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Welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, into the ninth installment of Barrayar, the second book in the Vorkosigan series chronologically.  This week, chapters Seventeen and Eighteen bring the whole story to a head.  (Heh.)  No, seriously, this totally encompasses the climax of the book–this is the good stuff, right here.

Chapter Seventeen

They take Lady Alys, Bothari carrying her, to a three-storey building in the caravanserai, against Koudelka’s protests; Cordelia quickly determines that this is the brothel from Bothari and Koudelka’s previous adventure, though Koudelka tells Drou that it’s a historic building turned into “a kind of inn”.  Inside, a woman leads them to a room on the top floor, and at Bothari’s insistence, changes the sheets before he lays Alys down there.  Drou stays with Alys while she sleeps, while Koudelka goes to look for food, and Bothari and Cordelia sit at a table in the hall.

Bothari asks if they have prostitutes on Beta Colony, and Cordelia tells him about their Licensed Practical Sexuality Therapists, government-licensed psychotherapists who do teaching as well as sex.  Bothari says that his mother was a whore, which Cordelia had already guessed, but adds that she used to sell him to her customers.  He ran away at age twelve, and ran with the gangs for four years until he was able to lie his way into the military.  Being a bastard on Barrayar is almost as bad as being a mutant, he says; Cordelia says that on Beta they barely even have a term for it.

When Koudelka returns with food and beer, Cordelia says that they have to change their strategy.  She says that they can’t take Lady Vorpatril with them, and they should get her out of the city before they realize that she’s probably not pregnant any more.  Cordelia needs to go because she’s in charge, Drou knows the way in, and Bothari is their muscle.  That leaves Koudelka to take Alys and Ivan out of the city.  Koudelka protests that it feels like he’s retreating, but Cordelia says that Alys and Ivan need his cleverness to get them out of the city.

Bothari goes to look for discarded clothing for Koudelka’s new role while Koudelka takes food in to Alys and Drou.  Koudelka says that he knows why Drou was so worried about being pregnant.  Cordelia says that things are not right between him and Drou yet, and says she wishes she’d been able to straighten things out between herself and Aral before she left.

She meditated a bit. “What have you tried besides ‘I’m sorry’? How about, ‘How do you feel? Are you all right? Can I help? I love you,’ there’s a classic. Words of one syllable. Mostly questions, now I think on it. Shows an interest in starting a conversation, y’know?”

He smiled sadly. “I don’t think she wants to talk to me anymore.”

Cordelia asks what he would have done if they hadn’t been interrupted by the soltoxin grenade attack.  Koudelka says he’d have arranged for a go-between, who arranges things with the parents, and then he’d just have to show up at the wedding.  But he doesn’t think that her parents would have approved of him, crippled as he is.

 “A go-between. Huh.” She stood up.

“Where are you going?” he asked nervously.

“Between,” she said firmly. She marched down the hall to Lady Vorpatril’s door, and stuck her head in.

Drou is in a brown study, and when Cordelia asks, she says that it’s about the man she killed earlier.  She blames herself and her hesitation for Lord Padma’s death, when Bothari didn’t hesitate.  Cordelia asks her if she really wants to be a monster like Bothari (though he’s her monster, she admits).  She says that no military or police force should be made up entirely of psychopathic killers; there should always be someone to question evil orders.  Cordelia tells Drou she’s going to send Koudelka out with the Vorpatrils, since, bewildering as it is to her, Vordarian will still consider the infant Lord Vorpatril a threat.

Cordelia asks Drou if she still loves Koudelka, even though she now knows most of his flaws, though he does have a promising future ahead of him if they get out of this alive.  Drou says that since she lost her virginity to him, she’s bound to him anyway, but Cordelia points that out that after this raid, she’ll be a hero and have men lining up for her hand.  Drou admits she’s afraid Koudelka will hurt her again; Cordelia says that she and Aral hurt each other, that she hurt him badly by going on this mission against his wishes, but avoiding pain is not a good enough reason to choose not to do something.

“I’m not sure I follow that, Milady. But . . . I have a picture, in my head. Of me and Kou, on a beach, all alone. It’s so warm. And when he looks at me, he sees me, really sees me, and loves me. . . .”

Cordelia pursed her lips. “Yeah . . . that’ll do. Come with me.”

She leads Drou to the sofa at the end of the hall, sitting her down with Koudelka at the other end.  She says that she will translate between the two of them, since they speak different languages.

Kou made an embarrassed negative motion over Cordelia’s head.

“That hand signal means, I’d rather blow up the rest of my life than look like a fool for five minutes. Ignore it,” Cordelia said. “Now, let me see. Who begins?”

There was a short silence. “Did I mention I’m also playing the parts of both your parents? I think I shall begin by being Kou’s Ma. Well, son, and have you met any nice girls yet? You’re almost twenty-six, you know. I saw that vid,” she added in her own voice as Kou choked. “I have her style, eh? And her content. And Kou says, Yes, Ma, there’s this gorgeous girl. Young, tall, smart—and Kou’s Ma says, Tee hee! And hires me, your friendly neighborhood go-between. And I go to your father, Drou, and say, there’s this young man. Imperial lieutenant, personal secretary to the Lord Regent, war hero, slated for the inside track at Imperial HQ—and he says, Say no more! We’ll take him. Tee-hee. And—”

Koudelka protests that her parents will have more to say than that, and Cordelia interprets this as referring to his disability.  She tells him that a wise father, when presented with his daughter’s choice of husband, will just go along and say “Yes, dear,” if he knows what’s good for him.  Her brothers may be harder to convince, but since Drou hasn’t complained to them yet, he has a chance.

“I said I was sorry,” said Kou, sounding stung.

Drou stiffened. “Yes. Repeatedly,” she said coldly.

“And there we come to the heart of the matter,” Cordelia said slowly, seriously. “What Kou actually means, Drou, is that he isn’t a bit sorry. The moment was wonderful, you were wonderful, and he wants to do it again. And again and again, with nobody but you, forever, socially approved and uninterrupted. Is that right, Kou?”

Kou looked stunned. “Well—yes!”

Drou blinked. “But . . . that’s what I wanted you to say!”

“It was?” He peered over Cordelia’s head.

Cordelia points out that they still some time before they have to leave, possibly enough to finish working things out, in words of one syllable.

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Holy crow, Cordelia’s “baba” scene there, as I think of it (though admittedly, the term “baba” is never used in this chapter, and possibly not even in the entire book–I guess I think of it from later books, like A Civil Campaign, or is it only Warrior’s Apprentice?) is so awesome I had to restrain myself from quoting the entire thing.  Not very well, as you can see.  Anyway, looking to the future, I’d have to say that Kou and Drou do have a bright one ahead of them, especially considering the kinds of matches their daughters make for themselves down the line.  Practically one from every estate.  But anyway…  Sometimes it seems that every pair of characters needs a Cordelia to sit down between them and clear up all the misunderstandings, secrets and conflicts between them.  Or maybe that’s just the Wheel of Time books, whose characters have finally, as of Book 13 in the series, began to actually talk and tell each other things.

Something that bothered me when I was reading this, though.  Initially Drou was to stay by Lady Alys’s bedside while she slept, so that she wouldn’t be too disoriented at awakening in a strange place.  (Though how well does Alys know Drou, anyway?  As a former bodyguard to Princess Kareen, given to Cordelia…  At least she would be familiar from the rescue, if nothing else, I suppose.)  Lady Alys seems to be still asleep when Cordelia has her conversation with Drou before fetching her to have the baba scene with Kou…so why are they no longer worried about her waking up to find herself alone in a strange place?  Never crosses either of their minds at that point.  I’ll call it an authorial oversight, though one presumes that Cordelia does take her place there immediately after the end of the chapter.

Also, where do Kou and Drou go off to spend their little bit of personal time?  Do they have to rent a room?  I seem to have missed on all my previous reads the little bit that said that the couch where they were talking was at the end of the hallway, not in another room, so I suspect that couch would still be a little public for them…  They must have rooms with real beds for all of them somewhere.  Do they have much money on them, or is Bothari’s credit good?

Chapter Eighteen

Koudelka, Alys and baby Ivan prepare to leave the brothel just before dawn, dressed in sober and inconspicuous clothes.  Koudelka gives Drou his sword-cane, since it looks far too good quality to match their disguise.  Cordelia asks if there’s any risk of being robbed, and Bothari says that Vordarian’s troops have been conscripting a lot of the normal gang members and having them dig bomb shelters, supposedly to protect against Aral.  They part with few words, Koudelka giving Drou one last salute.

Cordelia, Bothari and Drou head for a tall commercial building, then down to its sub-basement.  Drou breaks into a utility tunnel, well-lit and obviously in use, then opens an access hatch.  Cordelia drops into a storm sewer, cold water to her ankles, and Drou and Bothari follow.  From there, they find a smaller, brick-lined tunnel where they have to shuffle hunched over.  Drou begins to tap on the ceiling, and eventually finds a hatch whose catch she triggers with Koudelka’s sword blade.  They emerge into a darkened chamber which Drou says is the old stables, burned down and levelled decades ago; Ezar planted a garden over top, just north of the Residence proper.  Ezar and Negri planned this escape route between them.

Drou finds a cache of boxes left for Ezar, with clothes, weapons and money, some of the clothes apparently meant for Kareen and Gregor.  Drou and Cordelia put on clean dresses and get stunners; Bothari unpacks his black fatigues and gets a stunner, a plasma arc, and a nerve disrupter.  Cordelia also takes the sword-cane, and Gregor’s shoe, out of their satchel.  Drou then leads them into a narrow passage with a ladder going into an even narrower squeeze between two walls.  Cordelia extinguishes her handlight and Drou opens the panel, which leads into the Emperor’s bedchamber.

It is not empty, though; the bed is occupied by Vordarian, with Kareen huddled into one corner of the mattress.  They retreat back down the ladder, where Drou is crying with disappointment in her former mistress.  Cordelia points out that Kareen didn’t have much of an option, or a power base with which to resist, and her posture in the bed seemed to indicate that she wasn’t a willing partner.  The second exit from the tunnel will be more dangerous, and Cordelia considers turning back, but instead gives them the go-ahead.  This time they exit into Ezar’s private office, still unused, its comconsole disconnected.

Cordelia, conscious of the conspicuousness of wearing the cane like a sword, puts it on a tray and carries it like a servant instead as they leave the room.  They pass a soldier who salutes to Bothari, and Cordelia hopes that his suspicions are allayed by the fact that the two women seem to be under guard.  They climb a flight of stairs to the level where the replicator is being stored.  There is a guard outside; as they pass by, Bothari salutes him, which turns into a punch that knocks his head back against the wall and leaves him unconscious.  Bothari takes his place outside and Drou and Cordelia drag the guard into the room.

The replicator sits on a table in the centre of the room.  Cordelia is about to pick it up when she notices something wrong, and double-checks the readouts.  The replicator is empty…  In desperation, Cordelia checks the serial number, and discovers that it’s not the same one Miles was in.  She discovers a pressure sensor on the table underneath the replicator, no doubt linked to some alarm.  Cordelia decides they’ll have to retreat, and hope to catch Vordarian unawares and squeeze Miles’s replicator’s location out of him.

Just then, there is noise outside in the corridor, and stunner fire, and Bothari ducks inside.  Drou and Bothari are willing to die to protect Cordelia, but she doesn’t see the point, and proposes surrender instead.  They give up their weapons as the guards come inside; one of them finds the shoe in Cordelia’s pocket and sets it on the table.  Cordelia hopes that she will get to see Kareen, however briefly, to seal Vordarian’s fate.  The guards keep them there until Vordarian arrives, with Kareen in tow.

Vordarian exults at the success of his trap, though the guards warn him that they didn’t have the chance to herd them in from the perimeter, they’d just appeared out of nowhere.  Vordarian says they just need to fast-penta Drou to find out how.

“What have you done with my son, Vordarian?”

Vordarian said through his teeth, “An outworlder frill will never gain power on Barrayar by scheming to give a mutant the Imperium. That, I guarantee.”

“Is that the official line, now? I don’t want power. I just object to idiots having power over me.”

Behind Vordarian, Kareen’s lips quirked sadly. Yes, listen to me, Kareen!

Kareen tells them that Vordarian is the Emperor now, if he can keep it, and Vordarian says that he has as good a claim than Aral, and that he will “preserve and protect” the true Barrayar.  Cordelia gives Kareen the shoe, which puzzles Vordarian, who is already planning their interrogations.

“Kareen,” said Cordelia softly, “where is my son?”

“The replicator is on a shelf in the oak wardrobe, in the old Emperor’s bedchamber,” Kareen replied steadily, locking her eyes to Cordelia’s. “Where is mine?”

Cordelia’s heart melted in gratitude for her curse, live pain. “Safe and well, when I last saw him, as long as this pretender,” she jerked her head at Vordarian, “doesn’t find out where. Gregor misses you. He sends his love.” Her words might have been spikes, pounded into Kareen’s body.

That got Vordarian’s attention. “Gregor is at the bottom of a lake, killed in the flyer crash with that traitor Negri,” he said roughly. “The most insidious lie is the one you want to hear. Guard yourself, my lady Kareen. I could not save him, but I will avenge him. I promise you that.”

Kareen points out that the shoe hasn’t been immersed; Vordarian reassures her that she can have another son someday, but Kareen grabs a nerve disrupter and fires at Vordarian.  One guard knocks her arm aside, spoiling her shot, and another reflexively shoots her with his own nerve disrupter; Vordarian seizes a disrupter and shoots him.

The room tilted around her. Cordelia’s hand locked around the hilt of the swordstick and triggered its sheath flying into the head of one guard, then brought the blade smartly down across Vordarian’s weapon-wrist. He screamed, and blood and the nerve disruptor flew wide. Droushnakovi was already diving for the first discarded nerve disruptor. Bothari just took his target out with one lethal hand-blow to the neck. Cordelia slammed the door shut against the guards in the corridor, surging forward. A stunner charge buzzed into the walls, then three blue bolts in rapid succession from Droushnakovi took out the last of Vordarian’s men.

“Grab him,” Cordelia yelled to Bothari. Vordarian, shaking, his left hand clamped around his half-severed right wrist, was in poor condition to resist, though he kicked and shouted. His blood ran the color of Kareen’s robe. Bothari locked Vordarian’s head in a firm grip, nerve disruptor pressed to his skull.

They head back out into the corridor, Vordarian’s guards backing off at the sight of their lord held hostage.  At Bothari’s urging, and over Drou’s protests, Cordelia takes the plasma arc and begins setting fire to the hallway behind them, thinking of it as a funeral pyre for Kareen.  They reach the Emperor’s bedchamber and Cordelia sets the corridor burning in the other direction as well.  Inside the chamber, she finds the uterine replicator where Kareen had said it would be, and confirms that this one is occupied.

Vordarian begins to argue for them to release him, pointing out that his guards will stun them all.  If they let him go, he’ll let them live, even Miles.  He said that he never meant for Evon Vorhalas to damage Vorkosigan’s heir, it was only Aral himself that was too dangerous.

“We’d never proved you were behind Evon Vorhalas,” Cordelia said quietly. “Thank you for the information.”

That shut him up, for a moment. His eyes shifted uneasily to the door, soon to burst inward, ignited by the inferno behind it.

“Dead, I’m no use to you as a hostage,” he said, drawing himself up in dignity.

“You’re no use to me at all, Emperor Vidal,” said Cordelia frankly. “There are at least five thousand casualties in this war so far. Now that Kareen is dead, how long will you keep fighting?”

“Forever,” he snarled whitely. “I will avenge her—avenge them all—”

Wrong answer, Cordelia thought, with a curious light-headed sadness. “Bothari.” He was at her side instantly. “Pick up that sword.” He did so. She set the replicator on the floor and laid her hand briefly atop his, wrapped around the hilt. “Bothari, execute this man for me, please.” Her tone sounded weirdly serene in her own ears, as if she’d just asked Bothari to pass the butter. Murder didn’t really require hysterics.

“Yes, Milady,” Bothari intoned, and lifted the blade. His eyes gleamed with joy.

“What?” yelped Vordarian in astonishment. “You’re a Betan! You can’t do—”

The flashing stroke cut off his words, his head, and his life.

Bothari screams and falls to his knees, dropping the sword; Cordelia realizes he must be reliving the suppressed memory of the murder of Admiral Vorrutyer.  Drou says that the door is getting hot, and they have to leave.  Cordelia finds a drawstring plastic bag, which she puts Vordarian’s head into.  She orders Drou to take the replicator (she picks up the swordstick of her own accord), and coaxes Bothari to his feet and down the ladder after Drou.  She pushes Bothari ahead of her into the cellar, where they pause for a rest.

“Is he all right?” Droushnakovi asked nervously, as Bothari sat down with his head between his knees.

“He has a headache,” said Cordelia. “It may take a while to pass off.”

Droushnakovi asked even more diffidently, “Are you all right, Milady?”

Cordelia couldn’t help it; she laughed. She choked down the hysteria as Drou began to look really scared. “No.”

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Once again, Bujold tries to keep from making her villain too incompetent; he had a plan, if someone tried to break in and go after the replicator, for the guards to stay out of their way and shepherd them towards the fake…but just in case, he also had a pressure sensor underneath it.  And yet, it’s only the fact that somebody went looking for the guard that Bothari knocked out that had them detected.

It’s interesting to see the progression of the chaos after Kareen’s attempt on Vordarian’s life.  I left out some of the details, but essentially, there are four guards who come into the room to hold Cordelia, Bothari and Drou captive.  Then Vordarian and Kareen join them.  Kareen takes one guard’s nerve disrupter and tries to shoot Vordarian; that guard knocks her arm out of the way.  The guard commander shoots Kareen, then throws away his weapon; Vordarian takes a third guard’s disrupter and shoots the commander with it.  Vordarian was in his bedclothes, so he didn’t have his own weapon, and Bothari’s were thrown out of the room when they surrendered.  That leaves only one guard with a nerve disrupter (plus Vordarian), which is when our captives move into action.  Neatly done and plotted.

The cover of at least one edition of the book is an extreme closeup of the scene–two hands, one male, one female, on the curved handle of the sword-cane.  Intriguing, if you don’t know what it means; once it does, it’s evocative of the climactic scene of the book, in this chapter.  And it’s intensely satisfying, as Cordelia finds, disquietingly.  So many books, the good guys continue being good and don’t do anything to do the bad guy except give them to the authorities, or let them get taken care of by other evil people.  The distinction between revenge and justice can be hard to determine, sometimes, especially since revenge is more visceral, possibly hardwired in, if the evolutionary psychologists have anything to say about it.  A lot of socialization is occupied in teaching people the concept that “he started it” is not an excuse for doing something back to him, and still it happens, and it’s oh-so-satisfying when it does.  When revenge and justice happen to intersect, it’s too much to resist.


And that’s it for another installment.  Three more chapters to go in Barrayar, with the TV season starting up.  It’s just possible that I may manage two more for next week, and leave my one-chapter week for the week after, when there’s a whole whack of shows I want to watch.  And then a week off in between books before I start on the first real Miles book, The Warrior’s Apprentice.  We’ll see how well I can keep to a two-chapter schedule after that…

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Previously, on the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, we saw Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, wife of Lord Regent Aral Vorkosigan, receive bad news in the form of Captain Vaagen, one of the scientists who was entrusted with the care of the uterine replicator holding her fetus son Miles, while they gave him calcium treatments to try to fix his bones after the damage done by the antidote to the soltoxin Cordelia was exposed to.  Anyway, Vaagen told her that the rebel and self-proclaimed Regent in his own right Vordarian sent men to retrieve the replicator and take it to the Imperial Residence.  What will she do now?

Find out in this installment of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, where I promise to have much fewer run-on sentences, though I still try to convey the gist of the action in fewer sentences than the original author…

Chapter Fifteen

Within two minutes of Vorkosigan’s arrival at main portal Security, Captain Vaagen was flat on a float pallet and on his way to the infirmary, with the top trauma doctor on the base being paged for rendezvous. Cordelia reflected bitterly on the nature of chain of command; all truth and reason and urgent need were not enough, apparently, to lend causal power to one outside that chain.

After his treatment, he is pronounced well enough to be questioned further, if briefly, supplying a few more details.  Illyan confirms Vaagen’s information, though he says the agents in the palace thought the device might be a bomb; they don’t know if anyone is working on maintaining it.  Vaagen says the treatments have been interrupted anyway, and there are some details that only Henri knew.  Cordelia says that Betan replicators run on a two-week service cycle.  Vaagen says that nutrients are the bottleneck, and they have about six days before they run out.  Illyan says that the physician in the Residence has been killed, so he wouldn’t be able to service it.  Cordelia is dismayed to realize that Miles might die out of sheer ignorance.

They leave Vaagen’s room, and Aral tells Cordelia that nothing has really changed in their situation.  Cordelia protests that Miles is a prisoner now, no longer hidden, and his life is on a clock.  Aral says he regrets not having sent a raid earlier, ImpMil being easier to break into than the Residence itself.  But he insists that his position is no worse than any of the other men with hostages.  Cordelia says that the position is different, because unlike the other hostages, Miles has only six days left, less the time they spend arguing.  She says she’s never asked him for any special favours, but now she is asking.

Aral says it’s a delicate time, with negotations with the space forces and two of Vordarian’s top commanders; if that works out, then they can rescue all of the prisoners in one raid.  A small raid to recover Miles would likely jeopardize the larger one, whether it succeeded or not.  Cordelia asks for a time estimate, and the best that Aral can offer is ten days.  Cordelia offers to go herself, with two or three men, but Aral violently refuses.  Cordelia asks if he doubts her competency, though she secretly does herself; Aral says that it would drive him crazy, waiting for her return.

“You ask that of me. To wait, unknowing. You ask it every day.”

“You are stronger than I. You are strong beyond reason.”

“Flattering. Not convincing.”

His thought circled hers; she could see it in his knife-keen eyes. “No. No haring off on your own. I forbid it, Cordelia. Flat, absolutely. Put it right out of your mind. I cannot risk you both.”

“You do. In this.”

Cordelia defuses the conversation and leaves without him extracting an oath from her not to go.  Outside, she encounters Count Piotr, who seems less hostile.  She tells Piotr about Vaagen’s arrival, and Piotr laughs at the emptiness of Vordarian threatening Miles, adding that he would be doing House Vorkosigan a service.  Cordelia can’t restrain herself from asking the Count whether he set up Miles’s abduction.

“You dare accuse me—!” His outrage edged into plain rage.

Her rage was shadowing her vision with red. “I know you are an attempted murderer, why not an attempted traitor, too? I can only hope your incompetence holds good.”

His voice was breathy with fury. “Too far!”

“No, old man. Not nearly far enough.”

Piotr tells her that while he would be happy enough to have Vordarian dump out the fetus, he would rather Vordarian not know how worthless his lever is.  He heads off in search of Aral, and Cordelia retreats to her quarters, pacing in agitation.  When Drou asks, she says she doesn’t really believe Piotr is a traitor; she says Aral is right, she can’t risk failure.  Drou quietly reminds Cordelia that she spent three years in security at the Residence, and gets Cordelia’s full attention.  Drou says that, as Kareen’s body servant, she was “the last line of defence”, and knew about five secret escape routes.  Of those, two were known only to her, Negri and Emperor Ezar, and they should be equally usable as secret entrances.

Cordelia found she had to remember to breathe. “Who do you work for, Drou?”

“Captain—” she started to answer, but slowed self-consciously. “Negri. But he’s dead. Commander—Captain Illyan, now, I suppose.”

“Let me rephrase that.” Cordelia opened her eyes at last. “Who did you put your life on the line for?”

“Kareen. And Gregor, of course. They were kind of the same thing.”

“Still are. This mother bets.” She caught Drou’s blue gaze. “And Kareen gave you to me.”

She asks what she could give Drou in return for her assistance, and Drou says she wants to get Kareen out too.  The staff have classified Kareen as “expendable”, but Drou says that she can’t just switch off her loyalty that easily.  Cordelia says that they need someone else, someone who knows the city, and sends for Bothari.  When he arrives, Cordelia sees how much tension is lurking in his body.  He asks her if she’s heard anything about Elena, and Cordelia says that she’s still being kept with other second or third-tier hostages.  He tells her that a man he didn’t know approached him the other day and offered him Elena’s life if he killed Count Piotr.  Bothari thought about it, but didn’t accept because he didn’t think he’d survive to take care of her afterwards.

Cordelia tells Bothari about Miles’s situation, and he says that a lot of the staff talk about Miles as a “non-viable mutant” behind his back.  She asks Bothari who he works for.

“I am oath-sworn Armsman to Count Piotr,” Bothari recited the obvious. He was watching her closely now, a weird smile tugging at one corner of his mouth.

“Let me rephrase that. I know the official penalties for an armsman going AWOL are fearsome. But suppose—”

“Milady.” He held up a hand; she paused in mid-breath. “Do you remember, back on the front lawn at Vorkosigan Surleau when we were loading Negri’s body into the lightflyer, when my Lord Regent told me to obey your voice as his own?”

Cordelia’s brows went up. “Yes . . . ?”

“He never countermanded that order.”

“Sergeant,” she breathed at last, “I’d never have guessed you for a barracks-lawyer.”

His smile grew a millimeter tighter. “Your voice is as the voice of the Emperor himself. Technically.”

“Is it, now,” she whispered in delight. Her nails dug into her palms.

They go to the motor pool, Bothari signing out a vehicle, ostensibly for Count Piotr, while Drou and Cordelia hide out of sight.  Their plan is not to head directly for Vorbarr Sultana, but to head into neutral territory first, and then double back.  Bothari gets the vehicle without trouble and parks it so that his passengers can enter without being seen.  Unfortunately, as they are getting in, Koudelka sees them and asks what they’re doing.  Cordelia tries to deflect him with a story of a shopping trip, the security detail having gone ahead, but Koudelka isn’t buying it.  Bothari calls him over to look at something, and then clubs him on the back of his neck; they load his unconscious body into the car and drive off.

Bothari passes through security checkpoints easily, the rear compartment blocked off by a reflective barrier so the passengers can’t be seen, so the guards presume that it’s the Count himself.  They discuss what to do with Koudelka as he regains consciousness; they decide not to ditch him outside, to give them away, and Cordelia decides to risk bringing him along, to try to convince him to help.  Koudelka tries to sway them to return, to keep Vordarian from having another lever against Aral; then he orders Bothari to turn around and drive them back.

A slight pause. “I’m not in the Imperial Service anymore, sir. Retired.”

“Piotr didn’t order this! You’re Count Piotr’s man.”

A longer pause; a lower tone. “No. I am Lady Vorkosigan’s dog.”

“You’re off your meds!”

How such could travel over a purely audio link Cordelia was not sure, but a canine grin hung in the air before them.

“Come on, Kou,” Cordelia coaxed. “Back me. Come for luck. Come for life. Come for the adrenaline rush.”

Droushnakovi leaned over, a sharp smile on her lips, to breathe in Koudelka’s other ear, “Look at it this way, Kou. Who else is ever going to give you a chance at field combat?”

Comments

Excessive quotage, but there is a lot of great dialogue in this chapter, as Cordelia assembles her daring party.  I always forget how Koudelka gets “convinced” to come along.  Interesting how the security system makes a lot of presumptions about, first, the loyalty of Count Piotr, and second, the loyalty of Count Piotr’s armsman.  If Count Piotr had been colluding with Vordarian over the uterine replicator, he at least wouldn’t have had much trouble getting in and out of the compound.  I suppose he’d have needed to contact Vordarian a little more circumspectly, though, given how many spies they have in place.  Anyway, I suppose that the planet does really run on loyalty and oaths, as Cordelia often ponders in near disbelief.

Chapter Sixteen

Koudelka is brought around, almost unwillingly, and by the time they reach the neutral district of Count Vorinnis, he has organized a plan to get them smuggled into Vorbarr Sultana in the back of a produce truck.  When asked, he admits that his father was a grocer, which Cordelia realizes is a sort of secret shame.

Bothari and Koudelka played two recently discharged vets, looking to better their sorry lot, and Cordelia and Drou two countrywomen co-scheming with them. The women were decked in a realistically odd combination of worn mountain dress and upper-class castoffs apparently acquired from some secondhand shop. They managed the right touch of mis-fittedness, of women not wearing originals, by trading garments.

They get out in the city before the market itself, which Koudelka says will have too many soldiers around, as much to steal their own share of the black-market goods as to guard anything.  Cordelia wonders now how Koudelka knows so much about the black market, and if it has anything to do with how his father afforded to get him into the Imperial Military Academy.

Bothari leads the way through the run-down part of town, finding a place marked “Rooms”; the proprietor isn’t eager to open up until he sees there are women in the party.  Koudelka and Drou take first shift with the beds, while Cordelia and Bothari go looking for supplies.  Bothari warns Cordelia not to talk, with her recognizably foreign accent.  He goes to talk to the innkeeper, pretending that they were planning to sell Drou’s virginity to a Vor Lord, but now that’s all screwed up.He says that Koudelka is the brains, but safe to leave with the woman because of his nerve damage, and Cordelia tries to hide her amusement at Bothari’s invention.

Bothari intimates that he’s looking for work to tide them over, and the innkeeper takes the bait.  He says there’s a strange man in a room down the street, who’s only seen buying more food than one man could be eating.  There’ll be reward from Vordarian’s men for “information-leading-to”, he says.  Bothari warns him that if Vordarian loses–and he can smell defeat in the streets–Vorkosigan’s men won’t take kindly to those kind of informers, and the innkeeper says that it’ll be easier for a transient like Bothari to take the risk anyway.  Cordelia whispers to Bothari to try to find out who it is, and Bothari asks for 50% and says wants to get a look at who it is.

When Bothari returns, he says that it’s Lord and Lady Vorpatril hiding out; he didn’t make any contact, though, because he wanted to find out Cordelia’s intentions, if she wanted to risk her mission to help them.  Cordelia asks about the baby, and Bothari says she hasn’t had it yet, even though it’s two weeks overdue.  They decide that the Vorpatrils would be too conspicuous, and if they can discourage the innkeeper, the Vorpatrils might be safe enough until they can get back and tell the others.  Bothari also mentions that he saw on a vid that Vordarian has finally declared himself Emperor.

They are just leaving that evening when the innkeeper sees them and yells at Bothari for making them miss the opportunity.  At Bothari’s coercion, he tells them that someone else has found the fugitives and is picking them up now.  Quickly, Cordelia gets out a stunner and takes out the innkeeper, and the rest get their weapons as well.  They head the few blocks over toward the Vorpatrils’ hideout, finding Security groundcars parked outside.  They hide around the corner, and Bothari sends Drou around to the other side to set up crossfire; Bothari complains about not being able to see what’s going on, and Cordelia says they can pretend to be a couple who just happens to pass, and watching the arrest.

From a shadowed doorway, they can see Padma Vorpatril shoved against one of the cars, battered and grinning with fast-penta.  The still-pregnant Alys Vorpatril is manhandled out of the house as they watch.  The colonel in charge of the guards orders his men back, now that they’ve got what they came for, “the lord and the heir”.  His lieutenant asks how they’re supposed to kill the two of them when the heir isn’t born yet, and urges them to take Alys back to the station; one of the guards urges raping Alys first, which Cordelia realizes arouses Bothari.  The colonel says just to kill them all, at which point Cordelia gives Bothari the same order.  Bothari, Cordelia and Drou between them take out the guards with stunners and nerve disrupters, but not before the lieutenant has killed Padma Vorpatril.  One car begins to drive away, and Koudelka takes it out with a plasma arc.  They grab Alys and drag her away from the scene for several blocks, as they hear sirens behind them.

Suddenly Alys stops short, and Cordelia realizes that she’s in labour; Alys says that her water broke during the fight.  She moves slower and slower between contractions, and finally Bothari goes off and returns to lead them to an abandoned set of rooms off an alleyway.  They consult each other about any knowledge of babies, and eventually Bothari admits that his mother used to do some midwifery.  He asks Cordelia to stay, which Cordelia realizes is intended as a way to keep himself under control.  The labour goes on for a while without progressing much, until Bothari helps push on the baby and his head pops out.

Cordelia caught the head between her hands, and eased the body out with the next contraction. The baby boy coughed twice, sneezed like a kitten in the awed silence, inhaled, grew pinker, and emitted a nerve-shattering wail. Cordelia nearly dropped him.

Bothari swore at the noise. “Give me your swordstick, Kou.”

Lady Vorpatril looked up wildly. “No! Give him back to me, I’ll make him be quiet!”

“Wasn’t what I had in mind,” said Bothari with some dignity. “Though it’s an idea,” he added as the wails went on. He pulled out the plasma arc and heated the sword briefly, on low power. Sterilizing it, Cordelia realized.

Bothari cuts the cord after the placenta comes out, and Cordelia notes how large Ivan is, explaining the difficulty in delivery.

Alys looked at the baby and began crying again, muffled sobs. “Padma said . . . I’d have the best doctors. Padma said . . . there’d be no pain. Padma said he’d stay with me . . . damn you, Padma!” She clutched Padma’s son to her. In an altered tone of mild surprise, she added, “Ow!” Infant mouth had found her breast, and apparently had a grip like a barracuda.

“Good reflexes,” observed Bothari.

Comments

What kind of accent does Cordelia have, anyway?  They always talk about the Barrayarans’ “guttural” accent, which makes me picture something vaguely Germanic, or possibly Russian, so maybe it’s just that she sounds more British or American or something.  Or something different, though there doesn’t seem to be too much drift among “Galactic Standard”, with the exception of Barrayar, which was isolated and still has substantial non-Standard-speaking minorities.  I guess later they describe Miles’s Betan accent as more “flat and nasal”, I think.  For some reason that makes me think of the New York accent, like Joe Pesci or something.

Both Koudelka and Bothari admit to having parents who taught them skills that they’d rather pretend not to have–Koudelka’s father the black-market grocer, and Bothari’s mother, the, um, lady who worked somewhere that resulted in a number of babies being born.  Okay, she was a prostitute, not to put too find a point on it.  (Though admittedly that doesn’t come up in full for a few chapters yet, I think.)  Both of them have managed to rise to work for some of the most powerful men on Barrayar, mostly as a result of their military careers.

It is probably quite lucky that Drou didn’t hear the details of Bothari’s concocted story about selling her virginity.  She still doesn’t like or trust Bothari much, and that would really have set her against him.  One also presumes that Kou and Drou didn’t get up to any hanky-panky when left on their own, with their still-unresolved issues.  I think that those get dealt with pretty soon, though.


And that’s it for another two chapters, as we move toward the climax of the book, and the action begins to ramp up again.  The next two chapters may even do it for the climax; there’s still five more left, and I haven’t yet decided if that will take me two weeks or three.  We’ll see if I can get started earlier than Sunday next week or the week after.  Did I take a week off after the last book?  I think so.  That’ll be nice…

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Getting down to the wire, but after spending most of last week in British Columbia and last weekend in Calgary, I luckily have this week off to staycate.  Or at least hang around the house without having to go to work, if “staycating” implies too much local tourism.

This week I cover chapters Nine and Ten of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar, the second book, chronologically, in her Vorkosigan series.  This is where the book really begins to pick up, but more on that afterward.

Chapter Nine

Cordelia awakens around midday the next day to find Count Piotr sitting by her bedside.  He gives her some water and gives Cordelia his condolences.  Cordelia says there is still hope, though Piotr doesn’t think much of Vaagen, and he worries that the placental transfer is too risky a procedure, compared to an abortion.  He says the damage is likely to be too severe for Vaagen to be able to fix, and because this is a future Count Vorkosigan, it’s inconceivable that it should be deformed.  Cordelia points out at Counts Vorkosigan have met a number of horrible fates over the centuries, and at the moment the House consists of only Piotr and Aral.  Piotr says that they’ve never been mutants, and though Cordelia points out that the damage is not genetic, he says that he doesn’t want anyone to think it’s a mutant.  Cordelia doesn’t understand why they should worry what ignorant proles–or ignorant Vors–think.  Piotr protests that with this new process the baby’ll be a lab rat, and Cordelia says that he can serve his planet already.  She admits that the transfer may fail, which seems to relieve Count Piotr somewhat, and then Aral interrupts them; Cordelia wonders how much he overheard.

After his father leaves, Cordelia asks Aral about the investigation, and he tells her that there is an officer missing from the armory where Evon Vorhalas got the soltoxin, which opens the question of other conspirators.  He tells Cordelia that he should be the one to deal with his father, and he’ll support her decision.  He tells her that his fertility has probably been severely damaged by the soltoxin, so this may be their only chance.  Cordelia says that they can clone offspring galore from the tiniest of cell fragments, even if they’re both dead, but Aral says it would have to be offworld, or on a greatly changed Barrayar.

Cordelia goes in for the operation with Captain Vaagen, Dr. Henri, and the surgeon, Dr. Ritter.  She soon pegs him as an old friend of Vaagen’s, a little nervous, especially after a number of more experienced men had turned down the job.  Vaagen had explained that Vor lords are notoriously unforgiving of medical mistakes.  They apply a medical stun to her lower body, and Ritter hesitates to start until Vaagen reminds him that bone deterioration is already under way.  Ritter gathers himself and makes the first incision.

A placental transfer was vastly more demanding than a straightforward cesarian section. The fragile placenta must be chemically and hormonally persuaded to release from the blood-vessel-enriched uterus, without damaging too many of its multitude of tiny villi, then floated free from the uterine wall in a running bath of highly oxygenated nutrient solution. The replicator sponge then had to be slipped into place between the placenta and the uterine wall, and the placenta’s villi at least partially induced to re-interdigitate on its new matrix, before the whole mess could be lifted from the living body of the mother and placed in the replicator. The more advanced the pregnancy, the more difficult the transfer.

The umbilical cord between placenta and infant was monitored, and extra oxygen injected by hypospray as needed. On Beta Colony, a nifty little device would do this; here, an anxious tech hovered.

The nutrient bath is running, and the replicator is being moved into place, when Cordelia begins to feel cold, and the nutrient fluid begins to flow red, and Ritter demands that something be clamped.  Cordelia catches a glimpse of the fetus inside the placenta, and Ritter tells Vaagen to take it now if he wants it; then she passes out, the last thing she hears being Ritter swearing.
She floats in delirium, only knowing that she can’t breathe properly, clawing at her throat until they tie down her hands.  Eventually she wakes to find Aral over her.

“Sh. You’ve been very, very sick. You had a violent hemorrhage during the placental transfer. Your heart stopped twice.” He moistened his lips and went on. “The trauma, on top of the poisoning, flared into soltoxin pneumonia. You had a very bad day yesterday, but you’re over the worst, off the respirator.”

He says she’s been out for three days.  Cordelia asks about the baby, and Aral says that the transfer went more or less successful, with only minor placental damage, and the calcium treatments are beginning.

Cordelia continues her recovery over the next few days, as is Aral, but he is kept busy, setting up a makeshift office in his hospital room, with Koudelka working there as well.  Dr. Henri takes her over to the laboratory in a float chair to examine the replicator, and assure her that most signs are encouraging, though there is concern about the baby’s hearing because of the small ear bones.  Still, Cordelia is reassured that her child is in trained hands.

The next day, Vaagen comes to see her, saying that Count Piotr had been to visit his new grandson.  Initially seeming to just show interest in the process, he later turned to attempting to bribe and threaten Dr. Henri into destroying “the mutation”.  Cordelia goes to fetch Aral, who hears Vaagen’s story as well, and promises to deal with it.  Aral contacts the security chief at the hospital and Simon Illyan, and revokes his father’s security access to Vaagen’s building; it requires an Imperial order to countermand Count Piotr’s prior security, which Aral gives in his capacity as Regent.  He authorizes them to use any force up to stunner fire to keep him out.

Aral says he can see both sides of the issue, his father’s and Cordelia’s, but he says that his father is the past, and Cordelia is the future.  Cordelia suggests that they try to speed their recovery by heading out to Vorkosigan Surleau, where there will be fewer interruptions, and Aral says they should take Count Piotr with them, to get him further away from the hospital.

Comments

The operation is one of the most science-fictional things to happen in the book, a futuristic technical procedure described in fair detail.  I’m not sure if current medical technology is up to this level yet, or if this is just an extrapolation on somebody’s part, but it seemed plausible to me.  What I liked best about it is the reference to “medical stun”, though.  It’s ingenious–if you have a weapon that will instantly paralyze someone, knock them unconscious, etc., without lasting damage, then it’s a perfect anesthetic as well.  It might require a more delicate touch, of course–for instance, in this particular operation, would the stun be too dangerous for a developing fetus?  Would they need to aim it precisely to keep from affecting it, while still keeping her from feeling the incision?  Or maybe it just suffices to hit the spinal cord and block out the nerve signals at that point.  Anyway, pretty cool.

It’s interesting how Bujold cuts down their options, too.  Aral’s infertility because of the soltoxin damage, and Barrayar’s resistance to the use of cloning technologies which are probably routine in the rest of the galaxy (at least, we do see them on other planets in later books), mean that they can’t have other children; this is their only chance.  I do wonder if Count Piotr, convinced of Aral’s infertility, would consider cloning to be the lesser evil.  So their only choice is to hang all of their hopes on the baby (still destined to be named Piotr Miles, at this point) having its bone development restored enough to be functional by Vaagen’s experimental method.  Thus, their son is destined to have to fight against Barrayaran prejudices and his own physical limitations in his future life.  Just like she planned it…

Count Piotr’s behaviour is somewhat reprehensible, by our viewpoint, but let’s take a moment to think about this.  Your average Barrayaran Vor is quite conservative and right-wing, with your average Betan as left-wing and liberal.  And yet there’s that little twist where infanticide is part of the Barrayaran way of life, because of the history of mutation in their past, so your average Barrayaran isn’t exactly “pro-life”.  Is the mutation rate just because of their wars with the Cetagandans after the Time of Isolation, and the radiation left behind from that?  Can’t remember right now.  I thought it would go farther back than that, but I do have some trouble figuring out sometimes how long various stages of Barrayaran history lasted.  How long was the Time of Isolation?  How long ago did it end?  I’m sure the answers are in the books, and the Vorkosigan Companion, if I could just remember them.  So let me check the Companion, since it’s conveniently available on my computer…  It says that the Time of Isolation lasted for “several hundred years”, and the custom of infanticide took root back then.  The planet was rediscovered “more than a hundred years” ago–is that compared to Miles’s life, or Cordelia’s–and the Cetagandan invasions are recent enough for Count Piotr to have fought in them.  So I guess that it’s just natural mutation that the mothers of Barrayar was guarding against, though the Cetagandan nuclear weapons can’t have helped.

Chapter Ten

Three weeks after the soltoxin attack, Cordelia awakens in Vorkosigan Surleau, finally feeling fully rested, no longer having to wear oxygen tubes; Aral seems to be already up.  Drou checks and, finding Cordelia awake, comes in with a tray of food.  Cordelia finds herself truly hungry for the first time since the attack.  She notices that Drou seems to be trying to conceal some kind of guilty feeling.  Cordelia tells Drou that Vaagen has reported some possible progress on little Piotr Miles’s recalcification.
Drou asks Cordelia how she knew she was pregnant.  Cordelia tells her that she first had her contraceptive implant removed, when she and Aral decided to try to start their family.

“Made me feel very wicked; at home I couldn’t have had it taken out without buying a license.”

“Really?” Drou listened with openmouthed fascination.

“Yes, it’s a Betan legal requirement. You have to qualify for a parent’s license first. I’ve had my implant since I was fourteen. I had a menstrual period once then, I remember. We turn them off till they’re needed. I got my implant, and my hymen cut, and my ears pierced, and had my coming-out party. . . .”

Drou hopes that she didn’t start having sex right away, and Cordelia says she didn’t, remembering how awkward she was, and still is.  She and Aral began trying right away, and they conceived even before she could menstruate again.  Drou asks a few more questions, and Cordelia asks if there’s some personal interest.  She draws Drou out, and Drou describes how, the night of the soltoxin attack, she was up late and found Koudelka in the library.  He kissed her, and they “screwed”, as Cordelia phrases it.  Drou seems surprised at Cordelia’s approval.  Afterwards, she saw a movement in the back garden, and heard the grenade; she feels guilty for having allowed the attack to get through, though Cordelia tells her that she was off-duty at the time anyway.  She offers Drou one of her remaining pregnancy tests, and Drou goes to try it, returning with the news that she isn’t pregnant after all.

“I can’t tell if you’re glad or sorry. Believe me, if you want to have a baby, you’d do much better to wait a couple years till they get a bit more medical technology on-line around here.” Though the organic method had been fascinating, for a time. . . .

“I don’t want . . . I want . . . I don’t know . . . Kou’s hardly spoken to me since that night. I didn’t want to be pregnant, it would destroy me, and yet I thought maybe he would, would . . . be as excited and happy about it as he was about the sex, maybe. Maybe he’d come back and—oh, things were going so well, and now they’re so spoiled!” Her hands were clenched, face white, teeth gritted.

Cry, so I can breathe, girl. But Droushnakovi regained her self-control. “I’m sorry, Milady. I didn’t mean to spill all this stupidity on you.”

Now, Drou says, Koudelka hides when he sees her coming.  Cordelia gets dressed, wearing her old survey trousers on a whim; they’re a little loose on her, even.

Aral comes in, pleased to find Cordelia and Drou both there; he has an odd light in his eyes.  Koudelka follows him, and Aral says that Koudelka seems to want to make a confession.

“Drou—Miss Droushnakovi—I came to turn myself in. And to apologize. No, that sounds trivial, and believe me, I don’t think it trivial. You deserve more than apology, I owe you expiation. Whatever you want. But I’m sorry, so sorry I raped you.”

Droushnakovi’s mouth fell open for a full three seconds, then shut so hard Cordelia could hear her teeth snap. “What?!”

Koudelka flinched, but never looked up. “Sorry . . . sorry,” he mumbled.

“You. Think. You. What?!” gasped Droushnakovi, horrified and outraged. “You think you could—oh!” She stood rigid now, hands clenched, breathing fast. “Kou, you oaf! You idiot! You moron! You-you-you—” Her words sputtered off. Her whole body was shaking. Cordelia watched in utter fascination. Aral rubbed his lips thoughtfully.

Drou then kicks Koudelka sword-stick out from under him, slams him into the wall, and asks him how he thought he could lay a hand on her without her permission.  Aral admonishes her mildly to be gentle with his secretary, and Drou stalks out.  Cordelia asks if this is still about the night of the soltoxin attack, and Koudelka describes it from his point of view; upon finding himself aroused, he couldn’t hold himself back.  Cordelia says she was acting odd around him because she was afraid of being pregnant, not afraid of him.  Aral and Koudelka are still puzzled, and Cordelia explains that Drou is angry not just because Koudelka insulted her fighting prowess, but because he revealed that he hasn’t even been paying attention to Drou herself, who was giving him what she perceived as a great gift.

Koudelka’s head swiveled toward the door. “Are you saying I should run after her?”

“Crawl, actually, if I were you,” recommended Aral. “Crawl fast. Slither under her door, go belly-up, let her stomp on you till she gets it out of her system. Then apologize some more. You may yet save the situation.” Aral’s eyes were openly alight with amusement now.

“What do you call that? Total surrender?” said Kou indignantly.

“No. I’d call it winning.” His voice grew a shade cooler. “I’ve seen the war between men and women descend to scorched-earth heroics. Pyres of pride. You don’t want to go down that road. I guarantee it.”

Koudelka, well and truly rebuked, still turns the other way when he leaves the room.

At lunch, Cordelia notices the Count’s absence.  Aral thinks he is in the stables, but the housekeeper says that he went off in the groundcar earlier.  Aral goes and checks, and returns to say that his father has, in fact, been to ImpMil, was denied access to the baby, and left.

The Count returns a few hours later, and accuses Aral of having set a trap to humiliate him in public.  Aral said that he wouldn’t have found the trap if he hadn’t chosen that path.  Count Piotr then accuses Cordelia of shirking her duty to guard the genome, but Aral says that infanticide is no longer the only answer.  The Count accuses Aral of inability to control his wife, and being more loyal to her than to his father and liege-lord.

“Yes, the present setup is a little peculiar. As a count’s heir, my hands are between yours, but as your Regent, your hands are between mine. Oath-stalemate. In the old days we could have broken the deadlock with a nice little war.” He grinned back, or at least bared his teeth. Cordelia’s mind gyrated, One day only: The Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object. Tickets, five marks.

Koudelka interjects to inform them that the comconsole is down again; Aral tells him to get a guard to help him look at it, and call for a tech if need be.  Koudelka flees the tense room.

Count Piotr threatens to disinherit his grandson; Aral says that he can only disinherit Aral himself, which would require an Imperial order…which he is inclined to grant.  The Count enjoins him to think of the example they’re setting, how it could lead to a society burdened by millions of dysfunctionals; Aral says his reasoning is specious.  Finally the Count says that he can’t persuade them to stop, but he can keep them from naming it after him.  Cordelia and Aral readily agree to name the baby “Miles Naismith Vorkosigan” instead.  As a last effort, Count Piotr orders them out of his house–both houses, Vorkosigan Surleau and Vorkosigan House–and to return his “rents and revenues”.  Aral says that Illyan had been trying to persuade him to move into the Imperial Residence anyway, and now he has a good reason, plus it will be more affordable on his reduced income.

Cordelia sees a lightflyer in the sky, which is flying oddly, and proves to be trailing smoke.  It is coming at the house, and she wonders if it’s filled with bombs; Aral notes that it has ImpSec markings.  It lands shakily on the front lawn, and is so damaged that Cordelia wonders that it’s flyable at all.  Piotr sees that the pilot is Negri, and they rush outside.  The guards open the canopy and find Negri badly wounded and burned; in the passenger seat is Emperor Gregor, in play-clothes with one shoe, weeping in terror.  Koudelka and Drou appear, and Gregor runs to Drou for help.

Aral asks Negri what happened.

Negri reached up and grabbed his jacket with his working right hand. “He’s trying for a coup—in the capital. His troops took ImpSec, took the comm center—why didn’t you respond? HQ surrounded, infiltrated—bad fighting now at the Imperial Residence. We were on to him—about to arrest—he panicked. Struck too soon. I think he has Kareen—”

Piotr demanded, “Who has, Negri, who?”

“Vordarian.”

Aral nodded grimly. “Yes . . .”

“You—take the boy,” gasped Negri. “He’s almost on top of us . . .” His shivers oscillated into convulsions, his eyes rolling back whitely. His breath stuttered in resonant chokes. His brown eyes refocused in sudden intensity. “Tell Ezar—” The convulsions took him again, racking his thick body. Then they stopped. All stop. He was no longer breathing.

Comments

I’d say this was the best chapter in the book, if I wasn’t pretty sure there was more to come.  First, a turning point in the Kou & Drou plotline, or at least the revelation of the turning point that happened two chapters ago but was only hinted at.  Then, the confrontation with Count Piotr over the baby, which I could barely do justice to, as Aral deflects all of his father’s arguments.  And then, just as they are reaching the point of no return, the book’s biggest plot finally bursts out of the sky, with the dying Negri bringing Gregor and news of Vordarian’s coup and imminent pursuit.  Can Aral and his father work together for the Empire?  Can they save the child Emperor?  The malfunctioning comconsole now looks sinister–do they have spies in their own house?

One could say, I suppose, that up to this point the book was a bit dull.  A bit of intrigue, a bit of culture clash, a minor-character romance.  The assassination attempt, and the soltoxin grenade, do ratchet up the tension somewhat, but the first is attributed to a somewhat nebulous enemy, and the second seems to have a straightforward explanation and tie itself off.  The damage to the baby…well, that’s just a baby.  Babies may make good drama, but still not much for action.  Then boom, we have a coup attempt, and a possible civil war.  Now we’re gonna get to the action!  Note that I’m not saying that I had this thought myself on first read, but on summing up, it’s been mostly buildup until now.  Now the wave has crested and things are kicked up to the next level.  Awesome!


Next week…well, the tension may stay high, but the action does recede a little bit.  And I promise that I will try to get it out on time.

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I said that I wasn’t sure if I’d post on Tuesday or Thursday, so here I am posting on Wednesday instead (at least in some time zones).  I was actually almost ready to post yesterday, thanks to my wife’s netbook, but I was on vacation with my family, and we spent far too much of the day tramping around Stanley Park, and I was bushed, so I only managed to finish the Chapter Eight summary.  Here comes the rest of it right now.

Chapter Seven

One morning, Aral asks a serving man, one of his father’s, to fetch Koudelka.  The man tells him that Koudelka is in the hospital, according to Illyan’s guard commander, having gotten beaten up the night before, and they’re waiting for a full report from Illyan.  Aral angrily summons the guard commander and asks to be informed in the future if any of his staff are injured; the guard commander replies that they found out about it quite late at night, and by the time they had, Koudelka and Bothari, who was also involved, were already at the hospital and out of danger, so they decided to let Aral sleep.

Aral asks for more details of the incident.  The guard commander says that Koudelka and Bothari went out for some “entertainment” at a rundown part of the capital called the caravanserai, a place where Bothari regularly goes when he has the chance.

Cordelia asks for a description, and is appalled to learn that these people have no electricity, and are thus deprived of comconsoles, which is unheard of on Beta Colony, as is poverty, for the most part.  She is also upset to learn how cheap life is there, and argues with Count Piotr over how many potential geniuses they’re missing out on, an argument which Cordelia abandons after inadvertently implying that Vor ancestry contained a number of bastards (which seems obvious to her, and she can’t figure out how it offends everyone).

The guard commander returns to his story, and says that the two men were set upon by a gang of toughs, who beat them up, though four of them were killed.  He is less sure of the precise injuries, but it sounds like Bothari had a broken arm, a concussion, and other injuries, while Koudelka had both legs broken and a number of shock burns; the assailants apparently discovered that Koudelka’s artificial nerves reacted oddly to the application of a shock stick.

Illyan’s report later adds more details.  Koudelka “wanted to get laid”, and enlisted Bothari to help him.  They went to Bothari’s favourite place, but Koudelka was apparently unable to perform, and Bothari waited longer and got drunker than usual; after an argument over cost, they left.  Illyan says that his men had used fast-penta to interrogate everyone at the brothel, and found nothing suspicious.  Bothari took a wrong turn and got them lost, and they were stalked by about a dozen men, who managed to get Bothari’s stunner away before he’d taken out more than three of them.  Koudelka had only his sword-stick, and once he revealed the blade they took him for a Vor, and things got ugly; they broke his legs and started on the shock-stick.

Illyan notes that his own agent was late to catch up to them, because Koudelka had tickets for a musical performance and apparently changed his mind at the last minute.  The agent eventually tracked them down to the caravanserai, but disappeared.  It took hours for anyone to realize that Koudelka was missing, but when they did they immediately sent out patrols, and found the gang members before they got too far with Koudelka.  Illyan also notes that while Koudelka and Bothari accounted for three of the deaths, a fourth was an allergic reaction to fast-penta, which is sometimes natural but also often implanted in secret agents to keep them from being interrogated.

Illyan says that he doesn’t know why Koudelka had the idea in the first place, and it makes him suspicious; Cordelia offers to clear his mind, off the record.  She says he’s in love with somebody, and obviously wanted to see if he could still perform sexually before he went any further.

Bothari returns to Vorkosigan House after a few days, still in a cast and quite taciturn about the night’s events, and Drou is obviously worried about Koudelka’s continued absence; Cordelia wonders what garbled version of the story she has heard.  It’s a month before Koudelka is back, and he deflects queries about what happened as well.

Aral seems to be busy a lot of the time, and quite worried about something, and Cordelia starts to worry for his safety again.  She wonders if she’d be able to cope with Barrayar without him, and begins to miss the dry climate of Beta Colony as the weather turns rainy.

One wet afternoon she is reading quietly in the library when Koudelka comes in.  Not noticing her, he picks up his swordstick, exposes the blade, and then puts it to his neck.  Then he notices her there and he pulls the blade away, embarrassed.  They commiserate, Koudelka about the scorn and pity that seems to be all he has to look forward to, and Cordelia about the danger that Aral is in, and the impending childbirth.

Cordelia went still, suddenly face-to-face with her tightly suppressed fears. “I don’t trust your doctors,” she admitted shakily.

He smiled in deep irony. “I can’t blame you.”

A laugh puffed from her, and she hugged him back, around the chest, and raised her hand to wipe away the tiny drops of blood from the side of his neck. “When you love someone, it’s like your skin covers theirs. Every hurt is doubled. And I do love you so, Kou. I wish you’d let me help you.”

“Therapy, Cordelia?” Vorkosigan’s voice was cold, and cut like a stinging spray of rattling hail. She looked up, surprised, to see him standing before them, his face frozen as his voice. “I realize you have a great deal of Betan . . . expertise, in such matters, but I beg you will leave the project to someone else.”

Aral glares at Koudelka and leaves; Cordelia says that he didn’t mean it, and Koudelka says that he sure isn’t a threat to anyone’s marriage in his condition, and says he has work to do, leaving Cordelia infuriated at Barrayaran men.  Drou appears, and Cordelia lashes out at her for not being able to manage her own love life.  She then goes in search of her husband.

When she finds him, she takes him to task for his remark; Aral asks how he was supposed to react, finding her “cuddling” with Koudelka, and tells her to think about what anyone else would have thought, what stories might have gotten out to give ammunition to his political enemies.

“How the devil did we get onto your damned politics? I’m talking about a friend. I doubt you could have come up with a more wounding remark if you’d funded a study project. That was foul, Aral! What’s the matter with you, anyway?”

Aral admits that the job is getting to him, but Cordelia warns him that Koudelka’s on the verge of suicide.  Despite what happened with his wife, he needs to trust Cordelia not to be like her.

Cordelia asks if he can talk about his work problems.  Aral says that they might be on the verge of another war; Cetaganda had been hoping to take advantage of a period of chaos after Ezar’s death, but Aral didn’t oblige, so they seem to have been trying to take him out.  Either way, they will probably be probing in force at several disputed warp points.

Worse than that, though, Count Vorhalas approached him in private.  One of his sons, Lord Carl, got into a drunken fight, which unfortunately involved two decorative swords and kitchen knives, and ended up with his opponent stabbed in the abdomen and bleeding to death.  This legally makes it a murder committed as part of a duel, which is still a capital crime.  Vorhalas asked for leniency, but Aral is afraid to take that step even for a friend, even when he should have been executed for dueling himself decades ago, because it will become a slippery slope away from the justice-for-everyone that Emperor Ezar had been so committed to.  Cordelia urges him to do what he thinks right, though she is dismayed that that points him toward executing Carl Vorhalas.

Comments

The Koudelka and Bothari story is almost funny in places, but also sad and horrific, so maybe I’m just twisted.  Koudelka’s torment is brutal to see, but hopefully he’ll be able to get past it soon.  (If only I knew what was going to happen next!  Oh, wait, I do.)  The Carl Vorhalas story seems like the flipside of it, somehow–the man who wants to die and the man who’s going to die because of an awful mistake.  And I do see Aral’s point about having to uphold the laws as they’re written, without personal exemptions for friends and their families, but don’t they have lawyers on Barrayar?  Couldn’t someone make some kind of defense that it’s not really a duel, just to draw things out, or to at least push for a reform of the law?  Does Barrayar really have that poor of a legal system?  I guess that we don’t see any sign of lawyers in “The Mountains of Mourning”, but I don’t recall seeing many others in the series, not even in Komarr, apart from the Imperial Auditors.  I’ll have to pay attention.

What did happen to Illyan’s missing man, anyway?  I don’t remember if that becomes an important plot point later, or the guy who died from fast-penta.  I also don’t remember if the Cetagandans were really to blame for the attack, but maybe they do get involved somehow in later events, even though I don’t recall it that way.

Chapter Eight

Three weeks later, Aral attends Carl Vorhalas’s public execution; Cordelia asks him if he has to go, and he says it’s not strictly mandatory, but he still has to go.  He notes that he still thinks that it’s more civilized than Betan therapy for criminals, destroying you a little at a time instead of all at once.  He says it’s to be beheading, which is supposed to be painless, though when Cordelia presses, he admits that they really don’t know.

After he returns from the execution, he sits in silence for a long time, before telling Cordelia how Carl had tried to be brave, but his mother broke him down, and the executioner did a bad job of it, requiring three cuts.

“It lacked nothing for perfect hideousness. His mother cursed me, too. Until Evon and Count Vorhalas took her away.” The dead-expressioned voice escaped him then. “Oh, Cordelia! It can’t have been the right decision! And yet . . . and yet . . . no other one was possible. Was it?”

He came to her then, and held her in silence. He seemed very close to weeping, and it almost frightened her more that he did not.

After that he regains his self-possession and goes on about his work, but he lies awake that night, and Cordelia couldn’t think of the words to comfort him.  He speaks once, to wonder why this death, more than the others he holds himself responsible for, affects him like this, arresting his momentum when he needs to keep going forward.

Later that night Cordelia is awakened to a breaking of glass, and inhales an acrid gas.  Aral awakens then and recognizes the gas as soltoxin, telling Cordelia not to breathe.  He puts a pillow over her face and drags her out of the room just as she begins to vomit.  He begins barking orders to men nearby, telling them to get Illyan, and get the antidote from the Imperial Residence, which will be closer than ImpMil.

Soon Aral and Cordelia are showering in cool water, Aral urging her to keep washing, including her mouth if possible.  He recognized the odour of soltoxin, a poison gas, strictly controlled by the military; Cordelia says the nausea seems to be passing, but Aral says that it works slowly, eating away at soft tissues like the lungs if they don’t get the antidote.  Cordelia asks if it will affect the baby, and Aral admits he doesn’t know.

One of the guards reports that they’ve contacted the Imperial Residence.  Cordelia asks after Drou, and is told that she and Koudelka, who were together at the time, went after the assailant, even though Drou was supposed to check on Cordelia first.  They seem to have caught somebody, though.

They emerge when the doctor from the Residence arrives to set up the antidote.  He stops when he sees that Cordelia is pregnant, but Aral tells him to give her the antidote.  Cordelia breathes in the gas, which she finds almost as nauseating as the soltoxin, until the doctor says she’s had enough, before Aral takes his own dose.

Cordelia asks what the soltoxin will do to the baby, and the doctor says that nobody knows what happens without the antidote.  Cordelia notices the doctor’s look of pity and Aral’s pain and anger, and asks what the treatment does.  The doctor is reluctant to say, but Aral forces him, so he tells Cordelia that the antidote destroys bone development; it won’t affect her much, but it will the fetus.

She opened her eyes to Vorkosigan, and they stared at each other.

“The look on your face . . .” he whispered. “It’s not . . . Weep. Rage! Do something!” His voice rose to hoarseness. “Hate me at least!”

“I can’t,” she whispered back, “feel anything yet. Tomorrow, maybe.” Every breath was fire.

Aral gets dressed and says that at least he can see what it was that Kou and Drou had caught.  He tells Cordelia to stay behind but she refuses, and says that he won’t murder anyone in front of her; Aral isn’t so sure.

The entry hall is crowded with guards and medics; one of the guards lies on the floor with blood by his head, a medic attending him.  Illyan is just arriving, and says he’s thankful that Aral is all right; Aral just growls.  The prisoner is surrounded by guards; Drou stands nearby in a nightgown, holding a crossbow, obviously used to launch the soltoxin grenade, and Koudelka is in a uniform and bedroom slippers.  Koudelka is saying that he’d have had the man if Drou hadn’t interfered, but Drou says that it seemed that Koudelka was flat on the ground, before they are shushed at Aral’s approach.

The prisoner is in black military fatigues, which surprises Aral; Illyan cautions him uneasily that they need him alive to interrogate.  When they see his face, though, it turns out to be Evon Vorhalas, who lashes out at Aral for having his brother “cold-bloodedly” killed.

There was a long silence, then Vorkosigan leaned close to him, one arm extended past his head for support against the wall. He whispered hoarsely, “You missed me, Evon.”

Vorhalas spat in his face, spittle bloody from his injured mouth. Vorkosigan made no move to wipe it away. “You missed my wife,” he went on in a slow soft cadence. “But you got my son. Did you dream of sweet revenge? You have it. Look at her eyes, Evon. A man could drown in those sea-grey eyes. I’ll be looking at them every day for the rest of my life. So eat vengeance, Evon. Drink it. Fondle it. Wrap it round you in the night watch. It’s all yours. I will it all to you. For myself, I’ve gorged it to the gagging point, and have lost my stomach for it.”

Cordelia finds that she can’t hate Evon Vorhalas, since she can see exactly what brought him to his current state.  She tells Evon that Aral didn’t enjoy it, and wondered what he expected; Evon said that he expected a little human mercy.  Just before Aral and Cordelia leave for ImpMil, and Evon is taken away by Illyan’s men, Cordelia asks if Evon intended that particular effect when he used soltoxin.  Evon said he just grabbed something that was available, and, he thought, obscure enough that they wouldn’t find the antidote in time.  Aral says that he remembered the smell instantly, from the Karian mutiny, back when he was no older than Evon, and luckily the antidote was at the Imperial Residence instead of ImpMil.

Evon admits he hadn’t intended to catch her, didn’t even know that she would be in danger.  He certainly didn’t intend harm to the baby, he says, breaking down and weeping.  Aral is moved, but tells Illyan to send him a full report and takes Cordelia to the hospital.

At ImpMil they are separated, but soon given rooms across the hall from each other in the V.I.P. wing.  Cordelia can still feel the baby moving inside her.  Aral comes to visit, and they talk briefly, the doctors having warned them that their vocal cords are still in danger until the last of the soltoxin is cleared out.  After they do, she is left alone with an uneaten breakfast until a group of doctors enter her room–her own physician, the one from the Resident who had administered the antidote, and a Captain Vaagen who is introduced as an expert in military poisons.

They tell Cordelia that they should schedule the abortion promptly, since it’s already almost too late for it.  Cordelia asks if there is any hope, and two of them say that there is none, but Captain Vaagen brings up a calcium experiment that he read about; the other two try to shush him, asking him not to give her false hope.

Her world turned right-side-up again in a second, as she looked at the face of the man with ideas. She knew the type; half-right, half-cocked, half-successful, flitting from one monomania to another like a bee pollinating flowers, gathering little fruit but leaving seeds behind. She was nothing to him, personally, but the raw material for a monograph. The risks she took did not appall his imagination, she was not a person but a disease state. She smiled upon him, slowly, wildly, knowing him then for her ally in the enemy camp.

“How do you do, Dr. Vaagen? How would you like to write the paper of a lifetime?”

The other two doctors try to dissuade her, saying that the results have been grotesque, and even Vaagen admits the results are far from guaranteed, and may result in a “jellyfish”.  He also says that the mothers may suffer from the treatment, and Cordelia asks if it can be done in vitro instead, using the uterine replicators; Vaagen says it has possibilities, and he is acquainted with Dr. Henri.  Her doctor protests that Vaagen is only a biochemist, not a doctor, and Cordelia says that he can help Vaagen do the transfer to the replicator.

Her doctor refuses, saying that they can try again in a few months, assuming that there is no testicular scarring on Aral’s part; Cordelia says that she’s not even sure Aral will be alive in a few months.  Her doctor still refuses to do the operation, so she fires him and puts Vaagen in charge of the case.  Cordelia’s former doctor warns him that there is still the Regent himself to deal with.

 “You shall have an institute, if you can bring this off. You tell him,” she jerked her head in the direction of the hall, toward Aral’s room, “I said so.”

Comments

Yet more nameless doctors!  What does Bujold have against naming doctors?  Or is it just obstructive ones who don’t look at their patients as people that she has issues with?  Still.

This chapter’s events are among the most crucial in the entire series, because they determine a major part of the life of Miles Vorkosigan, the bone disorder that plagues him his whole life.  Of course, if Aral and Cordelia had never met, or hadn’t survived to marry, then that would have also been significant, but given that, this is probably the next most important factor.  Ms. Bujold has been quoted as saying that given the nature of Barrayar, the crippling of Aral’s son is about the worst thing that could happen to him, and so, as an author, she was obligated to do it.  Well, not obligated, but it seemed a logical step.  Didn’t Cordelia say at the end of Shards of Honour that great challenges were a great gift?  So.

And yet they don’t really follow logically from the earlier plot.  Evon Vorhalas admits that his choice of weapon was mostly by chance, and the “duel” that led to his brother Carl’s death was the worst sort of bad luck, too.  At no point does it seem like an outlandish coincidence, but it’s not tied to the rest of the plot, Vordarian or the Cetagandans or anything else that may be bubbling under the surface.  It’s just random chance, an act of God, bad luck.  And yet, somehow, Cordelia would probably admit that just living on Barrayar, with one of the most powerful men on the planet, the chances of something of the sort happening, if not this exact thing, are far too high to be neglected, so it still feels inevitable.


This coming weekend will also be busy, so it is once again possible that I’ll be a little late, or just do one chapter, or something, but I will try to at least keep to Wednesday next week, if not Tuesday, and hopefully by the week after that I can be back on track, as my schedule settles down.  Stranger things have happened.

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Welcome back to The Further Adventures of Nick Vordanger, Barrayar’s only detective.  This week: Nick Danger stumbles endlessly on through…Chapters Three and Four of Barrayar.  Wherein I seem to be having as much trouble typing “Barrayar” as I ever did with “Droushnakovi”.  And it’s not actually endless, even though the book is still increasing the tension somewhat slowly; compared to Shards of Honour, the pace is noticeably slower.  (Or is it?  At this point in Shards, weren’t they still tramping around in alien wilderness?)  However, there is unarmed combat, assassination attempts, prejudice, and voting.

But let’s just get on with it, you say?  On with it I shall get.

Chapter Three

The next day Captain Lord Padma Vorpatril escorts Cordelia to the Joint Council session.  Padma is Aral’s cousin, on his mother’s side, one of Aral’s few living relatives besides Count Piotr, and used to serve under Aral.  Cordelia, Padma and Drou sit in the gallery overlooking the Council chamber, surrounded by a ring of empty seats; Gregor and Kareen are present as well, and Emperor Ezar watches over comlink, in his military uniform with his life-support concealed.  Cordelia asks Padma about Aral’s past; Padma says that Aral used to be as conservative as his father, but started to “go strange” by the time he reached Captain.  Padma wasn’t surprised that he accepted the Regency, that he was never fooled by Aral’s avowed attention to retire.

The Count and Ministers vote almost unanimously to accept Aral as Regent, even Vordarian voting yes, with only five dissenters.  When Cordelia comments on it, Padma said that the Emperor had let it be known that he wanted unanimity.  Those who voted no are the open opposition, which he says aren’t the ones to worry about; the ones who voted yes unwillingly are the more dangerous ones.

Two men arrive late, brothers, one a commander and the other a well-dressed civilian, and perforce sit in front of Cordelia.  After locating their father, they begin gossiping about Aral, the inheritance tax measure he’s pushing through, his “Betan frill”, and what exactly happened with Vorrutyer, which amuses Cordelia, until they start in on Koudelka and talk about how he should have just killed himself rather than end up a cripple, which Padma is oblivious to, but makes Drou uncomfortable as well.  Cordelia leans forward, apologizing for eavesdropping, but berates them for their insensitive comments about Koudelka.  The brothers are put off by her comments, and Cordelia stops Padma from letting them know exactly who she is.  The Commander apologizes for his comments, assuming that Koudelka is a relative, though Cordelia denies it.  Cordelia warns him not to let such talk reach Aral’s ears, since it would pain him greatly.

As the session breaks for lunch, Padma takes Cordelia and Drou to meet with Aral, who is in company with his father and a man who is introduced as Count Vorhalas, brother of the Admiral Vorhalas who died with Prince Serg.  Aral says they are shortly due at a lunch with Kareen and Gregor, but Vorhalas wanted to introduce his sons.  The sons soon arrive, and turn out to be the brothers from the gallery, Commander Evon and his brother Lord Carl Vorhalas.

“But you’ve met,” said Vorkosigan. “I saw you talking in the gallery. What did you find to discuss so animatedly, Cordelia?”

“Oh . . . geology. Zoology. Courtesy. Much on courtesy. We had quite a wide-ranging discussion. We each of us taught the other something, I think.” She smiled, and did not flick an eyelid.

Commander Evon Vorhalas, looking rather ill, said, “Yes. I’ve . . . had a lesson I’ll never forget, Milady.”

Aral proceeds to introduce Koudelka as well.

Koudelka, loaded with plastic flimsys, disks, the baton of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces that had just been presented to Vorkosigan as Regent-elect, and his own stick, and uncertain whether to shake hands or salute, managed to drop them all and do neither. There was a general scramble to retrieve the load, and Koudelka went red, bending awkwardly after it. Droushnakovi and he put a hand on his stick at the same time.

“I don’t need your help, miss,” Koudelka snarled at her in a low voice, and she recoiled to go stand rigidly behind Cordelia.

Commander Vorhalas’s aid is accepted more graciously, and he admits to Koudelka that nerve disruptors scare the hell out of him, and says Koudelka is an example to them all.  Cordelia tells Commander Evon that he’s likely to go far in his career.

Two weeks later, Emperor Ezar breathes his last, having spent the last week of his life in a coma.  Cordelia and Aral are present, as well as a number of others, including Kareen and Gregor.  After Ezar’s death, those present swear fealty to Gregor as the new Emperor of Barrayar.

Cordelia too was guided by Vorkosigan to kneel before the boy. The prince—Emperor—had his mother’s hair, but hazel eyes like Ezar and Serg, and Cordelia found herself wondering how much of his father, or his grandfather, was latent in him, its expression waiting on the power that would come with age. Do you bear curses in your chromosomes, child? she wondered as her hands were placed between his. Cursed or blessed, regardless, she gave him her oath. The words seemed to cut her last tie to Beta Colony; it parted with a ping! audible only to her.

I am a Barrayaran now. It had been a long strange journey, that began with a view of a pair of boots in the mud, and ended in these clean child’s hands. Do you know I helped kill your father, boy? Will you ever know? Pray not. She wondered if it was delicacy or oversight, that she had never been required to give oath to Ezar Vorbarra.

There follows five days of funeral ceremonies, though apparently Prince Serg’s had run for two whole weeks.  Now that Ezar is dead, only four people living know the truth about Serg’s death; the official position is that he died a war hero.  Gregor has no coronation as such, but he and Aral receive personal oaths from a number of important personages, and Cordelia begins to see how the Barrayaran government works, “pretended” into existence.

Aral begins to work long hours, which Cordelia tells herself will begin to get shorter as he gets the hang of his new job.  Cordelia herself is mostly busy with the important task of “gestating”.  It begins to sink in on her that, unlike Beta with its population control and strict reproductive licensing, she can have as large a family as she wants, now, though she considers whether or not to use the uterine replicator technology.  There’s plenty of territory to expand into–terraforming a second continent, and the prospect of colonizing the recently discovered planet Sergyar.

She meets Padma’s wife, Lady Alys Vorpatril, also pregnant, and they compare notes; Cordelia concludes that she’s getting off easy in comparison.  Still, she feels a vague unease about giving birth on Barrayar, and briefly considers going home to Beta for the birth, but considering she’s still probably a wanted criminal there, it doesn’t seem that likely.

Comments

I was trying to figure out who the people were who knew the secret of Prince Serg.  Cordelia and Aral, certainly.  Definitely Negri.  Ezar’s dead, so he’s specifically excluded.  Vortala didn’t know, and neither did Illyan.  Bothari?  Kareen?  The nameless surgeon on Aral’s ship?  Doesn’t seem right, but nobody else is coming to mind.

This chapter contains the first mention of Sergyar, and it seems obvious given the earler mentions that it’s probably named after Prince Serg.  And yet it’s never commented on.  It was also several books, as I recall, before I realized that Sergyar is the then-unnamed planet in Shards of Honour, where Aral and Cordelia first met, where the supply cache for the Escobar invasion was located, etc.  Shouldn’t one or the other of them be thinking of the cosmic irony, which they can never tell anyone else, about the planet being named for the man whose death it was a part of?  It bothers me a little bit.  I don’t think we’ve had an actual scene set on Sergyar since Shards, though it is mentioned from time to time.

I keep forgetting exactly how the Vorhalases are introduced, though as soon as they are, I remember, more or less, the role they play in the book’s plot.

One term that Bujold keeps using throughout the series, which I never really got used to, was “plastic flimsy”.  In context, it seems like, well, a sheet of paper, except made of plastic.  Why would it be made of plastic, though?  Barrayar is, as Cordelia keeps noticing, a planet where wood is common enough to be used for the walls of entire rooms.  For a Betan, that’s a lot, so maybe in absolute terms it’s not, but still, Barrayarans shouldn’t feel a need to replace simple and easy-to-produce paper with plastic, should they?  It can’t be for greater durability, either, because they’re still called “flimsies”.  So unless they’re “smart paper” or something similar, I admit to being a bit baffled.  I guess I’ll have to watch for further mentions to see if this is clarified.

Chapter Four

With the Count in residence at Vorkosigan House for a while, they soon start up weekly unarmed combat competitions between the Count’s men and Illyan’s security men, with Koudelka as referee and Cordelia, Count Piotr, Drou, and occasionally Aral as spectators.

One afternoon, Cordelia asks Drou why she doesn’t participate as well, since ostensibly the competition is to keep everyone in fighting trim.  Drou says that she wasn’t invited, though she patently wants to participate; Cordelia tells Drou that she can be Cordelia’s team, and if anyone doesn’t like it, they can take it up with Aral, who she soon persuades to support her.

He climbed back to his feet, and went to enter Droushnakovi on Koudelka’s list for the lists. Cordelia could not hear what they said to each other, across the garden, but supplied her own dialogue from gesture and expression, murmuring, “Aral: Cordelia wants Drou to play. Kou: Aw! Who wants gurls? Aral: Tough. Kou: They mess everything up, and besides, they cry a lot. Sergeant Bothari will squash her—hm, I do hope that’s what that gesture means, otherwise you’re getting obscene, Kou—wipe that smirk off your face, Vorkosigan—Aral: The little woman insists. You know how henpecked I am. Kou: Oh, all right. Phooey. Transaction complete: the rest is up to you, Drou.”

The Count joins them, and complains about Cordelia’s “Betan innovations”.

“You’ll be wanting women in the Service, next,” complained Piotr. “Where will it end? That’s what I’d like to know.”

“What’s wrong with women in the Service?” Cordelia asked, baiting him a little.

“It’s unmilitary,” snapped the old man.

” ‘Military’ is whatever wins the war, I should think.” She smiled blandly. A small friendly warning pinch from Vorkosigan restrained her from rubbing in the point any harder.

In her first match, Drou wins the first point mostly through surprise, and then loses the second.  After a longer contest, she puts her opponent in a choke hold, where he seems more willing to go unconscious than admit defeat.  After, Cordelia and Aral advise her not to restrain her killer instincts.  In her next combat, her opponent takes his first point after goosing her.  Cordelia is outraged, and Aral admits that it’s not forbidden, but…  He calls Drou over, and advises her to deal with this insult to her, and her lady, by not leaving her opponent conscious.  She proceeds to take out her opponent in the second round with three swift blows.

In the semifinal round, though, Drou comes up against Bothari, who has been winning his matches handily and efficiently.  Cordelia worries if this is a good idea, given Bothari’s history, but Aral thinks that the training ring will constrain him sufficiently.  In their first match, Koudelka accidentally sets off his sword-stick, and Drou takes advantage of it to take Bothari down, but Koudelka won’t give her the point because of the distraction.  Cordelia complains to Aral, who thinks that Koudelka might be a little bit jealous of Drou’s progress.  Bothari proceeds to take the next two points from Drou, and then defeat the other finalist.

Soon after, Koudelka comes over to ask Aral if he wants to do a demonstration bout with Bothari, for those men who haven’t seen the two of them fight.  Aral lets himself be convinced, despite protesting that he’s out of shape.

The two men faced off in the arena and bowed formally. Koudelka backed hastily out of the way. The raucous good humor died away among the watchers, as the icy cold and concentrated stillness of the two players drew all eyes. They began to circle, lightly, then met in a blur. Cordelia did not quite see what happened, but when they parted Vorkosigan was spitting blood from a lacerated mouth, and Bothari was hunched over his belly.

In the next contact Bothari landed a kick to Vorkosigan’s back that echoed off the garden walls and propelled him completely out of the arena, to land rolling and running back in spite of disrupted breathing. The men in whose protection the Regent’s life was supposed to lie began to look worriedly at one another. At the next grappling Vorkosigan underwent a vicious fall, with Bothari landing atop him instantly for a follow-up choke. Cordelia thought she could see his ribs bend from the knees on his chest. A couple of the guards started forward, but Koudelka waved them back, and Vorkosigan, face dark and suffused, tapped out.

Aral agrees to go on, and this time he manages to throw Bothari and put him in an armlock, and Bothari is the one to tap out.  The third pass results in Aral in the armlock, and when he tries to escape, Bothari dislocates his elbow.  Aral taps out again, and at his request, Bothari puts the joint back in place.

Afterwards, while rubbing Aral down, she brings up the Koudelka/Drou problem.  She says that Drou is unfailingly courteous, and almost certainly in love with him, and Koudelka treats her shabbily.  Aral points out that Koudelka’s injuries may have affected his sexual performance, and he might be scared to try it.  Aral says that Koudelka doesn’t seem to dislike her, but he envies her.

She tries to puzzle out how Barrayar’s double standard of sexual behaviour works.  As a Betan, she’d thought the thing a logical impossibility, but now she realizes that the problem is that information on the subject is not freely disseminated.  She tries writing out the list of rules she’s deduced, which amuses Aral, and they spend some time breaking the rules with each other.

One autumn evening, she is watching the sunset from the roof of Vorkosigan House, musing on the imminence of “snow”, and the interesting things one can do with above-ground architecture.  She is disturbed by a distant sound, like a sonic grenade, and the guards on the roof are soon urging her inside, though she refuses to go until Drou comes to drag her in.  Soon she discovers that someone has taken a shot at Aral’s car, and he’s being brought to the house.  Cordelia takes comfort in the fact that the car is still drivable, at least.

When the car arrives, security guards swarm around it; Aral and Koudelka emerge, the latter with a bloodied face, and both of them mostly deaf.  The sonic grenade had hit the street in front of them, leaving a large crater, but the driver had managed to swerve around it.  Illyan arrives with a doctor and takes them inside.  Koudelka wonders how they’d known their route, which they vary daily; Illyan wonders if it was inside information, and Aral says he was probably just watching one of their likely routes.  Illyan said it was likely an lone man, with old, faulty ordnance, which Cordelia does not find reassuring.

“He only needed one shot. If he’d managed a direct hit on that sealed car, Aral’d have been emulsified. Your forensic team would be trying right now to sort out which molecules were his and which were Kou’s.”

Droushnakovi turned faintly green; Vorkosigan’s saturnine look was now firmly back in place.

“You want me to give you a precise resonance reflection amplitude calculation for that sealed passenger cabin, Simon?” Cordelia went on hotly. “Whoever chose that weapon was a competent military tech—if, fortunately, a poorish shot.” She bit back further words, recognizing, even if no one else did, the suppressed hysteria driving the speed of her speech.

Later that evening Cordelia asks Illyan who would want to kill Aral.

He ticked them off on his fingers. “The Cetagandans, always. They had counted on political chaos here, following Ezar’s death. They’re not above prodding it along. An assassination is cheap interference, compared to an invasion fleet. The Komarrans, for old revenge or new revolt. Some there still call the Admiral the Butcher of Komarr—”

Cordelia, knowing the whole story behind that loathed sobriquet, winced.

“The anti-Vor, because my lord Regent is too conservative for their tastes. The military right, who fear he is too progressive for theirs. Leftover members of Prince Serg and Vorrutyer’s old war party. Former operatives of the now-suppressed Ministry of Political Education, though I doubt one of them would have missed. Negri’s department used to train them. Some disgruntled Vor who thinks he came out short in the recent power-shift. Any lunatic with access to weapons and a desire for instant fame as a big-game hunter—shall I go on?”

Cordelia tries to keep her fear under control, understanding now why Barrayarans are so paranoid, and wonders when the next attempt will be.

Comments

The overall plot of the book, of course, deals with Cordelia and Aral, but Kou and Drou now definitely have their own subplot.  My wife informs me that the secondary-character romance is a staple of romantic fiction, though I’m sure it turns up in other places as well.  After all, the Cordelia-Aral romance is pretty much resolved.  Their plot for this book is still building, and I can pinpoint the exact moment when it goes up to the next level…and that is not yet.  The sonic grenade is only the opening salvo, so to speak, and I can’t quite remember at this point how it ties into the overall plot.

The rest of the chapter mostly focuses on Cordelia learning more about Barrayaran culture, and contrasting it with Betan.  Sometimes I think that Barrayaran culture is more comprehensible to us than Betan, but perhaps we’re really more in the middle.  Or perhaps the “liberals” are more Betan and the “conservatives” are more Barrayaran, so it depends on your part of the political spectrum.  What does it say, then, that the Barrayarans are the most central to the series?  I guess they do spend a lot of time on other planets, but almost all of my favourite scenes in the series are set on Barrayar.  I suppose one of the main axes of progress in the series is the liberalization of Barrayar, whereas the conservatization of Beta Colony wouldn’t be as fun to read about, were it to happen.  So that makes Bujold a somewhat left-wing writer, but one with a certain amount of sympathy and understanding for the right as well.  Kind of like Aaron Sorkin on “The West Wing”, who did like to, every once in a while, throw in a perfectly intelligent and articulate person who just happened to be a Republican.  (And who still felt like a token.)


And that’s it for another week.  Once again I whipped this up on Sunday and Monday (and a bit of Tuesday); I need to stop doing that, or I’ll keep putting it off to Sunday every week, and one week I won’t be able to pull it together in time.  We’ll see how that works out for me.  Just took a brief look forward, and it looks like Chapter Ten is the signpost I’m looking for, where the tension really ramps up, though there’s plenty to happen in between.  Until next time…

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