Last week, we finished the wilderness hike and Aral regained his command. In chapter five, we get to know his ship, the General Vorkraft. The action here is brief, but the implications are mighty.
If you’d like to catch up on previous posts in the reread, the index is here. At this time, the spoiler policy permits discussion of all books EXCEPT Gentlemen Jole and the Red Queen. Discussion of any and all revelations from that book should be whited out.
On board the General Vorkraft, Cordelia meets Sgt. Bothari, who is now serving as her guard. Aral proposes marriage. Cordelia and Aral discuss Barryaran politics and current events. Cordelia does not answer Aral’s proposal.
Dubauer remains in sick bay this week. Cordelia notes that his physical care seems excellent, and that he is not attempting to communicate. I remain optimistic about Dubauer’s condition and prognosis, so I interpret this as evidence that he is aware of his surroundings and finds being captured by the enemy alarming.
Aral ordered Cordelia’s stunner charged and returned to her in chapter four. Koudelka interpreted this as part of his “thing” about prisoners. A stunner is not the most useful weapon for an individual taking on an entire ship’s crew, but it is the only one that is useful to Cordelia. She pointed out to Aral on their walk that she couldn’t fire a nerve disruptor—she might as well not have a weapon at all. Cordelia is allowed to wander the General Vorkraft more-or-less freely, under Bothari’s guard. He is more substantially armed. Although Cordelia doesn’t draw this conclusion, I infer Bothari is there to protect Cordelia from the crew and Cordelia’s stunner is intended to protect her from Bothari. I feel as though Aral is bracing himself for the mutiny that’s coming in chapter six. Assigning Bothari as Cordelia’s bodyguard assures that she has someone who is adequately bloodthirsty for the task, and makes it clear that Bothari has Vorkosigan’s trust, while keeping Bothari out of the way of the remaining fragments of mutiny. I can see why the mutineers mistook Bothari for a fellow traveler. He informs Cordelia that he doesn’t like Vor. Cordelia is not able to entice him into a conversation about Barryaran class conflict.
The ship itself also seems braced for the mutiny. Cordelia notes that its labyrinth of decks, passages, and hatches would provide strategic cover and help control territory if the ship was boarded in combat. I’ve never fought a space war, and I don’t want to criticize the people who do it for a living, but I’m very skeptical of the idea that ships fighting in space would heave to and board each other for hand-to-hand combat. I suppose it’s the only option if you want to capture a ship intact, a goal of which I am also skeptical. I guess you would need to do that if you wanted to interrogate the ship’s crew for military secrets or find out if the ship was carrying awesome new technologies you “haven’t heard of yet”—goals which I acknowledge are plot-relevant in this case. Not to get dragged too deeply into future chapters, but all of the ships whose capture might have facilitated those goals are Betan, and all of them get blown up. I have decided—perhaps erroneously!—that the General Vorkraft’s internal architecture is at least partly intended to thwart mutinies. So why aren’t we talking about the mutiny this week?
Because of the proposal. We already knew Aral was in love. Cordelia, for her part, thought Aral was quite fit and occasionally charming. He’s made a very good impression for a man who has spent most of the book so far in an altered mental state, and whose nickname is “The Butcher of Komarr.” Also, he told Cordelia that he didn’t order the deaths of those civilians on Komarr. He personally strangled the political officer who gave that order, and now he has a thing about prisoners. Following his discharge from sickbay, Aral acts on his passions. Fans of the romance will want me to note Aral’s stumble towards the endearment he will use for Cordelia for the rest of his life—“Dear C—Commander, am I too sudden, by Betan Standards?” He catches himself being too intimate, then corrects himself to excessive formality, accidentally landing on the combination of his feelings and her rank in one beautifully crafted awkward moment.
The proposal is undeniably earnest and romantic, but the decision to extend it now is a strategic one. Since he is asking Cordelia to join her life with his, Aral takes the time to explain what that would mean. He’s contemplating a political career. He offers a crash course in Barryaran government, explaining a system that Cordelia finds appalling and whose risks are hardly less than military service. Aral suggests that his best chances lie in Imperial appointment, which is a handy piece of foreshadowing. This conversation also gives Aral an excuse to reveal Barryar’s plan to invade Escobar. Cordelia was never supposed to see the supply caverns, and she certainly isn’t supposed to know about the wormhole jump from Sergyar to Escobar. If the Barryaran military knows she knows, she won’t be allowed to return home. I don’t think it’s Aral’s intention to deprive Cordelia of her choices. I prefer to believe that he’s trying to deprive the Barryaran military and Council of Counts of theirs. He’s using his crew’s assumptions and his obvious romantic feelings to get word of the invasion to Barryar’s intended targets, while providing cover for the military significance of their conversation—Aral’s play within a play, staged in a room with the door open for an audience of Bothari. Aral is a military genius. His careful planning is no good, though, if Cordelia doesn’t survive, or if she doesn’t return home. If Cordelia accepts Aral’s proposal, Escobar is screwed. That is, of course, why Aral has told Cordelia not to accept his proposal, and given her a reason not to do it.
Prior to this reread, I believed that Cordelia didn’t answer Aral because his proposal was too sudden. Now I realize that neither of them is free to follow their hearts. Aral has been emphasizing this to Cordelia since they reached the General Vorkraft. He doesn’t have the right to speak for himself. He is a man under authority, not just because of his uniform but because of the prefix in front of his name. He’s committing treason to do this, risking death by exposure and starvation. At this moment, I’m not sure if Aral has fallen in love with Cordelia for her own sake, or for the hope she represents. I don’t think he knows either, and I don’t think he cares. He is clearly willing to die to oppose Barryaran expansionism, even if his honor prevents him from sabotaging the invasion once it begins.
Tune in next week for the rest of the mutinies!
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.