Chapters 11 through 13 of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen deal with conversations that should be had before too late. Chapters 11 and 12 deal mostly with personal matters. Chapter 13 raises the stakes with a second and third perspective on the War for Hegen’s Hub and a look at ongoing threats to Barrayar’s security.
The main thrust of the personal conversations is that we’re not reading the kind of book where the plot hinges on people’s secrets being revealed in terrible and scandalous ways. I’m glad. I hate those books. And, as Cordelia points out to several interested parties, none of the secrets anyone is keeping here are particularly dark or deadly. No one has yet told Miles that Jole and Aral were an item, but Cordelia has prepared him for that information by talking about why adults keep secrets. And Miles has acknowledged that the court of public opinion is not the best venue for these matters, nor does it make them important. In typical Miles fashion, he does it by thinking of his grandfather. General Piotr once told him that if the charges being bandied about in gossip weren’t at least treason or murder, they weren’t worth rolling over in bed for. Well, treason anyway. Sometimes not even then.
A number of things are still private, but at this point, it is no longer a secret that Cordelia and Jole are dating (and screwing—Cordelia went for Betan frankness there), or that Cordelia is having more children. Jole has told Cordelia about his new job offer. Cordelia has told Miles about Aral and Ges Vorrutyer. And we all now know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Aral’s childhood was pretty dark. We could have extrapolated that from his discussion of the brutal murders of his mother, his siblings, and all but one of his cousins in a single incident involving a sonic grenade, followed later by the role he played in Emperor Yuri’s dismemberment. But for those of you who feel that extrapolation is different from confirmation, it is now known.
It is so often Cordelia who does the difficult work of preparing people to hear hard things, and in this section of Gentleman Jole, she’s talking to us. A lot of Cordelia’s conversations with Miles here are colored by the possibility that Miles will not outlive her. His lifespan was likely never going to reach galactic standards, even before his encounter with the Cetagandan plague. He uses a cane now, which is not some sort of terrible thing, other than it being a sign of his physical decline.
All of these conversations are going better than the one in which Gregor found out about Serg. No one present reminisces about that conversation specifically, which makes me think that it was either a private conversation with Aral or a complete accident—something he heard from Komarran media or a chance encounter with someone from Escobar. But Chapter 13 deals with Jole’s tour of The Prince Serg, on its way into mothballs, and offers an occasion for a lot of reminiscing about its shakedown cruise. Jole and Cordelia both remember the sick and frightening sense that everything Aral had done for Barrayar over the course of two decades could come to nothing in the end. If Gregor had died without an heir at age 25, Barrayar would have had another civil war.
Vordarian’s Pretendership was a difficult war to fight, but an easy one to foresee—someone was going to complain about Ezar’s choices once Ezar was dead. If Gregor had died in Hegen’s Hub, even though he had assumed personal power by that time, it would have meant that Aral had failed. No other heir had been confirmed by the Council of Counts. Competing heirs would have been identified in short order. Miles and Ivan would have been on the list. Possibly, Aral would have swung his support behind Ivan, as Morozov theorized in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. But with what support? The Imperial Military and the Counts would almost definitely have had serious concerns about Aral’s role in Gregor’s disappearance. And so much of the point of what Aral did for so much of his life was that Ivan and Miles wouldn’t be emperor. Hegen Hub was a war about stopping Cetagandan expansion, and for Aral it was also about preserving the meaning of his entire life of service.
In the end, the Prince Serg won the day with its cutting edge gravitic imploder lance. Gregor was safe. Miles was a military hero in ways that are still classified on Barrayar despite being the subject of several vid dramas on Vervain. The Cetagandans pulled out of Hegen’s Hub faster than they withdrew from Barrayar, and, Miles and Jole speculate, for similar reasons—not because they couldn’t win, but because they felt it wasn’t the right time. Barrayar and its empire exist at Cetaganda’s pleasure. The biological weapons controlled by the Haut could destroy Barrayar at any time. They’ve just chosen not to.
I was shocked by this the first time I read it, and I still find it shocking. At the beginning of the series, the Cetagandans seemed like cartoon villains to me. They’d left Barrayar, their attempts to retrieve Terrance Cee hadn’t worked, and Hegen’s Hub did not go well for them. My reading of Cetaganda was that they weren’t necessarily Barrayar’s enemies at all, depending on who was in charge. Diplomatic Immunity certainly pointed out the risks of tangling with the Cetagandan Haut, but the idea that the extermination of the rest of the Galactic Nexus is in both their power and their long term plans is alarming. Barrayar is planning drone ships that will fight without vulnerable human crews, but there’s no such thing as a drone planet.
Miles’s children came along for this trip, and they are still here. They’re leading a charmed life in which their grandmother arranges a wide and engaging array of educational treats for them. They dug up some fossils, and the three oldest get to go along with the grown-ups and Freddie Haines to check out the Prince Serg—presented to them as their grandfather’s old ship.
I trust that arrangements for the younger children included some quality time with a pony for Taurie, because I know in my heart that she is one day going to name a horse after a ship her grandfather commanded for somewhat longer, and that she and General Vorkraft will love each other devotedly after they work through a couple of mutinies. Or perhaps I just make a lot of assumptions about people who share my feelings about hopscotch. Do they even have ponies on Sergyar? I like seeing Taura Vorkosigan getting to have the happy childhood that Sgt. Taura never did, because I like the idea that Miles and Ekaterin chose to honor her memory in that particular way.
At the end of Chapter 13, Cordelia has a conversation with Miles’s oldest son, Alex, about his goals. Miles has planned out Alex’s career a bit. He’s going to go to the Imperial Service Academy and then be Count. It’s a lot of pressure. Alex doesn’t want to. Cordelia doesn’t tell him he doesn’t have to. She also doesn’t tell him he does have to, either. Instead, she shows him Aral’s sketches. It’s a nice way of showing Alex that he can be more than one thing, and that there’s more than one way to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. And, incidentally, it guarantees that Aral’s secrets about Jole and Ges will make their way to the next generation. Not right away, but eventually.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.