Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Barrayar, Chapters 5-6

In chapter 5, it’s Gregor’s birthday! Now that he’s five, he’s put aside childish things and we never see Steggie again. He’s big enough for Judo lessons with Drou, though. Readers should also note that fireworks are strictly prohibited inside Vorkosigan House.

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.

SUMMARY

Barrayar celebrates the Emperor’s birthday. The tax year ends for the second time. Doesn’t this screw with Barrayar’s banking system? It’s not just me being a nerd! Cordelia also wants to know. Piotr says they manage. Barrayar combines its most important annual tax deadline with a huge party. The Vor dress up, get drunk, and have interesting conversations.

In chapter six, Cordelia visits Vorkosigan’s district with Drou, Bothari, Dr. Henri and Piotr.

COMMENTARY

Barrayaran fashion is as elaborate as Betan bodypaint. I love the way this comparison points out that Barrayar is still foreign to Cordelia. For the Emperor’s birthday, Cordelia wears an “impeccably cut” forest green gown with a cream over-vest, designed by Alys Vorpatril. Since Cordelia is pregnant, I think this probably means it was cut on the bias, and has an empire waist. And since it’s described as “impeccable” and not as “a floor-length mumu” I think we’re probably talking about one of the most amazing garments ever constructed, just after Alys’s own. Aral and Kou are wearing parade red-and-blues. Drou is wearing Cordelia’s colors, in a dress designed for concealed weapons. Everyone is gorgeous.

Aral hands Cordelia into a groundcar and says he’ll see her at the party. They don’t ride in the same groundcar anymore, for security reasons. This deprives Cordelia of precious time with Aral, and also her favorite native guide. Piotr fills her in on the origin of the title “Count”—it’s from accountants—and the symbolic nature of the gold coins Gregor gets for his birthday. Cordelia and Aral are reunited at the palace and ushered in to see Gregor receiving his annual symbolic offering from Count Vidal Vordarian, who is getting weirdly handsy with Princess Kareen’s knee. Gregor is excited to see Drou—he has excellent taste in friends.

Post-ceremony, and with their bodyguard replaced by an ImpSec stand-in to facilitate Gregor’s visit with Drou, Aral and Cordelia meet Alys and Padma. Alys is wearing carnelian. Padma is in parade uniform and is drunk—very Vor-traditional. Alys suggests that Codelia wear black and white for Winterfair. This makes Vor life sound like an endless parade of formal occasions unlikely to be interrupted by civil wars; It’s very soothing. Alys has much to discuss with the other Vor ladies present, and Cordelia not so much, so she drifts away for a moment of contemplation. That’s what I call it too, when I fall out of the conversation and go hold up a wall; I’m glad to know Cordelia and I have that in common. Having separated herself from the herd, Cordelia is easy pickings for local predators. And one shows up in the person of Vidal Vordarian. He accidentally mimics the gesture Vorrutyer used to toast her, back in his quarters at Escobar, before Bothari slit his throat. Cordelia chokes back panic as their conversation, initially trivial, takes a sinister turn.

Vidal asks if Cordelia’s baby is a boy or a girl. He’s surprised that it’s a boy because he thought Aral would want a girl first, to marry Gregor and cement Aral’s hold on power. This scheme sounds hare-brained to Cordelia, who assumes it relies on two teenagers falling in love. She’s about to be insulted for being Betan, so this is a useful demonstration of what being Betan means to her—she would never expect anyone to enter into a permanent sexual relationship without love. Vidal asks if Aral contemplates “something more direct.” Cordelia lets that remark pass to focus on what everyone would be thinking if she were having a girl. She disavows all interest in permanent control of the Imperium—the recent assassination attempt is weighing heavily on her. Vidal asks if ImpSec has caught Aral’s attacker yet. They have not. Honestly, that’s a little odd. How many places on Barrayar can one acquire sonic grenades? On a planet where only the Vor can own personal weapons, surely there are grenade-control laws, and grenades can be traced to a source.

Vidal’s next move is to casually inform Cordelia that Aral is bisexual. She already knows this; What she hadn’t inferred from Aral’s description of Vorrutyer, she learned from Vorrutyer himself at Escobar. Her response is very Betan—“Was bisexual. Now he’s monogamous.” We can consider this in the light of three historical perspectives. One is the view of the US in the early 1990s when Barrayar was written, a time in which suggesting that Cordelia would have no concerns whatsoever with her husband’s bisexuality was fairly enlightened. This is the least important of the three. The view from Beta Colony is that sexual identities and preferences encompass many possibilities, some of which may be flexible, and that it is up to partners in a relationship to determine which they consider most important. The Barrayaran view is that bisexuality is taboo, and Aral’s relationship with Ges should have been a secret despite widespread public knowledge of it. Cordelia’s nonchalance confirms what being Betan means to Vidal—moral and sexual degeneracy. Vidal gets nasty, Cordelia gets vicious, and the conversation ends with Cordelia threatening Vidal’s life. She’s got quite the temper. She reins it in when Vidal drifts away and Aral comes to bring her into dinner.

After dinner, Cordelia accompanies Drou and Kareen to put Gregor to bed. Drou does the heavy lifting here, because Gregor has missed her so much. Cordelia talks with Kareen about Vidal. The Vordarian district is wealthy and economically important. Vidal is a political conservative, and at one time, Kareen had wondered if Vidal could be persuaded to protect her from Serg. This would have required him to be more than a paramour—he would have had to revolt against the Imperium. Eventually, Ezar provided the protection Kareen needed by killing Serg, and Kareen has been trying to let things cool with Vidal. His hand on her knee in the audience chamber suggests that things haven’t cooled that much. Kareen isn’t interested in marrying Vidal, or anyone else—she’s concerned about the power struggle that might create between the Regent and the Emperor’s father-in-law. She’s very pragmatic. Her priority is protecting Gregor, both for his own sake and for her self-preservation.

Kareen seems to agree with Cordelia’s assessment of the dangers of Imperial power. There’s no suggestion here that Kareen has (or could) raise an army, or that she is plotting a coup. My inclination is to see Kareen as an innocent bystander in the chaos that’s coming, but I’m looking carefully for anything that suggests she may have played a more active role. At this point in the story, Barrayar is a world that limits women’s opportunities. I would love to see Kareen reach beyond those limitations, but as the Emperor’s mother, they weigh more heavily on her than on a galactic emigre like Cordelia.

After Gregor goes to sleep, and the ladies return to his birthday party. Drou tries to teach Kou to dance in the palace garden, a romantic interlude that is ruined by the presence of multiple drunk Vor. It’s just a moment, but it’s also a metaphor; Barrayar’s peace is vulnerable to the blundering of its elite.

In chapter 6, Cordelia, Drou, Bothari and Dr. Henri fly down to Vorkosigan’s district to visit. They’re on a tour of inspection, primarily inspecting Elena, Bothari’s baby daughter. Elena lives with Mistress Hysopi, a fosterer who Bothari found. Dr. Henri is impressed with Elena’s health and development—Barrayar needs galactic technology like the uterine replicator Elena was born from. Drou asks Cordelia where Bothari got a baby, and Cordelia offers a heavily censored explanation of Bothari’s relationship with Elena Visconti. Drou finds Bothari unsettling, and she reports that Piotr’s Armsmen-Commander thinks he’s malingering. After lunch, Piotr carries Dr. Henri and Drou off to examine his Quarter Horse colt—imported as a frozen embryo, a great example of galactic technology coming to Barrayar. Cordelia seizes the opportunity to talk to Bothari about his health.

Barrayar has high quality memory modification techniques. We know because they were used on Elena Visconti. They aren’t completely undetectable to qualified observers, but they are painless for the patient. Apparently, Bothari didn’t rate. His programming didn’t remove or bury memories, it just causes incredible pain every time he thinks about them. As a result, he can’t think about what happened at Escobar, and he doesn’t know whether or not he raped Cordelia. He doesn’t know he killed Vorrutyer. Bothari’s conditioning is ongoing torture. As a victim of torture, first by Vorrutyer and then by ImpMil, Bothari deserves sympathy. But as he points out, he’s no less a rapist for not having raped Cordelia. Although he doesn’t say it, he’s no less a murderer for Vorrutyer’s death having been justified. He’s a dangerous and complicated man. He resolves the complications by identifying with the role of armsman, but a uniform is no substitute for judgment and he can’t remember how he made life-and-death decisions. He asks Cordelia to be his conscience for him—to tell him when to kill. Bothari is like the dark side of Aral, growing closer to her as circumstances make Aral a little more distant. Bothari is the first to raise the issue of when to kill, but it will be—and has been—a problem for Aral as well.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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