Illyan is gravely ill and in the clutches of the ImpSec infirmary. Miles has spent some time there in past books—It’s not a place where good things happen.
Note: This reread has an index, which you can consult if you feel like exploring previous books and chapters. Spoilers are welcome in the comments if they are relevant to the discussion at hand. Non-spoiler comments should also be relevant to the discussion at hand. Like Earth, Barrayar and other places in the galactic nexus live out sets of cultural practices that range from beautiful to genocidal. Regardless of what may be commonplace as a cultural practice in any place at any time, comments that question the value and dignity of individuals, or that deny anyone’s right to exist, are emphatically NOT welcome. Please take note.
Alys returns from Komarr and tells Miles she’s dismayed that General Haroche is keeping her away from Illyan. Lieutenant Vorberg tells Miles that Illyan has been asking to see him. Miles bullies his way through to ImpSec’s clinic, where Illyan asks Miles to slit this throat for him.
Like many of you, I have been enjoying this lovely story about a depressed man who hires domestic help. Here is your regular reminder that Lois McMaster Bujold is NOT DEALING IN SMALL CHANGE. Now that you’ve been reminded, you will, of course, recall that Aral made a similar request of Cordelia back in Shards of Honor. At the time, Aral was in good health, but he was concerned that this could change rapidly with the fortunes of war. This was not the first time that the issue of throat cutting came up between Aral and Cordelia; They had discussed it with regard to her Ensign Dubauer. They discussed it again when they talked about Miles after the soltoxin attack in Barrayar, although in deference to the peculiarities of that situation, and, I imagine, in deference to Cordelia, they weren’t specific about the notion of throats. And since this is a re-read, and not a first pass, a number of you will know that, although no throats were cut, Cordelia honored Aral’s preferences in the end—her decisions at the end of his life reflected his preferences about not living with significant brain damage.
Miles’s parents are very much on his mind here. Alys’s appeal to Miles to join his two fellow young louts (Ivan and Gregor) in setting the situation to rights reads like a reminder of her role as a member of his parent’s generation. Her rejoinder to Miles’s assertion that Illyan isn’t recognizing people—“…how can he, if no one he knows is allowed to see him?”—is a beautiful reminder of the aspects of Illyan and his life that are unknown to us in this moment. Later in the book, we’ll be able to think back on this as a glimmer of hope. Vorberg calls Illyan Miles’s father’s liegeman, and calls on Miles to come see him for his father’s sake. Miles’s first effort to gatecrash into ImpSec’s clinic fails. Haroche’s scheming undoubtedly played a role there, but I’m unwilling to suggest that Miles’s lack of tact was completely irrelevant. Vorberg suggested that there are few left who care enough to about being Vor to make it real. Sitting with Martin on a bench outside ImpSec, Miles has a revelation. He says that he suddenly understands why he hasn’t taken steps to get his head fixed, and I believe him, but it’s also a decision to become something he hasn’t been before—Miles chooses to become a real boy, and he realizes that he alone decides what is real for him.
In the next scene, Miles lays out all of his military awards and attaches them to his Vorkosigan House uniform. Then he takes a shower. Both of these processes are about deciding who he is. In wearing all of his decorations, Miles is deciding to own everything he has ever done, in all of his personas, even if only in front of the very small audience that’s allowed to know. During his shower, he thinks about his mother, and her people’s custom of baptism.
Cordelia has long been identified as “some sort of theist,” a faith which put her in contrast to Ezar, who found comfort in the simplicity of his atheism. Bujold hasn’t said what kind of theist. Up to this point, her nebulous faith seemed like a personal quirk. Now we know that it’s not just her, it’s her people. She shares a faith with a bunch of Betans. Unless she shares a faith with a galactic community of people who practice baptism, some of whom are Betan and some of whom aren’t. Miles doesn’t spend enough of his shower time musing about who his mother identifies as her people. It’s one of his little shortcomings. The reference to baptism suggests that, if Cordelia’s religion is of Earth origin, she is most likely either Christian or Sikh. The galactic nexus is a mysterious place, and many things are possible within it—both of these and many others. I am intrigued by these options. Bujold has put Cordelia to many uses. She is the fountain, the humanist in space, an advocate for science and education. Many readers have noted her as a fierce proponent of the uterine replicator. Bujold has also used her to talk about faith, when she’s in the mood. It’s audacious. You don’t see a lot of faith in space opera, and it’s most often when someone is dying.
Baptism is about choosing who to be. Miles has chosen to be Vor, and Gregor honors his choice to show up as “the sinews of the Imperium, the Emperor’s right arm” by appointing him Auditor. This job is so naturally made for Miles, I’m amazed we haven’t heard of it several books ago. I’ve enjoyed the Dendarii and Miles’s career as their admiral, but when I take a long look back I wonder if he mightn’t have been an Auditor years ago if he had taken his father’s advice at his grandfather’s funeral and gone to work in the District from the start. I might be undervaluing the benefits of Miles’s exposure to the rest of the galaxy there, but a lot of things might have happened in that hypothetical alternate career. An Auditor speaks with the Emperor’s voice, and he needs someone who he can trust to take his orders. That would be Ivan. It makes such a difference, Miles having someone on whom he can thoroughly rely.
Ivan calls the Auditor’s chain of office a choke chain. It’s relatively light. Simon Illyan has lived his life as Emperor Ezar’s recording device. The job has taken him to many strange places—imagine living thirty-five years without having the memory of what you saw in Admiral Vorrutyer’s bedroom drawers fade. It may not have been Ezar’s intention to take everything from Illyan, but somehow he has. Illyan is perilously close to having nothing but ImpSec, which at this point is both his job and his place of residence. His closest friends are on Sergyar. Miles can’t think of any other closer personal relationships Illyan has. That might be Miles being dense. I hope it is, anyway. The chip gave Illyan the ability to remember everything—it didn’t require that he think about his memories all the time, or recall them unpredictably. That’s what Haroche has done, and that’s why Illyan has been driven to beg for his own death.
Illyan’s path to removal from office didn’t come with an honorable offer of suicide. What little we know about his time in ImpSec’s clinic suggests that he has been trying anyway; His combative behavior has complicated medical care, and he has refused food. Illyan is clearly concerned that these measures will not be sufficient. I believe that if Aral had been available, Illyan would have asked for him instead. I infer that this is important enough to Illyan that he forced himself to keep track of which of his friends was on the planet even when he could not reliably know the year or understand many aspects of his own situation. I’m a romantic, so I’d like to think this speaks to his desire to spare Alys. My path to proof is a convoluted one, and Miles’s recent role as Illyan’s trusted subordinate makes sense too. Miles is the wrong man to ask to cut anyone’s throat; He specializes in rescue missions.