The Traitor Baru Cormorant read-along: Chapter 4!

Beware the spoiler! You shouldn’t read this until you’ve finished the book. This is for your reread!

You can catch up on Chapter One, Chapter Two and Chapter Three.

Scene One

“Horses!” Baru exclaimed, delighted. “They’re enormous! Please—excuse me, Governor, Jurispotence, I simply must.”

I love it when Baru gets to be enthusiastic and joyful about learning new things. It’s hard to watch her lose that joy over the length of the book — or does she? Keep an eye on it, see what you think.

“There is no higher terrestrial life on Taranoke, you see and she is so curious.”

I wonder if that’s actually true. It’s a big island. Certainly they don’t have horses or sheep!

They’d been bred to serve for generations.

This sentence slams Baru’s wonder back into the problem of Masquerade eugenics and control, which is a pretty blunt textual invocation of subtext. The tools of hygiene, domestication, and breeding are applied not just to animals but to people. Whether this is remotely viable is kind of irrelevant: the Masquerade believes their project could work, and that drives their policy right now. (Note also that the warhorses are neither fast nor economical. They’re built for endurance and load weight, and they eat a lot. This is a bit of foreshadowing both for logistical themes and for Tain Hu’s solution to the battle at the end of the book.

She looked toward Cairdine Farrier, drawn by the thought. But there was a stallion between them.

First Governor Cattlson gets equated with a stallion (there’s a literal stallion there too, but Cattlson speaks directly after this sentence), and then…

She ducked to eye him beneath the horse’s belly.

…he gets compared to a dick, in terms of simple visual puns. He is kind of a dick.

He patted the horse’s flank and grinned boyishly. “Talented enough to teach. If you can find a minute for leisure, that is! Cairdine Farrier speaks so highly of your dedication. Please, Your Excellence, your carriage. You’ll need time to change before dinner.”

Outlining some of Cattlson’s negative qualities, which Baru, alas for Cattlson, fixates on. Check out the density of information here: he’s a bit of a lad, which we learn right next to a patronizing pat-pat gesture. He wants to teach Baru. He associates Baru with Farrier’s patronage. He doesn’t think Baru can be wholly trusted to manage her own affairs, and he goes so far as to tell her to change her clothes, which, while probably reasonable, implicitly activates his concern over and attempts to control her presentation and body.

She watched him mount his own charger, feigning interest in his technique, trying to play for time so she could study Cairdine Farrier’s byplay with Xate Yawa. But Farrier’s chatter only seemed to bore the Jurispotence. If she feared or respected Farrier, she could hide it well.

Baru spends some time pretending to care about men, but she’s never excellent at it. I like how the construction in the first sentence hides the information on what she’s really doing in the last clause — an incredibly simple incarnation, but satisfying to me.

Yawa’s attention to Farrier is another clue in one of the hidden plots. Baru’s trying to map out the loyalties of those around her. This makes Yawa either very canny or not one of Farrier’s allies.

Xate Yawa vanished into her carriage. It closed around her like a gauntlet.

I chose ‘vanishing’ and ‘gauntlet’ to echo the two roles the Xate twins play, one hidden, one the Masquerade’s iron fist.

Scene Two

“You’re going to start answering them while I waste my time at this gala they’ve set up.”

Either an error on Baru’s part, given how useful a ball could be, or a calculated move to signal to Muire Lo that she isn’t good at extracting information from social situations. Since Baru has a very hard time concealing her talents, I’m inclined to call this a nervous expression of impatience and anxiety. Baru’s not fond of being presented formally!

“That makes it seem like I have something to hide, Muire Lo, and if you’re keeping watch over me for someone else—which I assume you must be—I want to assure them that I am not a woman given to intrigue.”

More development of the tension between these two, since Muire Lo must be someone’s agent, and plainly he is at least serving Farrier. Yet Baru, for all her calculation and isolation, cannot avoid liking him. (Note her motherly cluck later in this paragraph.)

This passage also touches on one of my favorite themes, the importance of leaving a paper trail and appearing to be vulnerable to scrutiny. Concealing everything leaves an obvious black void where your intentions should be. But scrupulously documenting your moves gives you material to manipulate and misrepresent.

“I have heard suggestions that there may have been a problem of security at the previous office.”

I wanted to make it clear that Baru wasn’t kicking off the plot (in both the intra and extra-textual sense) with her arrival. She’s stepping up as an understudy for Accountants past. It was important to the tension, too, that she face immediate jeopardy and consequences for both success and failure. Either one could kill her!

“If you wanted to seed conspiracy, where else would you be?”

This is, again, symptomatic of Baru’s approach to problems. She’s focusing on the scenario of maximum threat. If her opponents are rational and ruthless, she assumes they’ll attempt the same gambit she has: joining the Masquerade government in order to turn it against itself.

Yet she’s answered, indirectly, by someone outside the system [outside the carriage] —

“But the charger pacing the carriage was stark white, the color of snow on volcanic stone, cantering alongside at a spear’s reach. The woman riding wore a leather tabard, shoulders mailed in stark ornamental iron. Baru marked the spurs, the towering charger, the minimalist display of wealth, and guessed she must be minor nobility—some feudal landlord?

The rider stood in her stirrups, displaying the casual strength of good health and a rich diet, and turned to meet Baru’s gaze. Impressions in a flash—fierce, aquiline nose, broken and reset. Skin in Maia tones of copper and fallow soil, so close to the Taranoki but for the high cheekbones and proud nose.”

Our first sight of Tain Hu. Baru’s gaze at work: shoulders, spurs, nice horse, wealth, nobility, stood, casual strength, good health, gaze, flash, fierce, proud. It’s not what we expect from gaze directed at a woman, but it is Baru’s cultural heritage at work.  Note also the invocation of Taranoke at the beginning — a pin connecting Tain Hu to Baru’s guilt that she may not be going about the liberation of Taranoke the right way at all.

Tain Hu has been in some fights before we see her, which you’ll see a few hints at later, too.

The rider considered her through the caged glass of the carriage window, her smile narrow and lopsided, and then spurred her mount ahead.

Tain Hu does not want to be inside the carriage, inside the cage. She wants to go on ahead. Foreshadowing for her choices that drive the end of the story.

It’s cute how Baru assumes she must be an important duchess. #bias

with the uneasy sense that she was prey.

Until Tain Hu takes an oath to Baru, it’s a constant contest between these two to determine who’s in command — a contest that re-ignites after the events at Sieroch, when Tain Hu seizes control of the story.

Scene Three

The Governor’s House stood not a quarter mile from harborside, an edict in iron and granite, gates guarded by Masquerade marines in red tabards and steel masks and gauntlets sleeved like a surgeon’s sterile garb. The stone of the compound had been acid-etched clean.

Hygiene and authority, entangled, but this paragraph also entangles Cattlson with Xate Yawa. The marines with red tabard and steel masks for Cattlson; the surgeon’s garb, the acid wash for Yawa.

I’m not sure I like this paragraph hugely, mostly because it doesn’t have much voice. It doesn’t feel attached to a single person.

“Someone’s trying to embarrass you.”

Probably Yawa. Seems more her style, doesn’t it?

“Get some staff and tear it all down,” Baru ordered. “The carpets, too.”

“They are likely quite expensive — “

“All the better. I want to look like a common-born provincial with no idea what wealth means.”

It’s fun to see Baru maneuvering aggressively to manage her social appearance and pretend to be out of her depth, but my favorite thing about this scene is the quieter fact that she’s just not very good at following up on this. It’s hard for Baru to pretend to not understand things, or to conceal herself behind a screen of inability. Her pride confounds her.

This book really does have a lot of em-dashes, doesn’t it?

She perched on the edge of the redwood desk.

Keep track of Baru’s body language around Muire Lo. Her scenes with him are some of the only points where her body language makes her smaller — she perches, or tucks her legs under her. There’s an interesting dynamic here. It’s obviously not deference or diffidence, this being Baru, and she’s not trying to appeal to him. Rather, I read it as a subliminal sign of trust. When she does find herself using space-claiming language around him, she worries it’s sending the wrong signal, because of course this is language she associates with women she’s attracted to.

“A woman in Aurdwynn simply cannot attend a formal function in trousers.”

Presumably a terrible oversimplification, but Muire Lo is trying to avoid giving offense. Tain Hu, of course, shows up in her riding clothes, which is not only bold but a nice insult to Cattlson.

She scrubbed herself raw with pumice in the bath (from Taranoke? it could be)

Abrading herself with the memory of Taranoke? I’d laugh at my un-subtlety but I actually didn’t do that one on purpose.

If it troubled Muire Lo’s pride or modesty to dress her, he hid it masterfully.

Lo is a professional. I think this book tends to be a little hands-off and detached with its characters as physical beings, Tain Hu perhaps excepted: we don’t get any detail on Muire Lo’s hands or body language, because Baru doesn’t care. Something I’m interested in exploring more in future work.

This sentence is missing a beat between ‘her’ and ‘he’, I think. The rhythm is off.

It would explain what happened to the last two names to hold the station.

Important to signpost Baru’s reasoning, if not to exhaustively list all of it: it has to make sense that Baru would, on no firsthand evidence, suspect conspiracy within the provincial government, immediately fixating on a few suspects. Remember, she’s a momentum-based thinker, selecting a target and charging after it. She’s vulnerable to fitting information to her own preconceived biases…but her preconceived biases are pretty sharp.

She buckled on her scabbard and the chained purse. They did not match the gown, but her short hair and heavy boots had already ruined that…she went down the tower, breathing slowly and easily, working her fingers one by one into the white elbow-length gloves that had come with the gown.

I love her confidence and assurance. She’s so good at walking straight into danger with her energy coiled up around her. I’ve had people say this outfit sounds like a fashion disaster, but I don’t agree!

Scene Four

But the distance between them was a crater. She could feel eyes on her like sunglare, and at once wanted water.

A crater, invoking Taranoke’s caldera. The word sunglare here is a tip to Blue Planet, one of my other big projects, but also a ghostly image of the Ashen Sea overlaid on the ballroom (as on Farrier’s face) — a wide space where the sun leaves you at risk of dehydration if you travel. The large in the small and the small builds the large.

The nobility in the crowd were motley, variegated, Masquerade judges clustered among them like rooks. “I look forward to knowing all of you as well as I know your account books.”

Very funny, Cormorant. Doesn’t that first sentence feel a little overloaded? It chokes on ‘motley, variegated, Masquerade,’ which is just too much in one place.

This scene really wasn’t touched much since the earliest draft. I wonder if I could’ve done good work on it? We have to leave it be sooner or later.

Someone touched her arm. She leapt only a little.

Tain Hu’s hand on Baru’s arm is a simple act of intimacy, but packed with double meanings: Tain Hu’s a killer, and Baru’s arms are clad in those long white Masquerade gloves, remember?

her cheeks painted in red slashes and her long black hair bound up.

Tain Hu changes hairstyles a couple times in this book, I believe. Her red-slashed cheeks are a syncretic symbol, a Maia lightning letter merged and streamlined with an Iolynic desire to invoke ykari Himu’s energy. Usually the simple rune language goes with the people who live in the stone mountains, but that’s trite: Stakhieczi language actually rhymes more closely with the smooth, robust curves of river stone than the angular and graphically bold iconography of Urun.

“You should have ridden, not taken the carriage. Men like Heingyl Stag Hunter already expect you to be weak.”

I’m not wholly happy with Heingyl’s name, since it doesn’t quite sound right, does it? Hyne-gill? Hyne-jill? Neither one fits well in the mouth. But I do like Stag Hunter a lot. Note the foreshadowing of the battle at Sieroch, where cavalry is so decisive: Tain Hu’s first advice to Baru is already the seed of a vital choice she makes to win that battle. Tain Hu is great.

Baru set herself across from the woman, giving herself space as curious onlookers began to gather.

I like this little moment of squaring off.

“By Cattlson himself, I’m sure.” The horsewoman smiled faintly. “I’m sure he’d love to ride with you.” Someone in the crowd tittered.

Tain Hu is in many ways a political ally of Baru, but I wanted to be careful not to make her a flawless paragon of 21st-century feminism. She’s from Aurdwynn, a land with a complex and often snarled attitude towards family and sexuality, and she’s willing to use sexual jibes to shame and humiliate, which a Taranoki woman wouldn’t really think of. Note that Baru’s immediate reaction isn’t anger but bemusement.

Focus on the woman in the riding leathers, the woman with the lopsided smile, and on her own strengths.

Another tiny incarnation of the ending: Baru is riding, she is distracted by thoughts of Tain Hu, she becomes lopsided. Too cute?

Probably here to sniff for weakness, like a wolf after the sick.

It doesn’t occur to Baru that Tain Hu may be here out of simple curiosity, or to try to recruit her, or to defy her fellow rebels as part of some iconoclastic internal politics. Baru’s still fledgling. She doesn’t put much effort into mapping or considering the intrigues of others.

Tain Hu smiled between Baru’s thumb and forefinger. “You have never been to Falcrest.”

“Not yet.”

Tain Hu cocked her head, eyes narrowed, and opened her lips as if to speak; but she said nothing, and left Baru suddenly conscious of those unpainted lips, those fierce dark eyes. the slow surge of her breath.

Baru’s careful reaction to her own sexuality is self-denial and wary vigilance. Tain Hu, on the other hand, is openly interested. They have two very different responses to their psychological climate, and I hope this reflects that each of them is so much more than just a sexuality, no matter how much their society tries to confine them — they each bring their own particular personalities to their sexual style. Repression and rigid self-control aren’t universal responses to Masquerade oppression. Baru’s perfectly confident about her sexual orientation, but even if she lived back on pre-conquest Taranoke, I bet she’d be guarded and wary about where she let her guard down…although I’m not sure.

I love her smile between Baru’s thumb and forefinger: splitting Baru into left and right, and saying ‘You have never been to Falcrest.’ Tain Hu will send Baru there.

Somewhere behind them a quartet of musicians began to play a piece on oboe and plucked lute. Baru released her grip and turned away, heart pounding. “Governor Cattlson!” she called, preferring the appearance of retreat to disaster at Tain Hu’s hands. “You have a challenger on horseback!”

She won’t admit it to us, but she’s absolutely flirting with Tain Hu here, and silently signaling admiration and approval.

Scene Five

Baru fumbled with chopsticks over food her stomach had never met.

I like the attention to digestive troubles, and the chopsticks as a bit of Aurdwynni cultural influence.

So when dessert came and Governor Cattlson roared for more wine…

Cattlson’s guilt and fear over his complicity in Aurdwynn’s suffering drive him to drink. His friendship with Heingyl reassures him that he’s a worthy and honorable man.

“How curious.” Xate Yawa poured the Governor another glass, her veined hands steady.

She’s enabling him, of course.

Xate Yawa smiled, as if in apology for a matter of decorum.

The fact that Su Olonori was cut apart in her bed is indeed a matter of embarrassment and poor decorum for Xate Yawa, who would probably have preferred to remove him more elegantly.

“A corrupt and perfidious slattern. Yawa put her on trial and I had her drowned.”


It would’ve been so, so trivial to genderflip Ffare Tanifel and use this chance to show the Masquerade punishing a man for promiscuity and infidelity. Why didn’t I do it? A mistake? I’m not sure…I’m chewing on it.

And then Olonori (an Oriati name, he would have been a foreigner and harder to corrupt) had refused to go over, and the rebels had killed him in turn.

Since he’s got two names, Su Olonori, you can safely guess that he’s from Lonjaro, rather than Segu, like Aminata — whose full name is ‘Aminata isiSegu’.

Where was Cairdine Farrier? Shouldn’t he have been at the ball?

Good of her to model what someone else might be up to, but she doesn’t chase this far enough!

We wish to discuss matters of inheritance law, and the taxation of landlords, Duchess Nayauru’s seneschal murmured…

Baru gets a lot of shit, and gives herself a lot of shit, for not spotting the upcoming disintegration of the Midlands power bloc. She is accused of ignoring the importance of feudal marriage politics. But is her reductive, economic analysis actually wholly incomplete? Ultimately, Nayauru and Ihuake are worried about who will inherit each others’ lands. The matter kind of is economic. And yet it’s not: they’re also worried about the future of their own names. All tangled up.

Then Duke Heingyl in his hunting garb, cold and plainly hostile except when he introduced his daughter, Ri, a tiny woman with sharp fox eyes and elaborate jewelry who made her father’s hands tighten with some kind of wary protective love.

Keep a sharp eye on Ri. She is a hell of a political operator, and she slides through this book without anyone ever noticing the power play she’s making. Her dad clearly didn’t manage to pass on his values of loyalty and obedience, because Ri is a terror despite barely appearing at all in the surface narrative. I’ll try to flag points where she’s meddling.

I like dad Heingyl’s irritation that Ri didn’t get the accounting job. I also like Ri’s double-edged warning and flattery to Baru, ‘doubtless you will swiftly detect and resolve them.’ How better to hide a problem from Baru than to say ‘no doubt it’s trivial and you’ll fix it effortlessly?’

Loyalist? Rebel? Or waiting for your chance to choose?

This might be the earliest foreshadowing of the Traitor’s Qualm.

Scene Six

At dawn the next morning she dressed, washed, rang Muire Lo for breakfast, and sat down in her new office with a caged candle to sort through the Imperial Accounts.

This is a subtle mark of wealth. Candle-making is quite an expensive task in terms of time and labor!

But no—she found disaster.

This was one of my early attempts to make accounting procedure taut and interesting! I hope it worked out. Baru confronts a crisis of the general form ‘oh god, what is happening, how do I do my homework when it’s written in babble?’ Her solution is a typically kinetic one, tossing out all the past work and rebuilding from the ground up.

These books were Baru’s spyglass, her map, her sword and edict.

I sold the power of these accounts as hard as I could and yet I’m still not sure I sold them hard enough. Imagine having a book of everyone’s potential energy: their power to turn their will into labor, war, political power, whatever they need. Imagine knowing who’s bound to who by loans. It’s a huge source of intelligence.

A scrap of parchment in Su Olonori’s fevered handwriting fell from the records: V. much land sale?

I’m playing a cruel trick on you, reader. There’s no reason to believe that the word ‘very’ would begin with V in Aphalone, but of course it does in English, and so I hope you will assume that this is Very, and not the truth, which is Vultjag.

“You should just say ‘come’, your Excellence. In Falcrest I mastered the ways of doors.”

Muire Lo already settling in with his boss well enough to get sarcastic.

She knifed a grapefruit and managed to spray Muire Lo with the juice.

I like the slapstick here. I like how it shades into grotesque fruit carnage on the next page, when the fruit comes apart ‘into sticky ruin in her hands.’ As Baru loses her temper, the energetic banter shades into anger and frustration, and then she abruptly chops it off and buries herself into internal monologue —

I don’t want this! she almost shouted. I want Falcrest and telescopes, proofs of geometry and the fluorescence of certain sea life! I want to know the world, not these sordid little people in their shattered little land!

I want to save my home!

A nice recap of Baru’s two conflicting drives, to be great and to do well for Taranoke. Note that the desire to save her home is later, which in English text puts it ‘on the right’. Read as you will!

—she slipped into self-pity here, for one or two brief syllables—

The fact that Baru has the capacity for doubt, self-pity, and guilt is how we know she’s not wholly a ruthless machine, right? We can see her bearing up against the strain with human strength and human weakness.

“Our frigate Lapetiare is still in port,” he said, “and will not sail for a week.”

There’s a harsh theme in this book: Baru stripping away her friends, allies, and support systems so that she can go on alone and ‘unburdened.’ She feels that her allies will either compromise her security or compromise her emotional detachment. She wants to be like a shark, a predator fixated on a goal, free of attachment.

And yet Baru’s support network is constantly making shit happen for her. Muire Lo connects her back to Aminata and Aminata’s marines. Baru neither notices enough nor shows enough gratitude, and I think the next book will force her to reckon with how much of her power actually comes from cultivating and trusting friends and subordinates.

Four chapters down! This chapter works serviceably for me, even if I wish I could poke a little at a few of its scenes. Feel free to leave your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “The Traitor Baru Cormorant read-along: Chapter 4!

  1. mossytoes

    “I’ve had people say this outfit sounds like a fashion disaster, but I don’t agree!”

    /Absolutely/ not. According to, ah, my own biases.

  2. Kate

    I love Muire Lo in this chapter. All it really took was his comment about mastering doors, and I was charmed. As much as I enjoy Baru and all the work you put into creating her, Muire Lo somehow managed to become my favorite. I wish we knew more about his interior life, but then, it wouldn’t be Baru’s book, would it?


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