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Posts Tagged ‘Pel’

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

Chapter Eighteen

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

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

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

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

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

“I set them aside.”

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

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

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

“Never,” she said, quite firmly.

“But I was babbling.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Lord Vorkosigan,” Benin spoke.

Miles stepped forward a trifle apprehensively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments

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

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

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


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

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Some weeks seem longer than others, and some shorter, but one thing remains the same–I will be working down to the wire to bring you the next installment of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread before midnight local time on Tuesday.  This week I cover Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen of Cetaganda, as the plot finally reaches its peak and many questions are finally answered.

Chapter Thirteen

Miles is forced to wait for a day while the consorts retrieve the gene banks, and he frets at the inactivity.  He’s not sure that he wants to give Lord X an extra day, even with the shock of the gene bank recall.  Lord X still needs to frame Barrayar, preferably over Miles’s dead body.  If Miles had handed in the Key on the first day, Barrayar would be trying futilely to prove that they hadn’t tampered with it, and relations would be deteriorating as a result.  None of the other embassies would have fared any better if Lord X had chosen them, either.

Miles returns to plans of the governors’ ships, all approximately the same, and continues trying to guess where the Key might be.  Without Rian’s key to open it–which would allow him to extract all of its data, and possibly copy it and even return the original–he has to try to break in himself, so he’d have it in a cipher lab of some sort, but where precisely that would be…

Vorreedi knocks and enters; Miles pretends he’s just studying up on Cetagandan warships.  Vorreedi tells him that a warrant has been issued for Yenaro’s arrest, on the charge of theft, accused by a ghem-lord.  Miles says that whoever put the ghem-lord up to it is likely their target, the man behind Yenaro as well.  Vorreedi leaves, and Ivan comes in, the added security having put a crimp in his social life, not to mention the actual possibility of another attempt.  When Ivan starts to complain of boredom, Miles chases him out.

The next day they attend the ceremony of Singing Open The Great Gates, which is short on gates but long on singing.  Several hundred ghem are to sing, in an area of the Celestial Garden with interesting acoustical properties.  Miles prepares to endure standing for most of the afternoon.  Hundreds of haut-lady bubbles are visible; Miles and Ivan are accompanied by Vorob’yev, Vorreedi, and Mia Maz.  When the singing starts, it takes Miles’s breath away, and they are mesmerized for half an hour before the singers stop and move on to another compass point in the garden.  The ba shepherd the delegates to a buffet while the chorus prepares to set up at the south gate; the haut-ladies head off in a third direction.

He notes that he’s beginning to get used to the Celestial Garden, and Vorob’yev reminds him of the many deaths that Barrayar owes to the Cetagandans.  Miles agrees, but says that they’ve punished that behaviour sufficiently that it probably won’t be repeated anytime soon.  His instincts tell him the Cetagandans are turning inward, but who knows what they’ll be after ten more generations of genetic experimentation.  Miles waits tensely for a contact from Rian, though painfully aware that Vorreedi is watching him like a hawk.

After the fourth and final performance, Miles is making small talk with Vorreedi, still working out extrication strategies, when he notices a ba talking to Ivan–and not one of Rian’s bald ones.  Ivan heads off with the ba, and Miles immediately takes off after him, out of the buffet pavilion and into a near-maze of shrubbery.  Miles takes a wrong turn, and retraces his steps to see Ivan face to face with a haut-lady with her screen down.  She sprays Ivan in the face with something, catches him as he collapses onto her lap, puts up her force-screen and starts moving away.  Miles takes off in pursuit, but the float-chair easily outdistances him.  He loses it on a major path with several other haut-bubbles, and runs back to Vorreedi.  Vorreedi offers to call Cetagandan Security, but Miles looks for a ba servitor instead.

A ghem-lord guard appears to urges them back to the pavilion; Vorreedi explains about the missing member of their party, and the guard calls it in.  They return to the pavilion, and Miles tells the oldest ba servitor he sees that he needs to speak immediately with Rian Degtiar.  The ba leads him and Vorreedi into a service area, where it makes a coded call on its wrist-com before handing the com to Miles.  Miles asks Rian through his com if she had just sent someone to pick up Ivan; when she denies it, he tells her that’s what he saw, and she realizes what is happening and promises to deal with it.  Vorreedi asks Miles what’s going on; Miles tells him Ivan left with a lady, and he promises that he can deal with it discreetly if Vorreedi trusts him.

Vorreedi took a long, long minute to think this one over, his eye cold on Miles. Vorreedi, Miles reminded himself, was Intelligence, not Counter-intelligence; curiosity, not paranoia, was his driving force. Miles shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and tried to look calm, unworried, merely annoyed. As the silence lengthened, he dared to add, “If you trust nothing else, sir, please trust my competence. That’s all I ask.”

“Discreet, eh?” said Vorreedi. “You’ve made some interesting friends here, Lord Vorkosigan. I’d like to hear a lot more about them.”

“Soon, I hope, sir.”

He knows, though, that once he leaves with Rian’s ba, he might not be back until his mission is concluded.  A ba shows up in an unshielded float-car, waves away a concerned ghem guard, and takes Miles to the Star Crèche.  There, he sees five haut bubbles herding a sixth one toward a back entrance, pushing against its force shield with their own.  Miles follows them inside, where he finds Rian and five consorts, the sixth remaining stubbornly shielded.  Rian urges the bubble’s occupant to surrender and cooperate; when there is no response, she uses a special tool to override the shield with the Empress’s codes.

The float-chair drops to the ground, spilling a paralyzed Ivan onto the floor, but its other occupant, Vio d’Chilian, recovers and puts a knife to Ivan’s throat.  Behind Vio, Pel silently leaves the room, and Miles essays to distract Vio as best he can.  He tells her that Ivan isn’t the one she wants, which confuses her.

But of course. Lord X always used front men, and women, for his legwork, keeping his own hands clean. Miles had been galloping around doing the legwork; therefore, Lord X must have reasoned that Ivan was really in charge. “Agh!” Miles cried. “What did you think? That because he’s taller, and, and cuter, he had to be running this show? It’s the haut way, isn’t it? You—you morons! I’m the brains of this outfit!” He paced the other way, spluttering. “I had you spotted from Day One, don’t you know? But no! Nobody ever takes me seriously!” Ivan’s eyes, the only part of him that apparently still worked, widened at this rant. “So you went and kidnapped the wrong man. You just blew your cover for the sake of grabbing the expendable one!” The haut Pel hadn’t gone for help, he decided. She’d gone to the lav to fix her hair, and was going to take forever in there.

Well, he certainly had the undivided attention of everyone in the loading bay, murderess, victim, haut-cops and all. What next, handsprings? “It’s been like this since we were little kids, y’know? Whenever the two of us were together, they’d always talk to him first, like I was some kind of idiot alien who needed an interpreter—” the haut Pel reappeared silently in the doorway, lifted her hand—Miles’s voice rose to a shout, “Well, I’m sick of it, d’you hear?!”

Vio has just begun to turn when Pel hits her with the stunner.  She nicks Ivan’s throat with the knife before collapsing, but not seriously.  Miles asks about the effect of the stun on Ivan on top of what Vio sprayed him with, but Pel examines Vio’s spray-bottle and pronounces it harmless.  She promises to get him some synergine to help with the effects.

Miles turns to assess Rian, realizing that, as “Handmaiden”, she seems to be acting Empress.  He asks her what she’s found out, and if the gene banks have been returned.  Rian tells him that Vio was in Nadina’s float-chair, which Miles impatiently says obviously points to Ilsum Kety.  She agrees, saying that Kety didn’t return his gene bank, and they suspected something was amiss with “Nadina” ever since Vio arrived pretending to be her.  She suspects that Kety was somehow planning to frame Ivan for Nadina’s disappearance or death.  Miles points out that Vio must have been the one to kill Ba Lura.  Rian says that Vio will face the Star Crèche’s own justice for her crimes.

Miles said uneasily, “She could be an important witness, to clear Barrayar and me of blame in the disappearance of the Great Key. Don’t, um . . . do anything premature, till we know if that’s needed, huh?”

“Oh, we have many questions for her, first.”

“So . . . Kety still has his bank. And the Key. And a warning.” Damn. Whose idiot idea had it been . . . ? Oh. Yes. But you can’t blame Ivan for this one. You thought recalling the gene banks was a great move. And Rian bought it too. Idiocy by committee, the finest kind.

Rian is worried that she’d sent Nadina to her death, but Miles reassures her that she must still be alive, or else framing Ivan wouldn’t work.  He also concludes that Nadina must be able to keep some information from Kety.  He asks Rian if she can, using her overrides, encode the float-chair for anyone to use.  She says it will only work for haut-women, and Miles says that they should give Kety what he wants–a haut-lady and a Barrayaran returning in a haut-bubble.

Comments

Finally, the identity of Lord X is settled for good.  Vio’s moment of rage at the garden party is explained, too.  It’s not Slyke trying to put one over on his cousin, though, as admitted, he did visit the Star Crèche, and he also accepted a copy of the gene bank, so he’s not entirely innocent.

Vio…short for “Violet”, perhaps?  The haut-ladies all seem to have fairly short names; I can’t help but wonder why they don’t have more elaborate ones, to distinguish them from the hoi polloi, but maybe that’s just me.  Dag Benin, of course, has an even shorter first name, so I presume that names don’t get longer as you go down the social classes.  I guess the haut are a small enough social pool that they don’t need to use long names to distinguish from each other.  The “d'” prefix on the surname, which Lady d’Har also used…is that only used for haut-women who are forced to marry down to the ghem?  I guess so, since otherwise they don’t actually marry, according to Mia Maz back in Chapter 8…

Also worth noting that Ivan gets to be the “lady in distress”, and not for the last time, either.  Except that his captrix didn’t realize that he wasn’t the mastermind, so he wasn’t taken as a hostage, strictly, but certainly Miles had to dash off and rescue him.  If Miles is correct, Ivan was taken as a patsy to be framed for the death of haut Nadina, to further inflame relations between Barrayar and Cetaganda…what an utter tool.  Miles’s rant, while intended for a distraction, is nonetheless heartfelt, and I suspect it was almost aimed at Rian as much as it was at Vio.

Chapter Fourteen

Miles calls Vorob’yev and tells him how Ivan is getting a tour of the Star Crèche, and they can’t offend their hostesses by leaving early, so they’ll meet up with him later.  Vorob’yev is not happy with yet another “unplanned excursion”, but he only cautions Miles to keep Ivan from offending any of the haut-ladies.  Miles signs off having gained only an hour or so.  Rian and Pel are re-keying the float chair, and Ivan is still out cold, but looking somewhat better for his dose of synergine.  He tells Rian to contact Benin, or the Emperor, if things go wrong, since he doesn’t trust anyone else in Imperial Security.

Pel has armed herself with Vio’s tricks, sadly not including any energy weapons, since even in a float-chair they couldn’t smuggle those past security scanners.  Miles climbs onto the arm of the chair, Pel puts up the shield, and they leave the dome, with two other haut-ladies heading off in other directions as camouflage.  Miles regrets on some levels that Rian isn’t his companion, but rationally, he admits that he likes Pel’s style and resourcefulness, and thinks that if she weren’t Cetagandan and probably eighty years old…

They meet up with Kety’s party near the south gate, which includes ghem-General Chilian as well as a number of guards and servitors.  Miles wonders if Chilian is in on the plan, or intended to be sacrificed along with Nadina.  Kety invites the haut-bubble into his own vehicle, which is clearly designed to accommodate the bubbles, and the rest, including Chilian, take other cars.

“You’re late. Complications?” Kety inquired cryptically, settling back in his seat. He looked worried and stern, as befit an earnest mourner—or a man riding a particularly hungry and unreliable tiger.

Yeah, and I should have known he was Lord X when I first spotted that fake gray hair, Miles decided. This was one haut-lord who didn’t want to wait for what life might bring him.

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” reported Pel. The voice-filter, set to maximum blur, altered her tones into a fair imitation of the haut Vio’s.

“I’m sure, my love. Keep your force-screen up till we’re aboard.”

That clinches it, Miles decides–General Chilian’s days are numbered.  He wonders if Kety or Vio is in charge, or if they’re planning this as equals, which could explain a lot.  Pel turns to talk to Miles, having cut off external sound, about whether they should look for Nadina or the Great Key first.  Pel is in favour of the Key, but Miles wants Nadina, who is an important witness for Barrayar, and who also may know where the Key is.  Pel says she will likely be hidden in a cabin, so as few people know about her as possible.  Miles says that they will probably need to take her back down to the planet to stage the murder, so they should find her fast.  Kety interrupts to ask if her captive is waking up yet, so he can question him, but Pel tells him not yet.

They don’t have much more conversation with Kety until after the orbital shuttle has docked with his ship and they’ve all disembarked.  Chilian goes off without even attempting to talk to his wife, and Kety dismisses his guards and beckons the haut-bubble to follow him.  Miles notes a room down the hall with a single liveried guard posted outside, where he guesses Nadina might be held; Kety entered a different cabin instead, which proves to be vacant.

Kety asks if she’ll need guards, or if she can control her captive chemically.  Pel, dissembling, asks for synergine and fast-penta, and notes they’ll need to do a test for an induced allergy.  Kety asks if he’s liable to wake up before he returns; Pel says she dosed him rather strongly, and Kety warns her not to leave a trace that might show up in an autopsy.

“Let me help you lay him out,” Kety said. “It must be crowded in there.”

“Not for me. I’m using him for a footrest. The float-chair is . . . most comfortable. Let me . . . enjoy the privilege of the haut a little longer, my love.” Pel sighed. “It has been so long. . . .”

Kety promises her that soon she’ll be the most privileged in the galaxy, and leaves to get the drugs.  As soon as he’s gone, Miles checks how many doses of Vio’s spray they have (two, according to Pel) and they head out into the hallway.  Miles climbs onto the back of the float-chair, Pel floats up to the liveried guard, addresses him, lowers her shield and sprays him.  The guard falls onto Pel’s lap, and Miles climbs around to examine the lock.  It needs a palmprint, and Miles tries the guard’s; it works.  He takes the guard’s stunner and they enter the room.

Inside, haut Nadina is stripped down her bodysuit and bound by having her hair clamped to the floor half a meter from the end.  Pel donates a few layers of clothing and they examine the hair-lock.  They can’t pull the hair free, and while, according to Nadina, Vio had the key, Pel doesn’t find it among Vio’s possessions.  Miles suggests cutting the hair off, which scandalizes the women, as haut-women never cut their hair.  He offers to take them both the shuttle and escape, but they refuse to leave without the Key; Nadina does, at least, know its location.  They return to arguing about the hair; Miles finds a vibra-knife on the guard, points to the door to distract them, then cuts Nadina’s hair free.  Nadina is outraged, but Pel looks secretly glad she didn’t have to do it herself.

They all board the float-chair and return to the corridor; the chair, overloaded, moves under protest, as Nadina directs them to the room with the Key.  Miles wonders at the absurdity of sneaking around the ship in a bubble with two old haut-women, but admits it’s better than disguising himself as a ba.  They reach an unmarked door, and after a moment Pel lowers the shield long enough to knock, horrifying Miles.  A man opens the door, scans the bubble, and addresses “haut Vio”.  Pel claims that she’s brought Nadina back to try again, and he lets them in.

There are two other men inside, one of them a ghem-General, not Chilian but Naru, third in command of the Celestial Garden’s security; the others seem to be cipher techs, trying to hack into the Great Key.  There are tangles of wires linking a computer to what appear to be eight Great Keys–the real one and seven copies, or are all eight of them copies?  Miles isn’t quite sure what the plan for the copies is, but he’s sure it’s not for anyone else’s benefit, and certainly not to carry out the Dowager’s plan.  He asks Nadina if she knows which one is real, and she can’t decide.  Pel says that they can find out, and displays the ring with the Great Seal.  Miles is horrified, since that one item would save Kety’s men all the effort of trying to break the encryption on the Key by brute force.

Naru addresses Vio in a contemptuous fashion, and when Pel replies haughtily, he tells her that he looks forward to the day when there are no more haut-bubbles–apparently his motivation for joining in on Kety’s scheme.  Miles pegs him as another equal in the triumvirate, and possibly the most dangerous.  He tells Pel to spray Naru, and he’ll try to bluff the techs with his stunner, even though it’ll set off alarms throughout the ship if he actually fires it.

Pel drops the shield and sprays Naru, but he manages to hold his breath, so Miles is forced to stun Naru and the techs.  Pel begins trying the eight Keys while Miles wonders how long they have before Kety or someone else authorized to enter the room comes to investigate.  Pel is having no luck with the Keys, and Miles realizes that they must all be false, and follows the cables until he finds a box with the real Key hooked up inside it.  Miles urges them to leave, just as Pel confirms the Key is real, and the door slides open.  Miles fires his stunner, and one of Kety’s men falls back; he and Pel leap back into the float-chair and put up the shield as more stunners fire into the room, knocking Nadina to the ground.  Nadina urges them to flee, but Kety’s men are blocking the exit, and then Kety follows his men into the room, locking the door behind him.

Kety asks what’s going on, and Naru, who was only partially stunned, identifies the float-chair’s passengers.  Miles wonders how they got Nadina out of her bubble, and if Kety can do it again.  He asks Pel if the float-chair has communications capacity.  At least they can get the word out, and tell the Cetagandans that Naru’s been compromised.  Kety puts a vibra-knife to Nadina’s throat, and asks Pel to drop the screen and surrender.

Miles, trying to think of a way out, realizes that the Great Key’s value lies in the information stored inside it.  He asks Pel if they can download the information from the Key and send it out through her chair’s communications system.  She protests that they can’t send it back to the Celestial Garden, but Miles says that they can use standard emergency-relay channels, which has easy-to-remember public codes–it’ll resend the signal to every ship and station in range.  Pel sets it up, and is just hooking up the Key as Kety begins to lose his patience.  Pel lowers the shield, she and Miles step out, and then the shield snaps up again a second later.

“That,” said Kety coldly, eyeing the bubble with the Great Key inside, “is annoying. But a temporary inconvenience. Take them.” He jerked his head at his guards, and stepped away from Nadina. “You!” he said in surprise, finding Miles in their grip.

“Me.” Miles’s lips peeled back on a white flash of teeth that had nothing to do with a smile. “Me all along, in fact. From start to finish.”

Kety is about to hit Miles himself, but remembers his fragility, and instructs his guards to use shock-sticks on them instead–amending his instructions to just Miles when they are reluctant to strike haut-women.  Kety asks Nary how long to open it, and Naru estimates half an hour once his techs have recovered.  Just then, Kety receives a message from a subordinate who tells him about a signal being sent out from the ship, some kind of “coded gibberish”, using an Imperial override.  Kety is puzzled, then he realizes what’s happening, and tells Naru to get the bubble down as soon as they can.  Unable to revive the techs even with high doses of synergine, Kety and Naru turn to the work themselves.

Kety and Naru were so absorbed in their task and their irate arguments over the swiftest way to proceed, only Miles noticed when a spot on the door began to glow. Despite his pain, he smiled. A beat later, the whole door burst inward in a spray of melted plastic and metal. Another beat, to wait out anyone’s hair-trigger reflexes.

Ghem-Colonel Benin, impeccably turned out in his blood-red dress uniform and freshly applied face paint, stepped firmly across the threshold. He was unarmed, but the red-clad squad behind him carried an arsenal sufficient to destroy any impediment in their path up to the size of a pocket dreadnought. Kety and Naru froze in mid-lurch; Kety’s liveried retainers suddenly seemed to think better of drawing weapons, opening their hands palm-outward and standing very still. Colonel Vorreedi, equally impeccable in his House blacks, if not quite so cool in expression, stepped in behind Benin. In the corridor beyond, Miles could just glimpse Ivan looming behind the armed men, and shifting anxiously from foot to foot.

“Good evening, haut Kety, ghem-General Naru.” Benin bowed with exquisite courtesy. “By the personal order of Emperor Fletchir Giaja, it is my duty to arrest you both upon the serious charge of treason to the Empire. And,” contemplating Naru especially, Benin’s smile went razor-sharp, “complicity in the murder of the Imperial Servitor the Ba Lura.”

Comments

The climax, and the cavalry, in this one chapter.  Well, I guess Chapter Thirteen had the start of the climax, starting with the abortive kidnapping of Ivan, but this one chapter carries it through.  Pel proves out to be just as quick-thinking as Miles had thought, especially with her impersonation (voice-only) of Vio.  I wonder if Kety had clued in yet that it wasn’t Vio in the bubble he just brought on board, but he’s a haut-lord, he’s smart, he could probably put it together.  Or maybe not–it wasn’t like he asked what they’d done with his “love”, Vio.  Did he come just because of the alarm Miles set off, or had he already noticed “Vio”‘s bubble missing and guessed correctly from there?

The plan with sending out the Key’s data probably didn’t really accomplish its goal, if that goal was to “back up” the Key in everybody’s communications cache, but it did put some time pressure on Kety and Naru, and distract them long enough for the cavalry to arrive.  I presume that the transmission was of the decrypted copy of the data, since Pel had opened it with the ring, or something like that.  One wonders…if they hadn’t brought the Great Seal ring with them, they wouldn’t have been able to pull it off, right?  I wasn’t clear on whether they were just trying to decrypt the contents of the Key, or if they were trying to replicate the procedure that the Seal would use to open it up.  If the former, could they have, in theory, broadcast the Key’s encrypted contents, and then somehow downloaded that into a physical copy of the Key and opened that with the Seal instead?  Or is there a physical component to the Key’s workings that would be difficult to replicate as well?  That would have been a little extra safety precaution for the original creators, at least.  These are people who thought it was better to keep access to the data limited than to back it up in any way, so that might be par for their level of paranoia.

Not sure how I feel about Naru being introduced this late in the book.  I guess he had been alluded to by Miles’s distrust of the Cetagandan Imperial Guard, but for him to be apparently so high up in Kety’s inner circle, I wasn’t quite prepared for that.  The involvement of a haut-lady had been broached already, so Vio was not a big surprise, but Naru…  One really does wonder how good allies Vio and Naru made, since Naru hated the haut-lady privileges and Vio yearned for their return.  If Kety had prevailed, it wouldn’t have been long before he’d had to pick sides among them.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d picked Naru, since I suspect he’s also a little uncomfortable with the secrets of haut women himself.  After all, he suborned their plan to take the Great Key for himself.  I’m not sure I believe his avowals of love for Vio, either.  Still, I suppose he needed an Empress if he was going to be Emperor, and not shake up the existing social structure too much all at once…  It would have been a tricky balancing act, and would probably have been his downfall in the end, but after the new war with Cetaganda, the Barrayarans wouldn’t have found that much consolation.

I don’t recall that Nadina’s hair was originally described as being all that much longer than, say, Rian’s, despite her greater age…so, does that mean, if they never cut it, that by Rian’s age it has already stopped by itself?  Or did Nadina just have it made up in a more elaborate way?  In the text it sounds like Nadina had about 2.5 meters of hair, but Rian’s already “coiled around her feet”, at least when she was sitting…  I expect that, no matter how much their hair length matters to them, they wouldn’t like stepping on it, so they must do something to keep it from being underfoot.


Just the denoument left, pretty much, though there are certainly enough issues to wrap up for that to be worth two whole chapters.  Even if Miles doesn’t have to be debriefed by Simon Illyan.  I should also try to remember to do some closing comments this time, since I have some thoughts on the book as a whole, which hopefully I haven’t already covered in individual chapter comments.  Then, once again, a week off before I head into Ethan of Athos.  Until next week, then, I remain.

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Another week has passed and here we are again, sharing in the wonder that is the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Today we consider Chapters Eleven and Twelve of Cetaganda, the fifth (and a bit) novel chronologically in the story of Miles Vorkosigan (and his friends and family).  In which Miles has a few important interviews, goes over the edge of a building, and is called as a witness, among other things.  Curious?  Read on.

Chapter Eleven

Vorob’yev sends Miles down to Vorreedi’s office in the basement of the embassy.  Vorreedi gives Miles his full attention, which worries Miles because he knows that Vorreedi must be sharp or he wouldn’t be here in Cetaganda.  Vorreedi begins by talking about Miles’s (putative) career of ImpSec courier, and notes that, unlike every other ImpSec courier, Miles reports directly to Simon Illyan, who reports only to Emperor Gregor, an exceptionally short chain of command.  Miles claims that his job is to fetch things for Gregor that are too trivial for real couriers, and that he clearly got this posting through nepotism.

“Hm.” Vorreedi sat back, and rubbed his chin. “Now,” he said distantly, “if you were a covert ops agent here on a mission from God,” meaning Simon Illyan—same thing, from the ImpSec point of view, “you should have arrived with some sort of Render all due assistance order. Then a poor ImpSec local man might know where he stood with you.”

If I don’t get this man under control, he can and will nail my boots to the floor of the embassy, and Lord X will have no impediment at all to his baroque bid for chaos and empire. “Yes, sir,” Miles took a breath, “and so would anyone else who saw it.”

Vorreedi glanced up, startled. “Does ImpSec Command suspect a leak in my communications?”

“Not as far as I know. But as a lowly courier, I can’t ask questions, can I?”

This amuses Vorreedi, as of course Miles has been asking questions nearly constantly.  He asks Miles for proof, and Miles says that if he were a real courier, he would have an implanted allergy to fast-penta.  Because of his rank, that was considered too risky, so therefore he’s clearly unsuited for high-security missions.  Vorreedi finds this convincing, and Miles adds that the full report of his Cetagandan visit will be given to Illyan, and what Illyan tells Vorreedi is up to him.  Miles dares to hint to Vorreedi that he not be hedged around with arbitrary restrictions, or micromanaged, but instead turned loose.  With one rule, perhaps–“Deliver success or pay with your ass”–and no authority, only responsibility.

Miles turns the conversation to Yenaro, who Vorreedi says survived the night, last seen carrying a carpet over his shoulder.  The Cetagandan Police have picked up the assassin who was after him, after receiving an “anonymous” tip, and he had no chance to contact his employer.  Miles contemplates the effect on Lord X of this lack of information–he would probably get twitchy and possibly make a mistake, though Miles wonders if that’s necessarily a good thing.  Vorreedi asks him and Ivan to terminate their contact with Yenaro, which Miles readily agrees to, as he thinks they’ve gotten as much information from Yenaro as they’re likely to.  He tells Vorreedi he’s more interested in whoever built that fountain for Yenaro in the first place.  Vorreedi concludes by telling him that Ghem-Colonel Benin has requested another interview with Miles and Ivan, and is already on his way.  He dismisses Miles to fetch Ivan for the interview.

“I do not see how Lord Vorpatril fits into this. He’s no courier officer. And his records are as transparent as glass.”

“A lot of people are baffled by Ivan, sir. But . . . sometimes, even a genius needs someone who can follow orders.”

Miles hurries to Ivan’s quarters, sure that Vorreedi isn’t going to be able to restrain himself from bugging their rooms for much longer.  He tells Ivan that they’re going to talk to Benin, with Vorreedi present, but quashes Ivan’s hope that they can actually confess yet.  He instead pleads with Ivan to confirm Miles’s version of events.  He wants to give Benin as many “real facts” as he can, to help in tracking down Ba Lura’s murderer, but leave out haut Rian and the Great Key.  He tells Ivan he’s convinced Vorreedi that he’s on a mission from Simon Illyan, which Ivan realizes means that he’s definitely not.  Miles says he would be, if Illyan knew what was happening, and asks Ivan to bring the nerve disrupter.  Ivan tells Miles he’s not shooting his commanding officer.  Miles says that Vorreedi’s not his commanding officer, and anyway he just wants it for evidence, if they ask, but not to volunteer it.  Ivan encourages him to continue not volunteering.  Miles tells him to get moving, and to try to stay cool.

“…I may be completely off-base, and panicking prematurely.”

“I don’t think so. I think you’re panicking post-maturely. In fact, if you were panicking any later it would be practically posthumously. I’ve been panicking for days.”

Ivan reminds him of another chilhood incident, where Miles had him and Elena digging an escape tunnel in the back garden of Vorkosigan House, and the tunnel collapsed on Ivan, trapping him until Bothari dug him out.  Miles suddenly misses Bothari intensely, but suppresses the feeling, since he needs to keep his focus, and his forward momentum.

Miles and Ivan arrive at the conference room for the meeting with Benin to find him there with Vorreedi, but only just sitting down, which Miles hopes means they haven’t had much time to compare notes.  Benin begins by asking Miles about his courier work, which Miles tells him is good because it’s not too physically demanding, gives him a chance to travel, keeps him away from the prejudiced eyes of other Barrayarans, and gives him an official position.  Ivan tells him about working in Operations in the capital, ostensibly wishing for ship duty, but Miles suspects that Ivan likes his settled life and just wishes that Lady Vorpatril was further away.

Benin then asks Miles about his previous encounter with the Ba Lura.  Miles doesn’t deny it, throwing Benin off-balance at first, and presents it as a kind of test of competency for Benin to have unearthed it.  Benin proves to know about the Ba Lura’s visit, though not the specifics of what happened in the Barrayaran pod, nor, unfortunately, where the ba had previously left the station (to deliver the Great Key).  Miles describes the encounter in the pod, omitting the Great Key, of course; he can tell that Vorreedi is getting more and more unhappy about Miles for keeping this from him until now.  Ivan corroborates Miles’s story.  Both Benin and Vorreedi ask Miles why he hadn’t mentioned this story earlier.  Miles replies that the pilot will have reported the event to Illyan, which, he thinks to himself, with a three-day delay in communications, likely won’t result in any orders to interfere with Miles’s self-appointed mission.  He adds that with orders to keep a low profile, he had decided to keep quiet to keep from starting a diplomatic incident, especially one involving a Barrayaran envoy being attacked by an Imperial servant.

On demand, Ivan produces the nerve disrupter as evidence.  Benin and Vorreedi both want to examine it, Benin being surprised that Vorreedi hadn’t seen it before.  Miles tells Benin that he’s welcome to keep it, if he shares with Miles any information he can extract from it.  He asks Benin where Ba Lura visited before the Barrayarans; Benin says a ship off-station, but he can’t be more specific, even if he wanted to.  The three governors moored at that station were, unfortunately, Slyke Giaja, Ilsum Kety and Este Rond, so this doesn’t help Miles narrow down his field.  Miles is ready to let Benin examine his new clue, but Benin asks about Miles’s conversations with Rian.  Miles only tells him to apply to her for more information.  Vorreedi, surprisingly, doesn’t insist on Benin staying, probably wanting to take a turn at Miles himself.  As Benin prepares to leave, Miles asks if he’d taken his advice on getting help from higher up; Benin says he did, and it went better than expected.

Once Benin has gone, Vorreedi tells Miles he’s not a “mushroom”, to be kept in the dark and fed horseshit; Miles tells him to appeal to Illyan for permission to be in the loop.  Otherwise, he sees no other route but to go on as he had been, trying to find some shred of proof.  Vorreedi tells Miles that they will speak again, and leaves.  Miles and Ivan return to Ivan’s room, where Ivan has a new batch of ghem-lady invitations.  As Miles tries to figure out how to get in touch with Rian, Ivan discovers an invitation addressed to both of them, for Lady d’Har’s “garden party”.  Miles says that it’s probably another contact, and they have to accept, even though Ivan doesn’t think it sounds that much fun.  Miles tells him that the ghem-ladies with whom he’s left his “genetic material” may very well start using it as the basis of their next year’s genetic experiments…

Ivan sighs and accepts it, wondering idly to himself why they can’t just confiscate the governors’ copies of the gene banks.  Miles thinks this is brilliant, and asks why he hadn’t thought of this before; Ivan points out that it doesn’t let him play the hero for haut Rian.

Comments

Miles’s meeting with Vorreedi, where he manages to strongly imply that he’s an operative of the highest degree, is fun to read, and you should go do that, since the little I quoted barely does it justice.  It hearkens back to Miles’s improvisational skills from The Warrior’s Apprentice.  Vorreedi has been hanging over Miles’s head as a potential obstacle since he was first mentioned, and at least this allows Miles to, however temporarily, work a little more openly.  His time-window is limited–if Simon Illyan manages to actually contact Vorreedi, the jig is likely up–but then, Miles only has a limited amount of time to solve the problem anyway, so he considers it an acceptable risk.  Even Vorreedi’s discovery that Miles has been concealing information from him isn’t enough to shake his confidence that Miles is truly on an important mission.  Convenient, but I buy it.

The conversation with Ivan has some great lines, too, illustrating again why Ivan makes such a great foil.  As Miles notes, he also does, usually, follow Miles’s orders, however often he points out that it got them into trouble when they were kids.  And he does, sometimes, come up with good ideas, or at least trigger a good idea by stating the obvious.  But he doesn’t really want to be a hero, or take risks; he just wants to keep his head down and live comfortably.  Which makes me wonder even more how he’ll do as the protagonist of the new book this fall…

Chapter Twelve

The garden party turns out to in fact take place in a garden, but on the rooftop of a skyscraper overlooking the glowing dome of the Celestial Garden.  Miles, Ivan and Vorob’yev are wearing their ultra-formal dress blacks, and only admitted because of their rank and the invitation, even Vorreedi not considered worthy to attend.  The occasion of the party is the late return of Ghem-Admiral Har, whose wife is the haut Lady d’Har; the Admiral wears only the Cetagandan Order of Merit, one of the highest honours of the Empire, and his lady, aged but still stunning, welcomes guests outside the protection of her bubble.

Ivan is distressed how high the age of the attendees is skewing; these are the real upper-crust of ghem society, including several haut-lady bubbles.  Miles wonders if Rian is concealed in one of them.  Vorob’yev is impressed with Miles for having secured an invitation.  Miles contemplates where the power lies in Cetagandan society–the ghem-lords have the military might, but the haut-lords control them, somehow, and the haut-ladies, though reclusive, have somehow created the haut themselves.

They walk around the garden, admiring the views, Vorob’yev anticipating making some good high-level contacts.  Around one corner they encounter haut Vio d’Chilian, ghem-General Chilian’s wife, standing alone.  Ivan is starstruck at the sight of his first haut-lady, while Miles finds his resistance to her beauty much heightened.  Vorob’yev warns Ivan from pursuing any married haut-ladies.

Some movement or sound from the Barrayarans must have broken her reverie, for her head turned toward them. For a second, just a second, her astonishing cinnamon eyes seemed copper-metallic with a rage so boundless, Miles’s stomach lurched. Then her expression snapped into a smooth hauteur, as blank as the bubble she lacked, and as armored; the open emotion was gone so fast Miles was not sure the other two men had even seen it. But the look was not for them; it had been on her face even as she’d turned, before she could have identified the Barrayarans, blackly dressed in the shadows.

Ivan rushes forward to introduce himself, and his companions, babbling slightly.  Before he can dig himself too deeply, though, General Chilian himself appears to escort his wife away.  Miles wonders if their presence is part of Lord X’s plan, somehow, if it is Ilsum Kety after all, or if that’s too obvious.  Shortly thereafter, a haut-lady in a bubble appears, asking to speak privately with Miles, for an hour or so–not long enough to go to orbit, Miles thinks.  Vorob’yev is unsure he wishes to let Miles go off alone, but Miles refuses a guard or a com link, and tells them to wait if he’s delayed.

In a private nook, the lady turns off her bubble, revealing a honey-blonde woman who looks fortyish (and is probably more like eighty).  She tells him Rian summoned him, and he can perch on her float-chair for the ride.  Miles asks for confirmation, and she shows him her Star Crèche ring.  He climbs onto the back of her float-chair, and she raises the shield again and begins to move back down the path.  They pass Ivan and Vorob’yev again, who of course have no idea who’s in the force-bubble.  Instead of heading for the lift, though, they head for the edge of the building.  Lady d’Har admits them to a private landing pad; Miles’s escort turns off her bubble’s glow and drops over the edge of the building.  Miles is horrified, but the haut-lady assures him that they can manage a controlled glide, as they arc toward the Celestial Garden.  They touch down a few centimetres above the ground near one of the Garden’s entrances.

“Ah,” she said, in a refreshed tone. “I haven’t done that in years.” She almost cracked a smile, for a moment nearly . . . human.

They pass through the Celestial Garden security effortlessly; when Miles comments on it, she introduces herself as Pel Navarr, Consort of Eta Ceta, and says this is her home.  She takes them through the Garden and to the Star Crèche building Miles had met Rian in before.  They go up one level to a large round chamber, where Miles finds himself facing Rian and seven other haut-women, their cumulative beauty almost overwhelming.  Rian calls him to testify to them, and at Miles’s request introduces him to the other haut-women, who are, as he suspected, the eight satrap consorts.  The haut Nadina, Consort of Sigma Ceta (not of Ilsum Kety himself, Miles notes) is silver-haired, close in age to the late Dowager Empress, Prince Slyke’s and Este Rond’s being younger.

Rian asks Miles to tell the consorts how he came to have to false Great Key.  Miles confirms that she understood his message about aborting the attempt to board Prince Slyke’s ship, and then asks how she can be sure all of the consorts are trustworthy.  The consorts don’t like this, but Rian excuses his ignorance and explains that they have concluded the treason is further down–that the governor with the real Great Key will still need a haut-lady to maintain the genome or else break with all custom, and they suspect he has chosen a new consort.  They don’t have information on who the woman is, so still no lead on the actual governor.

Miles asks about the security system for the force-bubbles, how their owners are authenticated.  Rian tells him, only in general terms, that the control panels of the chairs do a gene-scan, matching several designated genetic markers, to confirm the operator is a haut-lady, and identify the particular one.  Miles asks if it is possibly for two haut-women, perhaps from the same constellation, to match so closely that one could pass for the other.  If not, then they simply need to examine the list of the six haut-women that Colonel Benin has logged as approaching the bier with the opportunity to deposit Ba Lura’s body.  Unfortunately, Rian says that to get access to that kind of genetic data, they would need the Great Key itself.

Miles says that his own investigations seem to point to either Slyke Giaja or Ilsum Kety, with Este Rond a distant third, but none of the consorts have any information that can narrow it down any further.  Miles proceeds to tell the haut-ladies of the events on Eta Ceta since their arrival, Rian showing no sign of wishing him to withhold anything in particular.  He realizes that by spreading the information around, she wishes to make it harder for Lord X to eradicate it completely.

After he finishes his story, he suggests Ivan’s Plan B, the retrieval of the gene banks.  Lord X would be unable to just flee without arousing the suspicions of the military, who could take care of him easily.  At that point they can try to negotiate for the return of the Great Key, or enlist the help of the other governors.  One consort suggests that the governor may threaten to destroy it; haut Nadina says that Ilsum Kety is probably capable of it, if he is the guilty party, and the consort of Slyke’s planet doesn’t deny his capacity either.  Miles says that reconstructing the Great Key is still possibly, but Rian insists that retrieving it is the highest priority.

The consorts lament the possibility that the gene bank distribution be delayed even further, hoping that they could still manage to carry out the Dowager Empress’s plan.  Rian says that she herself had only been distributing the gene banks for backup purposes, and she wonders if the Ba Lura had really carried out its mistress’s plans by absconding with the Great Key, or if it had misunderstood her purpose.

She bowed her head. “I apologize to the Council for my failure.” Her tone of voice made Miles think of inward-turning knives.

“You did your best, dear,” said the haut Nadina kindly. But she added more sternly, “However, you should not have attempted to handle it all alone.”

“It was my charge.”

“A little less emphasis on the my, and a little more emphasis on the charge, next time.”

Miles tried not to squirm at the general applicability of this gentle correction.

The consorts begin to debate whether they need to begin making the haut-lords more controllable, or more aggressive to aid expansion, or whether the ghem can take care of that…  Rian brings the debate to a halt, noting that it will be the new Empress’s decision.  She calls for a vote, and they agree to recall the gene banks.  The banks will be identified as samples from each of the various satrapies, and the governors will be told that they found an error in the copy which must be corrected.  The consorts disperse, leaving Miles, Rian and Pel.  Miles asks if the plan to retrieve the Key is still in effect, but Rian says they must wait until the gene banks are returned, even if that leaves only two days.

Watching her, he searched his heart. The impact of his first mad crush was surely fading, in this drought of response, to be replaced by . . . what? If she had slaked his thirst with the least little drop of affection, he would be hers body and soul right now. In a way he was glad she wasn’t faking anything, depressing as it was to be treated like a ba servitor, his loyalty and obedience assumed. Maybe his proposed disguise as a ba had been suggested by his subconscious for more than practical reasons. Was his back-brain trying to tell him something?

Pel returns through the Celestial Garden; when Miles asks, she says that the plant and animal life in the garden is all ghem work, since the haut work only in the human genome, with ba servitors for field tests.   They return to the Lady d’Har’s rooftop by groundcar and lift, and Pel lets him out in a private nook.  He waits in the garden until Ivan and Vorob’yev find him, exclaiming over his lateness, but he has nothing more he can tell them.

Comments

I forgot it was so late in the book before we met Pel, because she is one of the most memorable characters in the book, a haut lady with a sense of humour and an adventurous spirit.  We will see more of her, though not enough, alas.  I wonder if her dive off the rooftop was calculated to throw watchers off the scent, or if she was taking a shortcut and having some fun.

The consorts’ debate about the future of the haut is interesting, and a little scary.  These women, remember, consider the genetic future of their race something to plan out and fine-tune.  They were all in sympathy with the Dowager Empress’s plan to fragment the Cetagandan Empire.  Are they out of touch with the actual effects this would have on the galaxy, or do they just consider the benefits to outweigh the risks?

There is a mention, too, of potential “aggression” genes making their way into the haut genome by way of the ghem “experiment”.  I recall that the haut genes were supposed to make their way into the ghem genome by means of the haut wives, but I didn’t recall that it was supposed to go the other way.  Do they just sample ghem, or even the lower classes, and monitor them to see if there’s anything worth integrating?  The mention of how the ba are used for field tests is also telling, but perhaps riskier than the haut-ladies admit to themselves.


I do think we’re getting close to the climax here, since, after all, the tension goes up the closer we get to the deadline for the retrieval of the Great Key.  So next week maybe we’ll actually get into it.  There’s only four more chapters left to go, after all…

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