Last week, Cordelia made a daring escape from involuntary Betan therapy, and stuck a fork in Arde Mayhew’s career. This week, we find out where everyone else went, and how they’re dealing with the consequences.
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.
Cordelia accepts Aral’s proposal. Bothari has a baby. Emperor Ezar offers Aral a job.
Having dealt with her harrowing escape from Beta Colony, we skip the rest of Cordelia’s trip. She mailed in her resignation from Escobar and did a little tourist shopping in Vorbarr Sultana, so when she arrives at the Vorkosigan Estate, she is wearing a dress. Apparently, her old Survey fatigues were collecting odd stares. This chapter offers a quick overview of what Barrayar is to Cordelia; It’s a place she’s interested in, but doesn’t fully understand or fit.
The first person Cordelia encounters is Bothari. He’s wearing a uniform Cordelia doesn’t recognize—the Vorkosigans’ brown and silver armsman’s’ livery. He seems to be in good physical health, and seems to be carrying out some sort of patrol. The next person she encounters is Piotr. He’s an old man, puttering in his garden, which is not a garden; Piotr is planting flowers in his cemetery. From Aral’s description, way back on the wilderness hike, we know that Piotr’s wife died horrifically. His gardening is a quiet demonstration of the ways our worst nightmares become our everyday routine. Piotr is the pattern for the reassuring and friendly old men Cordelia will meet in these chapters. It’s like Barrayar’s political system is run by a cadre of Father Christmases. This is a complete mismatch from what Aral described several times, starting the first time he and Cordelia met. Barrayar appears to be all hillsides and gardens and pretty lakes, and not so much people brutally killing each other. It’s very soothing, but only because it’s hiding its teeth.
When Cordelia finds him, Aral is alternating shots of whiskey with shots of antacid slugged directly from the bottle. He’s wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt; It was a gift from some of his former officers, all of whom are now dead, most lost at Escobar. The recent war has used him up. He also resigned his commission. Later books will offer elaborate Barrayaran weddings—this one skips the wedding entirely. Shards of Honor was Bujold’s first published novel, and I think it’s possible she didn’t have the details of Barrayaran culture worked out yet. I want to know who stood in their circle! It’s also possible that there is a less-formal version of the ceremony.
The wedding that we don’t get to see is a reminder of the issue we do see, but that I have been ignoring—Aral’s sexual orientation. Ges Vorrutyer, in his manic babbling while Cordelia was tied up, pointed out that he and Aral had been lovers. He says he sees what Aral saw in Cordelia, a solution to their mutual problem. Bujold isn’t going to deal with the issue of kink here—she’s saving it for a story that’s more grown-up—but the idea that Aral and Ges were both attracted to soldiers is a link to her later exploration of the theme. Cordelia’s sexual orientation is usually seen as less of a question. It hardly seems fair that we know all about Aral’s first wife and his affair with Ges, and all we know about Cordelia is that she had a bad boyfriend once. Surely, she has secrets of her own. Bujold is her accomplice in this—the spotlight is on Aral’s bisexuality. Over the years, Aral’s sexual orientation has become less exceptional in the population of fictional characters. It’s too early in this reread to explore the ways that Aral continues to be an outlier; That day will come.
The birth of Bothari’s daughter, via uterine replicator, frames some in-depth discussion of the Other Prisoner, who was catatonic when Vorrutyer was done with her. Bothari took custody of the Other Prisoner, the mother of his child, from Vorrutyer, and hid her in his quarters, where he probably raped her several more times; Bothari is good at first aid, not at sanity. Aral reveals that his plan, in the event that Vorrutyer tortured another prisoner, was to kill Vorrutyer, then the Prince, and then himself—even in that emergency, he would have carried out his orders from Ezar. No wonder he was relieved to see that Cordelia was safe and Bothari had rid the universe of a viper of iniquity. Bothari is the flip side of Cordelia’s coin here; She fled treatment that she did not consent to, Bothari was forced through it. He doesn’t remember much about Escobar, but he does remember his child’s mother. Bothari has a fosterer lined up to handle most of the work of raising little Elena, and I’m relieved to hear it, because I don’t think he’s competent to parent himself.
In conjunction with the invitation to serve as Regent for young Prince Gregor, Aral and Ezar have a conversation about Aral’s life of service. Aral executed Mad Emperor Yuri when he was eleven. Despite this enlightening revelation, Codelia encourages Aral to take the job. I’m sure she’s thinking about Aral’s political ambitions and the opportunity to protect Gregor from either disembowelling or being disemboweled. I don’t think she fully understands the implications of this decision.
Koudelka will serve as Aral’s personal secretary. His recovery from his nerve disruptor injury has been painful; It involves a lot of surgery and a replacement neural network that seems somewhat primitive. Koudelka doesn’t want to whine—he’s doing better than Dubauer. Dubauer is Bujold’s character and she gets to choose his fate. I feel she has chosen unnecessarily harshly, but hey, I didn’t invent nerve disruptors. I don’t get to say what they do. Koudelka’s injuries are the ironic reason for his survival; If he had been fit to serve at Escobar, he would likely have died as well. Koudelka’s promotion is one of my favorite moments. Aral’s offer of his collar tabs and Koudelka’s request to keep them is a fragile, cautious moment of emotional intimacy.
When Aral accepts the regency, Ezar gives him Illyan for his own personal security. He leaves Captain Negri for Gregor and Kareen. Ezar is clearly thinking carefully about the risks of Barrayaran politics—one of Aral’s qualifications to be Regent is that he is happily married, and thus unlikely to try to marry into a longer term of office. I think it’s early to draw the conclusion that Cordelia and Aral’s marriage will be happy. I’m taking it as an Imperial expression of good wishes. Ezar confidence in Aral as a guardian of Gregor’s power rests on the certainty that Aral doesn’t want to be Emperor. But giving Negri to Gregor and Kareen suggests that Ezar is concerned about other threats. Gregor and Kareen need security in any circumstances, but giving them their own, separate security commander suggests that they have security concerns that may conflict with Aral’s.
The last line of this section is the one about fountains—Aral describes Cordelia as a fountain, keeping nothing for herself. I hate the trope that dulce et decorum est for a woman to give everything, and it doesn’t describe the story well. Aral has also held nothing back, and he’s had to kill for his empire, while being denied the right to die for it. Cordelia’s sacrifices, while significant, seem less to me than Aral’s. I don’t know if I feel like he’s the fountain, or if I just hate the fountain as a metaphor. Bothari kept something for himself—I want everyone else to keep something too.
This is the end of Shards of Honor! Next week, we’ll take on “Aftermaths.”
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.