When we left our heroes last week, Miles was trying to figure out how to have a private moment with Bel. In chapter 4, Miles creates that moment by taking his fast courier from one side of Graf Station to the other and asking his pilot to pretend to be clumsy.
Bujold has written a number of dramatic conversations—I particularly like Miles’s with Oser in The Vor Game and Cordelia’s with Aral about Vordarian’s head in Barrayar—but few pack as much information into as short a space as this one. In a conversation that actually looks like it would plausibly take about 20 minutes, Miles and Bel catch up on everything that has happened since they saw each other last and address some important aspects of cultural context.
Bel was invited to Miles and Ekaterin’s wedding but did not attend, despite being provided with a travel voucher. This suggests some coldness may have crept into their relationship, perhaps occasioned by the situation that arose when Miles was obliged to fire Bel for facilitating the incident in which Miles was killed in a rescue mission on Jackson’s Whole. A number of other people also died on that mission. In fairness to Mark and Bel and all of their many mistakes, some people were saved too. We haven’t seen most of them since. I hope they’re enjoying boarding school on Komarr.
Miles likes to solve everyone’s problems, so he didn’t just fire Bel back in Mirror Dance, he arranged for Bel to become an independent contractor for ImpSec at the same time. So that—plus being an assistant portmaster and sharing living quarters with Nicol, the Quaddie who hired the Dendarii to rescue her in “Labyrinth”—is what Bel is doing here on Graf Station. Since Miles is Miles, he also takes this opportunity to consider Bel as an old flame, which hardly seems fair—despite Bel’s best efforts, the two of them were never an item. Bel and Nicol are an item now, and Nicol remembers Admiral Naismith vividly. Miles’s arrival on Graf Station as an Imperial Auditor is going to blow Miles’s cover where Nicol is concerned. In fairness, Admiral Naismith has not been a useful cover identity for some time. Still, being outed as a former mercenary commander could create awkward questions during these very sensitive negotiations. Miles hopes Nicol will be discreet. Bel is certain that she IS discreet. Similarly, Bel is surprised to discover that Ekaterin is privy to Miles’s old war stories. Miles assures Bel that Ekaterin earned her security clearance.
Miles’s new job sounds very strange if you’re not Barrayaran. Senior Sealer Greenlaw brought this up already. Bel seeks further clarification; Miles assures Bel that this isn’t another covert op, and his Imperial appointment is very real. Bel thinks Emperor Gregor must be as crazy as Miles. That’s such an interesting idea—I’m very fond of Miles but even an enthusiastically affectionate observer of his career can point to a substantial number of mistakes that Miles has made. I’m well aware of Gregor’s reasoning in appointing Miles as his Auditor, and I can see why others aren’t. Miles is well aware that his appointment gives the appearance of nepotism. He hopes to prove his worth in the position with time. Gregor’s apparent madness here might be like Cordelia’s earlier—trusting beyond reason to get results beyond hope. That might be daunting to the people around him. We hear a lot about what Gregor does throughout the series, but we haven’t seen Gregor’s unfiltered view of himself since The Vor Game.
Miles is also struggling with disbelief—he’s not convinced the Quaddies have actually looked for Solian. Bel assures Miles that they have. Solian has not passed any of Graf Station’s security checkpoints, and he has not appeared on any of their vid monitors. Why believe that Solian was killed by someone on the convoy? Bel thinks single-sex space navies go a little nuts. Their behavior on shore leave certainly implies that they might kill a shipmate on duty. Bel concedes that Solian, alive or dead, might have left the station, but he didn’t enter it. Bel also clarifies that the convoy’s supercargo have been moved to hostels on the Station, where some of them are trying to bribe Bel to release their cargo and let them arrange alternate transport. The Quaddies are adding the hotel bill to the fleet’s tab—trying to drive the Barrayarans away through billing practices.
In the end of this conversation, Bel lays their cards on the table. They’re considering becoming a permanent citizen of Graf Station, and would like to take their citizenship oaths without their fingers crossed. Bel would like to be fired a second time. Miles has struggled with a request like this before; His romantic fantasy about Elena Bothari delayed his permission for her marriage to Baz Jesek. He’s going to drag his feet for Bel, too. Miles has the power to order ImpSec to fire Bel, and Bel knows it. For the moment, Miles declines. He claims he’s considering the best interests of the Empire, which sounds very mature, but how well is the Empire served by an unwilling informant?
On returning to the station, Miles’s first order of business is to investigate blood stains. Bel plays the corpse while various and assorted personnel attempt to drag them through the area where the bloodstains were found. No footprints were found, so the individual who spilled the blood is presumed to have used one of the Quaddie floaters. Miles presses one of the Quaddie security guards into the investigation and reveals that the task is most easily managed by a person with four arms. The Quaddies are not amused. It’s understandable that when someone appears to have been murdered on a space habitat that is the ancient center of a society of people who have four arms, you might suspect that they were killed by one of the locals. But it’s also unfair because Solian was never on the station. And the Quaddies are already wary of the Barrayarans.
Tune in next week when Lt. Corbeau explains more reasons for that!
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.