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We gotcher Vorkosigan Saga Reread right here!  That’s contents: chapters, Thirteen, from Burn, Cryo-, Bujold, Lois McMaster.  Lessee, topics, topics…bringin’ the dead back to life, letters from the family at home.  Comments?  That’s extra.  You want ’em?  Sure thing.  Sign here, willya?  Thanks.  Have a nice day!

Chapter Thirteen

The next day they drive over to Dr. Seiichiro Leiber’s neighbourhood in the west of Northbridge.  Miles hadn’t found any links between Leiber and Sato in his research, which is probably he didn’t end up getting charged/killed/frozen with the rest of her group.  He’d acquired his Ph.D. at an unremarkable age, scholarship funded by cryocorps, which determined the direction of his research.

Miles tells Johannes to drop him and Raven off at the corner and Roic around the back; it’ll be too conspicuous for the lift van to hang around, so he sends Johannes off to park and get a coffee, listening on their comlinks.  Miles and Raven ring his doorbell, and when Dr. Leiber himself answers, Miles introduces himself and Raven; Leiber recognizes the Durona name, and Miles says they were there for the conference, and hoped to talk to him.  Leiber invites them in, saying that he didn’t make it to the conference; he asks about the N.H.L.L. fiasco, and Raven shares a slightly edited version of his story as a captive.  The two scientists then move into more technical discussions, until Leiber seems at ease.

Miles decided on a direct approach. “I’m actually here this morning on behalf of the next-of-kin of Lisa Sato. I believe you had some dealings with her eighteen months ago, just before her arrest?”

Shock and dismay bloomed unconcealed on Leiber’s face. Well, he was the scientist type, not a con artist, nor, probably, a very good liar. Fine by me.

“How do you know-what makes you think that?” Leiber fumbled, confirming Miles’s judgment.

“Eyewitness testimony.”

“But no one saw-there wasn’t-but Suwabi died.”

Leiber excuses himself to make them some tea, and Miles doesn’t intercept him in time; Raven congratulates Miles on his palpable hit.  Then they hear the back door open, and they check the kitchen to find him gone; Miles notifies Roic, and Roic goes after him, but is unable to catch him before he ducks into a neighbour’s house.  Miles tells Roic to go meet up with Johannes, while he and Raven search his house.  Miles finds little upstairs, and tells Raven they should leave before the police show up, but Raven says that given what he found on the bottom floor, he wouldn’t even have called them.

In the basement, Raven shows him, under an old bedspread, a portable cryochamber, plugged in, running, and occupied.  Miles wonders if this is what they’re looking for, or if it’s just a normal Kibou thing to have a frozen person in your basement.  Raven finds a garage door at one end of the room, explaining how they got it in; the cryochamber doesn’t come with a built-in float pallet, but Miles contacts Johannes and confirms that they stil have one in the back of the van, and tells him and Roic to come around to the back garage.

Raven raised his eyebrows. “Isn’t that theft? Breaking and entering?”

“No, the homeowner let us in. Breaking and exiting, maybe. If it’s theft, I’m guessing it’s the second time around for this item. And while it’s not true that you can’t cheat an honest man, crooked men are less likely to complain to the authorities, afterward. I don’t think Leiber will tell anyone.”

Roic and Johannes arrive and begin loading the cryochamber; Miles goes back upstairs and leaves an unsigned note asking to be contacted at his consulate.  He tells Roic that he’s confident that Leiber will contact them to finish their conversation, but there’s no point in waiting around for him to come back while they’re in his house.  Then they head back to Suze’s, Raven hoping they haven’t just stolen Leiber’s grandmother or something.

As Roic helps move Sato’s body into place for the cryorevival, he remembers back to his medic training back when he became an Armsman, and how he’d practiced emergency cryoprep on a realistic dummy, which is still nothing like the real thing; Lisa Sato doesn’t look like like a corpse, a living person, or a dummy.  Still, hopefully this experience will help him if he ever has to do a real cryoprep.  Miles is sure they have the right woman this time, though he didn’t use the children to identify her this time.

Vorlynkin stops by to tell Miles about a message that came for him; this time he’s left the children with Johannes, though Miles is hopeful that he’ll be able to bring them over soon.  Raven tells the Consul he can come in and watch, if he puts on a mask, and Vorlynkin complies, as Raven begins the revival, inserting oxygenated fluid; Roic thinks that she looks a little like Ekaterin, with carefully preserved long dark hair, and Vorlynkin comments that she looks better than he expected.  Raven says the cryoprep seems to have been first-rate, much better than Lord Vorkosigan was when he came in.

“She looks like something out of a fairy tale.”

“What,” said m’lord, swinging one heel to tap upon a stool leg, “Snow White with just one dwarf?”

Vorlynkin reddened, an I-didn’t-say-that look in his eyes.

M’lord snickered at him. “Now all we need is a prince.”

“So who’s t’ frog?” asked Roic, secretly glad not to be alone in his fanciful impressions.

“Different fairy tale,” m’lord told him kindly. “I hope.”

They begin putting real blood into her, and her skin tone becomes almost lifelike, and finally they finish with the fluids and begin resuscitation; they stimulate her brain with an electrified cap, and she actually begins to breathe, raggedly at first, then more strongly.  Raven checks her peripheral nerves and reflexes, which all seem to be in order, then calls her name; her eyes open briefly, and Miles tells her, reassuringly, that she’s been rescued, her children are safe, and she’ll get to see them soon.  She moans in response, reassuring Raven that both hearing and voice both seem to be working.  Then she slips back into sleep, which Raven says is highly desirable, and they begin moving her to a gurney; Raven says she’ll need some time to rebuild her white cells before she can be moved to the consulate.

Miles asks Vorlynkin why he’s here, and the Consul says he has a sealed message from Barrayar; Miles says they’re pretty much done, and they make ready to return to the consulate, Vorlynkin exclaiming over the extraordinary experience of watching someone brought back to life.  While Miles talks to Raven one last time, Vorlynkin comments to Roic that Lord Vorkosigan isn’t what he expected from an Imperial Auditor; Roic tells him that the Auditors are a varied lot, but the Emperor is good at matching them with the right cases.

Back at the consulate, Miles checks the message, which turns out to be a regular weekly message from Ekaterin and the children, important, to him at least, but not urgent; he eagerly activates it, taking a minute to drink in Ekaterin’s appearance before moving onward.  He wonders at the lack of grey in her hair, considering how much effort she puts in wrangling the four children they’ve had in the last six years, effort which he’d greatly underestimated at the time.

“Greetings, my love,” she said. “We’ve received your latest here with much relief and rejoicing, though fortunately I didn’t tell the children about that first alarming message before the second had overtaken it. I shudder to think what your parents went through during your old career. Though I suppose your father kept his high-Vor upper lip suitably stiff, and your mother, well, I can scarcely imagine. Said tart Betan things, I suppose.”

Actually, he’d dodged those issues during his covert ops days by almost never sending any messages, or updates. It wasn’t as if his father couldn’t have demanded a report on his missions from the head of ImpSec any time he wanted one. Or nerved himself to it, he imagined his mother’s voice remarking tartly.

She brings him up to date on District matters, which reassures him that there aren’t any pressing family matters; he feels guilty for neglecting his District, but there doesn’t seem to be anything too urgent this week.  Then she cuts to a video, filmed by Helen, one of his twins, of his youngest, Taura, ten months old, taking her first steps–or, at least, a strategically restaged set of wobbly almost-first steps–with Helen’s twin Sasha and three-year-old Lizzie looking on.  She returns to tell him that Sasha has decided he now wants to be called Alex, having gone through and discarded a number of other variations on his name; Miles recalls how late Sasha/Alex ended up talking, before they realized that it was just that his sister was doing all the talking for him.  Finally she bids farewell and wishes him home soon; he almost wishes he had left Kibou-daini when he had the chance.

He hopes Leiber shows up soon, and wonders why the man was so alarmed when they showed up, who he thought they represented; unfortunately, they don’t have the manpower to hunt him down right now.  He sends off a requisition to Escobar for an ImpSec team, with a potential need for forensic accountants and lawyers in the near future, though it’ll take at least five days for them to arrive.  He hopes that Lisa Sato regains her voice soon, too, so he can find out what he needs to know from her if not from Leiber.

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So they’ve found this Dr. Leiber, brazen their way in, and then scare him off…but they find Lisa Sato’s body in the basement anyway, and just drag her away.  That’s good, I guess?  The revival goes smoothly this time, too.  So we’re two thirds of the way through, and maybe we’ll finally get to find out what’s _really_ going on.  I suppose it’s the right time for it, but it still feels like they’ve met too little opposition.  The activist guys at the beginning have faded away, the cryocorps themselves haven’t done anything actually threatening, nobody’s been shot or killed or turned up dead, apart from that frozen woman they tried reviving last chapter.  The tension just…isn’t there.

The best part of this chapter is, pretty much, the message from home, a glimpse, finally, at the growing Vorkosigan family–Helen and Aral Alexander/Sasha/Alex, Lizzie (named after Elizabeth Naismith, apparently), and now Taura.  Three girls and only one boy; not sure why they’re not trying to balance it out, keep a spare for their heir, but maybe they’re still not done yet?  A very small slice of life, which makes me want to spend more time back on Barrayar with them, perhaps a little older?  It might be time to advance the years again, put Count Miles on the back burner and see what Alex is like growing up.

I find Dr. Leiber’s highly Japanese first name somewhat incongruous, in an amusing way.  I suppose it’s no worse than having someone with a highly Ukrainian surname and a first name like Bob or Rick or something; still, I’d almost expect “Leiber” to have been assimilated a little into Japanese phonotactics, an extra vowel on the end or something.  I guess they all do seem to speak Galactic Standard, even Jin and Mina…so why the Japanese names at all, then?  Well, whatever.

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I almost went out to see a movie tonight, but luckily I was spared this horror and was able to devote my time to finishing up this blog post for you, my readers.  I did not have to see Jupiter ascend, or any King’s men, or any shadows of grey, or anything like that.  Instead I was able to focus on the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, covering another chapter of Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel CryoBurn, the last (to date, and for the foreseeable future) of her novels of Miles Vorkosigan.  In this chapter, Chapter Eleven, things go off easily…maybe a little too easily.  Or do they?

Chapter Eleven

The body-stealing expedition sets out at high noon, rather than the stormy midnight Roic had half-hoped for; they drive a lift-van into the NewEgypt facility, and are passed without even having to use the floral excuses they’d come up with.  Miles explains that it’s visiting hours, and they don’t want to offend any potential clients; they’d be more worried about vandalism at night, or theft from employees.  Roic, Miles and Raven are dressed in hospital uniforms, Roic’s a little small and Miles’s too big; they drive to the loading dock to deliver their frozen corpse, which they unload on a float-pallet in a hidden insulated body-bag, and Johannes drives off to park the van.

They make their way through the facility, encountering a few employees and visitors but arousing no suspicion, Miles guiding them to their destination using a map on his wristcom.  Miles picks an electronic lock in an underground passage, which leads them into an unfinished, less well-lit corridor; this area is designed like four concentric circles with spokes crossing them.  Miles guides them to a more finished corridor, not as flashy as Roic was expecting, and counts his way to the prospective drawer, whose serial number Raven confirms.

Miles gives them his electronic lockpick and heads off to turn off the power to this section, which turns out to be the best way to conceal opening a single drawer; as he trots off, Raven and Roic open up the body bag and wait for the lights to go out.  When they do, they open the drawer and Roic lifts out the body within, then slides in their replacement with Raven’s help, hoping the difference in the wrappings won’t be too noticeable.  They exchange signals with Miles confirming that all’s gone well, and he reactivates the power, while Roic and Raven clean things up and hope that any techs coming to check out the failure won’t get there too quickly.  Miles returns and urges them on, visibly enjoying the activity, and they manage to make their way back out just as the sound of technicians is drifting down the corridors.

They arrive back at the exit without incident, and summon Johannes to pick them up; by the time they’re loaded and out of the facility, Miles notes that it only took sixteen minutes.  Roic and Miles, looking less Kibou than the other two, stay in the back keeping an eye on the body, making sure it doesn’t roll around and get damaged.  Roic says the whole thing reminds him of Sergeant Taura, and wonders if they should have frozen her, too, when she was dying in the Durona clinic; Miles recalls that they all failed to talk her into it.

What, wake up, still a freak, in some strange place and time, with all my friends gone? Taura had said to the protesting Roic, in that terribly-wrong-for-her thready voice. But you could make new friends! was an argument that had failed to move her, in the exhaustion of her failing metabolism.

Roic made a helpless gesture. “You could have overridden her. After she was too far gone to tell, ordered her cryoprepped.” God knew m’lord was capable of riding over any number of other people’s wills.

M’lord shrugged, face sobered in the shared memory. “That would have been for our benefit, then. Not for hers. But Taura chose fire over ice. That, at least, I had no trouble understanding. High temperature cremation leaves no DNA.”

She’d been indifferent to where her ashes would be scattered, except not Jackson’s Whole, so m’lord had provided a burial plot for her urn in his own family cemetery at Vorkosigan Surleau, overlooking the long lake, a task m’lord and Roic had seen to personally.

“Nobody,” muttered Roic, “should die of old age at thirty-standard.” Certainly not such a blazing spirit as Taura’s had been.

Miles muses about whether their current lifespans will seem unreasonable, if anyone really gets this life-extension thing figured out.  He notes that even if nobody’s body aged, it’s been calculated that 800 years will be a likely median lifespan before encountering a fatal accident of some sort; he adds that even those who worry about dying don’t seem to consider all the time they didn’t exist before they were born, which Roic doesn’t want to think too hard about.

They wait at the lab for hours as the bring Lisa Sato’s body temperature up to almost freezing; Johannes goes back to the consulate, and Miles and Roic take turns napping in a nearby toom, with Raven and Tanaka also alternating shifts.  By dawn they’re ready to start, replacing the cryo-fluid with synthesized blood, which improves the frozen body’s colour immensely; the blood, being wholly artificial, lacks the body’s built-in antibodies, so it’ll require some time in isolation to build up the immune system.

Miles is allowed to watch the procedure, but only with a sophisticated medical mask keeping him from becoming a source of contagion.  As the operation proceeds, though, Raven becomes concerned about the lack of activity in the brain; they try applying electric shock to the head, but then Raven announces that this isn’t working.

The bottom fell out of Miles’s stomach in a sickening lurch. “Raven, you can’t stop.” My God, we can’t afford to botch this one. Those poor kids are waiting for us to deliver their mother back to them. I promised . . .

“Miles, I’ve done over seven thousand revivals. I don’t need to spend the next half hour jumping on this poor woman’s corpse to know she’s gone. Her brain is slush, on a micro-level.” Raven sighed and turned away from the table, peeling down his mask and drawing off his gloves. “I know a bad prep when I see one, and that was a bad prep. This wasn’t my fault. There was nothing I could do. There was nothing I could ever have done.” Raven was far too controlled a man to throw his gloves across the room and swear, but he hardly needed to; Miles could read his emotions in his set face, the more fierce for the sharp contrast with his usual easy-going cheer.

Miles asks if he thinks it was murder; Raven points out that people do die in these things, but he supposes that in Miles’s vicinity the odds are a little different.  He plans to do an autopsy to find out exactly what was done to this body, because something didn’t seem quite right, and he doesn’t like being set up for failure like this.  Miles goes over to look at the inert body, and wonders how he’s going to break the news to Jin and Mina, that the false hope he gave them is now gone.  He’s now extra-motivated to avenge her, though.

A knock on the door proves, unfortunately, to be Vorlynkin, with Jin and Mina; Miles slips out of the room, blocking the door, and reminds them that they were supposed to wait.  Vorlynkin says that they couldn’t bear to wait any longer, even if they could only see her through glass, and he thought he’d let them at least catch a glimpse in hopes it would settle them down.  The consul swiftly figures out that something is wrong from Miles’s mood, though he doesn’t ask out loud.

Miles is not ready for this; he’s broken the news of death before, but never to children like this.  The children can also sense something from Miles’s mood, so he can’t hold back any longer.  He tells them that their mother probably died in the cryoprep, months ago, and that there wasn’t anything they could have done.  In shock, the children still insist on seeing their mother, at least, and Miles agrees reluctantly.

He slips back into the lab and asks Raven to make her ready for her children to see her; Raven is shaken at the prospect, but they clean her up hastily and then let the children in.

Jin and Mina and Vorlynkin filed through. The look Vorlynkin flicked at Miles in passing had very little love in it. Jin took the consul’s free hand as they came up to the tableside. Because who else was there left to hang onto, in this spinning hour?

The children stared some more. Mina’s lips parted in bewilderment; Jin raised his eyes to Miles with a half-voiced Huh?

Drawing back in something between outrage and scorn, Mina said, “But that’s not our mommy!”

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After reading the previous chapter, I decided to read a little ahead, so I did the first part of this chapter, the body-snatching.  I thought that it might be exciting, perhaps.  Instead, it was dull as dishwater.  They make their way into the facility unremarked, they find the cryocorpse just fine, their plan to interrupt the power works fine, they make the swap, and they get away clean in mere minutes.  Ho hum.  I didn’t finish reading that chapter until I was ready to start this week’s entry…though my wife reminded me that something went wrong with the body…

So I guess it is a nice twist for the body to be the wrong one.  That part works well, the cryorevival going badly, and the tension of Miles not wanting to have to tell the children about it.  It’s a palpable relief, really, when Jin and Mina point out the mistake.  Except that, thinking about it, it’s maybe too much of a fake-out, like one of those Disney movie scenes where you think for about thirty seconds that a character is dead, and then they regain consciousness and everything’s okay.  Not quite that bad, but it transforms a tragedy into an inconvenience, making the reader feel foolish about having begun to feel sad for the children or anything.

Starting with no immune system seems like more of a problem than they make it out to be here.  They say something about having to isolate someone for a few days until their marrow begins making antibodies on their own; I certainly hope that it’s followed by a rigorous schedule of vaccination, or else you’re still going to catch everything once before you build up those immunities again.  I suppose that medicine is advanced enough to deal with that by this point, so it’s not a big deal, but it seemed like an oversight.

More moving, really, is the mention of Taura’s death.  It was almost a relief, when I read this, to find that Taura’s long-delayed death had finally caught up to her.  As an author, you have to prove you’re serious about killing off characters that you’ve given a short time to live, or else there’s no point.  You’re just a chicken or something.  Step up to the plate and kill off them characters.


 

So now they have to find Lisa Sato’s real body, or, failing that, some other clue about what was going on.  I guess this counts as a try-fail, then; how many are they up to now?  Where do we start counting?  Next week we’ll see what they do next…

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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.

Comments

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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Vorkosigan takes the faceoff…he gets the puck away from Vordarian, passes it to Bothari…Bothari takes it across the blue line, skates past Vorrutyer, passes it back to Vorkosigan…Vorkosigan shoots…he scores!  Okay, yes, it’s been a little hockey-crazy in Canada this past week or so, and even if I didn’t get up at 5:00 to watch the final game, it makes a nice intro, doesn’t it?  (Why don’t they play hockey on Barrayar, anyway?  What sports do they play?)  Anyway, welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, my tribute to the works of Lois McMaster Bujold, as we continue through her novella “Winterfair Gifts”, watching the events surrounding Miles Vorkosigan’s long-awaited wedding, through the eyes of his junior Armsman, Roic.

Winterfair Gifts (Part 2)

At dawn the next morning, Roic is called down to accompany one of Lord Vorkosigan’s guests for morning exercise; it turns out to be Taura, dressed in gray ship knits.  She smiles to see him, trying to hide her mouth, but Roic says she doesn’t have to.

Her fangs glinted. “I hope they didn’t drag you out of bed. Miles said his people just used the sidewalk around this block for their running track, since it was about a kilometer. I don’t think I can go astray.”

Roic intercepted a Look from Pym. Roic hadn’t been called out to keep m’lord’s galactic guest from getting lost; he was there to deal with any altercations that might result from startled Vorbarr Sultana drivers crashing their vehicles onto the sidewalk or each other at the sight of her.

“No problem,” said Roic promptly. “We usually use the ballroom for a sort of gymnasium, in weather like this, but it’s being all decorated for the reception. So I’m behind on my fitness training for the month. It’ll be a nice change to do my laps with someone who’s not so much older, um, that is, so much shorter than me.” He sneaked a glance at Pym.

Pym’s wintry smile promised retribution for that dig as he coded open the doors for them. “Enjoy yourselves, children.”

Roic regrets his teasing as Taura’s effortless loping leaves him wheezing and struggling to keep up.  After half a dozen laps, they slow down, and Roic suggests a detour through the garden to cool down.  Taura is struck by the beauty of the icy garden, and points out some men preparing for the wedding, some unpacking ice sculptures, others artistically spraying the vegetation to create icicles.  Roic says they’re having the wedding outdoors, to Taura’s surprise, but he says that M’lord is adamant on having the wedding in Ekaterin’s garden, no matter the temperature, even if all they will actually do outside is say their vows.

Taura says she’s looking forward to the wedding, including the intricate Barrayaran outfit Lady Alys picked out for her; she’s decided it’s a type of uniform, but she can’t tell if she’s “a recruit or a spy”.  There’s so much to learn about Barrayaran society, she says, and envies Roic having grown up with it.  Roic says he actually grew up working-class in Hassadar, and ended up becoming a street guard when he was eighteen, a job that he explains deals with everything from traffic jams and upset people to stolen property and rowdy drunks.

Then, one day, a crazy began shooting up the city square at rush hour with an auto-needler, and Roic disarmed him–even though he was off-duty at the time, and unarmed.  He tries to downplay it, saying that he must have been crazy to do it, and Taura must have seen worse than that in her work; Taura says that she wasn’t that keen on going up against needlers herself.  As a result of the incident, he ended up coming to Pym’s attention, and getting recruited as an Armsman, even though he thinks he fit in better in Hassadar.  Taura says that Miles always liked having large backup, like her, to loom at people.  She also demonstrates a more threatening version of her smile, which causes a passing workman to fall into a snowbank; Taura saves his ice sculpture and Roic helps him up.  If that doesn’t work, she continues, she could always pick them up and hold them at arm’s length until they subsided, or of course just stun them.

Roic says that, with her strength, she could always find work as a fire-fighter; his brother is one, in Hassadar, and that kind of muscle would be useful.  Taura thanks him for the suggestion, but says she’s happy as a mercenary, seeing new planets.

“How many have you seen?”

“I think I’ve lost count. I used to know. Dozens. How many have you seen?”

“Just t’ one,” he admitted. “Though hanging around m’lord, this one keeps getting wider till I’m almost dizzy. More complicated. Does that make sense?”

She threw back her head and laughed. “That’s our Miles. Admiral Quinn always said she’d follow him halfway to hell just to find out what happened next.”

Roic is surprised to hear that Admiral Quinn is female; Taura says she is, and worked her way up, too, though not through sexual favours.  Though she lets slip that she was another one of Miles’s lovers, which shocks Roic; she tells him how, with the uncertain life of a mercenary, you take what you can, when you can.  It was Miles’s injuries and discharge from ImpSec that separated them–when he could no longer be the Admiral, and she refused to come to Barrayar for him.

“Elli Quinn’s got no one but herself to blame for any chances she threw away. Though some people are born with more chances to waste than others, I’ll admit. I say, grab the ones you’re issued, run with them, and don’t look back.”

“Something might be gaining on you?”

“I know perfectly well what’s gaining on me.” Her grin flashed, oddly tilted this time. “Anyway . . . Quinn might be more beautiful, but I was always taller.” She gave a satisfied nod.

She says that Miles must surely be satisfied with Roic’s height, and his broad shoulders are a recruiter’s dream.  Roic says that M’lord, and Pym, must think he’s an idiot and a screwup; he admits, when Taura asks, that nobody actually died, but explains about how, in trying to keep Lord Mark’s biologist from being extradited, he ended up in the front foyer, mostly naked and covered in bug butter, when M’lord brought his new fiancée home, with her relatives…

He sighed. “If you see one of those damned vomit bugs still around, squash it on sight. Hideous bioengineered mutant things, kill ’em all before they multiply.”

Her laughter stopped cold.

Roic re-ran his last sentence in his head, and made the unpleasant discovery that one could do far worse things to oneself with words than with dubious food products, or possibly even with needlers. He hardly dared look up to see her face. He forced his eyes right.

Taura’s face has gone blank, and Roic restrains himself from trying to cover up his gaffe; she just says it’s cold and she wants to go back in.

Roic sleeps all day, trying to get back onto night shift, though he regrets missing getting to see what Madame Vorsoisson’s staid relatives would make of M’lord and his odd friends, especially Taura.  When he gets up, Ma Kosti’s kitchen is in a frenzy preparing for the next day’s wedding, though that night, at least, she was off the hook because all the guests were at the Winterfair Ball at the Imperial Residence.  Roic is thus surprised to see M’lord and Taura returning before midnight.  As they enter, Taura is saying that she feels okay, just tired and a little jump-lagged, and is more concerned about Madame Vorsoisson.

M’lord paused on the steps, three up, and leaned on the banister to speak face to face with Taura, who was watching him in concern. “She wasn’t sure even last week about attending the Emperor’s bonfire tonight, though I thought it would be a valuable distraction. She insisted she was all right when I talked to her earlier. But her Aunt Helen says she’s all to pieces, hiding in her room and crying. This is just not like her. I thought she was tough as anything. Oh, God, Taura. I think I’ve screwed up this whole wedding thing so badly . . . I rushed her into it, and now it’s all coming apart. I can’t imagine how bad the stress must be to make her physically ill.”

“Slow down, dammit, Miles. Look. You said her first marriage was dire, yes?”

“Not bruises and black eyes bad, no. Draining the blood of your spirit out drop by drop for years bad, maybe. I only saw the very end of it. It was pretty gruesome by then.”

“Words can cut worse than knives. The wounds take longer to heal, too.”

She didn’t look at Roic. Roic didn’t look back.

M’lord wonders if he should go see her or not, or if that’s bad luck.  Taura reminds him of pre-combat jitters, and how it can be worse the second time than it is the first time.  She says she saw how Ekaterin looks at Miles, and swears that he’s not the problem–it’s more likely the first husband’s fault.  She encourages him to go be with her and be himself.  M’lord decides she’s probably right, and tells Roic to get a car to bring him over to the Vorthyses’ house while he changes out of his holiday finery.

Roic asks Taura what’s going on, and she says that Ekaterin’s aunt said that she seems to be having some sort of breakdown or something.  She asks Roic if he knows of any pharmaceutical labs that would be open, and Roic, baffled, asks if she’s sick too, because he can always call in the family’s physician; nothing much commercial is going to open on the holiday, except hospital emergency rooms, which will probably be busy.  Taura says she’s not sick herself, she was just wondering, because of something she thought of earlier…  She heads upstairs, and Roic goes off to get M’lord a car, thinking that Taura was, at least, talking to him like normal, so maybe he hadn’t blown it entirely…

Professora Vorthys lets them in; when M’lord asks, she admits he hadn’t told Ekaterin he was coming, but she encourages him to go up and just be with her.  Roic waits in the hall–reflecting that he’d never seen a bad crime scene in a house like this one, rife with books–until the Professora comes back down.  Roic asks if Madame Vorsoisson was sick, and the Professora says she has been, mostly a bad headache, though she’d claimed to be doing better this morning.  She did, at least, agree to see Lord Vorkosigan; the Professora relays his orders for Roic to go back home and wait for him.

When Roic arrives back at Vorkosigan House, nobody else has returned from the Imperial Residence yet.  The house is quiet, which is the best part of night shift, in Roic’s opinion.  He checks the security monitors, then makes a physical pass through the house.  In the entry hall, he hears a creak in the library; he sneaks as quietly as he can over to the doorway and peers inside.  Inside he sees Taura bending over the gifts, and is shocked to see her wrapping up the triple strand of pearls in cloth and pocketing them.

But I liked her. I really liked her. Only now, in this moment of hideous revelation, did he realize just how much he’d come to . . . to admire her in their brief time together. Brief, but so damned awkward. She was really beautiful in her own unique way, if only you looked at her right. For a moment it had seemed as though far suns and strange adventures had beckoned to him from her gold eyes; just possibly, more intimate and exotic adventures than a shy backcountry boy from Hassadar had ever dared to imagine. If only he were a braver man. A handsome prince. Not a fool. But Cinderella was a thief, and the fairytale was gone suddenly sour.

Sick dismay flooded him, as he imagined the altercation, the shame, the wounded friendship and shattered trust that must follow this discovery—he almost turned away. He didn’t know the value of the pearls, but even if it were a city’s ransom he was certain m’lord would trade them in a heartbeat for the ease of spirit he’d had with his old followers.

Knowing they’ll be missed in the morning anyway, Roic turns on the light; Taura, startled, whirls around, and relaxes when she sees it’s him.  Roic tells her to put the pearls back, and she grimaces and tenses up again.  She says she doesn’t dare put them back, but she promises to bring them back tomorrow.  Roic, confused, says it’d need to go through a security check, and Taura asks what kind of checks have already been run on it.  Roic says everything is scanned for explosives and electronics, and the comestibles checked for biologicals and chemicals.  Taura says she wasn’t stealing it, just…borrowing it; Roic asks her to give them to him, and Taura says he mustn’t touch it.  He asks why not, and she asks him how he feels about Miles; Roic tries to explain how he is a Vorkosigan armsman, and how he’s sword to serve his liege lord.  Taura asks then if he could keep a secret from his liege lord that would hurt him, even if he asked…  Roic temporizes, and says she needs to trust him for him to trust her.

She takes the pearls back out and asks him what he sees.  He says he sees pearls, white and shiny; she says she may be a “hideous bioengineered mutant”, but among her modifications is an enhanced visual spectrum, and to her, the pearls look different, like they’re dirty.  And, an hour after Ekaterin put them on for a few minutes, she became so ill she could barely stand.  Roic is shaken when he realizes she’s right, and he says they’ll have to be checked out.  Taura says the problem is that this is Elli Quinn’s gift, and she and Miles had loved each other strongly; if Quinn sent them, then knowing that would wound Miles deeply.  Roic says it was the bride they were meant to kill, or maybe they were only meant as a prank, to make her sick; Taura says that she wouldn’t bet on that, considering how bad Ekaterin is after only a short contact.  Roic says that Taura is the one who knows Elli Quinn, and asks if she thinks this is something Quinn would do.  Taura says maybe, if she was angry enough; Roic says that if she didn’t do it, they should clear her name, and if she did, she doesn’t deserve them to protect it, and waits, tensely, for her response.

Taura says that sometimes people do rash things that they later regret; that’s why she’d wanted to check them in secret, hoping she was wrong.  Roic says that ImpSec can check the gift, everything about it, and find out who’s really behind it…then hunt them down without mercy.  Taura says that they might do that to Quinn, if they decide she’s responsible, and if they’re mistaken…

“ImpSec is competent.”

“Roic, I’m an ImpSec employee. I can absolutely guarantee you, they are not infallible.”

He ran his gaze down the crowded table. “Look. There’s that other wedding gift.” He pointed to the folds of shimmering black blanket, still piled in their box. The room was so quiet, he could hear the live fur’s gentle rumble from here. “Why would she send two? It even came with a dirty limerick, hand-written on a card.” Not presently on display, true. “Madame Vorsoisson laughed out loud when m’lord read it to her.”

A reluctant smile twitched her mouth for a moment. “Oh, that’s Quinn, all right.”

“If that’s truly Quinn, then this”—he pointed at the pearls—”can’t be. Eh? Trust me. Trust your own judgment.”

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There are two plotlines in the story–one the romance plotline with Roic and Taura, and one the mystery plotline with the pearls.  Which is one more than you’d tend to get in a true short story, of course.  The mystery–well, it’s not a murder, as they usually tend to be (except in kids’ books, I suppose), just an attempted murder; those would tend to be easier to solve if the intended victim saw their attacker, so to make it a real mystery you have to make the attack a subtle one, such as this attempted poisoning.  And the romance–well, it doesn’t feel like a romance, to me, at least; I’m not a real authority, not having read more than a handful, but the modern ones that I’ve read tend to have a stronger physical attraction, and in this story it’s fairly subdued.

But some would say that the true definition of romance would be that the emotional relationship between the main characters is at the heart of the story.  It doesn’t start with a magnetic attraction between the two of them, but their relationship does evolve.  Roic is worldly enough that he doesn’t react with unthinking revulsion and hatred at Taura’s blatant mutations, but he still has to overcome his first impressions to see the woman inside the super-soldier.  Taura herself mostly just sees Roic as one of Miles’s many hired hands, but they get thrown together in a few situations–at Estelle’s, at the tea shop, and then doing the run around the block, where a careless comment damages her opinion of him, but perhaps also makes her have to try to assess her own feelings about him, the way that Ekaterin did after Miles’s dinner party.

Which brings us to the central scene of the story–Roic discovering Taura with the pearls.  First it wounds his opinion of her, to think of her as a thief.  He still gives her the benefit of the doubt, which gives her the opportunity to explain her suspicions…which leads into the mystery.  Now he just has to convince her that she can’t keep this to herself, just because the pearls have Elli Quinn’s name on them.  I remember being surprised, at first, that Quinn wasn’t at the wedding, whether she just couldn’t deal with watching Miles marry someone else, but it didn’t quite seem like her.  Anyway, here’s where Roic and Taura begin to trust each other, both of their initial images of the other having been damaged, and maybe the top layer of the social facade peeled away.

Is this the climax of the story?  Obviously it’s not quite over yet, and I’m not sure if the rest of the story is nothing more than denouement, but I can’t think of any other real turning points that come after this, so maybe it is…  Oh, and by the way, apparently Ekaterin’s Aunt Vorthys’s first name is “Helen”.  Don’t think we knew that before…


I’m really taking it easy here, strolling through “Winterfair Gifts” at a leisurely pace, so there’s still one more week, and then I’m sure I’ll take yet another week off.  Then into Diplomatic Immunity…but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Until next week, then…

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As snow, accustomed or unaccustomed, blankets much of North America, we must turn to indoor pursuits to keep us warm and entertained.  So let’s…read a story set in the middle of winter?  Well, at least it’s mostly indoors…  I am, of course, referring to Lois McMaster Bujold’s novella “Winterfair Gifts”, a somewhat interstitial story which actually depicts the wedding strongly implied by the ending of A Civil Campaign…which, of course, ended with a completely different wedding.  The novella originally appeared in the anthology Irresistible Forces, dedicated to science fiction and fantasy romance tales (later reprinted, of course, in the omnibus Miles in Love, as were the two previous novels), and as such is a romance…though not, this time, starring Miles Vorkosigan, despite the fact that it’s his wedding we’re here to see…

Winterfair Gifts (Part 1)

After notification by the gate guard, Armsman Roic drops the house shields and prepares to admit Lord Vorkosigan and his guests.  He checks that his uniform is spotless, flashing back, as he does so, to the horrible humiliation when Lord Vorkosigan had arrived with other guests, to find Roic clad only in briefs and bug butter.  He’s afraid that Lord Vorkosigan thinks he’s an idiot, and castigates himself for not having blocked the Escobarans’ incursion in the first place, even though he hadn’t been on duty at the time.

The groundcar arrives, and Armsman Pym emerges, glancing inside as if to assure himself that there won’t be a repeat of the previous drama for M’Lord’s Important Off-World Wedding Guests.  Pym has also seemed to treat him like an idiot since the bug-butter incident.  Roic stands to attention as Lord Vorkosigan enters with his guests, and Roic identifies them to himself.  The couple with the baby are the Bothari-Jeseks, and Pym has informed Roic that Elena Bothari-Jesek has full rights to the house, as the daughter of a former Armsman.  The man with the jump pilot implants must be the Betan, Arde Mayhew.  The other one…

The hulking figure unfolded from the groundcar and stood up, and up. Pym, who was almost as tall as Roic, did not come quite up to its shoulder. It shook out the swirling folds of a gray and white greatcoat of military cut, and threw back its head. The light from overhead caught the face and gleamed off . . . were those fangs, hooked over the out-slung lower jaw?

Sergeant Taura was the name that went with it, by process of elimination. One of m’lord’s old military buddies, Pym had given Roic to understand, and—don’t be fooled by the rank—of some particular importance (if rather mysterious, as was everything connected with Lord Miles Vorkosigan’s late career in Imperial Security.) Pym was former ImpSec himself. Roic was not, as he was reminded, oh, three times a day on average.

Sergeant Taura enters with the rest, and Roic is startled to discover, after the removal of the greatcoat, that Taura is female.  Lord Vorkosigan asks Roic about his parents, and Roic informs him that they have arrived home from their earlier engagement.  Miles tells Elena that he’ll have to take her and Baby Cordelia up to meet her namesake right away, or else.  He tasks Roic with showing Mayhew and Taura to their rooms, and says they’ll all meet up in the library later.  Roic manages to ask Taura if he can carry her bag, and she acquiesces; he carries it up the stairs for her, though it’s much heavier than he’d expected.  Mayhew, tired and jump-lagged, goes to his room first, and Roic shows Taura to hers.

Taura asks if Winterfair weddings are a custom, and Roic explains it’s mostly because Madame Vorsoisson is a student, between semesters–though a widow, not a young student.  He asks her if Mayhew likes children, since Nikki Vorsoisson is mad for jump pilots; Taura admits that she’s not sure, since the fleet doesn’t encounter that many, and Roic makes a mental note to make sure Nikki doesn’t meet up with a rebuff.  Taura muses that it makes sense for Miles to wed a Vor woman, though she’s not sure what that means, precisely; she asks Roic to explain Vor to her, but he has difficulty articulating it.

“Now that Barrayar has modernized, isn’t a hereditary aristocracy resented by the rest of your classes?”

“But they’re our Vor.”

“Says the Barrayaran. Hm. So, you can criticize them, but heaven help any outsider who dares to?”

“Yes,” he said, relieved that she seemed to have grasped it despite his stumbling tongue.

She asks Roic if this Madame Vorsoisson loves Miles, and Roic assures her that she does, though privately he wonders at her dark and pensive mood of late.  Taura asks if he’s served Lord Vorkosigan long, and Roic says he’s been there about a year, brought up from the Hassadar Municipal Guard when a vacancy came open.  He asks her the same question, and she says she’s served Miles all her life–all her real life, at least–and asserts that he’s a great man.  Roic isn’t sure of that, but Count Vorkosigan certainly is, of course.  He likes Lord Vorkosigan well enough, and sympathizes with the challenges he’s faced because of his…birth injuries.  He tells her the way to the library, says she doesn’t need to dress formally, and takes his leave.

He makes a security circuit of the house, and then returns to the library, where Taura and Mayhew are examining the wedding gifts that have arrived so far–each of them unwrapped, checked by Pym, and rewrapped before the bride and groom even get to see them.  Some of them have been unwrapped again, and Mayhew and Taura look for their own, and Elli Quinn’s–who is not attending.  Taura holds up Elli’s gift–a bioengineered cat blanket–and they speculate on whether it’s the same one that Miles once gave to Elli, or if it’s a new one, and what message she’s trying to send by it; Taura tells Mayhew not to say anything of this to the bride, or else.

Lord Vorkosigan pokes his head out of the library and says that Elena is feeding the baby, and they’ll be down in a little while; he tells Taura to come in and try his cook’s hors d’oeuvres.  As M’Lord looks up at Taura, Roic is suddenly struck that regular women are, to M’Lord, the same proportion as Taura is to Roic.  As Taura heads in, Lord Vorkosigan tells Roic that, tomorrow, he’ll be escorting Taura to Alys Vorpatril’s modiste in the Old Town to get her a proper lady’s wardrobe.  Roic is daunted with the prospect of being in the formidable Lady Alys’s presence, and asks how he managed it; M’Lord says that she relishes and challenge, and hopes that she’ll be able to convince Taura to wear something other than the wholly unsuitable colour pink, which she clings to because it’s supposed to be non-threatening.

He tells Roic to be sure to endorse whatever Lady Alys picks, and also to be sure to try and safeguard Taura from any insult or snub that might make her uncomfortable, as much as possible.  He’d be there himself, but he won’t have time this close to the wedding.  Roic asks after Lady Vorsoisson, thinking of a crying jag he’d come across in a back corridor; M’Lord says she’s under a lot of stress, which he’s trying to minimize, and Roic wonders if he knows too.

M’lord brightened. “Anyway, I want Sergeant Taura to have a great time on her visit to Barrayar, a fabulous Winterfair season. It’s probably the only chance she’ll ever have to see the place. I want her to look back on this week like, like . . . dammit, I want her to feel like Cinderella magicked off to the ball. She’s earned it, God knows. Midnight tolls too damned soon.”

Roic tried to wrap his mind around the concept of Lord Vorkosigan as the enormous woman’s fairy godfather. “So . . . who’s t’ handsome prince?”

M’lord’s smile went crooked; something almost like pain sounded in his indrawn breath. “Ah. Yes. That would be the central problem, now. Wouldn’t it.”

Lady Vorpatril’s modiste is identified by only a single plaque reading Estelle, and Roic is a little daunted as he leads Taura up the stairs.  They enter a room that looks like nothing more than a Vor lady’s drawing room; Lady Vorpatril is already there with another woman, and turn to greet Taura and Roic as they enter; they seem to take Taura in stride, obviously having been pre-warned, but aren’t quite so equable about her pink pantsuit.  Roic not being sure how to do the introductions, Lady Alys takes matters into her own hands and greets Taura warmly; Taura, a little shyly, says she hadn’t known what to expect–someone older and not so beautiful, perhaps.

“I’m very happy to have a chance to visit Miles’s—Lord Vorkosigan’s homeworld,” Taura told them. “Although when he invited me to come for the Winterfair Season, I wasn’t sure if it was hunting or social, and whether I should pack weapons or dresses.”

Lady Vorpatril’s smile sharpened. “Dresses are weapons, my dear, in sufficiently skilled hands. Permit us to introduce you to the rest of our ordnance team.” She gestured toward a door at the far end of the room, through which presumably lay more utilitarian work rooms, full of laser scanners and design consoles and bolts of exotic fabrics and expert seamstresses. Or magic wands, for all Roic knew.

Roic asks, in mild panic, what he should do, and Lady Alys just tells him to wait.  Not daring to sit on the furniture, he keeps standing, in a position he can maintain for hours if necessary.  Lady Alys returns shortly with Taura’s pink outfit, and gives them to Roic with instructions to see them hidden, or burned, so that they won’t fall into Taura’s hands again.  She dismisses him and tells him to come back in about four hours; ornamental as he is, there’s no need for him to clutter up the reception room.  When he returns, he has to wait for a little longer before Lady Alys emerges, watching carefully for his reaction.

A stunning vision in hunter green stepped through behind her.

Oh, it was still Taura, certainly, but . . . the skin that had been sallow and dull against the pink was now revealed as a glowing ivory. The green jacket fit very trimly about the waist. Above, her pale shoulders and long neck seemed to bloom from a white linen collar; below, the jacket skirt skimmed out briefly around the upper hips. A narrow skirt continued the long green fall to her firm calves. Wide linen cuffs decorated with subtle white braid made her hands look, if not small, well-proportioned. The pink nail polish was gone, replaced by a dark mahogany shade. The heavy braid hanging down her back had been transformed into a mysteriously knotted arrangement, clinging close to her head and set off with a green . . . hat? feather? anyway, a neat little accent tilted to the other side. The odd shape of her face seemed suddenly artistic and sophisticated rather than distorted.

“Ye-es,” said Lady Vorpatril. “That will do.”

Roic closed his mouth.

Taura asks how she’s supposed to bodyguard anyone in an outfit like this; Lady Alys says that men will be lining up to deal with annoying people, which Roic enthusiastically agrees with.  Taura asks if it’s effective, and Roic agrees that it’s terrifying; this dampens Taura’s enthusiasm, and she complains that she already terrifies people, and asks if she shouldn’t wear the pink after all…  Lady Alys desperately tries to persuade her that that’s for younger girls, and she herself would never wear pink bows…  Taura will just have to settle for braver men, she says; Taura says she already knew that, but hoped that fewer of them would be put off.  Although the one she wants is already taken, she says, and Roic wonders what giant of a man she’s referring to.

Lady Alys then takes them to an exclusive tea room, at least partly to refuel Taura’s metabolism, but also for Lady Alys to brief her on proper conduct and manners; Taura absorbs the instruction with fair ease, before Roic’s eyes.  Roic is used as a practice gentleman in some examples, bringing him in for some correction himself, but he reassures himself that next to Taura he’s almost invisible.

During Lady Alys’s brief absence, Taura says that she’s obviously very good at what she does, as Miles’s people generally are.  Just then, a woman passes by the table with a small child, who points out Taura to her mother; Taura tries a reassuring smile, but the child screams in fear, and her mother swiftly takes her out of the tea room.  Taura’s mood seems utterly deflated, and Roic castigates himself for not having dealt with the incident, which was exactly the kind of thing Lord Vorkosigan had tasked him to do.  Lady Alys returns and tries to reassure Taura, but Taura starts to withdraw into herself and try to hide her mouth.  Roic wishes he was back in Hassadar.

He feels much the worse for wear when he arrives back at Vorkosigan House with Lady Alys and Taura, carrying an armload of parcels (and that only a part of what they had bought at Estelle’s).  M’lord calls them in to the library, where he introduces Taura to Madame Vorsoisson, who greets the large galactic woman with aplomb despite her visible fatigue.  M’lord compliments Taura’s new outfit and hairdo, though Taura points out that she does use dye to hide the gray.  Voices from the hall turn out to be Pym admitting Simon Illyan, who takes Lady Alys’s arm and tells Taura he’s glad to actually meet her at last.

Illyan tells Miles that ImpSec has arrested Lord Vorbataille as he was trying to sneak off the planet, and Miles is relieved to hear it, having hoped to get the case closed before Winterfair.  Taura asks for details, and M’lord explains that Lord Vorbataille, heir to a Countship, had gotten in deep with a Jacksonian smuggling ring; the Jacksonians have been dealt with, but Vorbataille was still at large until now.  M’lord expects that the Lord will either be given the chance for a proper suicide, or else merely executed.  The Emperor had, after the hijacking of the Princess Olivia, and the deaths of its passengers, been especially fervent in his desire to see them all brought to justice.  Roic wishes to himself that he’d been able to take part in the case, but Pym has had him on night duty for weeks and weeks.

To change the subject, M’lord encourages Madame Vorsoisson to open her next gift, another one from Elli Quinn, according to the card.  It turns out to be a triple-strand pearl choker, all the way from Earth; she puts it on just for a moment, but takes them off after a brief look in the mirror, saying that they’ll go better with her wedding outfit, and Lady Alys heartily agrees.  M’lord seems relieved to hear this, but Taura frowns.  M’lord says he needs to speak to Illyan, and Lady Alys takes Taura off to freshen up; Madame Vorsoisson says that Nikki is monopolizing Arde Mayhew, and heads off to rescue the pilot.

Roic asks Madame Vorsoisson if she knows how old Sergeant Taura is; she says Taura is twenty-six.  Roic wonders why she had gray hairs, if she’s bioengineered and all, and Madame Vorsoisson says it’s not hers to say.  She can tell him that Miles rescued her a super-soldier project on Jackson’s Whole, and adds that she’s become a valued operative and occasional lover.  Roic is surprised that she seems fine with that, and she says that it was before her time, and now that she’s met Taura, she thinks Miles was bragging a little when he told her of it.  Madame Vorsoisson refuses to comment on Roic’s incredulous queries on the logistics of it, apart from saying that “a height differential matters much less when two people are lying down”.

Only an hour later, Roic is asked to bring the ground-car around, to take Madame Vorsoisson back home; she seems to be feeling poorly, but she insists it’s just a headache, no fever.  M’lord hesitantly suggests that it might just be nerves; Madame Vorsoisson isn’t sure.  M’lord apologizes if the pressures of the wedding are getting too great, and says he’ll call it off if she wants him to.  She says she needs to get home in case she get seriously ill, and Roic takes her arm; M’lord says he’ll send Nikki home later as Roic helps her into the groundcar, where she sits with her head cradled in her hands.

Comments

This novella is such an odd duck for the Vorkosigan stories.  Roic as a viewpoint character, a plot as much concerned with the developing relationship between him and Taura as it is with the mystery of Ekaterin’s sudden illness…  Actually, in some ways I think of it was more of a novelette than a novella–a long short story, rather than a short novel.  The scene and timeframe are fairly compressed, the action somewhat more slight–I don’t think there’s really a physical confrontation at all, for instance.  “The Mountains of Mourning” might be on a similar scale, i suppose, as opposed to the more robust adventure of “Labyrinth” or “The Borders of Infinity”.  The “Weatherman” novella, drawn from the beginning of The Vor Game, might be even closer.

At this point we’d barely seen Roic, just as one of the new Armsmen from A Civil Campaign, and the one who got himself into the biggest mess (literally) at the end.  (I’m reminded of how Pym is “the new Armsman” back in “Mountains of Mourning”, which I suppose is a few years ago by now…)  It’s nice to see him with a little different background, a Hassadar police officer rather than retired ImpSec or other military service, though he is still a little awkward among the nobility.  I read this story somewhat after Diplomatic Immunity, where we see a little more of Roic, though not POV there either.

One of the struggles in doing things from Roic’s POV, for me, is trying to call the characters what he would call them.  So, not just using “Miles” or “Ekaterin”, but “Lord Vorkosigan” (thankfully, usually abbreviated to “M’lord”) and “Madame Vorsoisson”.  I confess I’m usually not nearly that scrupulous–even from Miles’s POV, I’ll usually just call his parents “Aral” and “Cordelia”, but I’ll try to keep it up for Roic’s story here.


I confess I may be a bit lazy in splitting the story up into three parts, as I am, but I found the long chapters of A Civil Campaign somewhat wearying, at times, and I’m happy enough to pull back a little.  I mean, some of those chapters were over 10,000 words–almost half the length of this novella–so maybe I could do it in one installment, but I’d wear myself out.  So I’ll pace myself more this time, and split it–at scene breaks, at least–into rough thirds.  Until next week, then…

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Clever ideas for blog post introductions having temporarily (I hope) forsaken me, I will prosaically welcome you back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, the results of my rereading the Vorkosigan Saga, as I’ve done several times in the past.  This time, though, I am endeavouring to share with you my insights into the novels and stories of Lois McMaster Bujold, at least the ones that concern the Vorkosigan family of Barrayar and their close friends and associates.  This week we cover the third and fourth chapters of Memory, the prosaically-titled but nonetheless fascinating story of what happens to Miles Vorkosigan when everything that gives his life meaning is put into jeopardy…

Chapter Three

Because they need adjoining rooms, for security reasons, Miles and Taura are obliged to take luxury suites on the ship to Tau Ceti.  After that he will have to travel as boring old Lieutenant Lord Miles Vorkosigan, and deal with people suspecting him of having a cushy courier job because of his family connections.  But he has a week until then to spend in room service-catered luxury, with Taura.

After Taura completes her security sweep of the cabins and they leave orbit, Miles tells her to take a week-long vacation.  He reminisces about their first time together, and he can still remember every time they’ve made love, both before and since his relationship with Elli Quinn.

Oh, they’d tried to be good. Dendarii regs against cross-rank fraternization were for the benefit of all, to protect the rankers from exploitation and the officers from losing control of discipline, or worse. And Miles had been quite determined, as the young and earnest Admiral Naismith, to set a good example for his troops, a virtuous resolve that had slipped away . . . somewhere. After the umpteenth we’ve-lost-count-again time he had been almost killed, perhaps.

Well, if you couldn’t be good, at least you could be discreet.

Taura kisses him and then heads to the bathroom to freshen up.  He encourages her to take her time and be decadent.  She rarely gets to indulge her feminine side, but she feels safe to do it with him.  He does sometimes have to discourage her from the extremities of pink that she keeps trying to festoon herself in.  She does not disappoint when she returns, in creamy and shimmery fabric.  She’s also trimmed her claws, to keep from leaving embarrassing scratches this time.  He notices that he feels a little defensive about his arrangement with Taura, and wonders if he’s breaking his own rules by doing this.

Later he wakes to watch her as she sleeps, a rare gift for her to feel safe enough for that.  Her flesh is hot because of her heightened metabolism, which is also shortening her lifespan, though an active Dendarii medical project is lengthening that as much as possible.  Taura already has a few grey hairs, at the age of twenty-two.

It’s a good thing she loves Admiral Naismith. Lord Vorkosigan couldn’t handle this.

He thought a bit guiltily of Admiral Naismith’s other lover, the public and acknowledged Quinn. Nobody had to explain or excuse being in love with the beautiful Quinn. She was self-evidently his match.

He was not, exactly, being unfaithful to Elli Quinn. Technically, Taura predated her. And he and Quinn had exchanged no vows, no oaths, no promises. Not for lack of asking; he’d asked her a painful number of times. But she too was in love with Admiral Naismith. Not Lord Vorkosigan. The thought of becoming Lady Vorkosigan, grounded downside forever on a planet she herself had stigmatized as a “backwater dirtball,” had been enough to send space-bred Quinn screaming in the opposite direction, or at least, excusing herself uneasily.

Admiral Naismith’s sex life is astonishing and mostly free of strings, but it’s not satisfying him anymore.  Lieutenant Lord Vorkosigan, he suddenly realizes, has no sex life at all, and he wonders when that happened.

Taura awakens and they eat, Miles feeling no guilt about ordering everything because he knows she’ll take care of any leftovers.  They reminisce about his rescue of her, and he reminds her that he was actually sent to kill her.  She says he changed that, and he seems to like rescues better than any other mission.  She wonders if he’s like one of those people who give other people the gift they want themselves–if he needs to be rescued, or wants freedom that he doesn’t have.  Miles changes the subject, and then the food arrives.

He asks if she had been surprised to find out his true identity, and she says she’d always suspected he was secretly a prince.  Miles says far from that, never having wanted the Imperium, and he wonders if Admiral Naismith is more real than Lieutenant Lord Vorkosigan; it certainly seems to be the easier identity to slip into.  Returning to the earlier topic, he says he doesn’t really want “freedom”, especially not in the sense of having no responsibilities.  He wants to be himself, to the fullest, and achieve whatever destiny that brings him.  He wonders if being Naismith is that; he’s never been able to bring himself to abandon Barrayar entirely and take the Dendarii with him, especially with the consequences Miles having a private army would bring down upon his father.  He doesn’t look forward to taking his father’s place one day, being Count, and the duties that go with that…

Taura asks after Mark; Miles says he went to Sergyar with their parents, then continued on to Beta Colony, living with their grandmother and studying accounting.  Miles doesn’t understand that choice, and wonders why they aren’t more similar; Taura says maybe he’ll learn to like accounting later.  Miles’s thoughts turn to the Duronas, and he wonders if Mark knows how they’re doing on Escobar…and if they could help him out with his medical issues, sub rosa.  If he went to visit Sergyar, he could maybe sneak from there to Escobar…and maybe even convince Illyan he’s visiting Rowan Durona for romantic reasons.  Then he could get cured and resume his duties without anyone else being the wiser.  He begins to wish he hadn’t deleted the other copy of the mission report.

Resolved to his Escobar plan, he turns back to a gastronomically-sated Taura to fulfill other appetites.

Comments

A lot of backstory in this chapter…and backstory that you’ve seen if you read all the other books.  But it does add on a few details, like the fact that Miles and Taura’s relationship is now depicted as an on-again off-again thing.  After the pass she made at Mark back in _Mirror Dance_, based only on the fact that Quinn wasn’t on the mission, it shouldn’t be that surprising.  I’m not as sanguine as Miles that Elli is, or would be, okay with it.  Maybe she knows, maybe not.  Maybe she doesn’t envision a married life with Lord Vorkosigan on Barrayar…but she might nonetheless want them to be monogamous and committed to each other with the Dendarii.  He even thinks to himself that he may be breaking his own rules.  After all, Elli was incensed when he chose Taura as a bodyguard for this trip, so I’m sure Quinn knows about the hanky-panky that was likely to ensue, and she didn’t like it.

In other words, Miles does something stupid and insensitive again, which is a little out of character for him.  He’s still in denial, or is it bargaining now?  Promising that he’ll go to Escobar and get things fixed up on the hush-hush, and then everything can go back to normal.  But there are those nagging doubts–he’s not satisfied with either of his identities right now, Lord Vorkosigan being dull and sexless, but Admiral Naismith starting to feel a little hollow.  He’s still leaning towards Naismith, but his health issues are putting Naismith in danger, and threatening to take the choice out of his hands, so he’s panicking.

Maybe it’s just me, but after so much was made of her short lifespan, I began to wonder if Taura was ever going to actually die.  They make the point, several times, throughout the later books, that they’d managed to heroically extend her life by quite a bit, but I confess that it began to wear on me a bit.  They don’t have to show her on her deathbed, coughing up blood and shedding hair by the bucketful, but…well, I suppose it’s painful to say goodbye to loved characters sometimes, even if one is the author.  And not every death can be a heroic sacrifice used as a crucial blow against the enemy.  Lois McMaster Bujold is certainly no George R.R. Martin, and it’s true that more advanced societies accept death less casually (at least, according to the Steven Pinker book I’m reading right now), and have the technology to fight it more successfully in Bujold’s far future.  But it exists, it’s a fact, and reminding us that one character is living on borrowed time, and then continuing to lend her time, can begin to wear a little thin.  I think they did establish by the time of Cryoburn that she was dead, at least.  Not that I dislike the character that much (though she’s not actually a favourite), but an author has certain obligations to follow through on these things…

Chapter Four

Upon arriving in Vorbarr Sultana, Miles is picked up by an ImpSec car, which he wishes would dawdle a little more on its way to the ugly headquarters building.  As he stands outside the door, he’s fast losing confidence in his Escobar plan, and decides he’ll have to deliver his notes on the seizure verbally to Illyan, pretending that he thought they were too sensitive to commit to even a confidential report.

Decision made, he heads inside, checking his coat and heading for Illyan’s office unescorted.  Illyan’s secretary is chatting with General Lucas Haroche, Head of ImpSec’s Domestic Affairs division, in charge of covering investigations of plots based on the homeworld, as Guy Allegre does on Komarr.  Miles generally deals with the Galactic Affairs office on Komarr, if not Illyan himself, but he hadn’t been given time to stop in there.  Miles greets them, and the secretary asks for the report; Miles says he’d rather deliver it in person, but the secretary says Illyan is out of town.  Reluctantly, Miles leaves the cipher-case with the report, rejecting the secretary’s offer to pass on Miles’s extra verbal information, and makes do with leaving a message for Illyan to contact him as soon as possible.

He asks if Illyan left any orders for him, but he didn’t, despite the supposed urgency of Miles’s return.  Miles asks if he can go visit his parents, hoping to skive off to Escobar after all, but he’s told that he has to keep himself available on one-hour notice.  Haroche asks after Miles’s parents, but Miles says his mail hasn’t caught up with him yet, and Haroche likely has more up-to-date information than he does, but Haroche tells him that Sergyar has been split off from Domestic Affairs into its own bureau, despite the small size of its colony.  Miles expresses surprise, but allows that Sergyar’s position in the nexus gives it a certain importance.  He bids them farewell and says he might as well head home.

On his way out, he bumps into Duv Galeni.  Last Miles had heard, Galeni had been working on Komarr, but Galeni says he’d requested a transfer back to Barrayar…  He’s interested in a Komarran woman from the Toscane family, who has come to Vorbarr Sultana as a government lobbyist, and decided to follow her.  Galeni admits his relationship is still more hopeful than actual, and Miles wishes him luck.  Miles says he’s headed home, and Galeni bids him farewell.  At the exit, Miles pauses to consider how exactly he’ll get home, since the entire Vorkosigan household has decamped to Sergyar, and so there won’t be any Armsmen there to pick him up.  He considers the safety of ordering a public taxi, and decides that the weather is not awful, so he’ll walk home.

His walk is uneventful–no attention spared for his deformities, and he’s not sure whether having his spine straightened had that much of an effect, or if Vorbarr Sultana’s denizens are getting better.  Vorkosigan House is situated on a block that used to have three mansions; one of them was torn down to make a park, and the other bought by the Imperium and turned into offices.

Vorkosigan House sat in the center, set off from the street by a narrow green strip of lawn and garden in the loop of the semicircular drive. A stone wall topped with black wrought-iron spikes surrounded it all. The four stories of great gray stone blocks, in two main wings plus some extra odd architectural bits, rose in a vast archaic mass. All it needed was window slits and a moat.

The guard kiosk is manned only an ImpSec corporal who salutes Miles, telling him that his luggage has already arrived.  He says the most excitement they’ve had since the Count and Countess left was a stray cat getting caught in the defenses; Miles spots a few signs that the cat is none the worse for wear and has in fact been adopted by the guards.  Keeping a pet on duty is against regulations, but Miles realizes the man must be bored and decides to overlook it; he asks what they named it, and the corporal admits they called it “Zap”.  Miles heads inside, considering how young the corporal seems to him.  He opens the automatic door and enters the disconcertingly empty house.

Keeping the lights down, he explores in unaccustomed solitude, finding half the furniture gone and the rest covered up.  There is a lightflyer and a groundcar, but the risk of seizures makes him an unsafe driver or pilot.  He’s been cadging a lot of rides since his cryo-revival.  The kitchen is empty of food, which he makes a note to get some of if he’s going to be here for any length of time.  Maybe a servant, too–not a stranger, but maybe some pensioner could come back for a few days.  Or maybe he can just get some instant meals.  There’s still wine in the cellar, so he brings up a couple of bottles of “a particularly chewy red” from his grandfather’s day.

He heads up to his third-floor room, turning on the lights this time; his room hasn’t really been lived in for a while, even when he was recuperating a few months ago.  He considers his utter freedom to do whatever he wants, except go to Escobar to get his head examined.  He unpacks his clothing and changes into more comfortable clothes.  He’s been avoiding alcohol in case it exacerbates his seizures, but now he’s planning to stay in until Illyan calls for him, so he pours himself some.  Planning to have some food later, he instead drops off to sleep after two-thirds of a bottle.

By noon the next day the problem of food was becoming acute, despite a couple of painkillers for breakfast, and the absence of coffee and tea turning downright desperate. I’m ImpSec trained. I can figure out this problem. Somebody must have been going for groceries all these years . . . no, come to think of it, kitchen supplies had been delivered daily by a lift-van; he remembered the Armsmen inspecting it.

He inspects the computer records, finds the name of the supplier, boggles at the quantities they were ordering, and instead just walks down to a nearby store.  He grabs coffee, tea, eggs, and some prepackaged food (“Reddi-Meals!”), as well as some cat food.

He gathered up his spoils and took them to the checkout, where the clerk looked him up and down and gave him a peculiar smile. He braced himself inwardly for some snide remark, Ah, mutant? He should have worn his ImpSec uniform; nobody dared sneer at that Horus-eye winking from his collar. But what she said was, “Ah. Bachelor?”

After he’s finally had some food, he still has lots of time to kill, some of which he spends looking up medical clinics and ranking them by reputation and likelihood they’ll keep his visit secret from ImpSec.  He paces around the house, dredging up old memories.

For his evening meal, Miles decided to keep up the standards. He donned his dress greens, pulled all the covers off the furniture in the State dining room, and set up his wine with a proper crystal glass at the head of the meters-long table. He almost hunted up a plate, but reflected he could save the washing up by eating the Reddi-Meal! out of its packet. He piped in soft music. Other than that, dinner took about five minutes. When he’d finished, he dutifully put the covers back on the polished wood and fine chairs.

He wishes some of the Dendarii were there so he could have a real party.  The next evening, he’s driven to call Ivan, who’s surprised to see him back in town.  He tells Ivan about how he’s rattling around in Vorkosigan House; Ivan says it’s appropriate for the formerly-dead Miles to be in such a mausoleum.  Ivan says there’s not much going on, between Emperor’s Birthday (where he’d had to deliver the Vorkosigans’ bag of gold) and Winterfair, but apparently Gregor is having a state dinner in a couple of days, and Lady Alys had asked Ivan to bring some younger people for dancing later.  Miles surmises she really wants Ivan to bring a date, or a fiancée; he says he doesn’t have a date, and Ivan says he should ask one of the Koudelka girls.

“Did you ask Delia?” said Miles thoughtfully.

“Yeah. But I’ll cede her to you if you like, and take Martya. But if you’re escorting Delia, you have to promise not to make her wear high heels. She hates it when you make her wear high heels.”

“But she’s so . . . impressive in them.”

Miles asks Ivan for a ride, pretending his is in the shop, before he realizes that would result in Ivan driving him.  Instead, he remembers Duv Galeni and offers to invite him along.  Galeni can bring this Komarran girl along, impressing her with an official state dinner, and he can drive Miles instead.  Ivan says he’d been to do something to welcome Galeni to the capital anyway, and this is just the ticket.

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I enjoy the scenes with Miles in the empty Vorkosigan House, living the bachelor lifestyle.  I’m almost surprised that Vorkosigan House is quite that deserted, but I guess it is still under guard, so it’s not likely that squatters are going to break in and set up house there.  At the moment he’s still convinced he’s going to be out of there soon and back to the fleet, so he’s not putting down any roots yet.

Illyan does seem to be deliberately avoiding Miles at this point.  He should have been able to determine when Miles would be returning to the capital and make himself available, if he’d wanted to–there doesn’t seem to be any actual crisis calling him away, though I suppose that part’s a bit vague.  So it seems that summoning Miles back, just to make him wait, is less an urgent need for Miles than it is an urgent need for Miles to not be with the Dendarii right then.  Could it be that Illyan has some dire suspicion about Miles’s intentions?  Or perhaps he knows something that would make it dangerous to leave Miles in charge of a mercenary fleet?  Or to be doing combat missions in space armour?  Nah, couldn’t be.

Finally, we have one of the more fateful conversations in Barrayaran history.  If it hadn’t been for Miles not wanting to drive but not wanting Ivan to drive either, would they have thought to invite Duv Galeni along?  Would the meeting between Gregor and Ms. Toscane have taken place at the right time, before she gave in to Duv’s deliberate charms?  Also, the return of the Koudelkas, or at least Delia; probably we won’t see much of Kareen, who may very well be on Beta Colony right now, if Mark is…

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It’s the Barrayar scenes–most of the book, from Chapter Four onward, really–that make Memory one of my favourites, so I’m glad that there’s a lot of them coming up.  Though admittedly they’re not all cheerful ones…as we’ll probably find out in the next couple of weeks.  Oh, sure, a lot of them just look like Miles being at loose ends, but I enjoy them nonetheless.  So come back next week, and we’ll see…

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Against all odds, another installment of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread has crawled up out of the depths of the Internet and found its way onto this blog.  It has digested two more chapters of Mirror Dance, the 29th and 30th ones, bringing us even closer to the end of the current book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.  Let’s see what it’s made of, shall we?

Chapter Twenty-Nine

The Ryoval guards bring Miles to the Ryoval facility, but they are disturbed to find doors open, vehicles missing, and guard posts unattended.  They let themselves in, and strip Miles as per their orders, but they’re reluctant to do more without further instructions, Ryoval not being supportive of individual initiative.  They bring Miles into the facility in search of the Baron, hands still cuffed behind his back.  Miles deduces that this is Ryoval’s new research facility, relocated after his raid of a few years earlier.

They reach Ryoval’s office, and again wait several minutes before the guards get the nerve to go inside, though at least they also decide not to beat Miles up while they wait.  Finally one of the guards explores a little further, and cries out upon finding Ryoval’s dead body; the other guard brings Miles to join him.  Ryoval’s brain has been burned out, and his hand cut off.  Miles wonders exactly what type of control Ryoval had over his guards, to have them flawlessly obedient while not complete automata.  He concludes that Ryoval must have been a nearly godlike figure for them, and begins to be apprehensive of what they’ll do after his sudden removal.

The senior guard explores the rest of the office and returns to declare Ryoval’s flier gone and his defenses broken down.  While they waver in indecision, Miles suggests they look for other survivors and witnesses, maybe even the assassin, while silently wondering about Mark.  They argue about what to do with Miles, finally electing to bring him along.  In the rest of the facility, they find dead guards and techs, random bloodstains, signs of violence and vandalism.  In the lowest level, four of Ryoval’s most extreme experiments, barely even human any more, have been dispatched by some merciful tech.  He ascertains none of them was Mark, though he suspects them to have been former Ryoval employees.  Seized by inspiration, Miles claims to have seen one of the creatures move.

“Can’t have.” The senior guard stared through the transparent wall at a body which lay with its back to them.

“He couldn’t possibly have witnessed anything from in there, could he?” said Miles. “For God’s sake, don’t open the door.”

“Shut up.” The senior guard chewed his lip, stared at the control virtual, and after an irresolute moment, coded open the door and trod cautiously within.

“Gah!” said Miles.

“What?” snapped the junior guard.

“He moved again. He, he, sort of spasmed.”

Once both guards are in the room, Miles shuts the door and locks them in.  When one begins trying to cut his way out with a plasma arc, Miles turns down the oxygen until they pass out.  Then he finds some cutters and manages to cut his shackles.  He finds no weapons but a laser-scalpel, and heads back through the facility, wishing for some clothes.  He wonders if Mark is locked up somewhere, and breaks open every door he can find in a frantic and fruitless search.  In the small cell near Ryoval’s quarters, he finds traces of a former occupant, blood and other stains.  No Mark, though, so he resolves to find his way out.

He hacks his way past the locks on Ryoval’s comconsole and finally gets access to public channels.  He eventually decides to call the Barrayaran consulate, i.e. ImpSec, pretending to be Admiral Naismith, and wonders why they hadn’t come here looking for Mark already.  Half an hour later a Lieutenant Iverson comes down with a squad, expressing disbelief that the facility is already secured, and telling Miles they’ve been looking for this place for years.  Miles asks after Mark, but Iverson only know about a tip to raid House Bharaputra, obviously placed by Rowan after her escape, but Miles says he’s not there anymore.  He asks after the Dendarii, and Iverson says they’re sending a squad as well.

The Dendarii representatives shows up armoured, and Quinn is ecstatic to see Miles himself again, but he addresses her on a professional footing and asks what’s been going on.

She looked slightly overwhelmed. “Since when? When you were killed—”

“Start from five days ago. When you came to the Durona Group.”

“We came looking for you. Found you, after nearly four bleeding months!”

“You were stunned, Mark was taken, and Lilly Durona hustled me and my surgeon off to what she thought was going to be safety,” Miles cued her to the focus he wanted.

She says that at first Lilly Durona wasn’t concerned about his disappearance, but eventually realized that Miles and Rowan hadn’t just gone to ground.  ImpSec took some time to work through their pet theory of Cetagandan agents and start focusing on finding Miles and Mark.

“Right. But you suspected Ryoval had Mark.”

“But Ryoval wanted Admiral Naismith. We thought Ryoval would figure out he had the wrong man.”

He ran his hands over his face. His head was aching. And so was his stomach. “Did you ever figure that Ryoval wouldn’t care? In a few minutes, I want you to go down the corridor and look at the cell they kept him in. And smell it. I want you to look closely. In fact, go now. Sergeant Taura, stay.”

Taura tells him that Quinn had no respect for Mark at all, but she herself came to realize that he’d come very close to success with the creche raid, and he was trying very hard when nobody else was trying at all.  He asks how they could leave Mark in Ryoval’s clutches for days, and she insists they really did think he’d figure out he had the wrong one.  Miles hopes things weren’t as bad as they looked.  Once the other Dendarii return, he tells them it’s time to focus on Mark.

Elena asks Miles who he thinks killed Ryoval, noting that it was an unarmed fighter who was also handy with a tool kit, and says she thinks it was Mark.  Miles expresses disbelief, but Elena tells him about the fight in Vorbarr Sultana, and notes that he was intended to kill Aral Vorkosigan.  Miles realizes that, out of touch as he is, not to mention the seizures and his still-growing organs, he may not be the best choice to be in charge.  Elena starts to tell him something else about his father when they’re interrupted by Iverson telling him that Baron Fell has just arrived to collect Ryoval’s body.  Miles tells him to let Fell in with one bodyguard, and they’ll talk.

Fell and Miles bandy words for a few minutes; Miles tells Fell how he was brought to the facility and found it pretty much that way.  Fell notes that he’s heard from a first-hand source, probably a Ryoval employee who fled to inform him.  They go to examine the body; Fell notes the missing hand and laser marks in the head, and says he’d love to find whoever did this and offer them a job.

Just then a call arrives at Ryoval’s private console, which Fell says could only be accessed from outside with the code-key.  Miles is flabbergasted to see Mark on the screen, looking fleshly scrubbed but with bruises all over his face; Mark is glad to see Miles come back to himself.

“I’m at Lilly Durona’s. God, Miles. What a place. What a woman. She let me have a bath. She put my skin back on. She fixed my foot. She gave me a hypo of muscle-relaxant for my back. With her own hands, she performed medical services too intimate and disgusting to describe, but very badly needed, I assure you, and held my head while I screamed. Did I mention the bath? I love her, and I want to marry her.”

All this was delivered with such dead-pan enthusiasm, Miles could not tell if Mark was joking. “What are you on?” he asked suspiciously.

“Pain killers. Lots and lots of pain killers. Oh, it’s wonderful!” He favored Miles with a weird broad grin. “But don’t worry, my head is perfectly clear. It’s just the bath. I was holding it together till she gave me the bath. It unmanned me. Do you know what a wonderful thing a bath is, when you’re washing off—never mind.”

Fell leans forward to ask Mark about the code-key, and Mark invites them all to “tea” at Lilly’s, including the ImpSec troops, because his own are too tired.  Fell asks if he really knows what he’s doing, and Mark assures them that he does, and wonders why nobody believes him.  Fell asks to speak to Lilly, but Mark says he can come along and talk to her directly; Fell agrees.  Mark asks if Elena is there, and says he wants a private word with “his armswoman”.  Miles is confused by the reference, but allows himself to be ejected.  Iverson arranges transport to the Duronas; Elena emerges to say Mark has given her some orders and she’ll have to catch up.

“That was Mark?” Miles muttered, heading reluctantly in the opposite direction. He couldn’t have acquired some other clone-brother while he was dead, could he? “It didn’t sound like Mark. For one thing, he sounded like he was glad to see me. That’s Mark?”

“Oh, yes,” said Quinn. “That was Mark all right.”

He quickened his pace. Even Taura had to lengthen her stride to keep up.

Comments

I guess some time passed between Mark’s departure and Miles’s arrival–how long?  Hours?  A day?  Somebody must have finally decided to check on the Baron before all hell broke loose.  Looks like it was only Ryoval, his threats and his conditioning that were holding his House together, because it disintegrated pretty quickly after that.  And Miles uses his fast-talk ability yet again to disable his enemies–that’s his own variety of unarmed combat.

I’m not sure that Miles, posing as Admiral Naismith, should have been getting quite as much cooperation from ImpSec as he did here, but maybe there were standing orders of some sort.  What would Illyan have to say about Naismith, after all?  If he knew that Mark was unlikely to be able to pose as him successfully, any Naismith that showed up would have to be Miles, and if Miles were alive…

Miles spends a lot of time worried about Mark and his fate, so it’s hilarious to see how well Mark has things in hand when he does call in.  And Miles is having a hard time catching up on developments with his twin during, and mostly due to, his period of death and recovery.  Elena, Taura, and even Quinn seem to have been won over to great or lesser degrees.  (Bel is technically in this chapter, but keeping pretty quiet.)

I would’ve thought that Taura might have had a few flashbacks about entering House Ryoval again.  Admittedly, it is a completely different facility from the one she was held in before, but the name would still probably give her foreboding, not to mention it’d probably have something of the same aura, possibly even the smell…

Chapter Thirty

The Dendarii, Baron Fell, and ImpSec (in a shuttle borrowed from House Dyne) arrive at the Durona clinic close to the same time.

As they were circling for a landing, Miles asked Quinn, who was piloting, “Elli—if we were flying along, in a lightflyer or an aircar or something, and I suddenly ordered you to crash it, would you?”

“Now?” asked Quinn, startled. The shuttle lurched.

“No! Not now. I mean theoretically. Obey, instantly, no questions asked.”

“Well, sure, I suppose so. I’d ask questions afterward though. Probably with my hands wrapped around your neck.”

“That’s what I thought.” Miles sat back, satisfied.

Baron Fell isn’t sure about letting the three armoured Dendarii accompany Miles into a House Fell facility, but Miles says that after the earlier force-screen failure, he feels like he needs a bodyguard.  He offers to leave the ImpSec contingent outside, and the Baron agrees.

Mark has staged a tableau in Lilly Durona’s penthouse, sitting himself in Lilly’s chair, broken foot propped up, surrounded by Duronas, including Lilly herself, but not Rowan.  A severed hand sits in a box on Lilly’s tea table, wearing a silver ring set with a large black gemstone.  Miles is disturbed at how bloated Mark looks, even though most of his body is covered up, leaving only his bruised face on display.  Mark’s right hand sits on top of a small control box, his finger on a button.

Baron Fell sees the box and makes a beeline for it, but Mark stops him, telling him that he’s got his finger on a deadman switch that will set off a small thermal grenade to incinerate the contents of the box, with another controller outside the room as a backup.  He warns them not to stun, jump, or annoy him or he’ll set it off.  Fell says he must know how valuable that is, and thus he’s bluffing, and Mark says he’s not feeling too kindly toward House Ryoval right now, but he’s willing to Deal with the Baron.

Fell and Miles sit down, their respective bodyguards wary, and Lilly offers tea.  Miles realizes that this is Mark’s show, but he wonders how sane Mark is at the moment.  Tea is served for Mark and Fell, though Mark’s hand is shaking badly and the young Durona serving girl lifts it to his mouth.  Mark then begins, stating that the ring on the hand in the box is Ryoval’s personal code-key, and that soon after Baron Ryoval’s death the vultures will begin descending on the House’s carcass.  He notes that someone in possession of the code-key would have a distinct advantage in the race to acquire Ryoval’s assets, and with Baron Fell being an actual blood relative, it would make his claim almost ironclad.  Fell says it’s not Mark’s to trade, and Mark says that it is–he paid for it, he earned it, and he can destroy it.

He then asks Baron Fell what the value of the Durona Group is, relative to House Ryoval.  Fell says it’s hard to calculate, but not more than a twentieth, though the intellectual property’s value is harder to calculate.  Mark offers him House Ryoval in exchange for the Durona Group, with an “agent’s fee” of 10% of Ryoval’s value.  Fell asks what he plans to do with the Duronas, and Mark says he will give them their freedom and let them go “where they wist”, most likely Escobar.  Fell sits back to think it over, and Miles begins to plan for contingencies in case the Baron decides to resort to violence.  Instead they begin to negotiate.

Fell asks to subtract the Durona Group’s value from the 10%, and have them leave all their property and notes behind.  Mark asks for them to be able to copy technical files and bring personal possessions; Fell agrees to the possessions, what each one can carry, but denies the files and says their credit account will remain his.  Mark and Lilly have a whispered conference, and then Mark tells him it’s a Deal, disarming the control box and relaxing his hand.  The Duronas instantly scatter to begin gathering their possessions.  Fell congratulates Mark on his dealing, and offers him a position as a galactic agent, and Admiral Naismith too if he’s willing; Mark says he’ll consider it if his other options fall through, and Miles says the Dendarii prefer offense, not defense.  Baron Fell says that if his lifespan were to increase, he’d have ample opportunity to pursue long-term goals now that the acquisition of House Ryoval has given him an “interestingly unbalanced” position, but Miles still rejects the offer.

At Fell’s gesture, one of his bodyguards carefully picked up the transparent box. Fell turned to Lilly.

“Well, old sister. You’ve had an interesting life.”

“I still have it,” smiled Lilly.

“For a while.”

“Long enough for me, greedy little boy. So this is the end of the road. The last of our blood-pact. Who would have imagined it, all those years ago, when we were climbing out of Ryoval’s sewers together?”

Fell offers Mark a final handshake before departing.  Mark asks if he’ll hold to the Deal, and Lilly says that he will, if only because he’ll be too busy with absorbing House Ryoval to spare them much attention, and after that he may regret their loss, but not to extremes.  Then she heads off to organize their departure, and Mark slumps in fatigue.  Elli tells Miles that ImpSec is contacting her to announce they have reinforcements ready, and Mark says they can send them home, and maybe he’ll hitch a ride with them.  Miles says he needs to rendezvous with the Dendarii, but Elli says the fleet is fine, making ready to rendezvous at Escobar with their new ships, and Miles needs some attention from ImpMil.  Illyan will want him to go home, and then there’s his father…  Mark tells him about the heart attack and says they should have the transplant ready by this time.

“You were there?” What did you do to him? Miles felt as if he’d just had his magnetic poles reversed. “I have to get home!”

“That’s what I just said,” said Mark wearily. “Why d’you think we trooped all the way back here, but to drag you home? It wasn’t for the free holiday at Ry Ryoval’s health spa, let me tell you. Mother thinks I’m the next Vorkosigan heir. I can deal with Barrayar, I think, but I sure as hell can’t deal with that.”

Miles forces himself to settle down, afraid to trigger another seizure, and hoping that they’re not a permanent effect.  Mark says he’ll let the Duronas use his ship–the present from his mother–to get to Escobar, where they can sell the ship and he can pay her back, and the Dendarii can hitch a ride with them too.  Miles hopes that Elli, Rowan and Taura don’t get together and compare notes, or worse, become friends and decide to partition him.

It wasn’t, he swore, that he picked up so many women. Compared to Ivan, he was practically celibate. It was just that he never put any down. The accumulation could become downright embarrassing, over a long enough time-span. He needed . . . Lady Vorkosigan, to put an end to this nonsense. But even Elli the bold refused to volunteer for that duty.

Miles agrees to Mark’s plan and tells Quinn and Durona to arrange it, but asks Bel to stay behind for a talk with him and Mark.  He recalls how, in his amnesic state, he’d seen Bel as female, rather than male.  He tells Bel he can’t let it go back to the _Ariel_; after it admitted it’d known what Mark was up to and followed along on the rogue mission, Miles can’t let it go back to command, and asks for its resignation, which it offers.  Mark muses that it’s unfair to punish Bel and not him, but Miles thinks that Mark’s certainly gotten his share of punishment in any case.  Miles asks after Bel’s plans, and it says it isn’t sure; Miles says that Simon Illyan may be willing to keep it on as an ImpSec agent, and Bel says it’ll think about it on the way to Escobar.  Bel tells Mark that at least they managed to save a few clones, and that’s something.

Bel eyed Miles. “Do you remember the first time we ever saw each other?” it asked.

“Yes. I stunned you.”

“You surely did.” It walked over to his chair, and bent, and took his chin in its hand. “Hold still. I’ve been wanting to do this for years.” It kissed him, long and quite thoroughly. Miles thought about appearances, thought about the ambiguity of it, thought about sudden death, thought the hell with it all, and kissed Bel back. Straightening again, Bel smiled.

Elena appears and tells Mark she has to talk to him, in private; Mark says he’s too tired to get up, and Elena tells Bel and Miles to get lost.  Miles goes in search of Rowan, and finds her in her quarters, packing, in company with Lilly Junior.  Rowan is happy to see that he’s got his memories back (and is “really” Miles Naismith), but Miles admits that he got his memories back while they were together as Bharaputra captives, and she’s put out.  She’s happy that he managed to get Lilly Jr. out, though, and the Dendarii shuttle is already bringing Duronas up to Mark’s ship, so they should be offplanet before Baron Bharaputra figures it out.  She says they’ll be staying together on Escobar, at least at first, but they’ll be dissolving the group upon Lilly’s death, and she expects that House Ryoval staffers will be in the building by tomorrow.  Miles sees a control-box on the bed and realizes that Rowan was Mark’s remote grenade controller.  She tells him Mark’s arrival earlier that morning was quite impressive.

She asks Miles about his plans, and he says he’ll be going back to the Dendarii after he recovers.  He asks if the seizures will stop, and she says they should, but it’s hard to tell.  She asks if he’ll find the time to stop by Escobar, and he allows that he might.

He hesitated. I need my Lady Vorkosigan, to put an end to this wandering. . . . Could Rowan be it? The thirty-five sisters-in-law would be a distant drawback, safely far away on Escobar. “What would you think of the planet Barrayar, as a place to live and work?” he inquired cautiously.

Her nose wrinkled. “That backward pit? Why?”

“I . . . have some interests there. In fact, it’s where I’m planning to retire. It’s a very beautiful place, really. And underpopulated. They encourage, um . . . children.” He was skirting dangerously close to breaking his cover, the strained identity he’d risked so much lately to retain. “And there’d be lots of work for a galactic-trained physician.”

“I’ll bet. But I’ve been a slave all my life. Why would I choose to be a subject, when I could choose to be a citizen?” She smiled wryly, and came to him, and twined her arms around his shoulders. “Those five days we were locked up together at Vasa Luigi’s—that wasn’t an effect of the imprisonment, was it. That’s the way you really are, when you’re well.”

She says she knows now what a hyperactive adult looks like, and says that she loves him, but living with his domineering personality would drive her crazy.  Miles says that she’s supposed to push back, not let him push her around.  He wonders if he should use a Barrayaran go-between next time, to seal the deal before the woman gets to know him too well.

Miles asks Lilly Jr. if she’s talked to Mark yet; he’d be happy to know she managed to escape after all.  She says Mark had tried to convince her, but Miles talked better than he did; Miles says that Mark just bought her way offplanet with the rest of them.  He takes her arm and escorts her out of the room.

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I’d forgotten that Lilly Durona was also a relative of the two Barons.  Actual blood relatives, or not?  Fell and Ryoval are labelled as half-brothers, but to what extent is Lilly related?  And Lilly’s clone Lotus is married to Baron Bharaputra–do they have any offspring?  I imagine they wouldn’t have any compunctions about using uterine replicators if they did…

So the Duronas do get rescued from Jackson’s Whole after all, though not by the Admiral Naismith they were hoping for.  I did vaguely recall that they did, but the details had eluded me–I guess it wasn’t done in some secret Dendarii escape plan, but through legitimate Jacksonian dealing, though I suppose there was a bit of murder involved in acquiring the main bargaining chip.

Bel was very quiet in the last chapter, and I guess it knew what was coming.  It’d earned it, though, paradoxically, mostly through taking over the initial clone-rescue operation after Mark had fouled it up and admitting it knew this wasn’t the real Admiral Naismith.  (It still feels wrong to use “it” as Bel’s personal pronoun, even if that’s what the author uses for it; I’ve had to go back and correct almost every single pronoun I’ve used for it, even in this paragraph.)  If Bel had pretended to be fooled, then Miles might have been able to let it off.  It’s a few books before we see it again…but we do see it again.

This may be the last we see of Jackson’s Whole, too.  I haven’t peeked ahead yet, but after this I suspect we go back to Barrayar for the rest of the denouement, though I’m not sure what there’ll be to occupy the last three chapters.  Then the next few books stick close to home in the Barrayaran Empire, before we get to go further afield.  There are Jacksonians in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, of course, but not on Jackson’s Whole itself.  Well, after this I think we’ve seen enough of it…  (And now I’ve peeked, and we still have another scene or two–Elena’s task for Mark being resolved, for instance.)

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Three more chapters!  Two more weeks, with any luck!  Mirror Dance almost through, and then Memory, yay!  And coming up on the blog’s two-year anniversary, too.  Will it take another year to get through the rest of the series, I wonder?  I can always tack Falling Free on the end, or maybe I can just heave a sigh of relief and reclaim two evenings out of my week.  But I’m getting way ahead of myself here.  Three more chapters of Mirror Dance, and then a few more books after that…

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