Chapters 15 and 16 of Komarr are action packed! And a lot of that action is centered on that other guy in Ekaterin’s life, Nikolai Vorsoisson. For years, Nikki has been the target of Ekaterin’s ambition to one day be the proud mother of a kid who’s been cured of Vorzohn’s Dystrophy. She just wants this one thing.
Ekaterin is one of my favorite parents in the Vorkosigan Saga. She’s diplomatic, sensitive, encouraging, and always on the lookout for an experience that might spark a child’s interest. Nikki isn’t thrilled to learn that he has a mutation that his parents didn’t tell him about, but Ekaterin provides well-timed, age-appropriate information and emotional support so he’s OK, even though hearing about it this week probably compounded the trauma of his dad’s death. You know what? Nikki went to school all but one of the days this week anyway. It would have been understandable if he had needed to take a couple days off, but a lot of kids find that sticking to their normal routine helps them cope with traumatic events. Testing shows that Nikki has no symptoms of Vorzohn’s Dystrophy and retrogenic treatment will ensure that he never does. In other news, Nikki has a scab on his knee that might possibly scar.
School attendance was not an entirely certain thing – this section features the famous bathroom negotiation, in which Miles smears depilatory cream on his face and announces that he’s going to suffer chemical burns unless Nikki lets him in. Nice move, Miles! This works because it gives Nikki a dignified excuse to do what he desperately wants to do. If Nikki didn’t want to talk with an adult about his problems, he would have left the house and spent the day wandering around Serifosa. I know very little about Nikki’s school, but I think Nikki is likely correct about the anti-mutant sentiments present among the student body. Miles takes Nikki’s concerns seriously. Miles also makes some good choices surrounding building trust rather than attempting to abduct Nikki out of the bathroom. This lowers the pressure for Nikki and protects Miles from the dangers of hand-to-hand combat with an untrained and unreasoning opponent in a space that I presume is tiled. I don’t actually know how Komarrans decorate their bathrooms. Given their affinity for Madmen-era conversation pits, it would not surprise me to learn that Ekaterin has an avocado bathroom suite.
This is also the section in which Miles uses his Imperial Auditor powers to make a clinic treat Nikki without permission from his legal guardian. Barrayar’s legal guardianship system seems cumbersome and complicated. Traditionally, it was the responsibility of a Barrayaran mother to safeguard the genome through any means necessary. Ekaterin is a very modern Barrayaran mother. She and Tien chose traditional pregnancy over the replicator for cost reasons, and they missed out on the gene scan that would have come with that. But now that she knows that Nikki has a harmful mutation, Ekaterin has been doing everything she can (within the limits Tien imposed on her) to cure his condition. Ekaterin is doing a very effective job protecting the genome here, if only the Barrayaran patriarchy would get out of her way. Miles forces Barrayar’s guardianship laws and the clinic’s legal department to stand down. A Civil Campaign will explore Barrayar’s efforts to honor the intent of its cultural traditions while creating more modern and humane approaches to them. This is one – if women are supposed to guard the genome, widows should be able to consent to medical care for their sons without reference to a non-parent legal guardian.
Somehow, there’s also room in these chapters for significant progress in the mystery. Using the power of forensic accounting, Colonel Gibbs finds the company that built some of the Waste Heat Embezzlement Team’s hardware. Bollan Design makes custom Necklin rods for obsolete ships and specialized applications. I hope Miles forwards their contact information to Arde Mayhew. The company has produced five devices for the conspirators, and the engineer who worked on them hasn’t been seen in the office for the last three days. Miles and Vorthys aren’t sure what the devices do, but they are sure that one of them is among the wreckage Vorthys has been examining up in space. Vorthys knows a mathematician he wants to consult about the five-space modelling.
We wrap up with a visit from Venier, one of Tien’s subordinates. He’s brought Tien’s personal effects from his desk, but he’s really come to propose to Ekaterin. Venier saw the Vorsoissons’ marriage as a tragic waste of Ekaterin’s potential, and he wants to help her reach that potential and to protect her from the evil patriarchal influences of Barrayar. He could support her while she finishes her education. They could get Komarran voting shares. She would never have to return to Barrayar again! ANYWAY, Venier acknowledges that, at first, their marriage would be a business arrangement but surely Ekaterin wouldn’t find that repulsive, since she’s Vor, and he would live in hope that Ekaterin would come to feel for him as he does for her. This is a terrible offer. The only thing Venier has going for him is Komarr. You’ll notice that I didn’t suggest he had charm or tact, which he may, but he’s not using them here. Venier is basically saying that he doesn’t care that Ekaterin doesn’t love him, she should give up the possibility of finding someone she actually loves and try to learn to love him because all the alternatives are worse.
Miles would like to be considered as one of the alternatives. Miles is stuck on the balcony. Poor Miles. I feel so bad for him. No wait, I don’t. He’s been noticing that he feels kinda funny about seeing a woman he’s sexually attracted to in a domestic setting. I can see how that would be a new experience for him, what with his penchant for dating tall mercenaries. I can sort of understand why Miles decided to stay on the balcony when it sounded like Venier might be about to pass information about the embezzlement situation to Ekaterin. But it’s kind of sketchy. Ekaterin is going to call him on his sketchiness after Venier leaves. She says Miles can’t blame ImpSec for his personality. She’s right. Miles felt sheepish before she pointed this out – there’s hope for him yet.
I don’t think Miles is worse than Venier. But more to the point in this moment, I don’t think being a single parent is worse. Venier acknowledges Ekaterin’s potential, but pretends not to notice that he might get in her way. Ekaterin is the most tactful person in the Galactic Nexus, so she tells Venier that she is looking forward to returning to Barrayar, and that she plans on observing the Barrayaran tradition of a mourning year to find her feet and choose her new direction. And then she dumps Tien’s personal effects down her kitchen trash chute. I like this as a grand symbolic gesture, but also Venier acknowledged that the box was mostly full of random office supplies so it’s not really that dramatic.
Next week, Ekaterin goes to meet her aunt at the wormhole jump station.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.