Welcome back to the Vorkosigan reread! This week, we discover the charms of Vorbarr Sultana’s caravanserai, Bothari’s childhood home. And it is charming indeed, when compared to everything else that happens in chapters 7 and 8 of Barrayar. We’re going to very dark places in the reread this week.
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 or about that book should be whited out.
In chapter seven, Koudelka and Bothari take an ill-fated excursion into the caravanserai to try to get Koudelka laid. They are ultimately unsuccessful, and they get jumped on their way home. Cordelia, Aral, and Piotr learn about the attack over breakfast. The incident contributes to a general atmosphere of angst and futility at Vorkosigan House. Concerns about law and order are much on Aral’s mind when he declines to pardon Carl Vorhalas for killing his friend in a duel. In chapter eight, Carl is executed and his brother Evon fires a soltoxin gas grenade through Aral and Cordelia’s bedroom window.
Chapters seven and eight are a land of many contrasts.
Koudelka’s trip to the caravanserai is the occasion of the first contrast. Thus far, what we have seen of Barrayar is the shiny surface that is its galactic interface. But Barrayar is only partly galactic. Even the still-technologically-backwards part where Cordelia is carrying a baby in her own personal uterus is just the most-privileged sliver of Barrayar. Beneath it lies the caravanserai, whose residents Piotr denigrates as barely human. That’s very convenient for him. Barely humans aren’t entitled to access to the rights and privileges that Piotr enjoys. Piotr asserts that he has nothing in common with the residents of the caravanserai because his family has been Vor for nine generations. Cordelia points out that Barrayar didn’t have gene scanning until 80 years ago, and the Vor were rumored to have gotten around quite a bit. Aral, intervening, tells Cordelia she can’t sit at the breakfast table and imply that his ancestors were bastards. I wish Cordelia had spoken her next thought out loud—“Where should I sit?” Where should one go to assert the universal worth and dignity of humanity? Cordelia has been living that question since Dubauer got shot; She just hasn’t yet made it clear to Piotr. In the moment, her goal is not to make a point about the value of human life, but to find out what happened to Kou and Bothari.
The most crucial parts of this week’s section lean on the contrasts between Aral and Bothari. The duty officer explaining the previous evening’s events can’t imagine why Kou chose Bothari to help him. Aral can, but he wishes Kou had come to him. This is such an interesting suggestion. Aral is Kou’s boss. This matter is very personal. Nonetheless, Aral feels he has something to offer. Perhaps a pep talk? Maybe he’s envisioning something like Hemingway’s reassurance to Fitzgerald. Maybe he has access to a higher class of prostitutes. Or maybe Aral was hoping he could play the go-between for Kou and Drou. We get to see Cordelia’s version of this, twice, later. Aral will eventually admit to a desire for grandchildren, but we’ve never seen him play the Baba. While Bothari is an understandable choice of confidant for a young officer who needs to unburden his soul to a friend who is not also in his chain of command, he doesn’t seem to have been terribly useful until the fight.
The aftermath of Koudelka and Bothari’s evening out leads into a comparison between Aral’s first marriage and his second. The relentlessness of Aral’s work as regent is increasing Cordelia’s isolation. She’s already the sole Betan refugee of the Escobar War, the only acknowledged female veteran on Barrayar, and completely divorced from her former career. In chapter 4, she was hoping Barrayar would give her some new dreams—romance, motherhood. But Cordelia has more to offer Barrayar than Barrayar has to offer her. While she’s struggling with her fears for Aral in the library, she sees Koudelka pressing the blade of his swordstick against his neck. She stops him, and they both vent about their fears. He’s tired of facing the planet’s unending, relentless pity. She’s tired of wondering if Aral will survive. They summarize their mutual feelings about Barrayar when Kou asks if Cordelia is afraid of childbirth—“I don’t trust your doctors.” “I don’t blame you.” Cordelia is explaining her feelings for Kou in the most Betan terms she can use without offending his Barrayaran sensibilities when Aral walks in. This is a flying visit for Aral. He comes through the door, insults Cordelia, Betans, therapy and Kou in one single snappy sentence, and storms back out. I can see why he’s a talented politician.
As Kou retreats back into his own misery, Cordelia pursues Aral to their bedroom for their first fight. Aral’s touchiness is partly due to the lingering trauma of his first marriage—the one that ended in two homicides, a suicide, and a scandalous public affair with Ges Vorrutyer. He expresses his concerns as worry about what Piotr or one of the staff might have thought, but Aral is talking in code again. The nightmare that’s haunting him isn’t just that Cordelia might leave him, it’s that he might lose control. In this moment, maintaining control and order seems vital to Barrayar’s survival. The Cetagandans were hoping for chaos after Ezar’s death. ImpSec believes they were behind the sonic grade attack, and are preparing for war. The Cetagandan threat is aggravating Aral’s concerns about law and order.
On this particular evening, Aral is also burdened by Count Vorhalas’s request that he pardon young Carl for dueling, or commute the charges to murder, so that his son can plead self defense and serve a prison term instead of being executed. This is a crime that Aral is guilty of himself—he’s no less a murderer for being regent now. Count Vorhalas is a friend, and the brother of one of the officers lost at Escobar. Aral wants to be merciful, but he fears the consequence could be planet-wide chaos followed by a Cetagandan invasion. To protect Gregor from the chaos that haunted his childhood, Aral needs Barrayar’s present to be different from Barrayar’s past. Carl Vorhalas is Aral’s sacrifice on the altar of political stability.
He is not a very good one. The execution is a mess. Carl’s mother makes him cry, and the executioner misses his stroke. Something like this happened to Mary, Queen of Scots. In the aftermath of that unfortunate incident, Pope Sixtus V threw his financial backing behind Philip II’s planned invasion of England. All Carl has is a grieving brother. The soltoxin grenade bursts through Aral and Cordelia’s bedroom window the night after the execution. Kou and Drou are together in the library at the time of the attack. They catch Evon in the back garden. The gas isn’t immediately fatal, and it’s not a threat to Cordelia’s pregnancy. It’s the antidote that poisons tiny Piotr Miles. The fight from chapter seven explains why Aral holds the mask to Cordelia’s face himself, before the doctor tells her the treatment destroys bone development. Aral is afraid of what he will lose if he lets Cordelia serve as his conscience.
Cordelia is more afraid of what Barrayar will take from her. She’s not giving up her son. Flat on her back in her hospital bed, she identifies Dr. Vaagen as the maverick on her medical team. She fires her other doctors, and puts him in charge of Piotr Miles’s care. She is an unstoppable force in her chosen cause; Barrayar should be more afraid of her than she is of it. In chapters nine and ten, Count Piotr will be.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.