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Posts Tagged ‘Martya’

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

Winterfair Gifts, Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Expensive!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Welcome back, one mo’ time, to the good ol’, down-home, fresh-baked, fat-free, low-cholesterol Vorkosigan Saga Reread!  It’s always a pleasure to see so many bright and smiling faces comin’ by here to see what I’ve managed to whip up out of nothin’ more than a couple of chapters of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, as we find out what the rascally Miles Vorkosigan, and his friends, have been up to this week.  And speakin’ of this week, that’s right now!  So why don’t you set yourself down and dig in to a helping of Chapters Seventeen and Eighteen of A Civil Campaign, where things actually get kinda physically excitin’ for our heroes…

Chapter Seventeen

Pym admits Ekaterin to Vorkosigan House; he pages Miles, who says he’s up in the attic of the north wing, and tells Pym to send Ekaterin up, he has something she’d like to see.  He escorts her to the lift tube and up to the fifth floor, into an enormous attic.  Some of the attic contents are the usual–shabby furniture, empty picture frames, and other detritus–but past then it gets into old weapons, horse gear, and uniforms.

Miles is digging through a few tunks of flimsies, apparently sorting them; Ekaterin says he wasn’t exaggerating when he told her the attics were worth seeing.  Miles says that when Duv Galeni came up here, he turned back into a history professor, gibbering over how little of this was catalogued.  Ekaterin lets him ramble on, unwilling to destroy his mood with her news.  He shows her a bag of what he says are Cetagandan scalps–given to his grandfather, he says, by his guerrillas, so of course he couldn’t just dispose of them.  Ekaterin asks what they could possible do with them; Miles muses that Gregor could send them back to the Cetagandans, with elaborate apologies, as a subtle diplomatic insult.

Then he gets out what he really wanted to show her–an old lady’s saddle, which he said originally belonged to General Piotr’s wife, Olivia Vorbarra Vorkosigan.  He said the riding tradition has kind of lapsed in their family–his parents weren’t that interested, and he hasn’t time himself in years; Ekaterin says she rode as a child, a pony that her great-aunt kept, but not much since.  Miles says he’s thinking of reconditioning the saddle and putting it back into use, but Ekaterin protests that it should be in a museum.

“Ah—I had this same argument with Duv. It wasn’t just hand-made, it was custom-made, especially for the Princess. Probably a gift from my grandfather. Imagine the fellow, not just a worker but an artist, selecting the leather, piecing and stitching and carving. I picture him hand-rubbing in the oil, thinking of his work used by his Countess, envied and admired by her friends, being part of this—this whole work of art that was her life.” His finger traced the leaves around the initials.

Her guess of its value kept ratcheting up in time to his words. “For heaven’s sake get it appraised first!”

“Why? To loan to a museum? Don’t need to set a price on my grandmother for that. To sell to some collector to hoard like money? Let him hoard money, that’s all that sort wants anyway. The only collector who’d be worthy of it would be someone who was personally obsessed with the Princess-and-Countess, one of those men who fall hopelessly in love across time. No. I owe it to its maker to put it to its proper use, the use he intended.”

The weary straitened housewife in her—Tien’s pinchmark spouse—was horrified. The secret soul of her rang like a bell in resonance to Miles’s words. Yes. That was how it should be. This saddle belonged under a fine lady, not under a glass cover. Gardens were meant to be seen, smelled, walked through, grubbed in. A hundred objective measurements didn’t sum the worth of a garden; only the delight of its users did that. Only the use made it mean something. How had Miles learned that? For this alone I could love you . . .

He says he should get back into riding, for exercise if nothing else, and invites her to join him.  Ekaterin says she can’t, and ruthlessly, before he can try to persuade her, before she loses her will entirely, tells him the story of her family visit.  She expresses her exasperation at how they wouldn’t listen to her, taking Alexi Vormoncrief’s word over her own, along with their own perceptions of the “decadence” of the capital.  She said she had to go along, or lose custody of Nikki.  It occurred to her later to wonder if ImpSec would step in rather than let Vassily take Nikki away, but Miles said that they’d probably think Nikki safer on a military base in any case.  If they did do anything to stop it, they’d probably do it in a way that just enhanced the murder “cover story”.

Ekaterin wonders if somebody convinced Alexi to send the letter, hoping to have just that result.  Miles suggests that it would be better if her uncle could deal with the issue inside the family, but he’s not due back until the wedding, assuming that his technical matters on Komarr don’t take too long.  Miles says that if it does come to court, it’ll be in Vorbretten’s District, and he can try to get René to help, assuming he’s still Count at that point; Ekaterin says she’d rather avoid it entirely.  Miles reassures her that, after the Council of Counts vote in two days, the slander should die down with its political motivation…or so he hopes.

“I shouldn’t have suggested putting you in quarantine till my mourning year was over. I should have tried Vassily on Winterfair first. I thought of that too late. But I can’t risk Nikki, I just can’t. Not when we’ve come so far, survived so much.”

“Sh, now. I think your instincts are right. My grandfather had an old cavalry saying: `You should get over heavy ground as lightly as you can.’ We’ll just lie low for a little while here so as not to rile poor Vassily. And when your uncle gets back, he’ll straighten the fellow out.” He glanced up at her, sideways. “Or, of course, you could simply not see me for a year, eh?”

“I should dislike that exceedingly,” she admitted.

“Ah.” One corner of his mouth curled up. After a little pause, he said, “Well, we can’t have that, then.”

“But Miles, I gave my word. I didn’t want to, but I did.”

“Stampeded into it. A tactical retreat is not a bad response to a surprise assault, you know. First you survive. Then you choose your own ground. Then you counterattack.”

Ekaterin fights an urge to give in to his physical closeness.  Miles admits he’d forgotten about Vassily on his list of people whose opinions mattered.  He explains to her what his father said about reputation and honour.  Ekaterin talks about how she became an oathbreaker, inside, after she made the decision to leave Tien, but she still has to go on somehow; most people, even her aunt, tell her that it was okay because Tien was an ass.  Miles says he knows exactly how she feels, though.

“In my experience,” he said, “the trouble with oaths of the form, death before dishonor, is that eventually, given enough time and abrasion, they separate the world into just two sorts of people: the dead, and the forsworn. It’s a survivor’s problem, this one.”

“Yes,” she agreed quietly. He knows. He knows it all, right down to that bitter muck of regret at the bottom of the soul’s well. How does he know?

He tells her the truth about his discharge from ImpSec, for falsifying reports, rather than for medical reasons.  He’d been so desperate to hold onto Admiral Naismith, and he’d gotten into a habit of “lie now, fix it later”.  Which didn’t work with his seizures, and it didn’t work with her either.  Ekaterin gives him a single squeeze, and agrees with him about the difficulty of overcoming old habits.  Miles tells her then how he killed his grandfather, failing out of his entrance exams.

“Of course,” she said dryly, “you were the cause. It couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with his being nearly a hundred years old.”

“Yeah, sure, I know.” Miles shrugged, and gave her a sharp look up from under his dark brows. “The same way you know Tien’s death was an accident.”

“Miles,” she said, after a long, thoughtful pause, “are you trying to one-up my dead?”

Taken aback, his lips began to form an indignant denial, which weakened to an, “Oh.” He gently thumped his forehead on her shoulder as if beating his head against a wall. When he spoke again, his ragging tone did not quite muffle real anguish. “How can you stand me? I can’t even stand me!”

I think that was the true confession. We are surely come to the end of one another.

Ekaterin notes that she has, as Kareen would say, a “Thing” about oaths.  She asks how, forsworn as he was, he could bring himself to take oath again, as an Imperial Auditor.  Miles says that his honour came with a reset button, and she is startled into laughter, which feels like it’s bringing light into her soul.  He tells her that a wise woman told him once “You just go on”, which in his opinion is what all the rest of the advice boils down to.

He’s taken her hand in his, and she is almost overwhelmed by his physical proximity, but she is determined not to start any physical intimacy with him, when she’s supposed to be giving him up.  Deliberately pulling a little apart, she asks him if he thinks Alexi’s ploy is a trap.  Miles tells her about what happened with Richars, how he’d attempted to blackmail Miles into going along, and instead Miles threw all his weight behind Dono.  As a result, if Richars does become Count, he’ll be obliged to follow through on his threat to press charges, although he may wait until after the Imperial wedding.  If it does go to court, Richars will probably be unable to prove anything, but Miles won’t be able to produce proof on his side either–but before the charge is eventually dismissed, things could get ugly, for Ekaterin as well as himself.

Miles notes that another way to avert the problem would be to not vote against Richars–maybe even abstaining wouldn’t be enough, he might have to actively vote for Richars.  He admits that Gregor and ImpSec have not asked him to do that, but he thought he’d offer it to her; after some thought, she says they’d both have to reset their honour after that one.  Miles says it doesn’t look like Dono has enough votes, just so she knows; she says she’s satisfied that he has Miles’s.

Ekaterin asks him the last time he used his seizure stimulator, and Miles admits it’s been a while.  Ekaterin sternly admonishes him to use it that night, so he doesn’t get struck down in the middle of the vote, and he humbly accedes.  He offers her a ride home, and ends up accompanying her; they keep scrupulously to small talk.

Ivan is serving at a reception for Komarran guests at Vorhartung Castle, squiring around Laisa’s aunt.  It’s meant as a celebration of the soletta array repairs as much as for the arrival of Laisa’s guests.  Once he manages to get rid of Aunt Anna, he manages to withdraw.  He bumps into Cassia Vorgorov, recently engaged to Count Vortashpula’s heir; Count Falco Vorpatril, nearby, twits Ivan about having missed his chance yet again, since Cassia apparently used to have a crush on him.  Ivan asserts that he chooses to play the field, and bows politely to Count Vorhalas, who is wooing the notoriously fence-sitting Count Vorpatril’s vote.

Miles arrives, looking a little tired, and, to Ivan’s relief, doesn’t seem to be seeking volunteers for some hare-brained scheme.  He greets the two Counts; Falco asks if he’s going to the reception at Vorsmyth House, and Miles says he’ll be with Gregor’s party…unless they want to discuss Lord Dono’s suit again.  Falco says the Progressives will just have to give up on that one, and be satisfied with the soletta repairs bill.  Miles says he can’t wait for this vote to be over, before departing.

Vorhalas notes that Miles’s looks unwell; Falco says it’s probably due to his old troubles, but Ivan says it’s probably due to his more recent injuries on duty–one of his seizures, he expects.  Vorhalas asks about the rumour about Miles and Ekaterin, and Ivan stoutly denies it, and Falco says that Lady Alys did as well.  Vorhalas will only say that he supposes they’ll never know the truth.  Ivan is getting a bit annoyed at all the people asking him, and wonders if Miles is getting as bad, or if more people are asking Ivan because they don’t want to bother him about it.  Falco invites Vorhalas back to Vorpatril House to talk about a potential project, and Vorhalas agrees.

Ivan spots Olivia Koudelka, and consider that while Delia, Kareen and Martya have rejected him, there’s still one who hasn’t.  He starts to chat her up, trying to figure out if she’s with someone; she does seem happy to see someone, but all Ivan sees are Lord Dono and Countess Vormuir, who seem to be sharing a private joke.  Olivia says they’re heading for Vorsmythe House, and Ivan proposes to come along; Olivia offers him a ride, which he accepts.  Lord Dono joins them, proving to be the one offering the ride, which Ivan doesn’t particularly like, but he’s forced to live with it.  Byerly Vorrutyer stops by, refusing the offer of a ride to Vorsmythe’s, but asking for one home from there.
Dono says he’s talked to several of the Counts, but few of them were helpful.  Vorhalas and Vorpatril hadn’t listened to his pitch, and Vorfolse hadn’t even answered his door.  The vote tally is running close, but Dono says it’s still short.  Olivia and By reassure him, and By says that something might still happen.

Ivan ends up sitting between two Armsmen in Dono’s car, with Olivia next to Dono and Szabo.  On the way to Vorsmythe House, Donno suddenly decides to give Vorfolse one more try first.  Vorfolse’s family has had horrible luck in the last century, making bad choices like collaborating with the Cetagandans, and siding with Vordarian during the Pretendership; as a result, they’re quite impoverished, and Vorfolse lives in a small apartment, renting Vorfolse House to an ambitious, rich merchant.  The current Count Vorfolse, as a result, refuses to commit to much of anything, which, Ivan supposes, at least means he’s not a certain vote for Richars…

There’s no parking available for the groundcar, so Dono’s driver drops them off, Ivan perforce getting out too when Olivia does.  Szabo sets up a couple of Armsmen as a guard, and the rest of them enter the building lobby.  Dono buzz Vorfolse’s apartment, and at least gets a response this time.  Dono introduces himself and his companions, and asks to talk about the vote.  Vorfolse refuses, saying that Vorrutyers are all crazy, and he doesn’t care which of them is Count.  Dono points out that if the vote falls short, it’ll have to be redone, and that will doubtless be inconvenient for Vorfolse, and that Richars would also be much less “restful” as a count.  Olivia puts in her own word, and Vorfolse notes that the Vorkosigans must be supporting it, and Miles seems to be very unrestful just now.  He refuses to commit to a vote, but Dono thanks him, noting as they leave that that’s better than some of the responses he’s gotten.  He also gives Vorfolse credit for, at least, not milking his District for funds to support a more lavish lifestyle.

Outside, the car is nowhere to be found; Olivia wonders if somebody else wanted to come in, forcing the driver to leave and come back.  Just then, Ivan hears a familiar sound, as Szabo drops to a stunner beam.  Ivan ducks behind a pillar, Olivia and Dono ducking another way, as the two other Armsmen with him also drop to stunners.  Ivan peers into the darkness, trying to spot their enemies, and wishing he had a stunner of his own.  He overhears two men talking about a third, and tries to make his way out of his refuge before they come after him.  It must be a kidnapping, he thinks, or they wouldn’t be using stunners.

He catches a glimpse of Olivia, and hears a thunk as she takes out an enemy; he is reminded that her mother used to be a bodyguard.  Dono makes a break for it, and the enemies go after him, grabbing him and dragging him towards a liftvan; Ivan manages to snatch one of the felled Armsmen’s stunners.  They want to “do the job” on Dono and dump him as soon as they can, if they can take out the girl and “the big officer”.  Ivan, watching, can’t tell what they’re going to do, but it’s not a kidnapping…  One man bends over Dono with a vibra knife, and Ivan, taking a chance, stuns one of the others and sends the others fleeing behind the van, leaving Dono on the pavement.

Olivia stuns the other two and emerges from cover; they to go to check on Dono.  Olivia exclaims to find him soaked in blood, but Dono says they only cut his leg.  She improvises a bandage torn from her party dress to try to stop the bleeding, while Ivan drags their stunned foes into a heap.

Olivia now had Dono half sitting up, his head cradled between her breasts as she anxiously stroked his dark hair. Dono was pale and shaking, his breathing disrupted.

“Take a punch in the solar plexus, did you?” Ivan inquired.

“No. Further down,” Dono wheezed. “Ivan . . . do you remember, whenever one of you fellows got kicked in the nuts and went over, doing sports or whatever, how I laughed? I’m sorry. I never knew. I’m sorry . . .”

The bleeding seems to be slowing.  Ivan finds a bottle of liquid bandage nearby, and says that they must have been trying to undo Dono’s sex change operation, hoping to disqualify him before the vote.  Without anesthetic, but with the intention of leaving him alive.  Dono says it’s probably Richars.  Ivan says that however he feels about what Dono did, this is just wrong.  Dono says he hasn’t even used his new genitalia yet, wanting to be a “virgin” on his wedding night.  Ivan goes to check on the others–the one Olivia downed doesn’t look to be in good shape, but Szabo and the others seem like they’ll be okay.  He goes down the street and finds Dono’s groundcar, the driver stunned; he backs it carefully up to where Dono and Olivia are.

He asks Dono if he recognizes any of the goons, which he doesn’t.  Ivan and Olivia load them into their own van, and Dono’s Armsmen into the groundcar.  Olivia and Dono take the groundcar, and Ivan the lift van; Ivan tells them to head for Vorpatril House.

Comments

Not much to say about the Miles and Ekaterin scene, except that the increased honesty between them does seem to be drawing them together.  As well as shared adversity, placing them back to back against a common enemy, as it were.

Ivan the oblivious once again fails to clue in that the girl he’s latched onto is not into him at all.  We don’t get nearly as much screen time with Olivia as we do with her sisters, but it’s apparent that she’s become attached to Dono already.  Still, it’s lucky for Dono that Ivan came along–without him, it would have ended up just Olivia against Dono’s assailants.  It took me a second to recognize Ivan when the thugs were referring to “that big officer”–I guess Ivan is supposed to kind of big, at that.

The book, being mostly about relationships and such, is a little short on actual action scenes, but near the end, they start to show up a bit.  The attempted assault on Dono is probably the biggest one, but the next chapter has a couple more, as I recall…

Chapter Eighteen

Miles arrives early at the Counts’ Chamber, but finds René Vorbretten is there even before him.  René is not optimistic, saying that they’re close, but don’t have quite enough votes.  Miles tries to reassure him, telling him that anyone could change their mind at the last minute, but René points out that that works both ways.  Miles wishes for a little more redundancy in future, and almost wishes for a good honest shootout.  Miles says he thinks he secured Vorgarin’s vote for René, if not necessarily for Dono.  René said that Dono never showed up at Vorsmythe’s; Byerly had been looking for him, and eventually left to try to find him.  Miles wonders if Dono had been assassinated, but reassures himself that he would have heard by now, if so.

As more people start to arrive, René asks what they’ll do if Dono doesn’t show up.  Miles assures him that the Conservatives will also want to wait for all their Counts to show up, and since some of them will be delayed indefinitely, they’ll be forced to filibuster as long as they can, though Miles will willingly stretch it out too, if he needs to.  Miles hopes that Dono is not just reverting to Lady Donna’s habit of arriving fashionable late.  Eventually he calls Pym and asks him to try to find Dono, and do anything he can to help get him to the vote on time.  Richars shows up, dressed as Count Vorrutyer already, and pays Miles a visit.

“They say,” Richars growled to him in an undervoice, not concealing rage quite so well, Miles fancied, “that an honest politician is one who stays bought. It seems you don’t qualify, Vorkosigan.”

“You should choose your enemies more wisely,” Miles breathed back.

Richars grunted. “So should you. I don’t bluff. As you’ll find out before this day is over.” He stalked away to confer with the group of men now clustered around Vormoncrief’s desk.

More Counts arrive, and Miles makes a few last-minute visits to canvass for Dono and René again.  Gregor arrives with a minute to spare, and the session officially begins.  As Miles had predicted, Conservative Counts start exercising their two-minute speaking rights, drawing it out as long as they can get away with; everyone starts settling in for a long wait.

Ekaterin is dismayed to answer her door and find Vassily and Hugo there again.  She stops herself from protesting that she’s been following their rules, and merely asks what they want.  They ask to come in, on an urgent matter, and, grudgingly, Ekaterin lets them in.  Vassily tells her that he wants to get Nikki out of the capital as soon as possible.  He says it’s nothing to do with what Ekaterin has or hasn’t done, but he has new information, this time confirmed by Lord Richars Vorrutyer himself.  Once Richars is voted in as Count, he’ll lay a murder charge against Miles, and then, he predicts, the capital will doubtless erupt into open fighting.  Aunt Vorthys and Nikki come in to see what’s going on, greeting the visitors uncertainly.

Hugo gave her a respectful nod of greeting, and continued heavily, “I have to agree with Ekaterin, but it only supports Vassily’s worries. I can’t imagine what has possessed Vorrutyer to make such a move while Aral Vorkosigan himself is in town. You’d think he’d at least have the sense wait till the Viceroy returned to Sergyar before attacking his heir.”

“Aral Vorkosigan!” cried Ekaterin. “Do you really think Gregor will blithely accept this assault on one of his chosen Voices? Not to mention look forgivingly on someone trying to start a huge public scandal two weeks before his wedding . . . ! Richars isn’t a fool, he’s mad.” Or acting in some kind of blind panic, but what did Richars have to be panicked about?

Vassily reminds her what happened during Vordarian’s Pretendership, and says he wants to get Nikki safe before it’s impossible to leave Vorbarr Sultana.  Ekaterin tries to convince him that even during the Pretendership it wasn’t that violent everywhere, but Vassily insists they have to go, and urges Ekaterin and Madame Vorthys to evacuate as well, especially since Ekaterin has already drawn Miles’s attention.  Ekaterin says that he’s making a big deal over nothing–Richars might not even win the Countship–but they can’t conceive that Dono’s suit could possibly succeed, and in any case Vassily is unwilling to risk it.

Nikki tries to reassure his relatives that Miles didn’t kill Tien, but Vassily says that there’s no way to know for sure, and Nikki is obviously unsure how much of what the Emperor told him he’s allowed to share.  Ekaterin says that ImpSec is surely on top of any activity in the capital, this close to the wedding, and will stop any unrest before it starts.

Vassily tells Nikki to get his things and get ready to go.  Nikki looks to his mother, and she decides that she has no obligation to make things any easier for Vassily, so she says nothing.

Vassily reached for Nikki’s hand. Nikki dodged around Ekaterin, and cried, “Mama, I don’t have to go, do I? I was supposed to go to Arthur’s tonight! I don’t want to go with Vassily!” His voice was edged with sharp distress.

Vassily inhaled, and attempted to recover his balance and his dignity. “Madame, control your child!”

She stared at him for a long moment. “Why, Vassily,” she said at last, her voice silky, “I thought you were revoking my authority over Nikki. You certainly don’t seem to trust my judgment for his safety and well-being. How shall I control him, then?”

Aunt Vorthys, catching the nuance, winced; Hugo, father of three, also got it. She had just given Nikki tacit permission to go to his limit. Bachelor Vassily missed the curve.

Vassily tells Nikki they have to catch the train, and threatens to carry him; Nikki says that he’ll scream, and tell everyone this man isn’t his father, and is kidnapping him.  Vassily tries to grab Nikki, but he dodges out of the way.  Hugo tries to convince Nikki to come with him and visit his cousins instead; Nikki hesitates, but Vassily makes another try then, grabbing Nikki’s arm.  Nikki yells out in pretended pain and Vassily relaxes his grip, allowing Nikki to make his way up the stairs.  He shouts back at them that he doesn’t want to go, and they’ll be sorry they made his mama unhappy.

Vassily chases him up the stairs, Hugo following more slowly.  Nikki locks himself in his uncle’s study and Vassily tells at him to open the door.  He asks Ekaterin for help, and Ekaterin says that the only man she ever knew who could talk Nikki out of a locked room doesn’t happen to be there.  Hugo suggests waiting for him to get hungry, but Madame Vorthys says Nikki knows where his uncle keeps his store of cookies.  Ekaterin refuses to let Vassily break down the door, or help him take apart the hinges, and neither she nor her aunt point out that there is a back door through a bathroom off the next room.

“I hear two voices. Who in the world could he be calling on the comconsole?” asked Vassily, in a dismissive tone that didn’t invite an answer.

Suddenly, Ekaterin thought she knew. Her breath caught. “Oh,” she said faintly, “dear.” Aunt Vorthys stared at her.

For a hysterical moment, Ekaterin considered dashing around and diving through the alternate doors, to shut down the comconsole before it was too late. But the echo of a laughing voice drifted through her mind . . . Let’s see what happens.

Yes. Let’s.

Back at the Council of Counts, Miles waits while more Conservatives drone on.  Gregor’s Armsman comes out and speaks to the Emperor; Gregor them summons the Lord Guardian of the Speaker’s Circle to have a quick word, and then disappears behind the dais.  Miles wonders what’s going on, but supposes that Gregor just needs a bathroom break.  He calls Pym again, who tells him that Lord Dono had only arrived at Vorrutyer House about an hour ago, but Captain Vorpatril is escorting him to the vote as they speak.

Gregor returns after a couple of minutes, and gives Miles an odd, exasperated look, before returning to impassively watching the speakers.  Miles checks for missing Counts–Vortugalov, as Lady Alys had promised, but also Counts Vormuir, Vorpatril, Vorfolse, and Vorhalas.  Most or all of those were expected to be Conservative votes, so Miles wouldn’t miss them much.

In Vorkosigan House, Enrique is inventorying the returned Vorkosigan butter bugs, and announces that only nine are missing, which is acceptable, especially since the queen had been returned by Jankowski’s daughter the night before.  He takes the queen out and offers to let Martya pet her; the queen hisses in what Enrique insists is a sound of happiness.

Privately, Kareen thought any man whose idea of a good time was to feed, pet, and care for a creature that mainly responded to his worship with hostile noises was going to get along great with Martya.

Kareen is trying to figure out what to call their various proposed butter bug food products.  The house is very quiet, most of its inhabitants either with Miles, or with his parents at a political breakfast.  Even Ma Kosti has gone with Mark to look at a prospective packaging plant.  Kareen had spent his first night at Vorkosigan House with Mark, and everyone was perfectly civilized about it, and she’s quite happy about that.

A maidservant knocks on the door, telling them that they have visitors.  Two rumpled-looking men in Escobaran suits–one of them quite large–enter and greet Enrique, delighted to have finally found him.  The thin man, Parole Officer Oscar Gustioz, tells Enrique he’s under arrest for fraud, grand theft, and bond jumping.  Enrique protests that they can’t arrest him on Barrayar, and Gustioz brandishes a file folder, showing him all of the manifold permissions he has managed to get signed, including for all eighteen intervening jump points, which has taken him a month to get.  He tells Enrique to pack one bag, because he means to be offplanet within the hour.

Kareen says, in confusion, that they paid Enrique’s bond, but Gustioz explains that that didn’t mean that they could take him offplanet with them.  Martya asks why they’re not arrest Mark, and Gustioz said he’d love to, but he has diplomatic immunity, and merely mentioning the name ‘Vorkosigan’ results in stonewalling from every bureaucrat he encountered.  Kareen protests that they can’t just take Enrique away, they need him for their new company–it’ll all collapse without his genius.  Gustioz, unconcerned, says he can and will, and he hopes that he goes to jail on Escobar for a very long time. He though it would only take a couple of weeks, and it’s been two months instead…  It even took him forty minutes to get past the ImpSec guard at the gate, showing him every page.

Martya asks if any of the Armsmen are around, but Pym and Jankowski are out, and Roic was on night shift, and is still asleep.  She sends the maid to wake him up anyway and get him down here.  Gustioz tells the big man, Muno, to grab Enrique; Martya grabs him too, in a tug of war.  Kareen trips Muno with a meter stick, and as he falls he knocks the Barrayaran butter bugs loose again.

The stainless steel box flipped into the air. One-hundred-ninety-two astonished brown-and-silver butter bugs were launched in a vast chittering madly fluttering trajectory out over the lab. Since butter bugs had the aerodynamic capacity of tiny bricks, they rained down upon the struggling humans, and crunch-squished underfoot. The hutch clanged to the floor, along with Muno. Gustioz, attempting to shield himself from this unexpected air assault, lost his grip on his folder; colorfully-stamped documents joined butter bugs in fluttering flight. Enrique howled like a man possessed. Muno just screamed, frantically batted bugs off himself, and tried to climb up on the lab stool.

“Now see what you’ve done!” Kareen yelled at the Escobaran officers. “Vandalism! Assault! Destruction of property! Destruction of a Vor lord’s property, on Barrayar itself! Are you in trouble now!”

Martya tells the Escobarans that the bugs are poisonous, though Enrique spoils her ploy by hotly denying it.  Muno grabs Enrique again, more successfully this time, and he and Gustioz drag him out of the lab, not even giving him time to pack his one bag.  Kareen and Martya, desperate to keep them from getting away, notice the teetering stacks of bug butter tubs, grab one each, and prepare to fling them.

Comments

More action scenes!  Vassily Vorsoisson chasing Nikki around the house!  Escobaran bail bondsmen managing, against insurmountable odds, to track down Enrique, with all of the necessary paperwork in hand, and then fending off his outraged Barrayaran defenders!  It’s all very exciting, and after all these pages of, well, much less action, it’s a delightful change.  In fact, Miles, who aches to doing something more active than sitting and waiting in the Council of Counts, is the one who’s left sitting on his hands.  Probably because, after what happened to Vorwhatsisname at the end of The Warrior’s Apprentice, bringing a weapon into the council chamber, nobody wants to try that again.

The intercutting between Miles and Ekaterin is quite well done, because, by this point, you should have enough information to guess just who Nikki might be calling for help on that comconsole, and seeing Gregor duck into his private chamber is just confirmation for it.  Actually, Miles is not only sitting on his hands, he’s also out of the loop.  He doesn’t know what’s going on with Ekaterin and Nikki, he doesn’t know what’s going on with Enrique and the Escobarans, and he doesn’t even really know what’s going on with Ivan and Lord Dono.  I guess he’s adjusted to his new sedentary life as an Imperial Auditor, not having to rush about and do things all the time; he can just let other people do things for him now.  Well, no, it’s more just an artifact of this book’s ensemble cast, giving them all something to do–but it is true that Miles has been less active than usual this book.  Next book should more than make up for it, I’d think.


Looks like I miscounted last time, or rather was misled by looking at the table of contents for Miles In Love rather than A Civil Campaign itself, which of course has “Winterfair Gifts” wedged in at the end.  So, rather than there being three more chapters after this, there is, in fact, only one more chapter and an epilogue.  So, one more week to finish this book off!  I haven’t decided if I’ll take a week before and after “Winterfair Gifts”, but I wouldn’t rule it out at this point.

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It may feel like Kyril Island out there for a lot of us, but there is still hope, and warmth, as long as the Vorkosigan Saga Reread continues.  This week I managed to pull off another two-chapter post from Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign, so there’s that.  So huddle around your computers, or smartphones, or whatever you may be using to read this, and remember that, on Barrayar, it’s summer, and it’s warm…at least in Vorbarr Sultana.

Chapter Eleven

Kareen and Martya peer at the front of the Vorthyses’ house, trying to figure out if there’s anyone there, when Nikki bursts out the front door and greets them.  They tell him they’ve come to talk to his mother, and he tells them she’s in the garden out back.  Kareen and her sister head through the house to the back yard, where Ekaterin is weeding busily; Kareen thinks it looks therapeutic.  She looks up and greets then, and Kareen admires the garden; Ekaterin says she’d started it back when she was a student, and her aunt has tried to keep it up.

They sit down in chairs on the deck, politely refusing Ekaterin’s offer of tea, because she knew that Ekaterin would have to go prepare it herself.  Guardedly, Kareen asks if she’s heard anything from Vorkosigan house; Ekaterin says she hasn’t.  Kareen is surprised that Miles hasn’t already starting trying to spin-doctor the dinner-party disaster; she says she’s actually worried about Mark, because she hasn’t heard a thing from him.  Ekaterin says she hasn’t heard, and Kareen says that she’s forbidden to visit or talk to anyone at Vorkosigan House; her parent made her swear, and then even stuck her with Martya as a snitch, which Martya herself isn’t happy about either.

Kareen complains that her parents seem to be trying to stop her from growing up; Ekaterin says that she does sympathize with the parental desire to keep your children safe.  Martya says that Kareen isn’t helping, the way she’s been carrying on.

“There’s something to that in both directions,” said Ekaterin mildly. “Nothing is more guaranteed to make one start acting like a child than to be treated like one. It’s so infuriating. It took me the longest time to figure out how to stop falling into that trap.”

“Yes, exactly,” said Kareen eagerly. “You understand! So—how did you make them stop?”

“You can’t make them—whoever your particular them is—do anything, really,” said Ekaterin slowly. “Adulthood isn’t an award they’ll give you for being a good child. You can waste . . . years, trying to get someone to give that respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough. No. You have to just . . . take it. Give it to yourself, I suppose. Say, I’m sorry you feel like that, and walk away. But that’s hard.” Ekaterin looked up from her lap where her hands had been absently rubbing at the yard dirt smeared on them, and remembered to smile. Kareen felt an odd chill. It wasn’t just her reserve that made Ekaterin daunting, sometimes. The woman went down and down, like a well to the middle of the world. Kareen bet even Miles couldn’t shift her around at his will and whim.

Kareen says it’s like they’re asking her to choose between her family and her lover, and she doesn’t see why she can’t have both.  Mark somewhat over-romanticizes families, so he’d be heartbroken if she gave them up for him.  She says that if she was a real adult, she’d have an income, and enough money to leave home.  That’s why she’s taking part in the butter bug scheme, which she thinks will be huge, once it gets off the ground, and even Tsipis agrees that the idea is sound.  Her parents think she was just fooling around with Mark over at Vorkosigan House, but she was working, and her shares are there, and she doesn’t even know what’s going on!

Martya asks Ekaterin if she’s heard from Dr. Borgos, because she feels sorry for him; Ekaterin says she hasn’t.  Kareen is still mad at Enrique, though, for spilling the beans about her and Mark.  Martya says she missed a bet there–she could have been dropping awful hints about what she could have been doing on Beta Colony, and when their parents found out what she had been doing, they’d have been grateful it was only her and Mark.  Kareen, who had done more than that, holds her tongue.  Martya says that any normal person would be hard put to cope with Miles and Mark on a daily basis.

“You think Enrique is normal?” said Kareen to her sister, wrinkling her nose.

“Well . . . at least he’s a change from the sort of Lieutenant Lord Vor-I’m-God’s-Gift-to-Women we usually meet in Vorbarr Sultana. He doesn’t back you into a corner and gab on endlessly about military history and ordnance. He backs you into a corner and gabs on endlessly about biology, instead. Who knows? He might be good husband material.”

“Yeah, if his wife didn’t mind dressing up as a butter bug to lure him to bed,” said Kareen tartly. She made antennae of her fingers, and wriggled them at Martya.

Martya snickered, but said, “I think he’s the sort who needs a managing wife, so he can work fourteen hours a day in his lab.”

Kareen snorted. “She’d better seize control immediately. Yeah, Enrique has biotech ideas the way Zap the Cat has kittens, but it’s a near-certainty that whatever profit he gets from them, he’ll lose.”

Ekaterin wishes she had that kind of time to work, and Martya says that she’s like Enrique too–better suited for R&D than being a housewife.  Ekaterin asks if that means she needs a wife, rather than a husband, and Kareen suggests she try Beta Colony.

The conversation peters out for a time, until Martya brings up the ugliness of the butter bugs–except for the Vorkosigan ones, which actually looked nice.  Kareen said she hadn’t known Enrique could do that to the bugs; Ekaterin says she should have seen it, since it’s really just the microbes in the bugs’ gut that do the work, the rest of the bug just being vehicles for them.  Enrique just slapped together a bunch of bug genes to be functional, without caring what they look like.

Kareen says, slowly, that Ekaterin knows about aesthetics, always looking well put together despite her doubtless limited budget, having what Lady Alys calls “unerring taste”.  She says that Mark is good at deals, Miles is good at strategy and persuasion, and she’s not sure what she’s good at, but Ekaterin is good at beauty.  She asks Ekaterin to come up with a way to make butter bugs pretty–to redesign them, not worrying about the actual genetics, to look more appealing.  Ekaterin is dubious, but she says she could come up with a few ideas, trying to use colours found in nature, trying not to mess with the functional parts of the bug.  Kareen says they could hire her to produce a glorious butter bug; Ekaterin says they don’t need to pay her, and Kareen tells her never to say that, because people don’t value what they don’t pay for.  Though she’ll still have to accept pay in shares, like Ma Kosti did.

Ekaterin says she can produce some preliminary designs in a day or two, but she’ll need to meet with Mark and Enrique as well.  Obviously they can’t meet at Vorkosigan House, so Kareen asks if they can meet at the Vorthyses’ instead.  Ekaterin says that she won’t want to go behind the Koudelkas’ back, but if they allow it, for business purposes, she’ll go along with it.  Kareen says that Ekaterin could meet with Mark and Enrique without her, but she’d prefer to be there, and Ekaterin agrees.  Martya protests that she’ll be forced to duenna again, and Kareen says she’d be happy enough if Martya could convince their parents she wasn’t necessary.

They are interrupted by the arrival of Armsman Pym, who is discussing having Nikki come over to his own flat to play with his son.  Ekaterin sinks back into reserve at Pym’s arrival, and she sends Nikki back inside and greets Pym neutrally.  Pym greets Ekaterin politely, and is surprised to find the Koudelka sisters there.  Kareen wonders if she’s allowed to talk to Pym, or not…  Pym produces an envelope addressed to Madame Vorkosigan and sealed with the Vorkosigan arms.  He says that Miles has sent her this letter, and apologizes it took so long, which Pym adds is because of the drains.  Ekaterin takes the envelope cautiously, and Pym turns and excuses himself.

Kareen shrieks at Pym to tell her anything about what’s going on over at Vorkosigan House.  Martya objects, and Kareen asks her to ask him.  Martya agrees, reluctantly, and then asks Pym about the drains.  Kareen says she doesn’t care about the drains, and Martya says that she gets to talk to him, so she gets to decide on the topic.

Pym’s brows rose as he took this in, and his eyes glinted briefly. A sort of pious innocence informed his voice. “I’m most sorry to hear that, Miss Kareen. I trust the Commodore will see his way clear to lift our quarantine very soon. Now, m’lord told me I was not to hang about and distress Madame Vorsoisson with any ham-handed attempts at making things up to her, nor pester her by offering to wait for a reply, nor annoy her by watching her read his note. Very nearly his exact words, those. He never ordered me not to talk with you young ladies, however, not anticipating that you would be here.”

“Ah,” said Martya, in a voice dripping with, in Kareen’s view, unsavory delight. “So you can talk to me and Kareen, but not to Ekaterin. And Kareen can talk to Ekaterin and me—”

“Not that I’d want to talk to you,” Kareen muttered.

“—but not to you. That makes me the only person here who can talk to everybody. How . . . nice. Do tell me about the drains, dear Pym. Don’t tell me they backed up again.”

Pym obliges, telling her that Dr. Borgos, with an excess of bug butter accumulating in Kareen’s absence, ended up dumping two days’ worth of bug butter down the drain…  In the pipes it underwent a chemical reaction which caused it to solidify, and block the main drain, which caused an immediate crisis.  Miles, informing them all of his “rich military experience with drains”, led Pym and Armsman Roic down into the sub-basement to address the issue.  They could hardly refuse to follow him, especially given how much higher the effluent was on Miles than on them.  Miles dealt with the problem quickly, and the household rejoiced, but everyone got a slow start, including Pym, hence the delay in delivery of the letter.

Martya asks what happened to Enrique (as Kareen bounces in impatience), and Pym said that he himself had proposed hanging him upside down in the drains, but Cordelia settled for giving him an education talk about what should, and shouldn’t, go into the drains.

The story now over, Kareen pester Martya more to ask about Mark, and Pym waits patiently until Martya finally capitulates.  Pym starts to talk about Lord Mark’s dangerous overeating, then changes to a more general appraisal of “depression”, but Kareen can tell that Gorge and Howl have probably gotten loose.  Mark has been keeping busy helping Enrique with the bug recovery, and unsure how to proceed otherwise, not knowing how things were in the Koudelka household, but Pym will make sure he knows how things stand.  Kareen is reminded that Pym is former ImpSec and no stranger to deducing facts on scant evidence, so she is confident that Mark will in fact learn what’s going on.

Martya glanced sideways at Ekaterin, and added somewhat daringly, “And so how’s the skinny one?”

Pym hesitated, followed her glance, and finally replied, “I’m afraid the drain crisis brightened his life only temporarily.”

He sketched a bow at all three ladies, leaving them to construe the stygian blackness of a soul that could find fifty kilos of bug butter in the main drain an improvement in his gloomy world.

Pym bids them farewell, seeks assurances that Nikki will be allowed to visit Arthur, and takes his leave.  Martya shakes her head in amazement at how the Vorkosigans can get such people; Kareen says that Pym came courtesy of Simon Illyan himself, which Martya calls cheating.  Ekaterin’s hand keeps straying to where she has stored the envelope, and Kareen decides she probably won’t read it with them there, so she says goodbye as well, reminding her about the butter bug redesign.  Ekaterin promises to have something for them tomorrow.

After they leave, they bump into Pym waiting by his car, who asks if she read it yet.  Martya says no, not in front of them, and Pym is disappointed.  Martya asks how Miles really is, and Pym says he seems starved for action, lacking something to do, which is a frightening state for him to be in.  Kareen expects that most of the household is really hoping to get Miles laid, so that he’ll settle down and stop driving them crazy.  Pym offers them a ride, which they decline, and they part ways.

Ekaterin sits back down at the table in the garden and takes out the envelope to examine.  Sturdy, expensive paper, with the Vorkosigan seal indented by hand and smeared with reddish pigment.  She opens it and begins to read.

Dear Madame Vorsoisson, it began. I am sorry.

This is the eleventh draft of this letter. They’ve all started with those three words, even the horrible version in rhyme, so I guess they stay.

Her mind hiccuped to a stop. For a moment, all she could wonder was who emptied his wastebasket, and if they could be bribed. Pym, probably, and likely not. She shook the vision from her head, and read on.

I tried to be the thief of you, to ambush and take prisoner what I thought I could never earn or be given. You were not a ship to be hijacked, but I couldn’t think of any other plan but subterfuge and surprise. Though not as much of a surprise as what happened at dinner. The revolution started prematurely because the idiot conspirator blew up his secret ammo dump and lit the sky with his intentions. Sometimes those accidents end in new nations, but more often they end badly, in hangings and beheadings. And people running into the night. I can’t be sorry I asked you to marry me, because that was the one true part in all the smoke and rubble, but I’m sick as hell I asked you so badly.

Even though I’d kept my counsel from you, I should at least have done you the courtesy to keep it from others as well, till you’d had the year of grace and rest you’d asked for. But I became terrified you’d choose another first.

Ekaterin wonders who he thought she’d choose–Vormoncrief was impossible, Byerly Vorrutyer wasn’t serious, Zamori was kind but dull, and she quails at the thought of Enrique.

Miles goes on to admit he used the garden as a ploy to be near her, which he is now ashamed of.  He says it drove him crazy to see her constrained to tiny steps, when she could be running, so he also wanted to give her the chance to grow, even though he know it would be a conflict of interest.

I love you. But I lust after and covet so much more than your body. I wanted to possess the power of your eyes, the way they see form and beauty that isn’t even there yet and draw it up out of nothing into the solid world. I wanted to own the honor of your heart, unbowed in the vilest horrors of those bleak hours on Komarr. I wanted your courage and your will, your caution and serenity. I wanted, I suppose, your soul, and that was too much to want.

She put the letter down, shaken. After a few deep breaths, she took it up again.

I wanted to give you a victory. But by their essential nature triumphs can’t be given. They must be taken, and the worse the odds and the fiercer the resistance, the greater the honor. Victories can’t be gifts.

But gifts can be victories, can’t they. It’s what you said. The garden could have been your gift, a dowry of talent, skill, and vision.

I know it’s too late now, but I just wanted to say, it would have been a victory most worthy of our House.

Ekaterin takes a few moments to regain control of herself, and then rereads the letter again, and again.  She’s glad that it doesn’t seem to expect a reply, because she doesn’t feel up to one.  It’s more than honest, it’s soul-baring.  She wipes her eyes, then examines the seal again.  Traditionally, the red pigment used for the seal was blood, but generally one uses a special pigment stick instead, which these days come in a variety of colours for various purposes.  Miles’s pigment smear was traditional red-brown–because, she realizes, it is blood.  She doesn’t even think he was trying to be melodramatic about it, just methodical and proper, and he probably even owns a dagger with the seal in the hilt–a collector’s piece these days for most people, but he probably uses it just as a tool.

She wonders about his reference to ship hijacking, and makes a mental note to twit him sometime about excessive honesty being a bad idea for a former covert agent.  She reads over his declaration of love a few more times, until the letters start to blur.  Reading the letter again, she notices something missing from it–any kind of plea for forgiveness, or reconciliation, or even seeing her again.  Is he too arrogant to beg for forgiveness, or does he think he has no chance of receiving it?  Or both at once?  She remembers how the cycle went with Tien after an argument, and how she often short-circuited it, leaping right to forgiveness, because she couldn’t bear the coldness of in-between.  Had she missed something important?

What does she do now?  How does she go forward?  She can’t go back, she knows, and she doesn’t want to, to try to shrink and fit back into her old self.  Does she have to answer Miles’s question?  She wants a middle ground between yes and no.

Comments

I tried to summarize Miles’s letter, but in the end I couldn’t do much, and hopefully the copyright police won’t get after me.  It is a magnificent piece of abject, quite well done, not holding back.  The ball does seem, in many ways, back in Ekaterin’s court. She has to decide how to respond to it–where ignoring Miles for the rest of their lives is certainly one of the potential choices, but I get the feeling that she’s not leaning that way.  She has plenty of feelings to work through, many of which have been lurking in the back of her head, but which she’s been firmly suppressing, like the ones that arose when she thought Miles had sent the baba…  She can no longer convince herself he’s not serious, in any event.

It’s interesting how she dismisses the ones that Miles consider his most serious competitors–Zamori and Enrique–out of hand.  Zamori is dull, Enrique she doesn’t even really give a reason for, but considers him absurd.  Most tellingly, Lord Dono doesn’t even show up on her list, but then I guess he never really actually wooed her, even as much as Enrique.

And speaking of Enrique, this is where Martya first seems to start seriously considering him.  Not really a romantic interest, as far as I can tell, but a “potential wife” interest, if that makes sense.  Martya isn’t a particularly romantic sort, it seems, so she’s willing to consider marriage as more a practical matter.  The scene with Martya being the only one allowed to talk to everyone was somewhat amusing, given her contrariness, though Pym’s deadpan delivery of Miles’s drain-cleaning story is also noteworthy.  Kareen’s realization that Ekaterin should be the one to redesign the butter bugs is also a great moment.  (So what is her talent, then?  Does she have one?  Sounds like a question I should asking about a Xanth character or something.)

Chapter Twelve

Ivan is getting ready for work in the morning when his apartment door-chime rings, to his surprise.  He opens the door to reveal By Vorrutyer, and then is unable to close it fast enough before By gets his foot in.  By is apparently up late, rather than early, and tells Ivan he needs to talk to him about Miles.  Ivan considers various techniques for dislodging By’s foot, saying that he doesn’t want to hear about Miles any more than he wants to hear about Dono.  Ivan says to go tell Miles himself, and By says he’d rather not, but he’s very interested in what Miles does with his vote.  Ivan says that the vote is technically Count Aral’s, who is now back in Vorbarr Sultana; By says that it’s well known that 90% of the time the Count leaves his son in charge of the proxy.

By asks if Ivan has some coffee, and when he says no, asks him to make some; Ivan is unmoved, but so is By.  He asks Ivan again about Miles, and Ivan says that after the debacle at the dinner party, he’s avoiding Miles; Aunt Cordelia can take care of him.  By says that what Miles did was a horrible faux pas, but, in Dono’s judgement, still fixable…but soon it won’t be any more.  Ivan, curiosity finally whetted, and against his better judgement, finally relents and lets By in.

By says that last night he was at a private dinner at the Vormoncriefs’, hosted by Count Boriz and his nephew Alexi.  Richars Vorrutyer, alarmed at Dono’s return, came into town to court Boriz’s vote.  Also present were Count Vormuir, and Boriz’s son-in-law, Sigur Vorbretten.  Richars quickly won Boriz over with promises to vote Conservative once he won his Countship.  Ivan asks what By was doing there, and By says that he’s convinced Richars that he’s spying on Dono for him, oblivious of the fact that By is actually working against him.

Vormuir brought up Miles’s judgement against him, and then they groused about the cost of the Komarran solar mirror repairs, which of course also came back to Miles.  Alexi mentioned the refusal of his proposal to Ekaterin, and then Sigur Vorbretten told them a garbled version of the dinner party story, including Ekaterin’s fleeing from Miles’s proposal; Ivan wonders how that story has even started making the rounds, but By points out that there were nineteen people there, not including servants and Armsmen, so somebody was bound to have mentioned it.  The Conservative crew chewed over these facts, and finally came up with a Theory to explain them…which evolved into a full-blown Slander.

“Oh, shit,” whispered Ivan.

By gave him a sharp look. “You anticipate me? Goodness, Ivan. What unexpected depths. You can imagine the conversation; I had to sit through it. Alexi piping about the damned mutant daring to court the Vor lady. Vormuir opining it was bloody convenient, say what, the husband killed in some supposed-accident in the middle of Vorkosigan’s case. Sigur saying, But there weren’t any charges, Count Boriz eyeing him like the pitiful waif he is and rumbling, There wouldn’t be—the Vorkosigans have had ImpSec under their thumb for thirty years, the only question is whether was it collusion between the wife and Vorkosigan? Alexi leaping to the defense of his lady-love—the man just does not take a hint—and declaring her innocent, unsuspecting till Vorkosigan’s crude proposal finally tipped his hand. Her storming out was Proof! Proof!—actually, he said it three times, but he was pretty drunk by then—that she, at least, now realized Miles had cleverly made away with her beloved spouse to clear his way to her, and she ought to know, she was there. And he bet she would be willing to reconsider his own proposal now! Since Alexi is a known twit, his seniors were not altogether convinced by his arguments, but willing to give the widow the benefit of the doubt for the sake of family solidarity. And so on.”

Ivan asks why By didn’t stop them, and By says he didn’t want to blow his cover, and in any case he had little hope of diverting their momentum.  Ivan says Miles will deal handily with them if they try to bring charges, and By agrees, but says that he won’t be able to do much about rumour and whisper.  By says that the five rumourmongers are still sleeping it off, so Miles may be able to get on top of damage control if he’s alerted early enough.  Ivan says that it sounds more like a matter for ImpSec, recalling Miles’s earlier statements on the Komarr matter, and By isn’t sure that ImpSec will be able to do much about it.

Ivan checks the time and says he has to leave for work now.  By accedes, asking if Ivan can get him a wedding invitation; Ivan tells him to ask Dono, if he manages to win his Countship.  Ivan tries to figure out how to tell Miles about it, and, picturing the reception if he delivers the news in person, decides to call him on the comconsole instead.  He gets the answering program, and leaves a message for Miles to call him back, promising himself to try to follow up later.

Mark and Enrique arrive at the Vorthys house for the meeting, and Ekaterin lets them inside, telling them that Kareen and Martya are already there.  Mark greets her fervently, and Kareen says she’s now allowed to talk to Mark, but only about business.  Martya is there as a duenna again, which she says is a little bit late–she would have been more use on Beta Colony.

Enrique asks them if they knew that Mark’s mother was a Betan Survey captain, and he’s amazed that they’re not more impressed about it; Mark has been hearing about this for two days now.  Enrique says he gave her his dissertation to read.

Kareen, her eyes widening, asked, “Did she understand it?”

“Of course she did. She was a Betan Survey commander, for God’s sake! Do you have any idea how those people are chosen, what they do? If I’d completed my postgraduate work with honors, instead of all that stupid misunderstanding with the arrest, I could have hoped, only hoped, to put in an application, and even then I wouldn’t have had a prayer of beating out all the Betan candidates, if it weren’t for their off-worlder quotas holding open some places specifically for non-Betans.” Enrique was breathless with the passion of this speech. “She said she would recommend my work to the attention of the Viceroy. And she said my sonnet was very ingenious. I composed a sestina in her honor in my head while I was catching bugs, but I haven’t had time to get it down yet. Survey captain!”

“It’s . . . not what Tante Cordelia is most famous for, on Barrayar,” Martya offered after a moment.

“The woman is wasted here. All the women are wasted here.” Enrique subsided grumpily. Martya turned half-around, and gave him an odd raised-brows look.

Kareen asks about the bug roundup, and Enrique says they’ve found most of them, but the queen is still missing.
Ekaterin thanks Enrique for sending her the butter bug model, which was a big help, and then proceeds to her presentation.  She starts with a enlarged projection of the standard butter bug, and says that she’s just run off four quick variations.  The first that she shows them is just pure, shiny black, elongated to hide the abdomen, which impresses them all; the second is mostly black, but with rounded wing carapaces covered in rainbow stripes, which Martya declares to be pretty.  The next one, Ekaterin says, she was trying to play with the possibilities.  It looks almost like a rose bud, leaf-green and red, carapaces like petals, even little thorns on the bug’s legs.  Kareen loves it, and Enrique is a little startled, but admits it could be done.  Ekaterin admits that it would be more practical for bugs that weren’t roaming freely, since the petals would be awkward, and get damaged or catch on things.  She says she had thought they might decorate the bugs differently for different sets of microbes, which Enrique thinks is a good idea.  Then she shows the last image.

This bug’s legs and body parts were a deep, glimmering blue. The carapace halves flared and then swept back in a teardrop shape. Their center was a brilliant yellow, shading immediately to a deep red-orange, then to light flame blue, then dark flame blue edged with flickering iridescence. The abdomen, barely visible, was a rich dark red. The creature looked like a flame, like a torch in the dusk, like a jewel cast from a crown. Four people leaned forward so far they nearly fell off their chairs. Martya’s hand reached out. Ekaterin smiled demurely.

“Wow, wow, wow,” husked Kareen. “Now that is a glorious bug!”

“I believe that was what you ordered, yes,” murmured Ekaterin.

Ekaterin shows the bug in motion, too, and suggests that Enrique find a way to make them glow in the dark.  Enrique says that it should be possible, and it would make them easier to find, but it would reduce their butter production due to the energy costs; Mark suggests thinking of it as an advertising budget.  He says they should have a shareholder’s vote to decide which one they should use.  Enrique points out they should take the advice of their aesthetics consultant as well; Ekaterin says she did the aesthetics, but she has only a vague idea how easily they could be produced, and the more striking designs may take longer.  Kareen asserts that time is of the essence–they need to get the product launched and making money so the business can get off the ground.

Mark likes the black one, Kareen the flowery one, and Enrique the glorious one; when he says that it would be faster than the flowery one, Kareen switches her vote.  Mark says that he still has 51% of the shares, before realizing that giving shares to Kareen and Ma Kosti have deprived him of his majority.  Kareen insists that Ekaterin get paid in shares, too, despite her protest that it wasn’t that hard.  Mark complies reluctantly, quickly processing and printing out a share receipt for Ekaterin.

Mark says that they need to be going, to try to finish the bug-hunt and get everything back on track.  He asks Kareen if her parents are willing to relent enough to let her come back to work; Kareen grimaces, and Martya explains that they’re having a hard time with it.  Their father is having a hard enough time coping with Delia getting married, Kareen, Mark, Beta Colony and the Orb are not something he’s equipped to deal with.  On the other hand, Martya points out that she is not forbidden to go to Vorkosigan House…  She says she might be willing to consider it, for a few shares of her own, and Mark thinks this would be a great idea, even if she doesn’t like him personally.  He puts it to Enrique, still absorbed with the glorious bug, and eventually gets him to agree that Martya would be fine.  As they’re preparing to leave, Mark asks Kareen how long she think it’ll take to resolve this mess with her family.

“It’s resolved already.” Her expression was disturbingly fey. “I’m done arguing, though I’m not sure they realize it yet. I’ve had it. While I’m still living in my parents’ house, I’ll continue to hold myself honor-bound to obey their rules, however ludicrous. The moment I’ve figured out how to be somewhere else without compromising my long-range goals, I’ll walk away. Forever, if need be.” Her mouth was grim and determined. “I don’t expect to be there much longer.”

“Oh,” said Mark. He wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, or meant to do, but it sounded . . . ominous. It terrified him to think that he might be the cause of her losing her family. It had taken him a lifetime, and dire effort, to win such a place of his own. The Commodore’s clan had looked to be such a golden refuge, to him . . . “It’s . . . a lonely place to be. On the outside like that.”

She shrugged. “So be it.”

On the way out, Mark asks Ekaterin if she wants him to take a message back to Vorkosigan House.  She touches her bolero over her heart, where Mark deduces the letter is being stored, and says that she accepts his apology, but she can’t answer his question.  They leave the house, Kareen heading determinedly off in one direction as the others head back to Vorkosigan House.

Miles has been waiting for Mark’s return, and immediately asks him if he saw Ekaterin, and if she had read his letter.  Mark reminds Miles that he had been sternly admonished not to ask her about it.

Impatiently, Miles waved this off. “Directly. You know I meant not to ask directly. I just wondered if you could tell . . . anything.”

“If I could tell what a woman was thinking just by looking at her, would I look like this?” Mark made a sweeping gesture at his face, and glowered.

“How the hell would I know? I can’t tell what you’re thinking just because you look surly. You usually look surly.”

Mark says that he does have a message from Kareen, which gets Miles excited; he says that she accepts his apology, and congratulates him on having been forgiven.  Miles asks if there’s anything else–whether he’d be permitted or forbidden to visit, or anything.  Mark says that she said she couldn’t answer his question, and that’s all.  Miles withdraws to try to figure out what this says.  Not no, but not yes–maybe another last chance, maybe back to square one.

How should he approach matters this time around?  Not poetry, that’s for sure–his attempts at rhyming were execrable, and if by fluke he produced something worthwhile, he doesn’t want to get her hopes up.  No more false pretenses, he decides.  But hope has reappeared in his life.  He wonders how he might go about becoming her friend, what kind of thing she would like to do…

Pym announces the arrival of a visitor–Lord Richars Vorrutyer, who asks to be called “Lord Vorrutyer”.  Miles is not pleased with his arrival, and asks if he needs an Imperial Auditor for something.  Richars says he wanted to talk to the Count about Lady Donna’s suit, but the Count sent him to Miles.  Miles’s father has decided that his visit to Barrayar is a vacation from Viceroying, not a return to Counting, and is leaving Miles in charge of the vote.  Miles pointedly does not ask for refreshments, not wanting to encourage Richars to linger.

Richars commiserates with Miles on the presence of his “fat clone”, which doesn’t endear him to Miles, and he pushes Richars to get to the point.  Richars wants to talk about Lady Donna, and the mockery she is making of the Vorrutyer name.  Miles says that he’s pretty sure that Beta Colony would have done a good job on Lord Dono.  Richars thinks it’s absurd–nobody would want to marry a woman-turned-man, and so she wouldn’t be able to sire an heir; Miles says it’s not inconceivable, and in any case not every Count produced a true heir.  Richars begins speculating on Ivan’s relationship with her.

“He used to screw her, you know. So did half the men in Vorbarr Sultana.”

“I’d heard . . . something.” Go away, Richars. I don’t want to deal with your smarmy notion of wit right now.

“I wonder if he still . . . well! I’d never have thought Ivan Vorpatril climbed into that side of the bunk, but live and learn!”

“Um, Richars . . . you have a consistency problem, here,” Miles felt compelled to point out. “You cannot logically imply my cousin Ivan is a homosexual for screwing Dono, not that I think he is doing so, unless you simultaneously grant Dono is actually male. In which case, his suit for the Vorrutyer Countship holds.”

Richars dismisses that issue, and tries appealing to Miles’s Vor loyalty–he says that Lady Donna’s crass “prank” strikes at Vor power itself, regardless of political stripe.  Miles is noncommittal, but he admits to himself that he might need to make this decision based on something more than the fact that Dono amuses him more than Richars does.  Richars asks about a vote-trade; Miles says he is interested in the soletta repairs, but he thinks Gregor has the votes for that one well in hand.  He brings up René Vorbretten; Richars is sorry for the poor fellow, but since he’s Cetagandan, he obviously can’t be a Count.  Richars has already promised his vote on that matter to Sigur Vorbretten and Count Vormoncrief, nothing to be done there.

Richars laments the delay in his confirmation caused by Lady Donna’s sick joke.  Miles says that Lord Dono must be deathly serious about the issue to have essentially killed “Lady Donna”, and thus might do a good job to warrant the high price paid.  Richars begins to realize that Miles is actually considering voting for Dono, and asks him to think of what his grandfather would think.  Miles says that Lord Dono is sufficiently charming to win friends on his own merits, but Richars dismisses her as a lunatic.  He asks Miles his own opinion of her, and Miles said he had other concerns; Richars says he’d heard all about it.

Richars takes this as an opportunity to bring up the topic of Miles’s failed proposal to Ekaterin (who he calls “Alexi’s widow”).  He deplores Miles’s failure to spring his trap properly, and calls it “a leetle obvious”.  Miles shifts into neutral ImpSec mode and replies noncommittally.  Richars mentions Ekaterin’s husband’s “convenient” death, and how she must have figured out the truth behind it now.  Miles says it was a breath mask accident, and Richars says that those could be easy to arrange.  Miles parries with the accusations about Pierre’s fiancée’s death, but Richars points out he was cleared of those charges.  Miles hasn’t been cleared of anything yet, but of course nobody would be fool enough to try to bring him down.

Miles knows that any such charges would be quashed, rather than bring up the classified Komarr affair, but it would do little for his and Ekaterin’s reputations.  Richars says that it would be a great benefit for Miles if charges were to not get laid.

“Come on, Vorkosigan. We’re both as Old Vor as it’s possible to be. It’s stupid of us to be brangling when we should both be on the same side. Our interests march together. It’s a tradition. Don’t pretend your father and grandfather weren’t top party horse-traders.”

“My grandfather . . . learned his political science from the Cetagandans. Mad Emperor Yuri offered him postgraduate instruction after that. My grandfather schooled my father.” And both of them schooled me. This is the only warning you will receive, Richars. “By the time I knew Piotr, Vorbarr Sultana party politics were just an amusing pastime to him, to entertain him in his old age.”

Miles asks, just to be clear, if Richars is asking him to vote against Dono in return for not pressing a murder charge on him.  He points out that someone else might always make such an accusation, and he’s also not sure that the story of his dinner party has reached that wide of an audience yet.  Inside, though, he’s frantically wondering how the story got out, and how far it has spread.

Then he smiles and thanks Richars for settling his mind on how he’s going to vote on the Vorrutyer Countship.  Richars takes this to mean that he’s succeeded.  Miles considers that bribing an Imperial Auditor is treason, but he’s being a Count’s Deputy right now, so it doesn’t seem fair.  Besides, he’s beginning to want to crush Richars himself.  He smiles, shakes Richars’s hand, and bids him farewell.

Once Richars leaves, Miles snarls and hurls his grandfather’s dagger into the doorframe.  Once he’s calmed down, he goes to his comconsole, disregards another message from Ivan asking him to call, and calls Guy Allegre at ImpSec.  He tells Allegre about the gossip about his role in Tien’s death, adding that he was, actually, attempting to woo his widow.  Allegre says that he’s heard about that last bit already.  Miles adds that Richars is trying to blackmail him into voting against Dono–and failing, though he doesn’t know it yet–but he needs to know if this is entirely fabrication, or if there’s an actual leak.  Allegre says they don’t think it’s a leak, but he encourages Miles to do nothing to call attention to what really happened on Komarr.  Miles says he plans to call Ekaterin and give her a heads-up on the matter, but Allegre asks him to hold off until they’ve run a check on her, in case she’s been careless enough to give something away.

ImpSec had never been happy to have Ekaterin, an oath-free civilian not under their control in any way, standing in the heart of the hottest secret of the year, or maybe the century. Despite the fact that she’d personally hand-delivered it to them, the ingrates. “She is not careless. She is in fact extremely careful.”

“In your observation.”

“In my professional observation.”

Allegre gave him a placating nod. “Yes, m’lord. We would be pleased to prove that. You don’t, after all, want ImpSec to be . . . confused.”

Miles blew out his breath in dry appreciation of this last dead-pan remark. “Yeah, yeah,” he conceded.

Miles reluctantly agrees to wait to hear from ImpSec before telling Ekaterin about it, hoping that, reclusive as she is, she won’t encounter it as common gossip.  Then he reconsiders his conversation with Richars, and realizes that he may have mishandled it–Richars was more of a bully, and he might have backed down if Miles had stood up to him.  Now he may end up with a permanent enemy on the Council, and he may force Richars to follow through and press the charges.  He doesn’t want to do that to Ekaterin, drag her through the ending of her marriage all over again, however truncated.  Best result, then would be for him to push for Dono to win the Countship.

He calls Vorrutyer House, and to his surprise finds the call answered by Olivia Koudelka, who fetches Dono directly.  Miles assures Dono that he has the support of the Vorkosigans, explaining that a visit from Richars helped sway him.  He invites Dono to join him and René Vorbretten at Vorkosigan House to strategize, and it is organized for two days hence.

After that, he considers calling Ekaterin, but can’t make himself do it.  If he calls her and doesn’t mention this tangle, he’ll be lying by omission, but he promised Allegre he wouldn’t talk about it.  He wishes now that he’d let her have her year of mourning without interference, until Tien’s death could be forgotten, and he could have courted her openly.  But he’d pushed it too far, not to mention telling everyone in the capital about it.

I want a time machine, so’s I can go back and shoot myself.

He had to admit, the whole extended scenario lent itself beautifully to political disinformation. In his covert ops days, he’d fallen with chortles of joy on lesser slips by his enemies. If he were ambushing himself, he’d regard it as a godsend.

You did ambush yourself, you idiot.

The one good thing about Richars’s scenario is that it paints Ekaterin as entirely innocent, so if he stays away from her, then perhaps he can keep it that way.  But how long can he make himself do that?  Will it takes years before the rumour fades entirely?  How could love have produced such a tangle?

Ivan appears then, and asks Miles why he never called him back.  Miles apologizes, saying he’d been busy, and tells Ivan he’s been blindsided by Richars Vorrutyer.  Ivan says that if Miles had called him, he wouldn’t have been blindsided, because By Vorrutyer had told him that morning.  He’s not sure why, if By was just trying to stir up trouble, or playing some sneaky game, or what.

Miles asks Ivan to quash the rumour if he encounters it, but Ivan said that as Miles’s cousin, he has no credibility on the matter, and he doesn’t know anything anyway.  Ivan says that he doesn’t have to help Miles, it’s not his job, and he’s busy working for his mother anyway.

Miles sat back, and regarded Ivan for a long moment. “You’re right,” he said at last. “I have abused your loyalty too many times. I’m sorry. Never mind.”

Ivan, caught with a mouthful of wine, stared at him in shock, his brows drawing down. He finally managed to swallow. “What do you mean, never mind?”

“I mean, never mind. There’s no reason to draw you into this ugly mess, and every reason not to.” Miles doubted there’d be much honor for Ivan to win in his vicinity this time, not even the sort that sparked so briefly before being buried forever in ImpSec files. Besides, he couldn’t think offhand of anything Ivan could do for him.

“No need? Never mind? What are you up to?”

Miles tells Ivan sincerely that there’s nothing he can do to help Miles, but Ivan seems suspicious that Miles is trying to pull something on him.  He leaves, indignantly muttering about Miles claiming he can’t help.

Comments

Long chapter…  The best part is the scene with Ekaterin’s butter bugs, where she demonstrates the knack for aesthetics that Kareen had seen in her.  More of the budding Martya and Enrique relationship.  Kareen definitely seems to be on the edge–she’s almost had it with her family, or at least her parents, getting into the “waiting until I can leave home” phase.  I seem to recall how her plotline resolves, but I can’t remember the exact path it takes to get there.  And Olivia is over at Dono Vorrutyer’s house!  What the heck is up with that?

Then we have the beginning of the vicious rumour plotline.  Various Conservative scumbags (alas, we are given little chance to paint them otherwise, though we only really get to see Richars condemn himself with what comes out of his mouth) concoct a story of half-truths that Miles can’t just come out and deny.  Richars attempts to use it to blackmail Miles.  It will likely backfire on both of them, but Miles prepares to live with that to spare Ekaterin.  Definitely seems like a lose-lose situation, no way to get out of it…but it does put Miles firmly on Dono’s side, at least.

The last scene there is from Miles’s POV, and it does seem like he’s not deliberately trying to convince Ivan to help him using reverse psychology…but I’m afraid that is just what he’s done.  Because obviously trying to keep Ivan uninvolved is just part of Miles’s plan, isn’t it?  Well, that’ll teach him to try to keep Ivan from helping him…


Definitely longer chapters in this book, hoo boy.  Not sure if I can keep two chapters for long, without seriously denting my other pastimes, but we’ll see.  Does Diplomatic Immunity have shorter chapters, perhaps?  It’s more actiony and less talky, as I recall, so I guess I can hope…

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Scintillate, scintillate, globule aurific; fain would I fathom thy nature specific.  Sesquipedalian version of a child’s nursery rhyme?  Or a contrived introduction to another installment of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread?  You decide.  In the meantime…um, well, here’s another installment of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread.  This week I managed to cover two full chapters of Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign, her SF/romance hybrid where her regular protagonist Miles Vorkosigan is joined by a capable supporting cast, including Ekaterin Vorsoisson, the woman he’s secretly (from her, at least) in love with…

Chapter Five

Ekaterin arrives at Vorkosigan House with a question for Miles, which she tells Pym isn’t urgent; Pym goes off to fetch him, though Ekaterin realizes that he may still be asleep.  She heads up to the library to wait for him, and is startled to find it occupied, by a man who she immediately realizes must be Miles’s clone-brother Mark; she notices the resemblances immediately, despite his barrier of flesh.  He doesn’t seem annoyed at her presence, and she introduces herself, calling herself Miles’s “landscape consultant”.

She says that they’re taking down an old maple tree, and wants to know what Miles wants with done with the remains.  Mark immediately says that if it’s “Earth-descended organic matter”, he’ll take anything of it that Miles doesn’t want, though he doesn’t say why, telling her that he doesn’t garden.

The decidedly disjointed conversation was interrupted by a booted tread, and Armsman Pym leaning around the doorframe to announce, “M’lord will be down in a few minutes, Madame Vorsoisson. He says, please don’t go away.” He added in a more confiding tone, “He had one of his seizures last night, so he’s a little slow this morning.”

“Oh, dear. And they give him such a headache. I shouldn’t trouble him till he’s had his painkillers and black coffee.” She turned for the door.

“No, no! Sit down, madame, sit, please. M’lord would be right upset with me if I botched his orders.” Pym, smiling anxiously, motioned her urgently toward a chair; reluctantly, she sat. “There now. Good. Don’t move.” He watched her a moment as if to make sure she wasn’t going to bolt, then hurried off again. Lord Mark stared after him.

Mark says that he’d thought that Miles’s seizures were practically cured; Ekaterin says that they’re more “controlled”, and she’s seen one of them herself.  At Mark’s prodding, she says that it was on Komarr, during his recent Auditorial case.  She mentions the device he uses to trigger them, though she wonders if the one he’d just suffered had been manually triggered or if he’d waited too long, and says she heard it was from cryo-revival damage.  Mark tells her that Miles got killed trying to save Mark, and Ekaterin says she Miles hasn’t told her much of his prior career in impSec.

Miles emerges shortly thereafter, freshly washed and smartly dressed, but otherwise looking like death warmed over; Ekaterin tells him that he shouldn’t have gotten up.  Pym arrives with coffee and breakfast, and after taking a few sips, Miles regains language ability and greets Ekaterin properly.  He notes that she’s up early, and she forebears to contradict him; she says that she was eager to get started.  Her hired crew is out gathering up the sod and topsoil, and preparing to transplant the oak, and she asks him what to do with the maple.  Miles says they want it for firewood, and they have a pile to store it for household use and Winterfair bonfires.  Mark says he’ll take the leaves and clippings for Enrique’s project, and Miles says that’s up to their “eight thousand little friends”.

Ekaterin, deciding to stay a little longer so as not to have gotten Miles out of bed for nothing, says they should be able to start excavating tomorrow; she has secured all the necessary permits, and learned more than she wanted to about Vorbarr Sultana infrastructure in the process.  Miles agrees that it’s old and strange, and says she should ask Drou about the time she and Cordelia escaped through the sewers with Vordarian’s head.  He says the dinner party is scheduled for a week tomorrow, which works for her as well.

Miles says he just got back from a bizarre Auditorial errand Gregor sent him on, mostly because of his Betan background.  He tells Mark that their father had put in place legislation making it easier for ordinary Barrayarans to move from one district to another, changing their fealty to another Count; the result has been that people have been voting with their feet, and some Districts have been hemorrhaging population as a result.  The Vorkosigan District is holding steady, losing people to Vorbarr Sultana and Sergyar but gaining people with the up-to-date educational and medical facilities in Hassadar.  A certain Count Vormuir, however, has been losing steadily.

Ekaterin listens, entranced, as Miles outlines Vormuir’s novel solution to the problem.  He bought thirty uterine replicators and began to populate them.  With daughters, the oldest of which is two years old.  Count Vormuir himself is the father, but his wife will have none of the affair, and has moved out, refusing him conjugal visits under the threat of plasma arc.  The eggs have been surplus backups, which would otherwise have been discarded, from the District’s own replicator crèche, which Vormuir claims doesn’t violate any Barrayaran law.  By now he has 92 daughters, plus another batch of thirty in the replicators; Miles has ordered him not to start any more, which he wouldn’t be able to do for seven months anyway.

Mark says there should be a law against this, and Miles agrees, but they have to take some time and figure out what kind of law first, studying how other planets are dealing with it.  Even so, Vormuir won’t be affected by the new law.  There’s no rape involved, the children are well taken care of, they’re all his own daughters and so not legally slaves, and the eggs haven’t technically been stolen.  Ekaterin says that the girls should technically belong to their mothers, but Miles says that he’s not sure that applies if Vormuir never married any of them; in any event, he expects few of the mothers would want them, and if they did, they’d still be new population for Vormuir’s District.

Ekaterin’s brows drew down in thought. “By your account, Vormuir is much taken with economies, of scale and otherwise.” Only long after Nikki’s birth had she wondered if Tien had pushed for the old-fashioned way because it had seemed much cheaper. We won’t have to wait until we can afford it had been a potent argument, in her eager ears. Vormuir’s motivation seemed as much economic as genetic: ultimately, wealth for his District and therefore for him. This techno-harem was intended to become future taxpayers, along with the husbands he no doubt assumed they would draw in, to support him in his old age. “In effect, the girls are the Count’s acknowledged bastards. I’m sure I read somewhere . . . in the Time of Isolation, weren’t Imperial and count-palatine female bastards entitled to a dowry, from their high-born father? And it required some sort of Imperial permission . . . the dowry almost was the sign of legal acknowledgment. I’ll bet the Professora would know all the historical details, including the cases where the dowries had to be dragged out by force. Isn’t an Imperial permission effectively an Imperial order? Couldn’t Emperor Gregor set Count Vormuir’s dowries for the girls . . . high?”

“Oh.” Lord Vorkosigan sat back, his eyes widening with delight. “Ah.” An evil grin leaked between his lips. “Arbitrarily high, in fact. Oh . . . my.” He looked across at her. “Madame Vorsoisson, I believe you have hit on a possible solution. I will certainly pass the idea along as soon as I may.”

Ekaterin is gratified at his approval of her suggestion, and hopes she’s helped him feel better about his morning.  She checks the time, and exclaims that she needs to be outside to meet the tree-removal crew.  Pym and Miles escort her to the front door, and Miles encourages her to stop in again, telling Pym to show her where to put the maple wood.

Ekaterin glanced back over her shoulder. “He didn’t look very well this morning, Pym. You really shouldn’t have let him get out of bed.”

“Oh, I know it, ma’am,” Pym agreed morosely. “But what’s a mere Armsman to do? I haven’t the authority to countermand his orders. What he really needs, is looking after by someone who won’t stand his nonsense. A proper Lady Vorkosigan would do the trick. Not one of those shy, simpering ingenues all the young lords seem to be looking to these days, he’d just ride right over her. He needs a woman of experience, to stand up to him.” He smiled apologetically down at her.

“I suppose so,” sighed Ekaterin. She hadn’t really thought about the Vor mating scene from the Armsmen’s point of view. Was Pym hinting that his lord had such an ingenue in his eye, and his staff was worried it was some sort of mismatch?

Ekaterin gets to thinking about this possible ingenue, supposing that Miles will probably need to look to the younger generation for potential brides these days.  He’ll probably have to settle for an intellectual light-weight, and hope for one who won’t snub him for his physical defects.  She’s surprised to find herself indignant at the image of this idiot girl turning up her nose at Miles, and firmly turns herself back to the prospect of tree demolition.

Inside, Miles returns to the library, sitting down with care and resuming his breakfast.  He tells Mark he thought the conversation went well, and asks what they talked about before he arrived.  Mark says they discussed his seizures, and scolds Miles for not giving him all the information on them.  Miles says Mark couldn’t do anything about them anyway, and while Mark still blames himself, Miles says it was the Jacksonian sniper who did the damage, after all.
Miles asks what Mark thinks of Ekaterin, as a possible Lady Vorkosigan.

Mark blinked. “What?”

“What do you mean, what? She’s beautiful, she’s smart—dowries, ye gods, how perfect, Vormuir will split—she’s incredibly level-headed in emergencies. Calm, y’know? A lovely calm. I adore her calm. I could swim in it. Guts and wit, in one package.”

“I wasn’t questioning her fitness. That was a merely a random noise of surprise.”

“She’s Lord Auditor Vorthys’s niece. She has a son, Nikki, almost ten. Cute kid. Wants to be a jump-pilot, and I think he has the determination to make it. Ekaterin wants to be a garden designer, but I think she could go on to be a terraformer. She’s a little too quiet, sometimes—she needs to build up her self-confidence.”

“Perhaps she was just waiting to get a word in edgewise,” Mark suggested.

Mark contemplates Ekaterin; he supposes that she might appeal to Miles, with his taste for “brainy brunettes”, though he himself preferred curvy blondes, like Kareen.  He’s glad he has Kareen, who’s making him more human just by being around him.  He tells himself that he can’t take her recent attack of nerves personally.  Killer whispers in his head that she’s probably found someone else, and he knows how to deal with problems like that; Mark shushes him.  Even if she had, her honesty would have led her to tell him about it already.  All Mark knows is that, if he had to choose, he’d rather have Kareen than oxygen.  He briefly considers talking to Miles on the issue, but he holds off, not sure that Miles wouldn’t lead the posse after Mark’s head.

Mark asks Miles if Ekaterin knows about Miles’s intentions; Miles says that it’s a tricky situation.  She’s recently widowed, and her husband died recently on Komarr, under circumstances that Miles can’t talk about, but was far too close to.  So she’s not ready to be courted, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping the onslaught of Vor bachelors, or the non-Vor either.  Miles’s plan is to get in under her radar as a friend, and then make his move when the time is ripe.

“And, ah, when are you planning to spring this stunning surprise on her?” Mark asked, fascinated.

Miles stared at his boots. “I don’t know. I’ll recognize the tactical moment when I see it, I suppose. If my sense of timing hasn’t totally deserted me. Penetrate the perimeter, set the trip lines, plant the suggestion—strike. Total victory! Maybe.”

He asks Mark not to spill the beans, and Mark says he won’t interfere; as a parting shot, he asks if Miles should really be planning his romantic life in terms of war, and leaves while he’s still sputtering.

Comments

Mark is, of course, perfectly right, as I’ve been saying and will continue to say.  It does make perfect sense in Miles terms, but unfortunately Ekaterin is less likely to think of it that way.  Plus, for someone trying to keep a secret, he keeps telling people about it.  Trying to ask their opinions, shore up his insecurity, but increase the probability that someone’s going to spill the beans.  And then he’s planning this dinner party, which keeps looming up throughout the book, which is going to be bringing basically everyone who knows about Miles’s intentions–and Ekaterin–into the same room.

Admittedly, Miles does seem to have some support.  Pym seems to be entirely in favour of the prospect, even if his broad hints seem to sail right over Ekaterin’s head.  Her Aunt Vorthys has also seemed fairly approving.  Ekaterin must be wilfully keeping herself from contemplating the possibility at all.  After all, if she had to regard Miles as someone trying to lure her back into the prison of marriage, she’d have to stop associating with him.  Not that there aren’t worse things he could do, of course…

I’d forgotten how quickly Ekaterin disposed of the Lord Vormuir problem.  It is a cunning plan–now I’m picturing Vormuir played by Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder (although, in my head, he looks more like Stephen Fry’s Melchett)–sailing through loopholes in Barrayaran law, but Ekaterin manages to point out a way that that law can be bent back upon him.  She obviously has some familiarity with Vor law and custom, perhaps through her aunt if nothing else, and puts her finger on the correct spot.  The situation does, though, sound like some awful movie, though since most of those don’t have uterine replicators, they tend to involve someone sneaking their sperm into the actual fertilized eggs that the husbands think are theirs.

Mark and Miles do seem to be settling into a standard sibling-type relationship, which is not, as Miles is finding out, as much about always being there for each other as it is about friendly rivalry and one-upmanship.  Mark twits Miles about his campaign for Ekaterin, Miles complains about the butter bugs, etc.  You’d think he’d have figured from Ivan what family is about, and now, like it or not, he and Mark are developing the same way.  After all, more than most, Mark has a lot of sibling-rivalry issues, as his Betan therapist has doubtless spotted, since his “older brother” was literally held up to him as an example of the way to act.  It’s probably good if all he’s trying to do about it these days is score “last words” and conversational coups against him.

Chapter Six

Kareen is working in the lab when a woman comes in looking for Mark, introducing herself as “Ekaterin Vorsoisson, the garden designer”; she’s come to offer Mark more compost, having removed an entire row of bushes.  Kareen asks Enrique, who says that if it’s Earth-descended organic matter, and free, they would like to try some.  Ekaterin looks around at the lab, which Kareen congratulates herself is looking more scientific and appealing, and more organized.  Kareen has also been building housing units for the bugs, and cleaning out the guano, which luckily hasn’t been as bad as she’d feared.

Ekaterin asks what they need the plant matter for, and Kareen invites her to come in and see for herself.  She says she’s the Head Bug Wrangler–and also the only one, so far.

Kareen unlatched the steel-screen top of one of the bug hutches, reached in, and retrieved a single worker-bug. She was getting quite good at handling the little beasties without wanting to puke by now, as long as she didn’t look too closely at their pale pulsing abdomens. Kareen held out the bug to the gardener, and began a tolerably close copy of Mark’s Better Butter Bugs for a Brighter Barrayar sales talk.

Though Madame Vorsoisson’s eyebrows went up, she didn’t shriek, faint, or run away at her first sight of a butter bug. She followed Kareen’s explanation with interest, and was even willing to hold the bug and feed it a maple leaf. There was something very bonding about feeding live things, Kareen had to admit; she would have to keep that ploy in mind for future presentations.

Ekaterin is intrigued at the prospect of butter bugs that eat native foliage, and allows that she does have some practical experience with it.  She asks to see the bug manure, and is impressed with the quality of it as fertilizer, reinforced by Enrique’s contributions on its exact chemical composition.  She asks to borrow some, and encourages them to try to sell it.  Enrique said nobody had been interested in it on Escobar, and Ekaterin tells him that on Barrayar it’s harder to come by good quality fertilizer when trying to terraform the soil.  She tells Enrique about a time when the Counts and the Emperors would quarrel over the distribution of horse manure.

Enrique asks Ekaterin if she can show them around some of the native vegetation; Ekaterin says they really need a District agronomy officer, and Enrique points out that he didn’t even know there was such a thing.  Ekaterin says that Tsipis could help them out, and Kareen agrees.  Ekaterin says she’s been planning to go to the Dendarii Mountains to gather rocks to line the stream bed, and Kareen agrees that Miles is very fond of the mountains.

Mark arrives with a load of lab supplies, greeting Ekaterin and thanking her for the maple clippings.  Mark persuades her to try the bug butter, and she agrees to a small taste.  Kareen opens a container for her, telling Mark that they’re going to need more containers, the rate the bugs are producing it–and the rate that nobody else in the house is eating it.  Ekaterin tries a spoonful, pronounces it “interesting”. then offers some helpful suggestions, like flavouring and freezing it.

“Hm. D’you think that would work, Enrique?”

“Don’t see why not,” responded the scientist. “The colloidal viscosity doesn’t break down when exposed to subzero temperatures. It’s thermal acceleration which alters the protein microstructure and hence texture.”

“Gets kind of rubbery when you cook it,” Mark translated this. “We’re working on it, though.”

Mark asks Kareen if she wants to come to the District with him and scout out sites for the future facility–though they can’t settle on the name (between Borgos Research Park, Mark Vorkosigan Enterprises, and Kareen’s Butter Bug Ranch).  Kareen mentions Ekaterin’s rocks, and showing Enrique the native flora, and suggests they all go down together; secretly she’s reluctant to spend time alone with Mark, even though that’s obviously what he’s angling for.  She arranges the trip for the day after tomorrow.

Miles dashes in then, saying that Armsman Jankowski only just told him that Ekaterin was here.  He says he hopes they haven’t fed her the “bug vomit” yet, but Ekaterin says stoutly that it’s not half bad, they just need to do some product development.  She picks up the fertilizer Kareen has packaged for her and says her farewells, until day after tomorrow; Miles escorts her out.  He returns a few minutes later complaining about their feeding “that stuff” to Ekaterin.  Mark says that Ekaterin, at least, has an open mind, and Enrique says that she seemed to understand him better than most people.

Miles asks what’s happening day after tomorrow, and Kareen tells him about the proposed trip to Vorkosigan District.  Miles protests that he had Ekaterin’s first tour of the District already planned out, and Mark, unsympathetic, says that they won’t be going too far afield, there’ll be plenty to show her later.  Miles tries to insist on going along, but Mark says he’s only got four seats, and he’d rather take Kareen than Miles.  Miles leaves, grumbling about Armsman Jankowski.

Kareen asks what his problem is, and Mark explains that Miles is in love with Ekaterin, which is why he hired her as a gardener after meeting her on Komarr, but he hasn’t told her yet.  Mark isn’t quite sure why, unless it’s sexual shyness; Kareen reminds him about Elli Quinn, and Mark postulates that most of Miles’s girlfriends have been more the forceful types, throwing themselves at him, and he doesn’t know how to actually court a woman who’s not.  Mark is filled with glee at the prospect of watching Miles fumble around, and Kareen tells him to be nice.

Enrique asks if Miles was really upset about Ekaterin feeding the bug butter, and Mark says not to worry about it.  Enrique says he’s got an idea to change Miles’s mind about the bugs, but will only say that it’s a secret.  Mark asks Kareen about it, but she has no idea either.  She suggests talking to Ma Kosti about the ice cream freezer, which Miles has probably gotten her one of.  Then she thinks of how Ma Kosti seems a little frustrated with how little cooking she really has to do, and how she likes Mark for his obvious enjoyment of food, and she grabs some bug butter tubs and runs to the kitchen.

Miles arrives at Vorbretten House–more modern than Vorkosigan House, because it had to be rebuilt after the Pretender’s War.  An armsman leads him inside, to where René Vorbretten is sitting in a darkened room.  He is nervous at the arrival of Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, but Miles assures him he’s not there on business.  René was worried that Miles had been sent with the news, but Miles assures him that the Council of Counts still can’t vote without him.  René says the “Ghembrettens'” social life has dwindled away to nothing.  Miles apologizes for not having come sooner, having been on Komarr.

Miles says the Progressive Counts will doubtless want to keep René around–a vote is a vote–but René says some seem to thinking that they don’t want to vote against his opponent, Sigur, and make an enemy of him, in case he wins.  The definite votes one way or the other balance out, leaving the undecideds to settle the matter, and most of them have been avoiding him.  Miles assures René that he has the Vorkosigan vote, no matter what damage Cetagandans might have done to his District.

They discuss the precedents–the horse heir, Lord Midnight (and other, less colourful cases), establishes that a Count’s successor doesn’t have to be a blood relative, but Sigur is claiming that René’s grandfather won his father’s approval fraudulently.  It would make a difference if they could prove that the father had known his heir wasn’t his true son, but they can’t find any evidence in the archives one way or the other.  Miles said that not everyone objected to the Cetagandan bastards, despite widespread customs of killing them and leaving the bodies around to shake up the invaders; Prince Xav himself objected to that practice.  René says they still have no proof, but then, neither does Sigur.

Counthoods generally come up only rarely, as old Counts die, so it’s odd to have two disputed seats at the same time.  Miles asks René if he knows what’s up with Donna Vorrutyer, but René hasn’t heard anything either.  He says he’s grateful that Miles has come to visit, at least; Miles points out that he’s five-eighths Betan, so he can’t think that a little offworlder blood makes anyone unfit.  René does speculate that Lady Donna’s trip to Beta Colony must have something to do with her objection, but he’s not sure what.  Miles guesses that she’s looking for some obscure evidence against her cousin Richars, but René doesn’t think it’s anything that simple.  Ivan might know, having dated her for a while, though René and Miles themselves missed out on that honour.

René says that Miles’s family has been fighting to integrate Miles’s clone Mark into the family; he speculates that Donna might be doing something similar with a clone of the late Pierre Vorrutyer, growing it on Beta Colony and planning to offer it as an alternative heir.  Miles says it might be possible, but he’s not sure if the Counts would accept it.  She was practically running the District anyway, though, so she might make a good guardian.  René mentions one Countess, back in a time of civil war, who had herself legally declared a male so she could inherit.  Miles wonders if there is a clone, whether Donna would want to gestate it in her own womb, which would make it harder to steal, or use a replicator, in which case Richars could end up in custody of it.  In any case, her three months–a generous amount of time, probably dating back to days of travel on horseback–are almost up.

Feminine laughter heralds the arrival of Olivia and Martya Koudelka, who had been out shopping with René’s wife Tatya, Olivia being an old schoolmate of Tatya’s.  They thank Miles for coming to cheer René up, then tell René that he can take them to a concert tomorrow night.  Tatya shows René an envelope from Countess Vorgarin, which she opens eagerly, only to be crushed when it turns to be an “un-invitation” to a baby naming-day party.  Martya and Olivia rip Countess Vorgarin’s character to shreds in absentia, but it doesn’t cheer Tatya up that much.

René notes that they haven’t received a wedding invitation from Gregor and Laisa yet; Miles points out that local invitations haven’t been sent out yet, not mentioning that which Vorbretten to invite is still a matter under discussion.  Wanting to lighten the mood, he invites the Vorbrettens to his upcoming dinner party.  René isn’t sure, but Olivia encourages him to come, saying that Miles is going to show off the lady he’s courting in secret–from her.

René’s brows went up. “You, Miles? I thought you were as confirmed a bachelor as your cousin Ivan. Married to your career.”

Miles grimaced furiously at Olivia, and twitched at René’s last words. “I had this little medical divorce from my career. Olivia, where did you ever get the idea that Madame Vorsoisson—she’s my landscape designer, you see, René, but she’s Lord Auditor Vorthys’s niece, I met her on Komarr, she’s just recently widowed and certainly not—not ready to be anybody’s lady-love. Lord Auditor Vorthys and the Professora will be there too, you see, a family party, nothing inappropriate for her.”

“For who?” asked Martya.

“Ekaterin,” escaped his mouth before he could stop it. All four lovely syllables.

Martya grinned unrepentantly at him. René and his wife looked at each other—Tatya’s dimple flashed, and René pursed his lips thoughtfully.

“Kareen said Lord Mark said you said,” Olivia said innocently. “Who was lying, then?”

Miles explains again that she’s in mourning, her husband just died, and he will declare himself in time, but he can’t yet, he has to wait…and he hates waiting.  When Tatya asks, Miles has to admit he doesn’t know anything about her feelings for him.  He grumbles about Mark spreading his secrets, but Martya says that she, Kareen, and her parents all heard it from different people–Mark, Ivan, Gregor, and Pym–so he’s not doing a good job of keeping it secret.  Trying to defuse the conversation, Tatya accepts Miles’s invitation.  René asks if Miles’s parents will be back from Sergyar yet, and Miles says probably not, but soon; this will be his own party, before the house fills up again.  He’s also concerned about orchestrating Ekaterin meeting his parents just right.

His social duty satisfied, Miles bids them farewell; Martya takes him up an the offer of a ride home.  Miles gives Pym a disgruntled look as they leave, not sure he likes that Pym is acquiring the valuable information he can get through gossip by trading Miles’s information to other people.  He restrains himself from more than glaring, or from berating Martya for twitting him about Ekaterin like that.

He asks how she thinks the Vorbrettens are holding up, and she says René thinks they’re going to lose, and they’re pretty shaken.  Since his father died in the Hegen Hub, he’s hated Cetagandans, so this revelation really unnerves him.  Their marriage is also a little unsteady–they haven’t followed through with their plan to start a family, and Tatya enjoys being a Countess…  Now her friends, apart from Olivia, are avoiding her, too.

“If you go back far enough, we’re all descended from off-worlders, dammit,” Miles growled in frustration. “What’s one-eighth? A tinge. Why should it disqualify one of the best people we have? Competence should count for something.”

Martya’s grin twisted. “If you want sympathy, you’ve come to the wrong store, Miles. If my da were a Count, it wouldn’t matter how competent I was, I still wouldn’t inherit. All the brilliance in the world wouldn’t matter a bit. If you’re just now finding out that this world is unjust, well, you’re behind the times.”

Miles grimaced. “It’s not news to me, Martya.” The car pulled up outside Commodore Koudelka’s townhouse. “But justice wasn’t my job, before.” And power isn’t nearly as all-powerful as it looks from the outside. He added, “But that’s probably the one issue I can’t help you on. I have the strongest personal reasons for not wanting to reintroduce inheritance through the female line into Barrayaran law. Like, my survival. I like my job very well. I don’t want Gregor’s.”

Comments

Ekaterin has now met Kareen and Enrique, and won them over too.  She likes the butter bug guano, she offers helpful suggestions for the bug butter itself, and she has useful information about the Barrayaran vegetation…she’s just an all-around useful person.  It’s so nice to see her blossoming in her new environment, sending out new shoots like that skellytum, no longer bonsai’d, one hopes.  Which is why it’s going to be so devastating for her to find out why Miles really hired her to do his garden…  I am reminded, too, that Enrique seems to fall for her a little bit, too, after this scene.  Plus he’s got his “secret plan” to make Miles like the butter bugs, which I recall turns out really, really, well.  Just like Miles’s dinner party.

I had almost forgotten this scene with Miles and the Vorbrettens, and two more of the Koudelkas–Martya and Olivia, who we barely see, if at all, before this book.  Even in this book I don’t remember much with Olivia, though of course Martya gets a role later on in the book.  Martya’s line near the end of the chapter is quite telling, though, especially given the speculation about Lady Donna’s visit to Beta Colony earlier in the scene.  It is true that, no matter in what other ways it’s improving, Barrayar is not much yet for feminism and women’s rights.

It makes me think of that article that went around the Net a while ago, about how life as a white male was like playing on the easiest setting, compared to life as a woman or a minority.  Does Miles, even with his physical issues, qualify for that?  If I was building him for a role-playing game, one of those where you can give your character disadvantages to get more “character points” to buy things, his social class and mental skills would more than offset his physical limitations.  Even he would have an easier time getting into the military than Elena, and an easier time becoming Count than Martya.  Even _Mark_ would have an easier time becoming Count, and he was a clone born offworld and raised by Komarran radicals.  He’s male, though, and that’s the important thing.  Anyway, this book, taking place so much on Barrayar, and featuring so many female characters, gets the most heavily into gender issues.  At the very least, I can look around at our world and say that at least we’re a little bit more progressive than Barrayar…right?  Aren’t we?


No promises of a two-chapter post next week, but it could happen.  May depend on chapter length as well as random circumstantial factors–weather, sleep, and other potential gumption traps.  Lady Donna should be showing up soon, and the visit to the Vorkosigan District…and the fateful dinner party is looming…  Oh, yeah, and Vormoncrief’s Baba may have arrived by now.  Should be fun, in any case, except for the winceworthy painful embarrassing bits…

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