Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: A Civil Campaign, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 of A Civil Campaign is one of my favorites in the book—it’s dinnertime! Miles is allegedly throwing this dinner party for the purpose of welcoming Kareen Koudelka home from Beta Colony. Which I guess is what the kids say these days when they mean “wooing his landscape designer despite her stated desire to not be wooed by anyone at least until the end of her mourning year.”

For this occasion, Miles has chosen to wear a dignified gray suit. It wasn’t an easy choice—he put on his Vorkosigan House uniform and pondered some Dendarii greys. The gray suit is Armsman Pym Approved. Ekaterin is attired in “sedate” evening-wear, also in gray, accessorized by the Barrayar necklace Miles gave her for saving the wormhole back in Komarr. She divests herself of gardening gloves as she enters the house; She has just planted the first plant in Miles’s garden. Mark is wearing a lot of black. Illyan is wearing a dark tunic and trousers. Alys is wearing an expression of approval, and is probably not going to try to steal Ma Kosti from the middle of Miles’s dinner party. Enrique is wearing a clean suit, with his heart on his sleeve; He’s excited to see Ekaterin again, and ask what she thought of his thesis. Dono is wearing Vor-style mourning garb. Miles refuses to be surprised to see him, “You have been to Beta Colony, I perceive.” I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE, BUJOLD. It is just a little bit sad that, in the aftermath of the events of this chapter, Miles and Dono didn’t become flatmates and solve mysteries together. Everyone else is wearing clothes, I imagine. Dono has stolen the show for the rest of the pre-dinner gathering for hors d’oeuvres in the library, and no one’s clothes matter anymore.

The menu matters! It reflects both a Vorkosigan District-to-Table culinary ethos and some changes from Miles’s original plans. This evening, Dinner starts with a cold, creamy fruit soup and a salad. Bread is accompanied by an herbed spread. At this point, Enrique announces that there is bug butter in everything and shows off some Vorkosigan liveried butter bugs, with a design that is genetically programmed to breed true in future bug generations. Miles deals with this as tactfully as he can, and sends orders to the kitchen to omit ingredients that started life as bug barf. The next course is poached salmon. This is followed by a grilled vat-beef fillet. Ma Kosti is upset—and I think rightfully so!—about having to make last-minute substitutions for her planned sauces. Desert appears to be a bug butter-based, sculpted sorbet with fresh fruit; There wasn’t time to replace it. Dinner is served with All The Wine.

Like the menu, the seating plan is also not what Miles originally had in mind. Bujold reports that she laid out both Miles’s original seating chart and Mark and Ivan’s improvisational revisions with a chart and post-it notes. I have done my best to replicate this process from the text. In Miles’s plan:

  • Miles is at the head of the table with Ekaterin on his right.
  • Mark is at the foot of the table with Kareen on his right.
  • Ivan is seated next to Lady Donna in the middle of the table, as far as possible from both Ekaterin and Kareen.
  • Illyan is on Miles’s immediate left.
  • Duv and Delia are next to each other, uncomfortably close to Mark—which could mean anything really, as Mark is uncomfortable having Duv in the same room.
  • Count and Countess Vorbretten are next to each other.
  • René Vorbretten is next to Lady Alys.

In the revised edition:

  • Miles is at the head of the table with Alys on his right and Illyan on his left.
  • Ekaterin is next to Illyan.
  • Mark is at the foot of the table with Kareen on his right.
  • Lord Dono is as far from Ivan as possible, in the seat previously intended for René.
  • Ivan is “by Mark.”
  • Duv, Drou, and Kou are now all closer to Miles and further from Mark.
  • Drou is between Duv and Delia.
  • Ekaterin is between Illyan and Duv.
  • Enrique is three-quarters of the way down the table.
  • Dono has a good view of Enrique’s butter bugs when they are set between Alys and Miles.
  • The Vorbrettens are seated across from Enrique.
  • Delia is seated across from Kou.
  • Professora Vorthys is next to Enrique.
  • Olivia is next to Kou.

While the clues are quite definite on some aspects of the seating arrangements, I was left with a number of choices. In the initial plan (Fig. 1), I put Olivia and Martya next to Ekaterin because I thought it would be cruel of Miles to stack his end of the table with ImpMil and ImpSec personnel—“My dearest Ekaterin, come meet my friends, literally the most intimidating people on the planet”—and he lured Ekaterin to dinner with the promise of meeting the Koudelka girls. This decision, and a handful of others, have no particular backing in the textual evidence. Matters were somewhat more definite in the Mark/Ivan revisions (Fig. 2). The seating arrangement on the left side of the table is very clear. The right side is wild speculation from Dono on down. Olivia could be on Kou’s left or right, but I chose to put her on Kou’s right because I like the idea that she met Dono at Miles’s dinner. This puts Martya across from Enrique, which pleases me for similar reasons although she’s not described as sitting next to her father. I also had to guess where the Vorbrettens and Lord Auditor Vorthys were sitting.


Miles passed up his earliest opportunity to pursue his agenda with Ekaterin—he could have gone out to see the first plant—Ekaterin’s skellytum, from the bonsai Tien smashed on Komarr, a symbol of rebirth from the ashes of her first marriage—and to inform her of his intentions. Looking forward from the beginning of the chapter, it seems excessively hasty. Looking back from the end of the chapter, it seems like that MUST have been a better opportunity than the one he threw himself on as if it was a live grenade. A trip out to the garden would, at the very least, have had the benefit of being relatively private.

Miles’s plan for tonight is to be charming. He wants to introduce Ekaterin to his social circle. He’s already communicated to them that they’re supposed to like her, and she is unfailingly kind and diplomatic. Dinner is supposed to make her like them. This isn’t a dark or terrible purpose for a dinner party; The problem is that this is the first step in Miles’s quasi-military romantic campaign and everyone except Ekaterin knows about it. Miles still might have pulled it off were it not for the series of awkward events. Enrique’s bug presentation derails discussion of the food, and his comments on the goals of the project uncover Mark and Kareen’s trip to the Orb—Kou nearly dies of traumatic wine inhalation. Enrique’s social ineptitude is an awe-inspiring force for destruction. One of the Vorkosigan House kittens shows up with a Vorkosigan bug in its mouth to take down Lady Alys’s conversational gambit on the soletta mirror—also Enrique’s fault.

At this point, dinner is interrupted by a brief interlude in the lab where Miles nearly strangles Enrique. Kareen Koudelka—whose parents have just been informed about the sexual nature of her relationship with Mark—offers to help. I’m torn about this part of the chapter. On the one hand, I don’t think anyone deserves to be strangled, but on the other, I think unleashing an insect infestation and talking about someone else’s sex life in front of their parents is extreme provocation. Enrique might deserve a little light, non-permanent strangling. Miles manages to revive the conversation with innocuous anecdotes about the planning for Gregor’s wedding, but an awkward pause leaves Illyan to make a direct enquiry about Miles’s progress in courting Ekaterin. Miles panics and blurts out a proposal. Ekaterin genuinely thought Miles was interested in gardens.

I think she was being willfully obtuse there, but certainly, I can see that she thought Miles wasn’t interested in making a public proposal during her mourning year. This is a painfully awkward situation, and I would feel very sorry for Miles if I didn’t think that it’s a vitally necessary part of the setup for chapter 19. Ekaterin falling in love with Miles and saying yes is a sweet story, but there is a better story that won’t work if they’re happy in chapter 9. Miles needs to be shaken into letting Ekaterin find her own way. Until that happens, we need to have Miles and Ekaterin separated by misfortune. Miles makes his own luck, and the luck he made here is bad. Ekaterin leaves the table and Miles pursues her to the door. She is demanding a cab, and Miles is attempting to talk her out of it, when Count and Countess Vorkosigan arrive home unexpectedly early. The cavalry has come! Miles flees the scene, retreating to his bedroom as his guests decamp. A storm is brewing in the Koudelka household. Lord Dono had an enjoyable evening and made some important political connections—I’m glad someone had a good time.

 Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.


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