please, don’t stop. “Yeah. I sort of like it, though.”

“Oh, you too? The night watch is a philosophical kind of time. Its own world. Nothing moving out there but maybe people being born or people dying, necessity, and us.”

“Eh, and the bad night people we’re put on watch against.”

He asks her about Quinn, and she tells him how Quinn was “original equipment” with the Dendarii, and they’ve been through a lot over ten years together.  He expresses sympathy with her for her earlier dilemma, likening it to finding out his liege lord was conspiring against the Emperor, or trying to kill the Empress.  She says that as soon as she thought of it she couldn’t enjoy the party, as much as Miles wanted her to, and had to come back home.  She asks Roic what he would do, and he admits it’s a puzzle, but the Count has always said that there’s a “higher honour”, so they shouldn’t obey unthinkingly. Taura says that must be where Miles gets it from, and Roic quotes Mark as saying that integrity is a disease you can only catch from someone else who has it.  Roic says that he hopes he’d have the courage to turn on his lord if he had to.

He’s trying to bring himself to actually take Taura’s hand when he’s notified that the Vorkosigans and their party are returning from the Residence.  Pym, in attendance on the Countess, asks Roic absently if there’s anything to report, but his attention is caught when Roic tells him seriously that there is.  Once he has Pym alone, he gives him a summary of the night’s events; Pym isn’t certain there’s anything wrong, because he’d checked the necklace himself–though he didn’t touch it himself–but he allows that Roic was right to act on the suspicion, and ImpSec can handle the work.  Taura is a little disappointed by Pym’s reaction, but Roic says that’s probably the best they can hope for based on the little evidence they have.

Taura asks if she can stay with Roic until they hear back, and Roic agrees; he takes her down to the kitchen for refueling, guessing correctly that she’s running low on fuel again.  As they finish up, Pym comes to find them, looking almost sick as he tells them that ImpSec in fact found a designer Jacksonian neurotoxin on the pearls, designed to be activated by body heat and enough to kill anyone who wore it for as little as half an hour.  Roic says that Madame Vorsoisson had them on for about five minutes, and asks if she’s in danger; Pym says ImpSec is dispatching an expert to check her for symptoms, but says that she would be dead by now if the poison was going to kill her.  He thanks Roic again, several times, and says he’s going to brief Lord Vorkosigan on the situation.

Taura notes that the Jackson’s Whole origin doesn’t prove much, since they’ll sell to anyone, but Miles did make some enemies there as Admiral Naismith; by now that cover identity was pretty much blown.  She yawns, impressively, and Roic is struck not only by how tired she must be, but how lonely, in such a strange place.  He asks her if she could sleep, if he promises to wake her up if there’s any news; she says she could give it a try.

He escorted her to her door, past m’lord’s dark and empty suite. When he clasped her hand briefly, she clasped back. He swallowed, for courage.

“Dirty pearls, eh?” he said, still holding her hand. “Y’know . . . I don’t know about any other Barrayarans . . . but I think your genetic modifications are beautiful.”

Her lips curved up, he hoped not altogether bleakly. “You are getting better.”

When she let go and turned in, a claw trailing lightly over the skin of his palm made his body shudder in involuntary, sensual surprise. He stared at the closing door, and swallowed a perfectly foolish urge to call her back. Or follow her inside . . . he was still on duty, he reminded himself.

It’s close to dawn when M’lord returns to the house, looking more ghastly and strung-out than Roic has ever seen him, even after the disastrous dinner party.  He thanks Roic effusively, and tells him that Madame Vorsoisson was feeling better after the ImpSec doctor left; he castigates himself for having missed the signs of poisoning, from the necklace he’d put on her himself, which is like metaphor for this whole wedding.  Both of them had thought it was just her nerves, which he says can’t be a good sign.  He says there won’t be any long-term effects, luckily.  Roic is about to bring up the crying fit he’d witnessed before the pearls arrived, but thinks better of it.  Roic tells him that ImpSec has already come to check all of the other gifts, just in case, and hopes to have them back by afternoon.

He asks M’lord if he thinks Elli Quinn could have done it, and M’lord says it’s impossible–she’d beat Miles up personally if she was that mad at him; in any case, he’d broken up with Quinn months before even meeting Ekaterin, so jealousy doesn’t make sense.  Actually, he points out that it’s odd for the attempted poisoner to use Quinn’s name at all, because she’s linked to Admiral Naismith rather than Lord Vorkosigan, and hopes that that will give ImpSec a lead to use.

M’lord thanks Roic profusely for saving this wedding, and thus saving the whole future of the Vorkosigan house.  Roic admits that it was Taura who found the initial evidence, and Miles blesses her, saying he should kiss her all over.

Roic was beginning to think that line about the barbed wire choke chain wasn’t such a joke after all. All this frenetic tension was, if not precisely infectious, starting to get on what was left of his nerves. He remarked dryly, in Pym-like periods, “I was given to understand you already had, m’lord.”

M’lord jerked to a halt again. “Who told you that?”

Under the circumstances, Roic decided not to mention Madame Vorsoisson. “Taura.”

“Eh, maybe it’s the women’s secret code. I don’t have the key, though. You’re on your own there, boy.” He snorted a trifle hysterically. “But if you ever do win an invitation from her, beware—it’s like being mugged in a dark alley by a goddess. You’re not the same man, after. Not to mention critical feminine body parts on a scale you can actually find, and as for the fangs, there’s no thrill quite like—”

They are interrupted then by the Countess, somewhat to Roic’s embarrassment, though he reminds himself that the Vicereine is Betan, after all.  Miles begins telling her all about the poisoning, and threatening the culprit with dismemberment, before the Countess cuts him off, saying she’s been kept fully apprised, and recommending that he get some sleep so he’s not a total loss at his own wedding.  Miles insists he has to check everything first.

“The garden is fine. Everything is fine. As you have just discovered in Armsman Roic, here, your staff is more than competent.” She started down the stairs, a distinctly steely look in her eye. “It’s either a sleeptimer or a sledgehammer for you, son. I am not handing you off to your blameless bride in the state you’re in, or the worse one it’ll be if you don’t get some real sleep before this afternoon. It’s not fair to her.”

“Nothing about this marriage is fair to her,” m’lord muttered, bleak. “She was afraid it would be the nightmare of her old marriage all over again. No! It’s going to be a completely different nightmare—much worse . How can I ask her to step into my line of fire if—”

“As I recall, she asked you. I was there, remember. Stop gibbering.” The Countess took his arm, and began more-or-less frog-marching him upstairs. Roic made a mental note of her technique, for future reference. She glanced over her shoulder and gave Roic a reassuring, if rather unexpected, wink.

Roic goes to get some sleep himself, since he will also need to be rested for the afternoon’s events.  He’s woken up early by Armsman Jankowski though, summoned to a briefing in M’lord’s suite, right away, so he doesn’t stop to shave or do more than put on last night’s clothes.  He arrives to find M’lord waiting with Taura and Ivan Vorpatril, his cousin and Second; he recalls how a stern warning from the Count had suppressed Ivan’s mischievous nature, and Roic was betting, literally, on it lasting quite a while.  They are joined by General Allegre of ImpSec and the Count, and then the Countess and Ekaterin.

Allegre gives M’lord back the pearls, which he says have been thoroughly cleaned and pronounced safe; M’lord asks who precisely he has to think for this thoughtful gift.  Allegre says that the packaging shows that it came from Barrayar itself–not Escobar as the forged stamps claimed–but the pearls were of Earth origin, which helped to narrow it down.  The purchase has been traced to Lord Vorbataille, but they followed it further back to Vorbataille’s Jacksonian consultant, a man named Luca Tarpan, who they have also apprehended.  M’lord doesn’t recognize the name, but Allegre says he’s linked to the Bharaputrans; M’lord says that explains how he knew about both Quinn and Lord Vorkosigan, but isn’t sure that explains the vicious attack.  Allegre says it was just an attempt to sow confusion, ideally to cover their escape, but Vorbataille was already in custody by that point.  He apologizes for not having turned up this scheme in Vorbataille’s fast-penta interrogation; M’lord says pointedly they’d have found out about it in about an hour, and Allegre agrees, and proffers an apology to Madame Vorsoisson and the Vorkosigans.

He looked up at Roic and Taura, sitting side by side on the sofa opposite. “Fortunately, ImpSec was not your last line of defense.”

“Indeed,” rumbled the Count, who had seated himself on a straight chair turned backwards, arms comfortably crossed over its back, listening intently but without comment till now. Countess Vorkosigan stood by his side; her hand touched his shoulder, and he caught it under his own thicker one.

Allegre said, “Illyan once told me that half the secret of House Vorkosigan’s preeminence in Barrayaran history was the quality of the people it drew to its service. I’m glad to see this continues to hold true. Armsman Roic, Sergeant Taura—ImpSec salutes you with more gratitude than I can rightly express.” He did so, in a sober gesture altogether free of his sporadic irony.

Roic isn’t sure if he’s supposed to say something in response to that, like when he had to give a speech after the incident in Hassadar.  Conversation moves on, though, M’lord asking Madame Vorsoisson that that was her last warning.  He says he’ll have the pearls destroyed, but Madame Vorsoisson insists that she will wear them after all, as a defiance to their enemies.  The Countess reminds them that they still have to get dressed for the wedding, and ushers them out; Roic tells her that M’lord seems to be looking better, and she confides to him that they’d slipped him a double dose of tranquilizers, which seems to have calmed him down sufficiently.

Taura tells Roic that she hadn’t been sure Ekaterin was a match for Miles, but now she sees that Ekaterin has this “Vor” thing, which Elli never could understand, deep in her bones; Roic agrees.  She asks what he’s doing later, and he says that he has night duty all week…and probably for the rest of her stay on the planet.  He then dashes off to get changed.

By the time Roic makes his way downstairs to take his place next to Pym, guests are starting to arrive.  Already present had been Lady Alys and Simon Illyan, the Bothari-Jeseks, Mayhew and Nikki, and some Vorvaynes who hadn’t been able to fit in the Vorthyses’ house.  Duv and Delia Galeni arrive with the Vorbrettens and Vorrutyers, then the Koudelkas; Martya is standing in for her sister Kareen as Ekaterin’s Second.  Mark and Kareen were unable to attend because of their classes and the travel time, but Mark had sent a gift certificate for a Betan vacation as his wedding present, to encourage them to visit.  Martya heads upstairs while Dr. Borgos is searched for any contraband bugs, but she comes back downstairs sooner than Roic would have expected.  The rest of the Vorvaynes arrive, and Nikki proudly shows off his new jump-pilot friend Arde to his cousins, convincing him to hold forth with exciting war stories.

Finally, Gregor and Laisa show up, in attendance as Count and Countess Vorbarra so as not to outrank the Vorkosigans, and to grant them more social freedom.  Shortly thereafter, all hundred and twenty guests head back outside for the ceremony proper.

The air was cold but not bitter, and thankfully windless, the sky a deepening clear blue, the slanting afternoon sun liquid gold. It turned the snowy garden into as gilded, glittering, spectacular and utterly unique a showplace as m’lord’s heart could ever have desired. The flowers and ribbons were concentrated around the central place where the vows were to be, complementing the wild brilliance of the ice and snow and light.

Although Roic was fairly sure that the two realistically-detailed ice rabbits humping under a discreet bush were not part of the decorations m’lord had ordered . . . they did not pass unnoticed, as the first person to observe them immediately pointed them out to everyone within earshot. Ivan Vorpatril averted his gaze from the cheerfully obscene artwork—the rabbits were grinning—a look of innocence on his face. The Count’s menacing glower at him was alas undercut by an escaping snicker, which became a guffaw when the Countess whispered something in his ear.

In the center of the garden, on a circle of brick decorated with the Vorkosigan crest, are the circles of groats, and the groom’s party take their places.  Roic, with the armsmen, is concerned not to see Taura among the guests anywhere.  The bride’s party make their way out on foot, Miles having been dissuaded from fetching his bride out on horseback in Old Vor style; Lady Alys is in the lead, followed by Ekaterin on her father’s arm, still defiantly wearing her pearls.  Roic’s gaze is immediately caught by Taura, walking in the procession as the bride’s Second, and he spots Martya Koudelka with the rest of the guests, watching Taura almost smugly.

Taura’s dress was everything that Lady Alys had promised. Champagne-colored velvet exactly matched her eyes, which seemed to spring to a brilliant prominence in her face. The jacket sleeves and long swinging skirt were decorated on their margins with black cord shaped into winding patterns. Champagne-colored orchids coiled in her bound-back hair. Roic thought he’d never seen anything so stunningly sophisticated in his life.

Everyone took their places. M’lord and m’lady-to-be stepped into the inner circle, hands gripping hands like two lovers drowning. The bride looked not so much radiant as incandescent; the groom looked gobsmacked. Lord Ivan and Taura were handed the two little bags of groats with which to close the circle, then stood back to their star points between Count and Countess Vorkosigan and Vorvayne and his wife. Lady Alys read out the vows, and m’lord and m’lady-to . . . m’lady repeated their responses, her voice clear, his only cracking once. The kiss was managed with remarkable grace, m’lady somehow bending her knee in a curtsey-like motion so m’lord didn’t have to stretch unduly. It suggested thought and practice. Lots of practice.

Ivan opens up the groat circle and collects his kiss from the bride as Lord and Lady Vorkosigan make their way out, past the row of armsmen, saluting with their sword, Pym leading the Armsmen’s Shout; Taura follows on Ivan’s arm, followed by the rest of the guests.  Pym looks like he wants to faint in sheer relief at how perfectly the ceremony came off.

The main dining room of the house seats ninety-six, with the overflow in an adjacent room joined by an archway.  Roic is on duty, not serving at table, but to deal with any emergencies or miscellaneous guest needs; Taura is sitting at the head table between Ivan and Gregor, glowing from the attention, and Roic wishes he was in their place.

Martya Koudelka comes up and greets him, noting how wonderful Taura looks; she explains how she heard the story of what happened last night, and Ekaterin asked her to let Taura take her place.  She was happy enough to do it, since it meant she wouldn’t have to sit with Ivan; Ekaterin said it was one honour she could bestow of herself.  She gives Roic a kiss on the cheek for his own part in the night’s events, for saving them from having to live with a really crazy Miles Vorkosigan.

At the dance afterwards, Taura sits out, commenting to Roic as he passes by that she doesn’t know any of the dances anyway.  Roic says he can’t dance, being on duty and all, but also admits he doesn’t know them either.

On the sixth number, m’lady danced past Roic with her eldest brother Hugo.

“Splendid necklace, Kat. From your spouse, is it?”

“No, actually. From one of his . . . business associates.”

“Expensive!”

“Yes.” M’lady’s faint smile made the hairs stir on Roic’s arms. “I expect it to cost him everything he has.”

Before the evening is too advanced, the bridal couple make their escape via aircar to their Vorkosigan Surleau honeymoon retreat.  The rest of the guests will mostly stay in the capital for a few more days, though the galactic guests will make their way down to Vorkosigan Surleau as well–Elena in particular, to burn a death-offering for her father.  Armsman Jankowski is flying the aircar; Pym, who would normally be doing it, informs Roic that he’s shuffled the duty schedule.  Pym himself, who apparently feels he hasn’t been getting the blame he deserves for letting the pearls slip past, is punishing himself with the night shift, and giving Roic, at m’lady’s request, the week off with double pay, as soon as the Vorbarras leave.  The sendoff is capped with fireworks, both official and unofficial; the latter batch, discreetly supplied by the Count, are administered by Arde Mayhew and, mostly, Taura.

The party winds down slowly, sleepy children being carried off, the Vorbarras and their discreet ImpSec servants leaving, and the younger generation taking over the dance floor with more energetic music while their remaining elders head off to quieter rooms for wine and conversation.  Roic happens upon Taura going through a platter of treats in a side room, and asks if she’d had a good time; she says it was wonderful, and enthuses about her visit to Barrayar.  Roic reminds himself he’s off-duty and sits down with her.

She’s there for ten more days, he realizes, which doesn’t seem like it would be enough time to spend with her.  He asks her if she thought of staying there, finding a place for herself; she says she already has a place, and Roic asks if she’s sure being a mercenary is much of a future.  After a moment, she tells him how her genetic modifications include a shortened lifespan; she says that the doctors tell her that she only has a year left, but she adds that they’ve been saying that for several years already, and the lifespan of a soldier is uncertain anyway.

“Part of me wishes the medics would get it settled. Part of me says, the hell with it. Every day is a gift. Me, I rip open the package and wolf it down on the spot.”

He looked up at her in wonder. His grip tightened, as though she might be pulled from him as they sat, right now, if he didn’t hold hard enough. He leaned over, reached across and picked off the fragile petal, touched it to his lips. He took a deep, scared breath. “Can you teach me how to do that?”

Her fantastic gold eyes widened. “Why, Roic! I think that’s the most delicately-worded proposition I’ve ever received. S’ beautiful.” An uncertain pause. “Um, that was a proposition, wasn’t it? I’m not always sure I parlay Barrayaran.”

Desperately terrified now, he blurted in what he imagined to be merc-speak, “Ma’am, yes, ma’am!”

This won an immense fanged smile— not in a version he’d ever seen before. It made him, too, want to fall over backwards, though preferably not into a snow bank. He glanced around. The softly-lit room was littered with abandoned plates and wineglasses, detritus of pleasure and good company. Low voices chatted idly in the next chamber. Somewhere in another room, softened by the distance, a clock was chiming the hour. Roic declined to count the beats.

They floated in a bubble of fleeting time, live heat in the heart of a bitter winter. He leaned forward, raised his face, slid his hand around her warm neck, drew her face down to his. It wasn’t hard. Their lips brushed, locked.

Several minutes later, in a shaken, hushed voice, he breathed, ” . . . wow . . .”

Several minutes after that , they went upstairs, hand in hand.

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Once they’ve settled on notifying ImpSec, most the “action” the occurs after that is offscreen.  ImpSec gathers information and then manages to identify and chase down the culprits.  Who are, perhaps unsurprisingly, related to the Auditor case that Miles has just been working on, which can now be seen to be a sort of Chekov’s Gun–if they weren’t important to the plot, why had they been brought up earlier?  Sort of like the offhand mention near the beginning of The Warrior’s Apprentice of the conspirators who show up at the end.  There is some tension–first, about whether Taura’s guess is correct, and then, about what’s going to happen to Ekaterin–and then, I suppose, on whether this is going to quash the wedding entirely.  But Ekaterin reaffirms her dedication to life with Miles, however risky it will be, and all is well again.

Duv and Delia are already married by this point, apparently, having managed to sneak their wedding in between Gregor’s and Miles’s, and Martya and Enrique still seem to be together, too.  And the reference to “the Vorrutyers” makes me wonder if Dono and Olivia are already wed, too.  Or maybe that was supposed to be Dono and Byerly…probably not, since I’m not convinced that By was invited.  Maybe he was; on some level, perhaps, Miles and Ekaterin may owe their getting together to him.  After all, without By’s efforts, would Richars have ended up provoking Ekaterin into proposing?  Well, that’s a little questionable, though.  I’m inclined to think that Roic would have made some comment about By’s presence, so perhaps he wasn’t there after all.  Or maybe the author just didn’t want to reintroduce him…

The romance plotline winds up after the wedding; Roic and Taura were already mostly reconciled after his earlier gaffe about mutations, after joining forces over the pearls, so all it takes is for him to actually have an opportunity to seize.  Pym’s guilt provides him the opportunity, and then he actually takes it.  I’m always surprised that Roic doesn’t find out about Taura’s reduced life expectancy until right at the end there, but I guess it’s not something that she necessarily advertises.  I confess that I’m not convinced that the resolution of the plot is going to be true love or anything, but a certain amount of seizing of the moment, at least, perhaps a ten-day fling.  (Is that a week, on Barrayar, to coincide with Roic’s vacation?  I can’t remember.)  Roic and Taura’s long-term relationship prospects are about as good as Miles and Elli’s were, for about the same reasons…but they can have something, if not a life together.

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And now, having wrapped up “Winterfair Gifts”, and Miles In Love, I will once again be taking a week off before heading into Diplomatic Immunity.  I may have mentioned that we’re out of the Vorkosigan stories that I love, and into the ones that I like somewhat, or are okay.  Of course, Diplomatic Immunity is the only one I’ve read more than once, so maybe I’ll like the others better on reread, but who knows.  In any case, I might as well keep going…after my week off, of course.

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Urg.  Is it time already?  Okay, okay.  So.  Lois McMaster Bujold, Vorkosigan Saga, reread.  A Civil Campaign, a couple more chapters.  Miles Vorkosigan, his brother Mark, Ekaterin Vorsoisson, Kareen Koudelka, and Ivan Vorpatril.  This week, the last full chapters plus an Epilogue–not a usual thing for a Bujold book, as I recall.  So, anyway, yeah, let’s do it.

Chapter Nineteen

In less than four minutes, two ImpSec officers have arrived at the Vorthys household; Ekaterin considers pointing out Gregor had promised them two minutes, but decides that would be rude.  Vassily and Hugo are shocked at their arrival, wondering who exactly Nikki called.  One of the ImpSec men, who Professora Vorthys recognizes as Captain Sphaleros, says he’d been given to understand that there was an altercation, and he’s instructed to detain all of them–except for Aunt Vorthys, of course, whose presence is merely earnestly requested.  Hugo and Vassily identify themselves, and insist there must be some mistake, but Sphaleros says he has his orders.  He knocks on the bathroom door and identifies himself to Nikki, who emerges.  The Professora agrees to come along, and Sphaleros and his sergeant escort them to the front door (with a brief delay to find Nikki’s shoes).  Sphaleros clarifies that they’re not being arrested, just detained for questioning, but will tell them little more than that.

Outside, the ImpSec officers escort them to a black aircar parked on the sidewalk, which takes off once they’re all inside, flying at high speed and low altitude to Vorhartung Castle.  Ekaterin spots the Counts’ banners, and after a brief search locates the Vorkosigan sigil, the silver leaf-and-mountain on brown.  They land outside, to be escorted in by a familiar man in Gregor’s livery.  He leads them to a small conference room, where he directs them to stand behind chairs (except the Professora, who is allowed to sit).

“Where are we?” Ekaterin whispered to her aunt.

“I’ve never actually been in this room before, but I believe we are directly behind the Emperor’s dais in the Counts’ Chamber,” she whispered back.

“He said,” Nikki mumbled in a faintly guilty tone, “that this all sounded too complicated for him to sort out over the comconsole.”

Who said that, Nikki?” asked Hugo nervously.

Gregor enters, to Hugo and Vassily’s shock, and dismisses Sphaleros; he sits at the head of the table and asks the others to sit as well.  He apologizes for bringing them in so peremptorily, but he can’t get away from the proceedings just yet.  Then he asks why Nikki claims he was being kidnapped away from his mother.  Vassily eventually manages to stammer out what Alexi Vormoncrief had told him, and admits he was the one to suggest Vassily take Nikki out of the city.  Gregor asks his man to make a note to do something with Vormoncrief to put him somewhere less troublesome.  He then tells Vassily that it’s a full-time ImpSec job separating truth from rumour, and says that he’s been informed that the rumour against Miles is not founded in actual events on Komarr, but on the schemes of a group of disgruntled men trying to bring him low for their political advantage.

Gregor let Vassily and Hugo digest this for a moment, and continued, “Your panic is premature. Even I don’t know which way today’s vote is going to fall out. But you may rest assured, Lieutenant, that my hand is held in protection over your relatives. No harm will be permitted to befall the members of Lord Auditor Vorthys’s household. Your concern is laudable but not necessary.” His voice grew a shade cooler. “Your gullibility is less laudable. Correct it, please.”

“Yes, Sire,” squeaked Vassily. He was bug-eyed by now. Nikki grinned shyly at Gregor. Gregor acknowledged him with nothing so broad as a wink, merely a slight widening of his eyes. Nikki hunkered down in satisfaction in his chair.

Another ImpSec officer knocks on the door and is admitted, speaking to Gregor briefly; Gregor tells him to bring “him” directly there.  He smiles at his guests, and says he is about to be rather busy, so he will release them to the visitor’s gallery, and any further concerns will have to be addressed later.  He pauses to murmur to Vassily that Ekaterin has his full confidence, to Hugo and Vassily’s astonishment.

On their way out they pass by a scruffy-looking Byerly Vorrutyer, who greets Ekaterin ironically; Ekaterin, maliciously, introduces him as one of her suitors, hoping to make Miles look better by contrast.  They are led out to the gallery, where Gregor’s Armsman forcibly ousts a group of young gentlemen from the front row; Hugo and Vassily remain daunted by their surroundings.  Ekaterin’s gaze roves across the floor, until she finds Miles, who hasn’t seen her yet; she knows she’s not allowed to just call down from the gallery.  She pleased to see that he seems at ease among the Counts and their representatives.

He’s talking to René Vorbretten, who calls Miles’s attention to her; he looks up, somewhat concerned at her company, but Ekaterin tries to give him a reassuring gesture.  Richars Vorrutyer catches this interchange and also spots Ekaterin; she frowns back at him, annoyed that he’s already dressing as if he were Count.  Gregor still seems to be closeted with Byerly, and Dono doesn’t seem to have arrived yet…

But then he does, dressed more properly, as heir rather than Count, but with a pronounced limp, accompanied by Ivan Vorpatril and four other Counts.  Ekaterin asks Lady Vorthys to identify them for her–they are Falco Vorpatril, Count Vorfolse, Count Vorhalas, and one of Vorhalas’s Conservative compatriots, Count Vorkalloner.  Ivan seems very pleased with himself, though Miles doesn’t seem quite sure what to make of Dono’s company.

Miles begins to berate Ivan, but Ivan tells him he’s saved his ass again; Miles asks what he brought the other Counts in for, and Ivan tells him to watch.  Sure enough, as they file past Boriz Vormoncrief’s desk, Richars tries to greet them effusively, but the four Conservative Counts breeze past him with nothing more than a frown from Vorkalloner.  A second attempt is met with a reprimand from Falco Vorpatril for not having been good enough to not get caught in his unethical ploy, and another from Vorfolse castigating him for trying to use his premises for it.  After that, Ivan relents and tells Miles and René what happened.

Miles wonders if they’ll be able to pin anything on Richars, though, who’s usually so careful to distance himself from his pawns, but Ivan said that Richars’s right-hand man, Byerly Vorrutyer, has turned Imperial Witness, and is confessing to setting the whole thing up.  Though moving it to Vorfolse’s hadn’t been his idea–he’d planned the attack for Vorsmythe’s instead.  Miles is surprised that By was working for Richars after all, but Ivan said he’d always been suspicious of him.

Gregor emerges as the Conservative foursome are bending the ear of Count Vormoncrief, and the Lord Guardian of the Speaker’s Circle gently ejects Ivan, who heads up to the gallery.  Dono asserts his right to sit on the bench with Richars, and tells Richars that the municipal guardsmen will be waiting to arrest him after the vote.  Richars hisses back that they won’t be able to touch him when he’s Count, and Miles’s allies will all have turned on him soon enough.  As he leaves the chamber, Ivan suddenly remembers that the usual reward for a job well done is…a harder job, and has to control a sudden impulse to flee.

In Vorkosigan House, Kareen and Martya fling their bug butter tubs at the Escobarans; some of these, being from a cheaper batch, burst on impact, showering the men, and the corridor, with bug butter.  Muno is driven to release Enrique and start flinging some tubs from their end of the hallway back at them; Enrique crawls back towards the lab.  Just then, Armsman Roic, still in his underwear, appears at the other end of the hallway, promising vengeance on whoever had had him woken up.  Gustioz attempts to flee, and Roic reflexively pins him to the floor; Muno begins dragging Enrique back down the hallway, forcing Martya and Kareen to grab his arms in a tug-of-war.  The struggle is inconclusive until Kareen kicks Muno’s wrist to loosen his group, and the three of them manage to lock themselves in the lab.  Kareen, at Martya’s urging, places a comconsole call to Mark.

Miles glances up at the gallery, to where Ivan secures himself a seat next to Ekaterin.  He’s still not sure why Hugo and Vassily are there with them, whether they’re still hassling Ekaterin about her son.  Olivia Koudelka shows up and sits in the back row.  Why are Ekaterin and her party there at all, and why had a Vorbarra armsman escorted them to their seat?

The Lord Guardian calls the session to order, and Count Vormoncrief comes up to present his plea to make Sigur Count Vorbretten; Miles notes that he makes no reference to Richars’s case, which he hopes means a rift between the former allies.  The Lord Guardian calls on René to respond, and René, as planned, yields to Lord Dono.  Dono comes forward and makes his case for the Countship, referring to the medical evidence and affidavits of gender that they had all already been presented with.  He then carries on to tell the story of how he was attacked in the street in an attempt forestall this vote, and how sworn testimony has tied this attack to his cousin Richars.

“Government by thugs in the Bloody Centuries gave Barrayar many colorful historical incidents, suitable for high drama. I don’t think it’s a drama we wish to return to in real life. I stand before you ready and willing to serve my Emperor, the Imperium, my District, and its people. I also stand for the rule of law.” He gave a grave nod toward Count Vorhalas, who nodded back. “Gentlemen, over to you.” Dono stood down.

Years ago—before Miles was born—one of Count Vorhalas’s sons had been executed for dueling. The Count had chosen not to raise his banner in rebellion over it, and had made it clear ever since that he expected like loyalty to the law from his peers. It was a kind of moral suasion with sharp teeth; nobody dared oppose Vorhalas on ethical issues. If the Conservative Party had a backbone that kept it standing upright, it was old Vorhalas. And Dono, it appeared, had just put Vorhalas in his back pocket. Or Richars had put him there for him . . . Miles hissed through his teeth in suppressed excitement. Good pitch, Dono, good, good. Superb.

Miles spots more new arrivals in the gallery–his parents, fresh from their formal breakfast, who end up seated in the row behind Ekaterin and the Professora.  Ivan greets them, but Ekaterin is riveted to the vote below, where Richars is getting up to make his rebuttal.  Richars describes himself as the logical successor to Count Pierre, and dismisses “Lord Dono” as an invention of his overwrought cousin, and a sign of the kind of galactic corruption that they need to keep out of Barrayar–including Miles in that corruption by gesture.  Not getting the kind of approval he’d hoped for, he dares Lady Donna to bring her charges against him as Count, through her “stalking horse”, Miles–then going on to mention the crimes that Miles is “accused” of.

Miles pounces on the point, mentioning that he is only slandered, not accused.  Count Vorhalas adds that he’d be happy to lay the charge against Richars himself.  The Lord Guardian restores order, and Richars continues, though clearly thrown.  He motions to Ekaterin, talking about Miles’s audacity in acting so unashamed when his victim’s wife is looking down at him.  Ekaterin pales at being drawn into the affair, and Miles stiffens in outrage, but reminds himself he can’t just leap across the chamber to throttle Richars.

Ekaterin, in cold fury, tells Richars that he is mistaken, and not for the first time; Richars asks her why, then, she fled from Miles’s proposal.  She parries further verbal sallies from Richars until they are interrupted.

The Lord Guardian banged his spear. “Interjections from the gallery are not permitted,” he began, staring up at her.

Behind Ekaterin, the Viceroy of Sergyar stared down at the Lord Guardian, tapped his index finger suggestively against the side of his nose, and made a small two-fingered sweeping gesture taking in Richars below: No; let him hang himself. Ivan, glancing over his shoulder, grinned abruptly and swiveled back. The Lord Guardian’s eyes flicked to Gregor, whose face bore only the faintest smile and little other cue. The Lord Guardian continued more weakly, “But direct questions from the Speaker’s Circle may be answered.”

Richars’s questions had been more rhetorical, for effect, than direct, Miles judged. Assuming Ekaterin would be safely silenced by her position in the gallery, he hadn’t expected to have to deal with direct answers. The look on Richars’s face made Miles think of a man tormenting a leopardess suddenly discovering that the creature had no leash. Which way would she pounce? Miles held his breath.

Ekaterin leaned forward, gripping the railing with her knuckles going pale. “Let’s finish this. Lord Vorkosigan!”

Miles jerked in his seat, taken by surprise. “Madame?” He made a little half-bow gesture. “Yours to command . . .”

“Good. Will you marry me?”

A kind of roaring, like the sea, filled Miles’s head; for a moment, there were only two people in this chamber, not two hundred. If this was a ploy to impress his colleagues with his innocence, would it work? Who cares? Seize the moment! Seize the woman! Don’t let her get away again! One side of his lip curled up, then the other; then a broad grin took over his face. He tilted toward her. “Why, yes, madame. Certainly. Now?”

She tells him they’ll discuss that later, and that they should finish this business first; she present a gaping Richars with that evidence.  Gregor is amused, Nikki is excited, and the gallery in general breaks up in amusement, Miles’s parents not excluded.  Richars finishes weakly and incoherently, and the Lord Guardian calls for the vote.  Gregor passes, in case his vote is needed later.  Miles is so distracted–mostly doodling “Lady Ekaterin Nile Vorkosigan”–that he misses his turn to vote and has to be prompted by René, much to everyone’s continued amusement.  Lord Dono wins with a narrow majority, but with many of Richars’s supporters abstaining, and Gregor not needing to vote either.  Richars desperately calls for an appeal, which Gregor denies, and Richars is escorted out into the arms of the police.

Miles exults at how Richars had done himself in, though of course with the help of Ivan and Olivia, and…Byerly, he supposes, though there’s still something about that affair that doesn’t quite add up.  Perhaps, later, he’ll take the case as Imperial Auditor and question Byerly himself…  Dono formally assumes the Countship, thanking his colleagues, and returns the vote to René.  Miles, glancing up at the gallery, happens to catch his parents’ first actual introduction to Ekaterin and Lady Vorthys, which catches Ekaterin quite off guard, but she eventually rallies and introduces her relatives as well.  Cordelia and Lady Vorthys seem to almost know each other already, which makes Miles wonder…

René comes forward and makes his case, drawing Miles’s attention back to the floor.  Gregor passes again, and René, with Dono’s support, manages to just reach his majority without requiring the Emperor’s vote either.  Count Vormoncrief’s appeal is also denied, and Sigur Vorbretten seems somewhat relieved to have lost; they greet René as gracious losers, and the Lord Guardian calls the session closed.  Miles restrains himself from dashing up to the gallery, assuring himself that his parents will make sure Ekaterin makes her way down to him safely, and spends some time dealing, somewhat automatically, with the congratulations and other remarks of the various Counts in the chamber.

At last, he heard his father call his name. Miles’s head snapped around; such was the Viceroy’s aura that the crowd seemed to melt away between them. Ekaterin peered shyly into the mob of uniformed men from between her formidable outriders. Miles strode over to her, and gripped her hands painfully hard, searching her face, Is it true, is it real?

She grinned back, idiotically, beautifully, Yes, oh, yes.

“You want a leg up?” Ivan offered him.

“Shut up, Ivan,” Miles said over his shoulder. He glanced around at the nearest bench. “D’you mind?” he whispered to her.

“I believe it is customary . . .”

His grin broadened, and he jumped up on it, wrapped her in his arms, and gave her a blatantly possessive kiss. She embraced him back, just as hard, shaking a little.

“Mine to me. Yes,” she whispered fiercely in his ear.

Count Vormuir rushes into the chamber suddenly, crying out that he’s too late.  Ivan asks Dono how he did that, and Dono disclaims responsibility, though he suspects that the Countess may have staged a well-timed reconciliation with her husband…with the aid of a powerful Betan aphrodisiac.

Nikki confronts Miles, asking him to be sure he makes his mamma happy, which Miles gravely agrees to.  Miles turns to Hugo and Vassily and invites them for lunch at Vorkosigan House so they can straighten some matters out, which they accept, somewhat overwhelmed.  The Lord Guardian comes over to tell them at Gregor has asked for Miles and Ekaterin’s company, for an Auditorial task, and Miles obliges.  Gregor asks Ekaterin if her domestic affairs have been settled, and she says that they should be fine now.  He congratulates the two of them, and then gives Miles an official document to relay to Count Vormuir.

Miles glances at the document, then takes it over to Vormuir, telling him the Emperor has agreed to grant him guardianship of his daughters; Vormuir says it’s about time.  Miles leads Ekaterin and his lunch guests out of the hall, summoning Pym with his car; they pause just in time to hear Vormuir howl about having to pay dowries for all 118 of his daughters…

Back at Vorkosigan House, Mark confronts Roic about the Escobaran trespassers; Roic says they do seem to have a proper warrant, which Gustioz obliges by showing him, bug butter-spattered as it is.  Mark talks to Kareen and the others in the lab, and they unbarricade and open the somewhat battered door.  He rushes to check on Kareen, also bug-butter spattered, and wishes he had her alone to experiment more with the amatory properties of bug butter…but first there’s these Escobarans to deal with.

Mark tells them that he thought he had the right to take Enrique when he paid his bail, and Gustioz says that Escobar doesn’t have slavery; Mark admits that he’s more used to Jacksonian law.  Mark racks his brain for some way to keep Enrique with him…he asks Gustioz to stay and meet his mother, who he’s sure can find some way to deal with this, but Gustioz declines.  Mark realizes they’re gently ushering them all towards the front door of the house, and Enrique looks to be on the verge of becoming tug-of-war rope between Muno and Martya again.  In the entry hall, Mark digs in his heels and refuses to let Enrique go; Gustioz says he’ll find a way to charge Mark as well, no matter who his relatives are.  The argument escalates, and Mark begins to feel the Killer persona beginning to emerge.

The front doors swing open, revealing Miles, in his full livery, and a party of others–including Ekaterin, and some others that Mark doesn’t recognize.

“Who is that?” whispered Gustioz uneasily. And there just wasn’t any question which who he referred to.

Kareen snapped back under her breath, “Lord Miles Vorkosigan. Imperial Auditor Lord Vorkosigan! Now you’ve done it!”

Miles’s gaze traveled slowly over the assembled multitude: Mark, Kareen and Martya, the stranger-Escobarans, Enrique—he winced a little—and up and down the considerable length of Armsman Roic. After a long, long moment, Miles’s teeth unclenched.

“Armsman Roic, you appear to be out of uniform.”

Roic stood to attention, and swallowed. “I’m . . . I was off-duty. M’lord.”

Miles first introduces them all to Vassily and Hugo, with an undertone of hoping that things aren’t as bad as they look.  He asks what’s going on, which breaks the dam, as everyone begins talking at once.  Miles, somehow, manages to glean enough information from this barrage and then halts it, asking if the Escobarans really want to take Enrique away to lock him up.  Gustioz presents him with the warrants, and Miles takes them to a table to look them over.  Mark suddenly notices that Miles and Ekaterin’s relationship seems to have suddenly improved since the last time he saw them, and Miles seems to be unaccountably happy over something.

Miles leafs through the pages, stuck together as many of them are, noting that everything seems to be in order, even all eighteen of the jump-point permissions…  He pauses to ask Mark if it’s true that Ekaterin, and Ma Kosti, and the others, are all getting paid in shares of the bug-butter business…  Miles then turns to Gustioz and says that while everything he has seems to be in order, he is missing a most crucial permission.  Vorkosigan House, he says, is legally part of Vorkosigan’s District, not Vorbarr Sultana itself, and so, therefore, Gustioz needs permission from Count Vorkosigan’s Voice before he can take Enrique from the premises.

Gustioz was trembling. “And where,” he said hoarsely, “can I find the nearest Vorkosigan’s District Count’s Voice?”

“The nearest?” said Miles cheerily. “Why, that would be me.”

The Parole Officer stared at him for a long moment. He swallowed. “Very good, sir,” he said humbly, his voice cracking. “May I please have an order of extradition for Dr. Enrique Borgos from, the, the Count’s Voice?”

Miles looked across at Mark. Mark stared back, his lips twisting. You son of a bitch, you’re enjoying every second of this . . . .

Miles vented a long, rather regretful sigh—the entire audience swayed with it—and said briskly, “No. Your application is denied. Pym, please escort these gentlemen off my premises, then inform Ma Kosti that we will be sitting, um,” his gaze swept the entry hall, “ten for lunch, as soon as possible. Fortunately, she likes a challenge.”

As Pym is escorting them out, Gustioz screams that Enrique will have to leave the house sometime; Miles says they’ll use the Count’s official aircar.  Ekaterin offers to show the lab to her relatives, but at Kareen’s hasty warning she changes this to the interesting historical aspects of the library instead, leaving her aunt to take them and Nikki off while she stays with Miles.  Enrique thanks Miles for his rescue; Miles forestalls any enthusiastic gestures, and Martya leads Enrique off to start cleaning upthe lab.

Mark thanks Miles for his support, knowing how he feels about the butter bugs, and Miles gruffly says he doesn’t want to lose his cook.  Mark asks if the house is really Vorkosigan District soil, and Miles just tells him to look it up.  He asks them not to spring any more surprises to disturb his future in-laws, and Kareen congratulates him.  He says she asked him, and points out to Ekaterin his helpful demonstration on how one should respond to a marriage proposal.  They head off to the library; as Mark and Kareen are heading upstairs to wash the bug butter off of her, they spot the Vorkosigan-livery queen bug scurrying out of sight again, and decide not to mention it to Miles.

Comments

It’s always dicey trying to remember exactly what I thought the first time I read the book, but I’m pretty sure that I didn’t predict Ekaterin derailing Richars’s accusation by proposing to Miles right there in the chamber.  It is a great moment–though, arguably, not as great as Nikki calling ImpSec on Vassily Vorsoisson, and Gregor calling them in to settle the whole matter.  That is a scene I look forward to for the entire book, let me tell you.  And Ivan’s coup in winning over Vorhalas and the others for Lord Dono’s side…  Well, this is the final chapter, so all of the major conflicts have to be settled, don’t they?  Even Enrique’s…

Mark and Kareen’s romantic plot was already tied up, of course, so I almost forget that there’s still something to come with their having to keep Enrique from being extradited.  I’m not entirely sure that I buy it when Mark claims he thought paying Enrique’s bail meant he could take him with him when he left the planet, though.  He spent enough time studying the Barrayaran legal system, at least, as part of his learning to play Lord Vorkosigan, that he must realize that the Jacksonian model isn’t the only one…though I guess I don’t know if Barrayar has a “bail” system…  Or maybe it would have come up in his business courses on Beta Colony?  Well, anyway, Miles manages to finess him out of that one, at least.  I don’t recall seeing Enrique in later books, but one supposes that he gets to live a happy life on Barrayar, in Vorkosigan’s District, though one wonders if there’s Escobaran bail bondsmen lurking around from time to time trying to see if they can snatch him up.  If Escobar has a statue of limitations, too, though, then they’d have to give up after a few years.  (And now I’m picturing Gustioz like Dreyfus from the Pink Panther movies, going insane from his inability to collar Enrique…and eventually starting his own plot to close the wormhole to Barrayar or something…)

Epilogue

From Miles’s point of view, the two weeks to the Imperial wedding sped past, though he suspected that Gregor and Laisa were running on a skewed relativistic time-distortion in which time went slower but one aged faster. He manufactured appropriate sympathetic noises whenever he encountered Gregor, agreeing that this social ordeal was a terrible burden, but, truly, one that everyone must bear, a commonality of the human condition, chin up, soldier on. Inside his own head, a continuous counterpoint ran in little popping bubbles, Look! I’m engaged! Isn’t she pretty? She asked me. She’s smart, too. She’s going to marry me. Mine, mine, all mine. I’m engaged! To be married! To this woman! an effervescence that emerged, he trusted, only as a cool, suave smile.

He manages to spend some time with Ekaterin and her family, eating dinner together at the Vorthyses and Vorkosigan House, before the pre-wedding social calendar truly descends.  Ekaterin limits the number of social events she attends with him, probably, Kareen opines, because she doesn’t want to show up her limited wardrobe.  At one such event, their departure is obstructed by a drunken Lord Vormurtos, one of Richars’s supporters, who comments snidely about how being a Vorkosigan apparently means you can get away with murder.

Ekaterin stiffened unhappily. Miles hesitated a fractional moment, considering responses: explanation, outrage, protest? Argument in a hallway with a half-potted fool? No. I am Aral Vorkosigan’s son, after all. Instead, he stared up unblinkingly, and breathed, “So if you truly believe that, why are you standing in my way?

Vormurtos’s inebriated sneer drained away, to be replaced by a belated wariness. With an effort at insouciance that he did not quite bring off, he unfolded himself, and opened his hand to wave the couple past. When Miles bared his teeth in an edged smile, he backed up an extra and involuntary step. Miles shifted Ekaterin to his other side and strode past without looking back.

Ekaterin glanced over her shoulder once, as they made their way down the corridor. In a tone of dispassionate observation, she murmured, “He’s melted. You know, your sense of humor is going to get you into deep trouble someday.”

“Belike,” Miles sighed.

The wedding itself is an intricate operation that Miles is heartily glad he’s not in charge of.  Due to space limitations, and luckily thanks to good weather, the ceremony is held outside on a large parade ground.  At breakfast Gregor announces his plan to escape after dinner, drowning his pursuers in a lake of wine; nobody except the couple themselves, and their ImpSec guards, know where they’re spending the wedding night.

The ceremony starts with Gregor, mounted on a glossy black steed, leading a white horse to the Komarran delegation, where Miles formally calls for the bride to be brought out, after which she is deployed carefully onto the white horse, and led back by her father to the circle of coloured groats.  Miles is in the inner circle, with the parents and Laisa’s Second; he has little to do but watch the exchange of vows, and watch his father actually cry, whether out of the ambient sentimentality or sheer political relief he can’t tell.  Once the vows are done, Miles opens up the circle of groats and lets the new married couple out…then, after being the first to wish them well, he makes his way to seek out Ekaterin.

At the reception, each District has erected an outdoor kiosk to offer their own particular food and drink; the Vorkosigans are mostly donating wine, but Mark and Kareen have also set up a bug-butter “maple ambrosia” kiosk, with a few Glorious Bugs on display.  When Ivan, Miles and Ekaterin arrive, Kareen tells them that everyone loves the Glorious Bugs, and they’ve had to lock them up to keep women from stealing them to wear as hair ornaments.  Kareen offers some to Ivan, who comments on its kick; Kareen says it’s got maple mead in it, and Ivan is shocked that Ma Kosti has made something so great out of such disgusting ingredients.

Mark says that he’s made a deal with Lord Vorsmythe to solve their cash-flow problem, and offers to redeem Ekaterin’s shares at twice face value; Ekaterin is about to accept, but Kareen advises her to hold onto them instead, and use them as collateral if she needs to convert them into cash at some point.  In the meantime, she can hold onto them as the stock price skyrockets, and maybe use them  to finance Nikki’s jump pilot training…Kareen herself plans to use them to finance her return to Beta Colony.  Ekaterin agrees with Kareen’s idea, and Mark grumbles about the loss of his stock majority.  Kareen congratulates Ma Kosti about the idea of using the maple mead to win Miles over, since he actually likes it; Ma Kosti says that it’s actually Miles’s meadery, back in the mountains, that’s supplying the mead in the first place, which was his idea.

Mark returns to Kareen the groats from the wedding circle that he’d been keeping for her, and asks what they’re for; Kareen says they’re just a souvenir, to be kept and passed down.  Miles adds that their numbers will mysteriously multiply over time, and Mark speculates that one could take the real weddings groats, mix them in with other ones, and make a tidy profit by selling them as “genuine”, and not even be lying.

Miles greets Kou and Drou, who are passing by, but seeming a little subdued; Drou says that Olivia has just announced her engagement…to Dono Vorrutyer, which will take some getting used to.  She and Delia are now fighting over who gets married first, and Kou winces over his poor beleaguered wedding budget.

Commodore Koudelka edged closer to Mark, and lowered his voice. “Mark, I, ah . . . feel I owe you an apology. Didn’t mean to be so stiff-necked about it all.”

“That’s all right, sir,” said Mark, surprised and touched.

The Commodore added, “So, you’re going back to Beta in the fall—good. No need to be in a rush to settle things at your age, after all.”

“That’s what we thought, sir.” Mark hesitated. “I know I’m not very good at family yet. But I mean to learn how.”

The Commodore gave him a little nod, and a crooked smile. “You’re doing fine, son. Just keep on.”

Kareen’s hand squeezed his. Mark cleared his suddenly inexplicably tight throat, and considered the novel thought that not only could you have a family, you might even have more than one. A wealth of relations . . . “Thank you, sir. I’ll try.”

Olivia and Dono arrive to try the ambrosia and accept congratulations; Olivia says that the Vorbrettens have started their first child, a boy, in a uterine replicator, a topic which draws the women together in interested consultation.  Ivan complains that now he’s losing old girlfriends two at a time.  Kou, still wrestling with the idea, muses that Dono is old enough to be Olivia’s father–or mother–and he’d expected his daughters to marry military officers.  There’s Duv Galeni, at least, he supposes, and Martya’s still possible…but Mark spots Martya with Enrique and privately thinks perhaps not.  Martya will be overseeing the business when he and Kareen return to Beta, and spending a lot of time with Enrique…  He muses to himself that the four girls may end up, between them, splitting the world of accomplishment between them–military, economic, political, and scientific.  He makes a note to maybe send Kou and Drou on a trip to the Orb for Winterfair, if he can afford it…allowing them to visit their daughter as well, to make the offer more irresistible.

Ivan, who has spotted an oddly unincarcerated Byerly Vorrutyer wandering the reception, waits until By is finished chatting with Dono before joining him.  He asks Byerly why he isn’t in jail, and By points out he’s turned Imperial Witness; Dono has forgiven him, since it was Richars’s plan in the first place, and Richars is the one who got arrested.  Ivan asks if they can talk somewhere more private, and leads a reluctant By into a sheltered nook (where they evict a young ensign and his girl).  Ivan begins to grill By ruthlessly, asking why he’s at the reception, and what was really going on when Dono was attacked.  By claims that Dono got him in, which Ivan doubts, saying that he knows By is lying, but can’t tell about what.

By says that he had helped set up the attack, but he’d also scheduled a squad of guards to intercept the attack–but only at Vorsmythe House, which is why he was thrown when the action was at Vorfolse’s instead.  His intention was to stampede public support to Dono, and he left Dono in the dark to make his reactions more authentic.  He thanks Ivan for, along with Olivia, saving his plan.  Ivan asks if Gregor ordered all this, and By said he tried very hard to keep Imperial Security out of it, since they wouldn’t have had a plan with nearly the same political flair.  He’d already talked to Miles about it, who had critiqued By’s plan, pointing out its flaws.

Ivan was almost lured into sympathetic agreement. But not quite. He pursed his lips. “So, By . . . who’s your blind drop?”

By blinked at him. “My what?”

“Every deep cover informer has a blind drop. It wouldn’t do for you to be seen tripping in and out of ImpSec HQ by the very men you might, perhaps, be ratting on tomorrow. How long have you had this job, By?”

“What job?”

Ivan sat silent, and frowned. Humorlessly.

By sighed. “About eight years.”

It all fits now, with By actually working for ImpSec; his shenanigans on Dono’s behalf have left him somewhat eclipsed, but Ivan is sure he’ll recover.  Somewhere, in the bowels of ImpSec, someone is surely in charge of Byerly Vorrutyer, and Ivan hopes to make their acquaintance sometime.  The identity of the blind drop nags him, though, since he feels it should be somebody he knows; By says he should surely be able to guess.  Ivan reasons that it has to be someone in high Vor society, but not somebody By is closely tied to…hidden in plain sight.  By refuses to tell, but gives a little bow to Lady Alys and Simon Illyan as they pass by, and Lady Alys nods back…

Miles returns to Ekaterin’s side after a brief absence, and chuckles wickedly; he tells her that he’s just found out where Alexi Vormoncrief’s next posting is–laundry officer, Kyril Island.  He explains the situation there to reassure her that it’s truly a suitable punishment.  They walk about the reception, and Miles asks if she wants a large wedding.  Primed by his mother, she says that she’d be happy to have one…if he can wait until her mourning year is over; Miles agrees that a quiet wedding, sooner, would be better, and suggests Vorkosigan Surleau, or perhaps her own garden outside Vorkosigan House.

Ekaterin spots the Cetagandan delegation, which includes an actual haut-lady from the capital, as well as the governor of Rho Ceta.  The haut-lady and her ghem-general companion come over to speak to them, and Miles greets haut Pel and ghem-general Benin.  Pel actually fades her bubble briefly, so Ekaterin can catch a glimpse of the woman inside; Miles introduces Ekaterin to them.  Benin congratulates him, and then expresses Emperor Giaja’s personal condolences on the death of his friend Admiral Naismith, and trusts that he will remain dead; Miles replies that he trusts that his resurrection will not be necessary.  After the Cetagandans leave, Miles says that he apparently retired the Naismith identity just in time, since the Cetagandans seem to have figured it out.  Ekaterin wonders briefly what would have happened if they’d met when they were younger, before she was with Tien…and decides that they would probably have passed right by each other, being on different trajectories.

And she could not unwish Nikki, or all that she had learned, not even realizing she was learning, during her dark eclipse. Roots grow deep in the dark.

She could only have arrived here by the path she’d taken, and here, with Miles, this Miles, seemed a very good place to be indeed. If I am his consolation, he is most surely mine as well. She acknowledged her years lost, but there was nothing in that decade she needed to circle back for, not even regret; Nikki, and the learning, traveled with her. Time to move on.

Comments

This kind of story is supposed to end with a wedding, isn’t it?  Well, it’s not the main characters, but they have an engagement, at least, and the other relationships seem to be moving in promising directions.  Order is restored, all is right with the world, the villains have gotten their comeuppance.  In this case, I suppose the villains would be Richars Vorrutyer and Alexi Vormoncrief.  Sigur Vorbretten seemed to repent, at the last–I’m not sure if he was really the power behind that scheme, or if it was Boriz Vormoncrief, but he doesn’t seem to have lost more than any other member of his party.

I suppose that Ekaterin is right that she and Miles probably wouldn’t have hit it off had they met when they were younger…but I seem to recall that her general conclusion turned up in one of those books of logical fallacies that I’ve been reading these days.  People tend to, in general, conclude that their current life is practically the best of all possible worlds.  Fewer people than one would expect would change anything substantial about their lives, because most people can think of something about their life that they wouldn’t want to give up.  I remember a story from OnSpec magazine some years ago called “The Other Rat”, that Google tells me was written by David Barr Kirtley, about a man who could rewind time whenever he wanted to…but once he had children of his own, he couldn’t bear the thought of taking their lives away from them, so stopped using his ability.  There’s also Ken Grimwood’s novel Replay, where a man is forced to rewind his life several times and restart it from his younger days, and ends up taking quite different choices.  So much of what happens in the world is contingent, that I think that most choices would end up being just fine for everyone who makes them…but it’s hard to avoid attachment to what we have now.

I was completely surprised by the reveal of Byerly Vorrutyer’s role with ImpSec the first time around, and maybe even the second.  I wasn’t sure what to make of the guy, really, especially given that we’re given so few positive portrayals of Vorrutyers in the series.  I guess Lord Dono is okay, too, but by Barrayaran standards, going offplanet to get a sex change operation is a wee bit extreme.  Well, we get to see By return in Ivan’s book, which was good.

Overall Comments

I found myself reading ahead in this book less than I did in Memory, and, perhaps because of the longer chapters, I found it tougher going, to keep up with my standard two-chapter-a-week pace.  I don’t think I enjoyed it as much, reading it at the slower pace, perhaps because it takes longer to get past the less fun parts in the middle and back into the upswing.  But it does still have more than its share of Moments of Awesome–it’s just that, because of traditional book pacing, they tend to cluster towards the end.  Ah, well.  Oh, and I confess my sympathies are largely with Miles, in that butter bugs would probably give me the willies.


Next week off, and then back for “Winterfair Gifts”.  Which I tend to think of as shorter than the other novellas, but I’m not sure if it is.  I’ll have to do some word-count calculations to decide how many weeks to stretch it over, but at this point I’ll probably err on the longer side.  And after that it’ll be Diplomatic Immunity, which will be the last one I’ve actually read more than once.  Also, A Civil Campaign was the last of my “favourite” Vorkosigan books, so it feels like I’m on the downward slope here.  Maybe the newer ones will hold up better on reread, but I guess we’ll have to see…

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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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You may have felt it coming–the quiet building of pressure, the electricity in the air, the stifling heat and humidity.  And then, suddenly, with a crash of thunder, it’s here–this week’s installment of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread.  Like a funnel cloud, it sucks you in, and you’ll be lucky to escape intact.  Because here’s where it starts to get real.  As much as it can in a work of fiction, of course.  This week we cover chapters Thirteen and Fourteen in Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Memory, where a somewhat respirited Miles Vorkosigan emerges from his cocoon (not literally) and begins to notice things further outside of himself again…and something is rotten in the state of Vorbarr Sultana.

Chapter Thirteen

Ivan ends up getting recruited to help his mother get ready for her trip to Komarr.  Lady Alys also gives Miles a voluminous amount of historical material about Imperial weddings to study up on.  Miles hopes that they don’t try to resuscitate some of these ancient rituals, though it has been forty years since the last such wedding–Prince Serg and Princess Kareen’s.  Miles supposed that they may want to try assert their Vorness to help protect them from the upcoming infusion of Komarranness.  While he realizes his position as Gregor’s Second is important, he doesn’t think it’ll be the most useful thing he’s ever done, but it also won’t be the strangest.

During Lady Alys’s absence, her role as Gregor’s chaperone is taken by “Drou” Koudelka, who requires Miles to attend one of Gregor’s courting events.  On his way there, he runs into a crowd of military men just leaving some other ceremony.  Trailing the group, moving with some difficulty, Miles recognizes the ill-fated Lieutenant Vorberg, just having received a new medal for being wounded in Imperial Service.

Miles had half a jar full of similar ones at home in a drawer; at some point Illyan had stopped issuing them to him anymore, perhaps fearing that Miles’s threat to don them all at once sometime was not facetious.

Miles is unable to resist engaging Vorberg in conversation, since he knows that Vorberg will not recognize him as “Admiral Naismith”.  He asks Vorberg about his medal, and Vorberg tells him about getting kidnapped by hijackers, and gripes about the incompetent and cut-rate Dendarii Mercenaries who sliced his legs off with friendly fire.  Miles points out that they must have some Barrayaran links to name themselves after a feature from Vorkosigan District; Vorberg says the commander is some kind of Betan maniac who escaped from therapy, though he did meet a Barrayaran expatriate.  Miles restrains his urge to defend his former fleet, and says he’s on medical discharge himself, courtesy of a needle grenade.  Vorberg asks about his plans, and Miles admits he’s not sure, though he has social commitments to keep him in Vorbarr Sultana for a while–Gregor’s engagement is not yet common knowledge, so Miles can’t be more specific than that.  They part and Miles heads to Gregor’s garden party.

The event is mostly for Gregor to introduce Laisa to more of his acquaintances, including Count Henry Vorvolk, as well as Drou herself, who was of course his old childhood bodyguard.  Drou gets along fine with Laisa, as a fellow observer of Vor society from the outside.  Gregor and Laisa do grab some time alone, and Miles chats with Delia Koudelka.  Miles says he’ll have to go visit her father, who Delia says was sorry to hear about his medical discharge.  Delia asks after Galeni, wondering if he’s broken up over Laisa and Gregor.  Miles says that he’s been better, but he’ll get over it.  Delia says that bring courted too slowly would be a change from what she usually experiences.

Delia says that her mother is excited about the wedding, and hoping that matrimony will rub off on some of her daughters. She herself hopes for dancing, and interesting men, as opposed to overgrown boys like Ivan, who just want to get laid; Miles points out that men want to get laid too, but Delia says at least it’s not all they think about.  Miles says that everyone ends up getting married in the end, except possibly on Beta Colony.  He wonders why the Koudelka sisters are still single, and Delia says it may be that the four of them together are too daunting.

After the party, Miles goes back home.  Later that evening, Martin announces a visitor, who turns out to be Duv Galeni–luckily, not armed, and not seeming too edgy, so Miles decides he’s probably safe.  Galeni refuses a drink and settles down stiffly, and starts by apologizing to Miles for his earlier actions.  Miles says it was understandable, and just hopes that nobody else got the benefit of that kind of earful.  Galeni says that wasn’t really what he was here for, though–more or a professional issue.

Galeni frowned more deeply. “Tell me . . . have you ever caught Simon Illyan in a mistake?”

“Well, he fired me,” said Miles wryly.

Galeni’s hand twitched, rejecting the joke. “No. I mean an error.”

Miles says that Illyan has been misled, from time to time, but Galeni says he’s talking about simple errors.  Miles says he can’t recall any such thing, and Galeni says he’s run across four of them in the last three days.  The first was Illyan calling down for a report that Galeni had already delivered, which was easily corrected; the second was a memo delivered with the wrong date.  The third, that morning, was another wrong-dated memo, addressed to Galeni’s predecessor, about a trade fleet which had been back for six months; when Galeni called to ask about it, Illyan denied sending the message, until Galeni forward it to him.

Finally, that afternoon’s weekly briefing had been disjointed, with many pauses from Illyan, bewildering jumps of topic, and early dismissal.  Miles suggested that if the meeting was about Gregor’s betrothal, he might have been trying to spare Galeni’s feelings, but Galeni says that doesn’t feel right.  Galeni’s not sure what to infer, but he’s an ImpSec analyst and he’s noticing a change in patterns.  As an outsider, and a Komarran, he wants to get some corroboration before he takes it up further; he asks Miles if he knows of any stress in Illyan’s personal life right now.

“I don’t think Illyan has a personal life. Never married . . . lived in the same little apartment six blocks from work for fifteen years, till they tore the building down. He moved into one of the witness apartments on the lower level of HQ as a temporary stopgap two years ago, and still hasn’t bothered to move out. I don’t know about his early life, but there haven’t been any women lately. Nor men, either. Nor sheep. Though I suppose I could see sheep. They can’t talk, even under fast-penta. That’s a joke,” he added, as Galeni failed to smile. “Illyan’s life is regular as a clock. He likes music . . . never dances . . . notices perfumes, and flowers with a lot of scent, and odors generally. It’s a form of sensory input that isn’t routed through his chip. I don’t think it does somatic stuff either, no touch, just audio and visual.”

Galeni asks if it could be something wrong with the chip; Miles says that most of the people who went crazy because of the chip did so much earlier, so Illyan should be safe from that.  He says that Illyan was planning to retire in a few years, and he might just be getting tired; he doesn’t really like the job, he’s just very good at it.  Galeni says that ImpSec without Illyan will be much different, because Illyan has a very Vorish way of running the organization in a very personalized manner.  Miles wonders if Illyan’s unique, and sometimes almost colourless, personality, is part of what kept him saner than other chip-bearers.  Galeni asks for advice, and Miles says he doesn’t even have a theory or a problem yet, just some data, so he should wait and watch for more.  He agrees that Galeni is probably not the best person to bring this to light–in fact, only Miles himself would be worse.  Galeni says that Miles is the person besides Haroche who has the longest baseline of experience with Illyan, and he was hesitant to approach Haroche directly.

Two days later, Miles is going through his closets, with Illyan calls on the comconsole.  He asks Miles why he’s at home, and not in his office for the 0900 briefing, as per his orders.  Miles asks for more details, and Illyan begins to tell him about a breakout mission, rescuing a certain Colonel Tremont from a Cetagandan prison camp on Dagoola IV, to help bolster the Marilacan resistance.  Miles tells Illyan that he did that mission five years ago, the Cetagandans haven’t been on Marilac for a year, and that he hasn’t worked for ImpSec in over a month.  Illyan asks what he’s talking about, then stops, excuses himself, and signs off.

Miles just sat, staring at the empty vid plate. He’d never before felt his heart pound like this while sitting perfectly still in an empty room. Galeni’s report had worried him.

Now he was terrified.

Comments

So, yeah, there does seem to be something a little bit wrong with Simon Illyan right now.  Possibly something to do with his memory chip.  (See what I did there?)  Maybe Galeni’s anecdotes weren’t particularly persuasive…but the call to Miles at the end of the chapter doesn’t leave a lot of room for ambiguity.  Something is wrong with Illyan’s brain, or its prosthetic memory.  And here, like I said, is where the story really starts.

On another note, I’m struck again, on this read-through, about the subtle hints of some interest growing between Delia Koudelka and Duv Galeni.  Maybe not reciprocated, yet, but Delia seems to like him, at least.  Ivan is not even on the table, dismissed as a “boy” emotionally despite being several years older than her.  And the reappearance of Ludmilla Droushnakovi “Drou” Koudelka!  Well, she doesn’t actually get much screen time, but she’s mentioned, at least.  I sometimes forget how little we see of the Koudelka family for so many books, what with Miles spending so little time on Barrayar.  Their part in Barrayar is so memorable that their presence seems to linger.  The daughters, at least, have been popping up more frequently, Kareen in Mirror Dance, Delia here, and even Olivia and Martya in A Civil Campaign.

Chapter Fourteen

Miles realizes that Illyan’s worse than Galeni had thought–he’s not just forgetting things, he’s flashing back to old memories somehow.  After sitting there stunned for several minutes, he tries to think of what he can do about it.  The problem is that he can’t, himself, publicly find fault with Illyan’s behaviour, because it will be dismissed as spite, or worse.  But he can’t just do nothing.  Illyan could easily start issuing orders based on, say, the Komarr Revolt, and people would go along with him for far too long before realizing something was up.  He may already have been issuing spurious orders for some time, and nobody’s noticed yet.  Is the problem with Illyan’s chip, Miles wonders, or with his brain, or some combination of the two?

In the end, all Miles can think to do is pass the information on to someone else who can do something about it.  He calls up General Haroche at ImpSec, who is not there, and leaves a message for him.  Haroche doesn’t call back, but Miles eventually tracks him down.  All he tells Haroche is to check the last call that Illyan made to him, not wanting to seem to be trying to lead Haroche to any conclusion.  Haroche is impatient and dubious, but he allows that he might check out the call.

After signing off, Miles wonders if he should do more, perhaps try to call Gregor, but decides to leave it in Haroche’s lap.  Haroche will doubtless put Illyan in medical care, take over as acting ImpSec chief, and then be obliged to notify Gregor himself, before the end of the day.  Maybe it’ll be a simple malfunction in the chip, easily replaced.  Miles occupies himself with busywork, but doesn’t hear anything, so he gives in and tries calling Haroche and Gregor, but is unable to reach either.

The next evening, Miles is near to climbing the walls.  Galeni turns up, fresh from work, and tells Miles that it’s over.  Illyan had a complete breakdown in the all-departments briefing that afternoon; Miles is surprised that Haroche hadn’t already acted.

“The briefing started out almost normally. The department heads gave their weekly precis reports, and listed all the red flag items they want the other departments to watch out for. Illyan seemed nervous, more restless than usual, fiddling with objects on the table . . . he snapped a data card in half, then muttered some apology. He stood up to give his usual list of chores for everyone, and it came out . . . one line never tracked another. He was all over the map. Not as if he thought it were the wrong day, but as if it were the wrong twenty days. Every sentence was grammatically correct and completely incoherent. And he didn’t even seem to be aware of it, till he began looking at all of us staring at him with our jaws hanging open, and ran down.

Haroche stood up and asked Illyan to submit himself for medical evaluation, but Illyan refused, though he seemed as much confused as angry; he didn’t want to leave in the middle of the crisis caused by the Cetagandan invasion of Vervain.  Haroche tried to remove him by force, but Illyan, a dirty fighter, injured him and two others before the medic arrived, sedating Illyan and tying him down.

Miles decides that that couldn’t have been a worse or more humiliating way for Illyan’s problem to come out.  Galeni says he wasn’t supposed to tell Miles about this, so the information didn’t come from him.  Miles again wonders why Haroche hadn’t taken care of this the night before, but decides he wasn’t the man on the ground, so he shouldn’t second-guess Haroche’s decision.  He also wonders if the stress of the wedding helped bring it on, but decides Illyan has probably faced worse crises; still, the timing is less than optimal.  Galeni asks if Miles’s firing could have been a symptom as well, but Miles is forced to admit that Illyan was unfortunately quite right to do it.

Miles goes to ImpSec HQ the next day to visit Illyan, but the security clerk won’t let him in.  He asks the clerk to call his superior, Major Jarlais, who Miles knows personally, but Jarlais doesn’t think he can let Miles in either.  Miles decides to cut to the chase, pull Vor rank and go straight to Haroche.  Haroche tells Miles that it’s impossible to let him in, and Miles asks why.  Haroche asks Miles to take the message privately, and then asks Miles how he heard; Miles just says he called Gregor, letting Haroche conclude that’s how he found out.  Haroche says that Illyan is babbling, all sorts of high-security info, but Miles points out he’s still cleared for all of it.  Haroche is surprised to find that Miles’s clearance is still on file even after his dismissal, so he revokes it right then and there.

You can’t do that! Miles bit back the outraged scream. Haroche most certainly could. Miles stared at him, frustrated. So what was he going to do? Flounce out of ImpSec with an angry cry of, We’ll just see about that! I’m going to tell my big brother on you! No. Gregor was a card he dared only play once, and only in the direst emergency. He let out his breath, and his anger, in a carefully controlled sigh. “General. Prudence is one thing. Paranoia that can’t tell friend from foe is quite another.”

“Lord Vorkosigan,” said Haroche, equally tightly. “We don’t yet know what we have here. I don’t have time to spend entertaining idly curious civilians this morning, friendly or not. Please do not pester my staff any more. Whatever the Emperor chooses to pass on to you is his business. My only duty is to report to him. Good day.”

Upon returning home, Miles tries to get through to Gregor, eventually succeeding, and asks him point-blank what’s up with Illyan.  With Gregor, he pretends only to know what Gregor told him two days ago, and his own call, and asks for news.  Gregor gives the summary of Galeni’s staff meeting, and says Illyan is in the ImpSec clinic.  Miles tells Gregor that Haroche wouldn’t let him see Illyan, and Gregor says that Haroche’s hands are full. and he needs some time to get ImpSec organized; he advise Miles to give Haroche a few days to relax.

“You have to admit, Simon would be the first to approve a cautious approach to such an emergency.”

“True. Simon would prefer to be in the hands of people who really cared about security. But I’m beginning to think I would prefer it if there were any signs he was in the hands of people who really cared about Simon Illyan.”

Miles remembers his own cryo-amnesia, the sense of having lost himself, and wonders if what Illyan’s experiencing is similar, or even worse.  Miles says he’ll give Haroche some time, but pleads with Gregor to keep him updated.  Illyan was a mentor to him, and his “Uncle Simon” until he went into the Academy; he’s never had any family of his own, so Miles feels like he’s part of his family, maybe even like a family retainer, a Vor responsibility.  Gregor says it’s nice to see Miles remembering he’s Vor once in a while, loyal as a Vorkosigan, and promises to give him daily updates.

Miles signs off, partly satisfied, telling himself that it’s too early to conclude that there’s something funny going on, but feeling it nonetheless.  Still, he doesn’t want to make a fool of himself in public again just yet.

Comments

It is tempting, at this point, to think of Haroche as the bad guy, because he just wants to thwart our hero’s aims.  Just like Miles’s superiors always used to do, like whatsisname in Cetaganda, or in The Vor Game, or Brothers in Arms…Lieutenant Lord Miles Vorkosigan always chafed at his limitations, until he finally got the freedom to act as Admiral Naismith with much fewer brakes on his actions.  So maybe he’s not really so bad, he’s just trying to deal with a crisis, and tired of being pestered by someone who’s no longer authorized to be directly involved.  Haroche isn’t Vor, he’s from the supposedly egalitarian military, at least the ImpSec branch of it, and he does show some evidence of not truly understanding the Vor way of doing things–which is an odd failing for someone tasked with running security on Barrayar itself.  Maybe it’s that very task that shows him that Vor are no better than anyone else, and gives him some contempt for the values they espouse, because he gets to see them when they’re at their most hypocritical, or at least wrongheaded.

So Galeni was not supposed to tell Miles, and Miles pretends that he heard about it from someone else.  But Galeni visits Vorkosigan House right after work that day, Vorkosigan House has ImpSec guards (maybe it’s just Kosti, but he must trade off with others, and, in any case, Kosti has to obey orders), and after Galeni’s visit, Miles knows that something’s going on with Illyan.  He offers alternative explanations, true, but I’d think that it wouldn’t be too hard to surmise that Miles found out from Galeni.  They might even have access to the angry call that Galeni made to Miles, and find it odd that Galeni came to visit him not once but twice after that.  Okay, apology and rapprochement is not an impossible explanation either, but…it’s a theory.  I guess it’s just that nobody really cares enough to spend time digging into those two.  Or maybe they’ve already assumed that Miles and Galeni were the ones who were conspiring to bring Illyan down, and are just waiting to let them incriminate themselves before pouncing.


This is a bad chapter to stop on, frankly.  Like Miles, we’re pretty sure that something is wrong, and we have to keep reading long enough to find out what that is.  I’ve been generally trying to keep myself to reading two chapters a week–after my week’s blog post, I read the next two chapters before I start writing the next week’s summary.  A few weeks ago I found myself unable to stop, and went on for a third chapter.  This week, I read three more chapters, so I’m now two full chapters ahead.  Will I be able to keep myself from reading two chapters further ahead this week?  I guess I can try.  But Chapter Sixteen is just such a great chapter…  Next week.

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Is it that time again already?  What do you mean, that was yesterday?  Anyway, it’s time once again for the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, wherein the Vorkosigan Saga novels of Lois McMaster Bujold are read, summarized, and discussed.  This week I manage to get through two more chapters of Mirror Dance, where we finally get to see something of the long-absent (due to a slight case of death) Miles Vorkosigan once again, while his clone-brother Mark prepares to dash off to the rescue if they will but let him.

Chapter Nineteen

A man awakens in a hospital bed, and opens his eyes to find them covered with some kind of translucent medical goo.  He’s having trouble breathing, and realizes that there’s a tube down his throat, and more in his nose, and sticking into his arms; it hurts to move.  Looking down at himself, he sees his chest sunken and covered with scars and surgical patches, as well as the goo, and more tubes everywhere.  That can’t be good, he thinks as he sinks back into unconsciousness.

Later, half-drowsing, a woman comes, tells him that they’re taking out his “pacer”, since his new heart and lungs should be working.  She opens up his chest and takes something out, closing it up again when she’s done and giving the thing to her male assistant.  She’s pretty and vaguely Asian, and dressed in a white coat, and he guesses she’s a doctor, but she can’t hear him around the tube in his throat, which she then removes, to his immense relief.  She asks him his name, and he realizes he doesn’t know.  The assistant says he’s placed bets that this one’s brain-damaged, but the woman says he needs some time to recover.  She does some simple reflex tests, saying she’ll save more complex ones for a few more days.  Convinced somehow that he has to recover soon or die, he tries doing some simple exercises in bed after they leave, but the man returns and sedates him, sinking him into nightmares.

Later, the woman returns to give him his first meal with his new stomach, nothing more than glucose water.  He proves able to suck it through a straw, but can’t drink much; the woman explains that his new organs are still a little small, but “Lilly” was in a hurry to awaken him.  He’s not sure if she expects him to understand what she says, though.  She gives him a sponge bath, and he spies the tag “DR. R. DURONA” on the pocket of her scrubs.

“You were quite a little mystery, you know. Delivered to me in a crate. Raven said you were too small to be a soldier, but I picked out enough camouflage cloth and nerve disruptor shield-netting, along with the forty-six grenade fragments, to be quite sure you weren’t just a bystander. Whatever you were, that needle-grenade had your name on it. Unfortunately, not in writing.” She sighed half to herself. “Who are you?”

She did not pause for an answer, which was just as well. The effort of swallowing the sugar water had exhausted him again. An equally pertinent question was, Where was he, and he was peeved that she, who must surely know, didn’t think to tell him. The room was an anonymous high-tech medical locale, without windows. On a planet, not a ship.

How do I know that? A vague picture of a ship, in his head, seemed to shatter at his touch. What ship? For that matter, what planet?

There ought to be a window. A big window, framing a high hazy city-scape with a rapid river cutting through it. And people. There were people missing, who ought by rights to be here, though he could not picture them. The mix of generic medical familiarity and particular strangeness tied his guts in knots.

He’s relieved, if a little raw, to have all the dead skin removed; she depilates his face as well and combs his hair, pulling out clumps of it, and then holds up a mirror.  He doesn’t recognize his face, but supposes he can get used to it, despite bloodshot eyes and patchy hair.  He tries to speak but can’t get anything coherent out.

“Lilly called your cryo-chamber Pandora’s box,” she murmured reflectively. “But I thought of it as the enchanted knight’s crystal coffin. I wish it were as easy as waking you with a kiss.”

She bent over, eyelids fluttering half-closed, and touched her lips to his. He lay very still, half-pleased, half-panicked. She straightened, watched him another moment, and sighed. “Didn’t think it would work. Maybe I’m just not the right princess.”

She leaves him in the dark, where he falls asleep on his own, feeling somewhat hopeful.  When he awakens he begins to regain some muscle control, enough to twitch his arms and legs, but when Dr. Durona returns, she’s horribly wrong–older, and colder towards him, more businesslike, with different, shorter hair.  He can’t understand, wondering if he fell asleep for longer than he’d thought.  She puts him in a hospital gown and makes him stand up, which nearly makes him pass out, then puts him back to bed.  Next time she shows up looking ten years older yet, with hair in a ponytail, and walks him across the room and back.

The short-haired version returns and gets him walking again, out into the hallway where he sees the older Dr. Durona, and this time notices they have different initials on their nametags–Dr. P. with the ponytail, Dr. C. (addressed as “Chrys”) with the shorter hair, neither of them his Dr. R.  discuss his progress, Chrys being of the opinion that he’s progressing well physically, but mentally not as well.  Lilly is pressuring them to get his memories working again, or he’ll be of no use.  They put him back to bed, and his Dr. R. Durona, appears then, to his relief, expressing mock disapproval about their treatment of her patient.  Chrys is apparently the physical therapist, which explains things, and Dr. R. sets limits on the therapy, though fairly high ones.

The other two leave him with her, and she tells him his hair is starting to grow again in his bare patches, and hopes this means his brain is working too.  She asks him again for his name, and he responds by asking, muzzily, for hers.  At first she simply thinks he’s repeating what she said, but he convinces her that he is actually asking for her own name, and tells him that it’s Rowan.  He tries to urge her to kiss him again, but she leaves.

This time he doesn’t fall asleep, but lies there with bits of thought washing around his brain, some of them possibly memories.  When he examines them too closely he gets panicky, though, and so he just lets them froth.  He decides that if he can’t remember who he is, he can try to figure out where.  He’s no longer hooked up to machines or tagged, so he slips out of bed and to his door, which opens.  The hallway outside leads past a monitor-station which seems to be temporarily unmanned, so he slips past and out through the door at the end, which also opens.  He passes surgeries, storage rooms, and labs, and concludes somehow that this place is more of a research centre than a hospital or clinic.

He finds the bottom of a deactivated lift-tube, and after briefly considering trying to climb it (which proves to be beyond his physical capabilities) he risks turning the power on and rises from level “S-3” to “S-1”.  The lift-tube exits into a tiny foyer, then a storage room, but when he turns around he discovers the door has vanished and he can’t reopen it again.  His bare feet are cold and he’s dizzy and tired, but he can’t return to his bed, so he persuades himself to go on.  He finds the bottom of another lift-tube, this one labelled as “B-2”, with nothing below it; he heads up to level “G”, which proves to be ground level.  He finds a darkened lobby, with glass doors and windows showing that it’s night outside.  There is a desk with a comconsole, where he sits gratefully, but can’t access its data, even though he’s sure he can overcome a palm-lock.

He shivered. God, I hate cold. He wobbled over to the glass door. It was snowing outside, tiny scintillant dots whipping by slantwise through the white arc of a floodlight. They would be hard, and hiss and sting on bare skin. A weird vision of a dozen naked men standing shivering in a midnight blizzard flitted across his mind’s eye, but he could attach no names to the scene, only a sensation of deep disaster. Was that how he had died, freezing in the wind and snow? Recently, nearby?

I was dead. The realization came to him for the first time, a burst of shock radiating outward from his belly. He traced the aching scars on his torso through the thin fabric of his gown. And I’m not feeling too good now, either. He giggled, an off-balance noise disturbing even to his own ears. He stifled his mouth with his fist. He must not have had time to be afraid, before, because the retroactive wash of terror knocked him to his knees. Then to his hands and knees. The shivering cold was making his hands shake uncontrollably. He began to crawl.

He gets close to the door, which opens automatically; not wanting to get trapped outside again, he tries to turn to avoid it, but gets disoriented and finds himself outside after all.  Suddenly he feels a shock and smells singed hair as he is pushed back into the doorway, where he curls up miserably.

Voices and shouts arise, and he is pulled back inside to a babble of voices wondering how he got there, and asking for Rowan to be called.  One of the men proves to be Rowan’s male assistant, whose initial is also R., who wonders how he broke out of their security.

“Na’ sec’rty.” Words! His mouth was making words! “Fire saf’ty.” He added reflectively, “Dolt.”

The young man’s face jerked back in bewildered offense. “Are you talking to me, Short Circuit?”

“He’s talking!” His Dr. Durona’s face circled overhead, her voice thrilled. He recognized her even with her fine hair loose, falling all around her face in a dark cloud. Rowan, my love. “Raven, what did he say?”

The youth’s dark brows wrinkled. “I’d swear he just said ‘fire safety.’ ” Gibberish, I guess.”

Rowan explains how he must have known that the locked doors would all open outward, for fire safety, but Raven isn’t impressed.  An older Dr. Durona with white hair shuffles out and dismisses everyone without a reason to be there; she asks how he got out, and the one who was supposed to be manning the monitor station admits to leaving their post for a minute.  Raven says he’d have frozen to death out there even if he had gotten through the force screen.  After some discussion of improved security, they decide he needs to be guarded; Raven is assigned as his night guard because he can be spared, with Rowan to watch him during the day.

Raven picks him up to carry him back down, where Rowan checks him for damage.  He’s shivering with cold, so they raise the temperature in his room.  Rowan says he’s in some minor distress, but he should fall asleep once he warms up.  Rowan invites him to speak again, but he’s thinking about the tension he sensed among the various Dr. Duronas in the lobby, tension to do with him, and wonders what they know about him.  Rowan leaves and Raven stays with him, studying some medical subject or other, still in training to be a doctor like the others.

He lay back, drained beyond measure. His excursion tonight had nearly killed him, and what had he learned for all his pains? Not much, except this: I am come to a very strange place.

And I am a prisoner here.

Comments

So first Kyril Island, and now cryo-freezing…and a cold planetary environment (Jackson’s Whole?) outside his prison.  Poor Miles, with the cold.  I sympathize.  For it is Miles, of course, even if he doesn’t know himself yet.  With new heart and lungs, and apparently stomach too–he was really blown out, wasn’t he?  The dead skin flaking off was a little disgusting, but I guess if he was frozen, a lot of his skin might have died.  Not sure how that would work, I guess.  This bringing someone back from death must be a complicated business.

Somehow, even unconscious and amnesic, he’s still winning over hearts and minds, as he and Rowan seem to be drawn together, even if none of the others are quite as impressed.  The Duronas are all clones, of course, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t have differences in personality, even if it’s just because of being raised in changing family environments.

Chapter Twenty

The day before Mark, Elena and Cordelia are due to leave, they’re looking at ship specs.  Mark asks if he thinks they’ll be able to stop in on Komarr and visit his clones, who ImpSec has set up in a private boarding school there, where they can be together and yet still meet other children.  Cordelia has urged that they be put into foster families to give them examples for forming their own families later in life.  Now she says that they could stop in, certainly–Illyan will complain, but they can overrule him–but she wonders if it might not be better for Mark not to know precisely where they are, in case he falls into Bharaputran hands on Jackson’s Whole.  Mark decides that it’s probably better if he doesn’t see them, having come to terms with the fact that they won’t see him as a hero.

Illyan calls and asks to talk to Cordelia; Elena and Mark worry that he’s going to block them, but Cordelia tells them to be quiet and let her deal with Simon.  Illyan pronounces her scheme unacceptable.

“To whom, Simon? Not to me. Who else gets a vote?”

“Security,” Illyan growled.

“You are Security. I’ll thank you to take responsibility for your own emotional responses, and not try to shift them onto some vague abstraction. Or get off the line and let me talk to Captain Security, then.”

Cordelia says that he’ll need to arrest her and Mark to keep them from going; Illyan threatens to go to the Count, but Cordelia says she’s already cleared it with him, and he’s too ill to be bothered further.  Illyan protests that he doesn’t see the point of their expedition, and Cordelia says that they don’t know yet what Mark will be able to do, but ImpSec is welcome to beat him to it.  Illyan points out that they are risking the last chances of House Vorkosigan, and Cordelia says she accepts that risk.  Illyan says that people from all parties are scrambling to find someone to take over Aral’s position, and Cordelia wishes them well, and hopes that she can get her husband out of the government alive.

“Who is capable of succeeding him?” asked Illyan plaintively.

“A number of men. Racozy, Vorhalas, or Sendorf, to name three. If not, there was something terribly wrong with Aral’s leadership. One mark of a great man is the legacy of men he leaves behind him, to whom he’s passed on his skills. If you think Aral so small as to have stifled all possible others around him, spreading smallness like a plague, then perhaps Barrayar is better off without him.”

Illyan then asks if she’s considered the risk of bringing Mark too close to Miles.  Cordelia says that if he’s so worried about that, he’ll have to find Miles first.  Illyan protests that they’ll expect help from ImpSec if they get into trouble, and Cordelia says that they should have the right to expect it anyway.  Illyan signs off, and Cordelia says he’s going to try to go over her head, so she waits at the console until Gregor calls.

“Good morning, Lady Cordelia. You really ought not to stir up poor Simon that way, you know.”

“He deserved it,” she said equably. “I admit, he has far too much on his mind at the moment. Suppressed panic turns him into a prick every time; it’s what he does instead of running in circles screaming. A way of coping, I suppose.”

“While others of us cope by becoming over-analytical,” Gregor murmured. The Countess’s lip twitched, and Mark suddenly thought he knew who might shave the barber.

Gregor asks if she really thinks this expedition is wise, and Cordelia says that they can only find out by trying it.  She notes that this is really the best to put any rumours about Mark’s motives to rest, by putting him in a situation of supposed temptation and giving him enough rope to hang himself.  Gregor finds this a compelling argument, and wishes Mark good luck.

Cordelia and Mark make a final visit to Aral at ImpMil hospital; Mark finds the hospital atmosphere oppressive, and still finds Aral daunting, but Cordelia predicts that he’ll regret not having talked to the Count more than he’d ever regret doing it.  Aral is sitting in bed looking out the window, his colour far from good, and is cheered by their presence.  Cordelia tells him she’s seen his new heart, still tiny but beating away in its vat, which she thinks is cute but Aral grotesque; she comments on the possibilities for tasteless jokes with his old heart when he’s done with it.

Aral talks to Mark about the Jackson’s Whole expedition, wishing momentarily that Bothari was going with them, causing them some concern until they’re sure that he’s not forgetting that Bothari is years dead.  He laments the role of the mentor, left behind while the protégé goes and risks himself, and advises Mark that he can’t be defeated if he’s not defeated in his own mind.  He and Aral exchange a firm hand-clasp, and Aral wishes confusion to his enemies.

That night Mark makes one final call, to the Koudelka household, where Mrs. Koudelka answers.  He asks haltingly for Kareen.

A blonde brow twitched. “I believe I know which one you are, but—who may I say is calling?”

“Lord Mark Vorkosigan,” he got out.

“Just a moment, my lord.” She left the range of the vid pick-up; he could hear her voice fading in the distance, calling “Kareen!”

There was a muffled bumping in the background, garbled voices, a shriek, and Kareen’s laughing voice crying, “No, Delia, it’s for me! Mother, make her go away! Mine, all mine! Out!” The sound of a door thumping closed on, presumably, flesh, a yelp, then a firmer and more final slam.

Kareen is quite happy to see him, and Mark is breathless for a moment.  He tells her he’s called to say goodbye, and clarifies that he’s going off-planet for a while.  She asks when he’ll be back, and he says he’s not sure, but he would like to see her on his return.  He asks what was going on with her sister, and she explains that Delia would have stood off-camera and made faces at her while she talked to Mark, because that’s what Kareen’s done to her.  Mark is amazed by how normal this situation is, and leads her into a description of her life, of a well-off family with a strong work ethic–peaceful, calm and real.  Kareen slows down when she realizes how little Mark is saying.

“Good heavens, I’m babbling. I’m sorry.”

“No! I like listening to you talk.”

“That’s a first. In this family, I’m lucky to get a word in edgewise. I didn’t talk till I was three. They had me tested. It turned out it was just because my sisters were answering everything for me!”

She asks about his life, which she says sounded like sort of an adventure.  Mark tells her that it was more like a disaster, and explains that he’s kind of a mess, but he doesn’t know what he should tell her about it.  Kareen says they should ask the Countess, who’s an old friend of her mother, who used to be her bodyguard.  He thinks of the Barrayaran tradition of go-betweens, and wonders if using Cordelia as a mediator would work out well or not.  He tells Kareen that sometime, before he comes back, she should talk to the Countess about him and say that Mark told her to ask about him.  Kareen agrees, and insists that if he’s back by Winterfair, they will dance at the ball, and not in the corner this time; Mark allows that if he’s back by then, he won’t need to hide any longer.

“Good. I’ll hold you to your word.”

“My word as Vorkosigan,” he said lightly.

Her blue eyes widened. “Oh. My.” Her soft lips parted in a blinding smile.

He felt like a man who’d gone to spit, and had a diamond pop accidently from his lips instead. And he couldn’t call it back and re-swallow it. There must be a Vorish streak in the girl, to take a man’s word so seriously.

She tells him to be careful, saying that he reminds her of her father, a soldier, when he’s pretending that he isn’t heading into a difficult situation.  Mark is touched by her concern and bids her farewell.

Comments

It’s not clear how much time has passed between their resolution to depart for Jackson’s Whole “as soon as possible” and the current chapter, one day before departure, but it can’t have been that long if Simon Illyan is only calling them now.  I suppose that Aral’s condition and the search for Miles is distracting him from keeping an eye on Cordelia’s activities, but surely he had someone watching Mark, if nothing else.  Maybe he wasn’t sure how serious she was, or when precisely she was leaving…  He is essentially powerless against Cordelia, except for when he can sway her through persuasion and/or logic, which he’s not nearly as good at.  Gregor is probably more capable of it, as one of her best pupils, but he thinks more like her in the first place, so he doesn’t need as much persuading.

The other scene, the call to Kareen, is more cheerful, as Mark catches glimpses of the normalcy that he never had in his life, and probably over-romanticizes, but I’m sure would embrace happily nonetheless.  Despite anything that he may have done at the Emperor’s Birthday, she’s still willing to consider him a “fellow” and dance with him again.  I can’t remember if we get back to Kareen in this book or not, but they do have a great plotline in A Civil Campaign, at least.  Oh, and a glimpse of her mother Ludmilla “Drou” Koudelka, one of the few we get in the series after Barrayar, though she also turns up in A Civil Campaign, at least.  I keep thinking we’ll see more of Clement Koudelka himself sometime, but I can’t remember other scenes offhand.  He’s probably still working for Aral, which means he’s probably trying frantically to keep things going until the Count recovers, but I can’t help but wonder what “difficult situations” Kareen was talking about, since her father shouldn’t be going into anything front-line these days.  I guess there’s still tense situations which don’t involve outright battle…

A shortish chapter, but a talky one, so hard to summarize and sounds at all good, so lots of nice quotage.  They’ll be off Barrayar soon, alas, into more action and less interesting dialogue with interesting characters (which somehow seems to be my favourite bit of Bujold books).


There you have it, two chapters one day late rather than one chapter on time and then slacking off for most of another week.  Maybe I should even change my schedule to Wednesdays instead–I picked Tuesdays more or less at random, after all, or perhaps for reasons that no longer apply, and I’m not attached to them.  But I’m afraid that my having an excuse for potential underproductivity makes it more likely I’ll just slack off.  At least this book has some fairly short chapters.

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Welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, wherein I summarize and comment on the books of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, in weekly installments of (usually) two chapters, posted on Tuesdays, at least in my time zone–more often in the evenings than in the mornings, admittedly, but technically Tuesday none the less.  This is the penultimate installment of the Barrayar reread, as I cover chapters 19 and 20, winding the plot down from Cordelia’s triumph to a gentle, touching denouement.  There’s even a wedding, for a nice, traditional ending.

But at the start, Cordelia, Drou and Bothari have just escaped from the burning Imperial Residence, with the severed head of soi-disant Emperor Vordarian, former pretender to the throne.

Chapter Nineteen

In Ezar’s cache they find money and fake IDs for Drou, so Cordelia sends Drou out to buy a groundcar.  They will have to pass several checkpoints to leave the capital, but the monorail is worse, and lightflyers likely to be shot down.  Drou buys a fairly cheap car, since Cordelia wants to save money for bribes at the checkpoints.  As they set off, Cordelia can see the black smoke coming from the fire at the Residence.

The first checkpoint is unmanned; the second is harried, and a healthy bribe convinces them to let Drou and her “sick uncle” Bothari pass through.  At the third, they mention the “rumour” of Vordarian’s death and the guard deserts on the spot.  After that, they drive to Vorinnis’s neutral District, and switch to the monorail after the car breaks down.  Once they reach a loyal District, Drou convinces the duty officer at a supply depot near the border to contact Tanery Base, and they send an air shuttle to pick them up.

Once they reach the base, she orders her ImpSec escort to get Vaagen there right away, and they tell her he’s already been summoned.  The security men take their weapons, and Cordelia doesn’t blame them, in their current condition.  Vaagen arrives and examines the replicator, saying nutrient levels are low and waste products high, but still within tolerance.  Aral already set up a lab for Vaagen, just in case, so he has everything he needs to get it back into shape, though he doesn’t know what effect there was on the calcification treatments.  After being relieved of the replicator, Cordelia wants to rest, but she has to tell Aral, first.  She wonders if she’s crippled his credibility among his men.

Koudelka arrives, and he and Drou have a quite non-military reunion.  Kou says that the Vorpatrils are safely bedded down, suffering from exhaustion but little worse.  Drou tells him about Kareen’s fate, and Koudelka says that he’s been ordered to bring them to Aral for the initial debriefing before they talk to anyone else.  He asks about her plastic bag, and the ImpSec men say she wouldn’t let them look at it, and they don’t know if they should let her bring it into the base.  Koudelka takes a peek inside, pales, and says that this is definitely something Aral should see.

“Lieutenant, what should I put on my inventory?” the ImpSec man—whined, Cordelia decided, was what he was doing. “I have to register it, if it’s going in.”

“Let him cover his ass, Kou,” Cordelia sighed.

Kou peeked again, his lips twisting into a very crooked grin. “It’s all right. Put it down as a Winterfair gift for Admiral Vorkosigan. From his wife.”

Drou returns the sword-cane, apologizing for losing the case, and Koudelka immediately makes the connection with the severed head; Cordelia says she’ll go back to Siegling’s and replace the casing.  Koudelka says that Aral is meeting with two Vordarian officers negotating their help with the hostage recovery, but Vordarian’s death will certainly change everything.  Koudelka leads them into a conference chamber.

Cordelia took in the tableau, that paused to look back up at her from around the polished table. Aral was in the center, of course. Illyan and Count Piotr flanked him on either side. Prime Minister Vortala was there, and Kanzian, and some other senior staffers all in formal dress greens. The two double-traitors sat across, with their aides. Clouds of witnesses. She wanted to be alone with Aral, be rid of the whole bloody mob of them. Soon.

Aral’s eyes locked to hers in silent agony. His lips curled in an utterly ironic smile. That was all; and yet her stomach warmed with confidence again, sure of him. No frost. It was going to be all right. They were in step again, and a torrent of words and hard embraces could not have communicated it any better. Embraces would come, though, the grey eyes promised. Her own lips curved up for the first time since—when?

Count Piotr’s hand slapped down hard upon the table. “Good God, woman, where have you been?” he cried furiously.

A morbid lunacy overtook her. She smiled fiercely at him, and held up the bag. “Shopping.”

For a second, the old man nearly believed her; conflicting expressions whiplashed over his face, astonishment, disbelief, then anger as it penetrated he was being mocked.

“Want to see what I bought?” Cordelia continued, still floating. She yanked the bag’s top open, and rolled Vordarian’s head out across the table. Fortunately, it had ceased leaking some hours back. It stopped faceup before him, lips grinning, drying eyes staring.

The reaction is gratifying.  Koudelka lays the sword-stick down next to the head to emphasize its role.  Cordelia says that she paid too much for it, that Kareen is dead.  Aral says that he wishes to be along with his wife.  As Vordarian’s turncoats are leaving, Cordelia tells them she’s tired of their stupid war and they should surrender unconditionally.  Count Piotr says he underestimated her, and she tells him to stay away from her son.  Aral tells Koudelka to take the head away to the morgue until it can be reunited with its body, and that Bothari and Drou should wash, eat and report to him in his quarters.

Alone at least, Cordelia and Aral embrace fiercely, and Cordelia promises never to pull a stunt like that again as long as Aral never makes it necessary again.  He has already heard about Padma Vorpatril, who was the only other survivor of Prince Xav’s descendants.  He says that she’s shocked the Barrayarans, and she says that like Vordarian, they seem to think that Barrayarans have a monopoly on savagery.  Aral asks about the head, and Cordelia says that she wasn’t sure why she was bringing it along, but later realized that it was the only way to convince people that she’d actually done the deed.  She says that Bothari needs help, better than the memory wipe he got from Ezar.  She wonders why he fixates on her, of all people.

Vorkosigan looked very thoughtful. “Bothari . . . does not have a good sense of self. No strong center. When I first met him, at his most ill, his personality was close to separating into multiples. If he were better educated, not so damaged, he would have made an ideal spy, a deep-penetration mole. He’s a chameleon. A mirror. He becomes whatever is required of him. Not a conscious process, I don’t think. Piotr expects a loyal retainer, and Bothari plays the part, deadpan as you please. Vorrutyer wanted a monster, and Bothari became his torturer. And victim. I demanded a good soldier, and he became one for me. You . . .” his voice softened, “you are the only person I know who looks at Bothari and sees a hero. So he becomes one for you. He clings to you because you create him a greater man than he ever dreamed of being.”

Three days later, Aral’s forces retake Vorbarr Sultana, without too great a loss of life, or much resistance except at the Residence and ImpSec headquarters.  The hotel where Elena Bothari and other hostages were being held was liberated without incident, and Aral granted Bothari leave to take her back home.  Evon Vorhalas, who had of course been fighting for Vordarian, was shot by his own men after he refused to consider an offer of amnesty.

One rebel Count declared himself Emperor after hearing of Vordarian’s death, but his own pretendership was brief; in another District, the Count killed himself and an anti-Vor group declared themselves an independent republic.  Aral decided to let the Count’s successor deal with that one himself.

On the fifth day, Gregor was returned to the capital. Vorkosigan and Cordelia together undertook to tell him of the death of Kareen. He cried in bewilderment. When he quieted, he was taken for a ride in a groundcar with a transparent force-screen, reviewing some troops; in fact, the troops were reviewing him, that he might be seen to be alive, finally dispelling Vordarian’s rumors of his death. Cordelia rode with him. His silent shockiness hurt her to the heart, but it was better from her point of view than parading him first and then telling him. If she’d had to endure his repeated queries of when he would see his mother again, all during the ride, she would have broken down herself.

The funeral for Kareen was public, though much less elaborate than it would have been in less chaotic circumstances. Gregor was required to light an offering pyre for the second time in a year. Vorkosigan asked Cordelia to guide Gregor’s hand with the torch. This part of the funeral ceremony seemed almost redundant, after what she’d done to the Residence. Cordelia added a thick lock of her own hair to the pile. Gregor clung close to her.

“Are they going to kill me, too?” he whispered to her. He didn’t sound frightened, just morbidly curious. Father, grandfather, mother, all gone in a year; no wonder he felt targeted, confused though his understanding of death was at his age.

“No,” she said firmly. Her arm tightened around his shoulders. “I won’t let them.” God help her, this baseless assurance actually seemed to console him.

She notices a chance in the Barrayaran nobles’ reaction to her, and she eventually realizes that they are treating her with respect.  It enrages her that a worthy trial like Lady Alys’s childbirth is considered unexceptional, but chopping off a man’s head really made you somebody, and in private she breaks down in Aral’s company.  She asks if he’ll use her newfound “status”, and he says he’ll do whatever it takes to get Gregor to his throne alive and sane.  They are officially granted guardianship of Gregor, and while Prime Minister Vortala emphasizes that this does not Cordelia herself any added power, she is in charge of Gregor’s household and education; she is astonished that Vortala doesn’t realize the power that this does give her.

Comments

So what do they do with the uterine replicator when they’re on the monorail?  Do they keep it wrapped up, a hidden shape probably the size of a small keg, or do they travel with it uncovered, an odd technological device?  The author kinda skims over this bit.  One wonders if Vordarian’s head has started to smell at all–how soon does putrefaction set in?  At the very least it should smell like blood.  I guess they’re traveling through the neutral district at this point, and perhaps people are just trying not to be too curious.

Poor Gregor, he’s got issues, and it takes him a while to work through them–a major plot element in The Vor Game, as I recall.  In later books, though, he seems much the better for any Betan elements that Cordelia managed to sneak into his upbringing.

Aral’s analysis of Bothari is interesting.  (Also: awwww.)  I’ll have to watch, in The Warrior’s Apprentice, to see how Miles’s relationship with him fits into this template.

Chapter Twenty

Aral and Cordelia move into the Imperial Residence, and Drou returns to Gregor’s service.  Kou and Drou plan their wedding for a month after Winterfair.  Alys Vorpatril is distracted from dwelling on Padma’s death and Ivan’s future, and takes Drou under her wing, making her a gift of a holiday cottage and a wedding gown.

Cordelia offered herself as a go-between for the two families. For some reason, Kou and Drou both turned the offer down, hastily, though with profuse thanks. Given the bewildering pitfalls of Barrayaran social custom, Cordelia was just as happy to leave it to the experienced elderly lady the couple did contract.

Aral arranges for the wedding to take place in the Residence, and he is heartened by the different social classes represented in the guest list.  With Alys Vorpatril arranging it, even the most conservative Vor won’t dare to complain, either.  Kou and Drou begin to get overwhelmed by the affair, but the Residence staff are happy to have something interesting to do.

The day and hour came at last. A large circle made of colored groats was laid out on the floor of the Red Room, encompassed by a star with a variable number of points, one for each parent or principal witness to stand at: in this case, four. In Barrayaran custom a couple married themselves, speaking their vows within the circle, requiring neither priest nor magistrate. Practically, a coach, called appropriately enough the Coach, stood outside the circle and read the script for the fainthearted or faint-headed to repeat. This dispensed with the need for higher neural functions such as learning and memory on the part of the stressed couple. Lost motor coordination was supplied by a friend each, who steered them to the circle. It was all very practical, Cordelia decided, as well as splendid.

Drou’s father is surprisingly smaller than Drou herself and her three brothers, all able to be present.  Bothari escorts a visibly nervous Koudelka in, and Lady Alys escorts Drou.  They make their oaths, revealing in the process their despised first names, Clement and Ludmilla, and then Aral breaks the circle of groats to let the new couple out.

At the reception, Cordelia asks Bothari how Elena is doing.  She is crawling, and he hopes that Mistress Hysopi can keep up with her now, but he is happy with the arrangement, so different from his own childhood.  His new meds seem to be doing better for him, too.  He is the first to spot Gregor, having obviously snuck out of bed and creeping toward the buffet.  Cordelia retrieves him before distraught ImpSec staff can.

“How’d he get away?” snarled Illyan to Gregor’s keepers, who stammered out something inaudible about thought he was asleep and never took my eyes off.

“He’s not away,” Cordelia put in tartly. “This is his home. He ought to be at least able to walk about inside, or why do you keep all those bloody useless guards on the walls out there?”

“Droushie, can’t I come to your party?” Gregor asked plaintively, casting around desperately for an authority to outrank Illyan.

Drou looked at Illyan, who looked disapproving. Cordelia broke the deadlock without hesitation. “Yes, you can.”

So, under Cordelia’s supervision, the Emperor danced with the bride, ate three cream cakes, and was carried away to bed satisfied. Fifteen minutes was all he’d wanted, poor kid.

It is the end of winter when Vaagen tells Cordelia that it’s time to take baby Miles out of the replicator.  They all go down to ImpMil the next day, Aral, Cordelia, Count Piotr, and Bothari.  Vaagen’s lab is in a new building, both as part of a promotion and to relieve him of the ghosts attached to the old lab, and there are many observers present.  Vaagen makes a bit of a lecture out of the lead-up, then asks Cordelia and Aral to do the final honours.  Together they open the top of the replicator, and Dr. Ritter, Miles’s new doctor, cuts him out of the placenta.  He cries lustily upon being removed.

The contrast with baby Ivan was overwhelming. Despite the extra weeks of gestation, ten months to Ivan’s nine-and-a-half, Miles was barely half Ivan’s size at birth, and far more wizened and wrinkled. His spine was noticeably deformed, and his legs were drawn up and locked in a tight bend. He was definitely a male heir, though, no question about that. His first cry was thin, weak, nothing at all like Ivan’s angry, hungry bellow. Behind her, she heard Piotr hiss with disappointment.

Dr. Ritter says that the hip sockets are fused as a side effect of the treatments on the skull, and that and the spine will need to be fixed.  One of the other doctors manages to accidentally break one of Miles’s brittle arm bones.  Piotr stamps off, and Aral and Cordelia follow.  Piotr accuses them of having deceived him about the efficacy of the calcium treatments, though Cordelia says she passed on to him all the information that they got.  Piotr says he refuses to be associated with such a “mutant”.

Piotr’s lips curled in a silent snarl. Cheated of a cooperative target, he turned on Aral. “And you, you spineless, skirt-smothered—if your elder brother had lived—” Piotr’s mouth clamped shut abruptly, too late.

Aral’s face drained to a grey hue Cordelia had seen but twice before; both times he’d been a breath and a chance away from committing murder. Piotr had joked about Aral’s famous rages. Only now did Cordelia realize Piotr, though he may have witnessed his son in irritation, had never seen the real thing. Piotr seemed to realize it, too, dimly. His brows lowered; he stared, off-balanced.

Aral’s hands locked to each other, behind his back. Cordelia could see them shake, white-knuckled. His chin lifted, and he spoke in a whisper.

“If my brother had lived, he would have been perfect. You thought so; I thought so; Emperor Yuri thought so, too. So ever after you’ve had to make do with the leftovers from that bloody banquet, the son Mad Yuri’s death squad overlooked. We Vorkosigans, we can make do.” His voice fell still further. “But my firstborn will live. I will not fail him.”

Piotr is taken aback at Aral’s low blow, then his anger then turns to Bothari, and upon Bothari vowing his loyalty to Cordelia, he discharges him into Cordelia’s service and stalks off.  Aral says that Bothari hasn’t really been discharged, but reassigned.  Cordelia decides that he can take up the role of Miles’s bodyguard, which Bothari likes the idea of, since he can see that Miles will have a difficult childhood.  He takes up his post right away, lurking against the wall of the lab.  The doctors hand Miles to his parents at last.

Welcome to Barrayar, son. Here you go: have a world of wealth and poverty, wrenching change and rooted history. Have a birth; have two. Have a name. Miles means “soldier,” but don’t let the power of suggestion overwhelm you. Have a twisted form in a society that loathes and fears the mutations that have been its deepest agony. Have a title, wealth, power, and all the hatred and envy they will draw. Have your body ripped apart and re-arranged. Inherit an array of friends and enemies you never made. Have a grandfather from hell. Endure pain, find joy, and make your own meaning, because the universe certainly isn’t going to supply it. Always be a moving target. Live. Live. Live.

Comments

I welled up so many times reading this chapter, it’s not even funny.  The last paragraph there, Kou and Drou’s wedding, Gregor’s escapade at the reception…  Dammit, Bujold, what’s up with that?  <sniffle>  I guess that the term “moving target” does describe Miles fairly well.

Another bit of plot I always forget is just how Bothari ends up assigned to Miles.  It’s almost a shame that he has spend most of Barrayar working for Count Piotr, who doesn’t seem to particularly appreciate him, and probably just took him on as a favour to his son.  I thought, in fact, that at the end of Shards of Honour Bothari was one of Aral’s guards, but either Ms. Bujold changed her mind and thought it would add some tension to have him one of Piotr’s instead, or she decided that only the Count proper could have armsmen.  She ran the risk there of having it seem a bit contrived having Bothari around with Cordelia, but I guess it worked out okay.

I never could warm to Count Piotr.  In Shards he’s affable enough, but in Barrayar he ends up on the wrong side of his son after the soltoxin incident and never becomes sympathetic again.  It is almost a wonder that he doesn’t cross over to Vordarian’s side, but I’m sure it’s more for personal reasons than ideological ones.


With several hours of TV premieres between this and the next week, I’ll cover just the epilogue next week, and then a week off before heading into The Warrior’s Apprentice.  Or, I suppose, Young Miles, since I use the digital copies to facilitate cutting and pasting.  (Maybe it makes it too easy, since sometimes I seem to go a little overboard…it’s just her lovely prose, I guess.)  Until then…

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