Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Shards of Honor, Chapters 11-13

Last week, the war was in full swing. This week it’s over. The wormholes are blocked, the prisoners are exchanged, and everyone goes home. It turns out, though, that home is not always where you expect to find it, or what you hoped it would be.

If you’d like to catch up on previous posts in the re-read, 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 or about that book should be whited out.



Chapter 11 starts in the POW camp, where Aral asks to speak with Cordelia. He apologizes for drugging and interrogating her. She rebuffs him. Aral shocks Illyan by promising only to discuss matters touching on his marriage proposal, and Aral and Cordelia use their unprecedented privacy to discuss the war.

The next day, Aral sends for Cordelia again, this time to check on the grave marker she has requested for Lt. Rosemont. While she is reviewing it, a med tech brings a shipment of uterine replicators into the administrative office. Aral decides to have the replicators and their contents sent to ImpMil on Barrayar. Cordelia leaves for her transport home without having the opportunity for more private conversation with Aral.

On the trip home, Cordelia avoids psych officers—she feels compelled to protect the secrets she knows. She is concerned that word of the Emperor’s assassination plot would provoke another civil war on Barrayar. The therapy team aboard the POW transport begins a well-intentioned but misguided campaign of harassment to encourage her to talk. They are convinced she has been tortured and the evidence covered up using drugs and false memories. They point out to her that something similar happened to another prisoner. When Cordelia arrives on Beta Colony, she is greeted by a crowd, given a medal, and asked to make a speech. She panics and kicks Steady Freddy in the groin. Cordelia’s commanding officers tell her she cannot return to Survey unless she complies with therapy. Her new therapist tries to drug her. When Cordelia’s mother signs the paperwork to have her involuntarily committed, Cordelia tortures her therapist to gather information, then sneaks away to the shuttle port and arranges passage to Escobar.



Cordelia and Aral’s conversation about matters touching on Aral’s marriage proposal is quite wide-ranging. Cordelia says that Aral is lying to Illyan, and in a sense, she’s right, but that original marriage proposal was also quite wide-ranging. I can’t think of many things that don’t touch on it. Their discussion covers Emperor Ezar’s plot to kill Serg without destroying Serg’s public image. Aral says the plot was closely held, between him, Emperor Ezar, Captain Negri and another agent. One question that arose in the comments last week was about the identity of the fourth conspirator. Cordelia says she can see that it must have been the chief surgeon, and Aral responds “Quite.” That is not a yes and not a no.

Aral habitually fails to think of who Cordelia might be compelled to speak to in the future. I was worried about this when his marriage proposal revealed the plan to invade Escobar, introducing a serious complication to Cordelia’s plan of returning home through diplomatic channels. I believe that Aral knew that Cordelia would not be debriefing to Barryaran officials when he proposed, because Cordelia’s crew was already on their way to the General Vorkraft. But this time, Aral knows that Cordelia is going home. Or perhaps he had a great deal of faith in his marriage proposal. Cordelia figured out the plot by herself, but Aral should never have confirmed it.  

If Cordelia had not had certain confirmation of what she suspected, her trip home might have gone a lot more smoothly. Not being entirely certain about the identity of conspirator #4 might have been Aral’s attempt to protect Cordelia. The surgeon is a strong candidate for this agent. He’s the guy with all the drugs who can modify people’s memories, and he’s the one who would be directly responsible for the Prince’s medical care; he’s well-positioned to make sure Serg doesn’t survive any life-threatening injuries. I’m inclined to believe that he was directly involved, but I regard it as unconfirmed. Aral also states that Illyan did not know about the plot, which I believe—Illyan’s job is to know Aral’s secrets, not Emperor Ezar’s. Illyan can’t edit his reports, but Aral has plenty of practice keeping information from him. A little more reticence with Cordelia would have spared Cordelia a lot of trouble with psych officers. I’m sure he just didn’t think of it. Although Cordelia refuses Aral’s proposal, they kiss for the first time. It’s a lovely and romantic first kiss, even though it proves what Vorrutyer suggested about Aral’s fascination with Cordelia’s hair. Miles and Ekaterin will recreate many aspects of this kiss—the first time, the impending separation, the rejected proposal, and the hair—in their own first kiss in A Civil Campaign.  

Cordelia’s return home is a disaster, and while I sympathize with her trauma, this section is hilarious. NO ONE ever admits to voting for Steady Freddy! Technically, I never voted for Obama, either. Are they criticizing their president or their political system? Are Betan elections typically rigged? I’m imagining political machines, like in the 1920s. Bujold also reveals that Press Secretary is a cabinet-level position, which I am taking as sly commentary on the Reagan Era.

Pilot Officer Parnell seems to be a source of many troubles. Back in the POW camp, he was the one who spread the rumor of Cordelia killing Vorrutyer, and he appears to have been the one who brought it home to Beta Colony. He got a medal of his own for his troubles (and, allegedly, for the heroic work of delivering the plasma mirrors). I hope that someone will find a position for him where he may be less busy.

Parnell’s appearance at the medal ceremony raises another question that’s been explored a bit in the comments on previous posts—why did Cordelia know about the plasma mirrors at all? Her mission had a high risk of capture, and Cordelia herself noted that she and her crew were hand-picked for their ignorance, not their knowledge. I think Cordelia would have had to know something about the convoy to justify the use of the projector. Since she was involved in the field tests, her expertise in that particular large and impressive decoy would have been helpful. If interrogated, she might have been able to pass the projector itself off as the big military secret. But the ruse probably wouldn’t have worked more than a few times, so it would have been reserved as a cover for something extraordinary. And now we don’t know if it worked at all. Way back on the wilderness hike, Cordelia posited that the Emperor’s intelligence reports would give Beta Colony’s security people colonic spasms. We know that the Emperor and Captain Negri knew about the plasma mirrors, and that they were essential to the plan to kill Serg. So the Barrayaran fleet would have had to let the convoy through—if Cordelia hadn’t provided a ship-shaped decoy, Aral would have had to create his own diversion. I would love to know what he had planned.

Cordelia arrives back on Beta Colony acting like she has been brainwashed. From her perspective, she’s a woman in love. From her mother’s and her commander’s perspective, Cordelia is obsessively fixated on an enemy officer who has held her prisoner on two occasions. She is obviously traumatized. She clearly needs therapy and she absolutely refuses it, to the detriment of her health and mental stability. Her experiences in the war have changed her dramatically, and it’s difficult for people around her to tell why the changes have been so extreme. I can see why her mother had her committed, and why she felt conflicted about it; how do you make an ethical decision for someone who is acting in a way that seems to contradict their own free will? The existence of the Other Prisoner whose memories were modified complicates Cordelia’s argument for her own unaltered sanity. Elena Visconti won’t be named until The Warrior’s Apprentice, but she casts a long shadow over Cordelia’s struggle.

Acknowledging the rightness of all of that, Cordelia’s therapist is horrible. His dismissive attitude towards Cordelia’s affections is really insulting. Torture is bad. I disapprove of it in all circumstances. Except this one. Some fictional characters are too obnoxious to go unpunished. I’m glad Cordelia shoves Mehta into the fish tank. I think Mehta was being honest when she said there was no security around the building, and she made up the guards to get Cordelia to stop drowning her. I don’t really care, though.

A few characters who play minor-to-moderate roles in this section will appear again later. I’m almost positive we see Lt. Alfredi from the prison camp again, although Cordelia will not. And of course, we will see Cordelia’s pilot, Arde Mayhew. Cordelia’s exit appears to have had major consequences for those she drafted while making her escape. Her attitude here is almost Barrayaran in its singular focus on strategic necessity at the expense of the impact on bystanders.

Possibly the most trivial observation of this blog post—the Betan Expeditionary Force has uniforms now! They are sky blue, I presume so that someone can evoke World War II by referring to a thin blue line of heroes. The history teacher in me is pleased that the Royal Air Force has symbolic resonance so far into the imagined future. The uniforms come with riding boots. This is Cordelia’s first recorded encounter with the accoutrements of the equestrian world. She will never be at peace with any of them. Riding boots come with zippers now, but apparently Beta Colony hasn’t heard.


Next week, Cordelia sees the merits of that marriage proposal, and some other proposals as well.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.


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