Last week, we started discussing Winterfair Gifts by looking at Roic and Taura. This week, we’re looking at the mystery the two of them unravel. Initially, this looks like the keys to this mystery might be the story of Miles and Elli.
Elli Quinn didn’t make it to the wedding—I can’t blame her. The wedding of a former lover whose proposals you declined multiple times doesn’t HAVE to be awkward, but that certainly is well within the range of possibilities. This is not her official excuse; She has responsibilities with the Fleet. She has sent a gift. Arde Mayhew gets to play Exposition Fairy here—he reveals that Elli contemplated sending the bride a barbed wire choke chain for keeping Miles in line, but decided it would be too easy to misinterpret. I see Elli’s point. Instead, she sent Miles and Ekaterin a live fur accompanied by a dirty limerick. This is the perfect combination of warmth and humor—Elli is always amazing, even as an ex.
Arde suggests that Elli is returning a gift Miles gave her in the guise of a wedding present, but what I recall is that Elli bought the fur because Miles wasn’t carrying Admiral Naismith’s credit cards on their first date and couldn’t blow his cover by using Lt. Vorkosigan’s. Thus, if this is the same one, it’s not a gift Miles bought Elli but something Elli bought while she was with Miles. Arde speculates that Elli might have bought Miles and Ekaterin a new fur instead of passing on the one that Ivan wanted to rub all over his skin and that nearly strangled Mark in his sleep. If you remove the context of where the gift came from, it’s just a nice novelty gift.
I don’t want to—I like the context. Miles and Elli had a good run. Passing on the blanket is like passing the baton to the next runner, hoping that Ekaterin will have the same kind of partnership that Elli and Miles had—wild, impulsive, and incredibly successful, albeit much more traditionally matrimonial. Bujold has told us that Miles life will be cut short again, permanently next time. Although he doesn’t necessarily know it, his marriage to Ekaterin will be another short but brilliant career. I like the idea that Ekaterin will have this memento of one of Miles’s maverick early adventures. And unlike Miles, the live fur can be recharged in a microwave on low power. I wish we got to see the limerick. How much of Miles and Elli’s story can be conveyed in a single limerick? You can say a lot in five lines if you stick to words of one syllable.
It’s possible that Ekaterin does not share my appreciation of the live fur’s history and provenance. When a second gift arrives from Elli—sans limerick this time—Ekaterin suggests that it’s intended to make up for . . . something. Her thought is interrupted by her admiration of the pearl choker. Ekaterin tries it on briefly and decides to wear it at the wedding. An hour later, she leaves a formal dinner at Vorkosigan House with a nausea-inducing headache. No one makes a connection to the necklace in the moment; Miles and Ekaterin attribute her condition to nerves. But Taura has already found the necklace worth glaring at. Ekaterin’s condition remains shaky—something that could be attributed to nerves, but could be something more serious. Taura’s enhanced super-soldier vision allows her to see a strange, dirty coating on the pearls. Roic catches her stealing them from the gift table. She plans to return them the next morning. Taura is terrified that Quinn might be trying to hurt Ekaterin.
If Elli has sent a wedding gift that poisons Ekaterin, she is not the Elli we always thought she was. If someone else has sent it in her name, then Miles’s cover—already known to be badly compromised—is being exploited by his enemies. Roic picks the second possibility as more likely; Elli is too smart to sign her name to murder. Roic also has connections at ImpSec who can analyze the pearls, check the origin of the gift, and track down the perpetrators.
The poison turns out to be a Jacksonian neurotoxin. More prolonged contact with it would have been fatal. Instead, an ImpSec doctor provides appropriate treatment for short-term exposure. Ekaterin is going to be fine. Miles is predictably strung out by the discovery that someone tried to murder his fiancee. Following the late-night news from ImpSec and Ekaterin’s emergency medical treatment, he returns to Vorkosigan House manic and babbling. Cordelia marches him off to bed and drugs him to make sure he stays there—she says she is acting in Ekaterin’s defense.
The pearls and the poison turn out to be linked to Miles’s most recent case. As Imperial Auditor, Miles has been investigating the hijacking of a ship, the Princess Olivia. This is, of course, named after Miles’s paternal grandmother whose life he described as a work of art. That work ended in her death in the slaughter that opened Emperor Yuri’s War; Barrayaran politics are full of dark moments. The Princess Olivia was attacked, and all passengers killed, by a Jacksonian smuggling ring that had somehow suborned Count Vorbataille. We’ve never heard of the Vorbatailles before. They’re from the south. Miles proposes that, if all charges are proven, young Vorbataille may be smuggled a means of suicide in his cell.
This idea has deep literary roots—Sherlock Holmes and Peter Wimsey both sometimes offered a criminal the opportunity to take their own life and thus preserve dignity that might be destroyed in the course of criminal prosecution. There is also historical precedent for criminals facing the death penalty taking their own lives instead of facing execution; Hermann Goering did it in 1946. Some of Vorbataille’s Jacksonian co-conspirators have also been identified, and Gregor proposes sending them back to Jackson’s Whole cryogenically frozen. This proposal may reflect Gregor’s rage, possibly shared more freely with his trusted Auditor than it would be with the larger public. It also reflects the importance of preventing another planetary invasion as a motivating force in Barrayaran politics. Barrayar has to project its power into the space around it because the appearance of weakness would make it vulnerable to attack. I would personally prefer that Barrayar adopt a Norwegian approach, where incarceration is an opportunity to reform the convicted person rather than a purely punitive effort to remove such persons from society. Perhaps Barrayar will go that route one day, many years in its future, after all of its politicians have read The Spirit of Laws and it has had a constitutional convention. It’s not impossible—Norway has been invaded too—but that’s not Emperor Gregor’s Barrayar.
Vorbataille’s smugglers turn out to have connections to House Bharaputra. It’s hardly surprising that they’re holding a grudge against Miles, and that they’re aware of more than one of his identities. I found myself wishing for a more complex solution to this mystery. The tradition in mystery novels is that everything is connected and the reader can see all the evidence that proves the identity of the perpetrator. But we don’t ever meet anyone involved in the plot. This and the very brief period of time in which Ekaterin’s life is known to be in danger make the stakes feel small. Ultimately, this incident proves that marrying Miles is dangerous for Ekaterin, and not just because of his history of impulsive behavior. I knew that already. The dramatic tension in the story will be resolved in other ways. Join me next week for the wedding!
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.