POV Shift II
More or less an existing scene, but Smish Smath’s POV, and more insight on what it’s like to be one of the prince’s Security. For what limited interest it may have, no disrespect to Smish Smath.
Every morning before Azanry’s sun rose over the rolling hills to the east of this huge installation – “house,” they called it – the elderly servant came to Smish Smath’s bedside and set the Dolgorukij equivalent of a wake-up meal beside her, speaking to her in respectful but insistent tones even as she struggled to rise to the surface of the thick soft furs and fleeces.
“His Excellency will be out in the pacing-ring, Miss, in sixteen Sacreds. You would not want to come after.”
It beat Chief Stildyne’s gravel-coated snarl all to pieces for gentleness, but the effect was still the same. She had to get up. She had to get to her exercise uniform, and these people insisted on cleaning even exercise-uniforms as soon as they had been worn once. She had to gulp three mouthfuls of the Matredonat’s wonderful, wonderful rhyti, and she had to get out to the pacing-ring in a hurry. It was a good jog, from quarters out to the pacing-ring. If there was any way in which she could have seriously suspected Chief Stildyne of having this octaves-old house built in just that way with just that layout just to ensure that they’d all be forced to get their laps in first thing in the morning, Smish knew that she wouldn’t have put it past him.
Rinsing her face quickly in the basin of cold water, she tied the knot in her hair with damp hands, knowing that the servant was waiting for her with the rhyti poured and cooled to the precisely best temperature, the exercise uniform itself warmed in the shelf-rack that slid back into the firewall when it was not wanted. There were hearths and grates in these rooms, each room, and each spotless, and it made her nervous to have a fire so uncontained as to be hedged in on a mere three sides. And yet the Matredonat had never burned, not even during the early and unsettled times that the ruins of the defensive walls and unnecessary watchtowers – superfluous for generations – bore crumbling witness to.
Maybe Dolgorukij had some secret knowledge about fire.
Or maybe there was a force field.
Or maybe it was just another alien aspect of this alien place, she concluded. She finished her wonderful cup of wonderful rhyti, knowing from experience that if she weakened so far as to notice the bread and the fruit and the pastry and the meat that she would not be able to withstand the disapproving expression of the elderly servant; and she would stop for a bite; and one bite would become four, because it was wonderful; and she would be late for drill.
She was supposed to have discipline.
The chill morning air was heavy and wet, the fog thick and white against walls and trees. She could smell the river, as she set off at a trot; there were flowering trees all along its broad banks, and the green earthy smell of a living body of water. There were great fat green fishes in that river, but nobody ate them, and they were so tame that swimming amongst them could be an experience that made sense out of all the things “fish” could mean to a Dolgorukij.
Not quite clear of the first courtyard she heard Kerenko, coming up behind her; Ivish and Talle were generally already in formation a little ways down the road toward the pacing-ring, by this time. At first she had thought that she’d been isolated in that great room, with its huge bed and the immense tub in its vast private washroom, because of what Koscuisko had said about women under arms. She’d soon been disabused of that particular misapprehension; they were all in separate rooms. Not even Chief Stildyne’s instinctive attempt to gather them into one communal place had been enough to overpower Koscuisko’s insistence that they saLek what relative privacy the Matredonat could afford.
Koscuisko had been right about that aspect, Smish decided, as she and Kerenko caught up with the others, falling into a perfect rhythm with one another. It wasn’t the food, or the bed, or the servants, or even the unstructured time that really made this duty the pleasure that it was. It was the unexpected luxury of being alone, quite alone, for hours at a time if she counted the night-hours. Granted, there were always people there, at the other end of the comcall, or sitting at intervals in the long halls just waiting for some errand they could run. She had time to herself. She had space to herself. And she didn’t think she minded getting just the slightest bit used to it.
They rounded the corner of the high wall of the paddock area in formation, heading for the pacing-ring. The dark was lifting, the fog beginning to attenuate into thin ropes of ghostly white left tangled amongst the tree-trunks and their lower branches. In the still-dim predawn light Stildyne and Pyotr and Koscuisko himself stood out, against the red-graveled track, the white of their clothing – the exercise uniforms – luminous as the fog. There was no problem picking Koscuisko out among the three. He was not as tall as either of the others; but more than that, his skin was pale, though even his fair hair seemed dark in the early light.
Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp, and halt. She liked running on the pacing-ring, because the ground under foot amplified their collective noise and emphasized its precise unanimity. In the silence she could hear the small wind in the leaves, the faint sounds of animals in the nearby stable-yards; Koscuisko nodded as if concluding a conversation he had been having with their Chief.
“Very well. Since you have already broached the issue, they may train together, but – be very sure – I will hold any incidents against you. Whether it is fair of me to do so, or not.”
Stildyne had for some days rather wanted to match them one-on-one against the Matredonat’s House security, for exercise. Koscuisko had been reluctant to authorize it; because of Kerenko, or so Smish herself had supposed. She had not spoken to the others of the substance of what Koscuisko had said to her, alone, on the faster-than, on their way here. For one, he had spoken to each of them in turn, and it wasn’t up to her to second-guess what he felt best to say to his own people. And – for another – she herself had taken much of it so badly that she did not like exposing her own irrationalities to her team-mates, not any more than she did of necessity during the intimacies of their lives together.
“As you say, sir.” Stildyne’s voice was as smooth and suave as Stildyne’s voice probably could get, what with the broken-up machinery in his throat and all. Or what sounded like broken pavement, twisted metal, shards of glass scraping the edges of his voice. One way or the other he sounded very pleased with himself, and as though he was trying very hard to be ingratiating – in full knowledge of the fact that it simply didn’t work. Not with people like Andrej Koscuisko. “Let’s have a little distance, and then we’ll rehearse the three-ways. Pyotr. I’d like eight laps, this morning, if you don’t mind.”
What it actually came down to was a statement that Stildyne expected Koscuisko to put in eight laps to start out with. Because – although Koscuisko did not try to pretend to be as good at their jobs as they were – he had apparently been firmly convinced, even before his assignment to the Ragnarok, that the best way he could help them do their job of protecting him was to learn – and practice – how to protect himself as well as he could. Such a conviction had played right onto Chief Stildyne’s panel, and Stildyne had been shamelessly taking advantage of Koscuisko’s dutiful submission ever since.
Pyotr nodded – no need for a more formal salute, not between seniors, not in the pacing-ring – and set out at a slow lope down the track. Ivish and Talle gave him the precise distance prescribed by standard, and started after; Koscuisko himself jogged to the middle of the formation, matching himself to their pace, and she and Kerenko fell into step behind him. Stildyne was following at the back posting, she knew that, and she could hear him, surprisingly light on his feet for a man as big as he was. The jaggedness in Stildyne’s voice did not extend to his breathing. Half of Security was convinced that Stildyne could run them all into the bulkheads, and the other half already knew from experience.
Once around. It was a treat in its own way to run outside, in the open air, and on so variable and imperfect a surface as this pacing-ring, when they were accustomed to the stark functional multi-purpose exercise areas on Ragnarok. The birds were waking up, other birds lighting to rest, and there were sounds that she could not even interpret from every direction as the Matredonat bestirred itself to end its night-watch.
Twice around, three times around, and the cool morning was brisk and pleasant across the sweaty fabric of her exercise uniform. People had come out to watch them, day by day; some to see their master come home, even from a distance, even so informally; some to see them work their practice. Koscuisko paid no attention to any of them, except to go around and greet people once his part of the exercise was finished. The Matredonat’s House security ignored the bystanders equally as Koscuisko did, and from what Smish had seen the Matredonat’s House security were very jealous for Koscuisko’s safety. She could only conclude that there was no problem, with the occasional hanger-on at the outside rail, and she’d even begun to recognize some regular on-lookers.
Stildyne, however, had not relaxed his vigilance, and was as skeptical of their audience as he had been on the first morning they’d encountered this particular aspect of the public life of a Koscuisko prince. Now as they completed their fourth circuit Stildyne lengthened his stride, coming up from behind to run at Koscuisko’s left and talk to him.
“There he is again, your Excellency – up ahead. The big one, with the ribbon around his neck.”
One of their regulars, tall for a Dolgorukij, and probably someone or another quite specific, from the way he was always dressed. Not all that differently from the other people, here, and it was true that there were Dolgorukij as tall as Stildyne himself or any of them – Koscuisko’s father had been a very tall man, from what she’d seen of him. Still, there was something unusual about his face or his posture or something, and he never seemed to actually make eye-contact – unlike all of the others, who were clearly more than eager to smile and wave. And the ribbon was something different, even if his light brown hair and his clean-shaven face and his dark brown eyes were nothing out of the ordinary from the people in this place.
“Who, him?” Koscuisko was looking, now, too, turning his head to study the still figure as they passed. The guard-rail had been set well back from the pacing-track, it was too far to call out or to see much by way of expression; and Koscuisko clearly did not see anything unusual in the man Stildyne had pointed out to him. “It’s one of the cousins, Chief, that’s all. Religious professionals of a certain place in the hierarchy are all called cousin, and treated like distant relations with no money. The ribbon, though, that means he’s a Malcontent.”
In which case, why wasn’t House security at least watching him? Maybe they were. Maybe it didn’t mean what she’d thought it meant, at first.
“His Excellency means, belonging to the Household, of Saint Andrej Malcontent?”
Stildyne sounded just a shade confused himself. Koscuisko turned his head to look at Stildyne, and Smish could see him smile. “Yes, that, exactly. So he is a very distant relation, but everyone is good to him, because he has a direct line to the very highest authorities. Being Malcontent, you see, and not respecting any hierarchies.”
Oh. It was religion they were talking about. She had heard a little – a very little – from Koscuisko over the years, about his own patron Saint, the Saint Andrej who was the Dolgorukij exemplar of filial piety. She wondered what this Saint Andrej Malcontent stood for, in the complex Dolgorukij liturgical net-work.
“You know, Chief, he looked familiar to me, somehow. And not just Dolgorukij. I’d almost suggest that he isn’t Dolgorukij at all, there’s just something about the face or figure. Go and speak to him, if you like, Chief. Ask him where I’ve seen him before – ”
They were coming up on their fifth course, now, moving toward the place on the track from which Stildyne had pointed out the man watching at the rail. Koscuisko gestured to Stildyne, as he spoke, waving him off to go and confront whatever threat Stildyne could find in some innocuous religious; but Stildyne was not to have the opportunity after all, it seemed. She could see Koscuisko’s head turn as he scanned the rail, sensed his frown of mild surprise. The man with the ribbon around his neck was no longer there.
Perhaps – Smish told herself, knowing she was being melodramatic, knowing that was Stildyne’s job – perhaps he’d left to avoid being recognized, now that Koscuisko had noticed him.
“Well, next time you see him, then,” Koscuisko shrugged, his pace as stead and regular as Pyotr’s was. “Trot on over and introduce yourself at any time. You don’t have to worry about offending him, if he belongs to the Malcontent. You can ask him anything you like, he’ll tell you.”
“Very good, your Excellency.” Stildyne’s voice was resonant with suspicion and distrust, clearly unhappy at the sudden disappearance of his quarry. “Thank you, sir.”
Smish wondered if just this once Stildyne could possibly be over-reacting.
What harmful motive could a priest have, after all?
Surrendering herself to the pulse and rhythm of their run she dissolved her thoughts in the simple circle of breathing, and was happy.