Relationship noodling: Andrej and Marana trying to re-negotiate a relationship of some sort, but there’s also the concept of Stildyne on might-as-well-be-horseback and nobody liking it but Kerenko. Maybe good for a grin.
The year was turning toward the still cold time, but the days were still warm enough to ride out to the hills behind the Matredonat once the sun had risen an eighth or two above the horizon. Andrej had wanted his Security – his gentlepeople, as he called them – to learn to ride; as far as Marana could tell it was at least as much because he preferred their company to the Matredonat’s house staff as any desire to share the experience. In point of fact learning to ride was not a very desirable experience, especially for people who had no prior exposure to such a concept. She almost thought it cruel of him to insist upon it, and cruelty was as unlike the Andrej she had known as – as the stories whispered late at night about the Free Government probably were from truth.
She didn’t know what to think of him.
Riding at a slow walk through the blackwoods leading up to the Groom’s Vigil Marana watched Andrej, when she could, and puzzled about him always. He had asked her to come to the Groom’s Vigil with him for old time’s sake. He had asked little enough of her since he had come home; she had been perfectly willing to indulge him in this nostalgic visit to an old trysting-place of theirs. It wasn’t as if any trysting was going to take place, in the middle of all six Security; she had nothing to be the least bit uncertain about.
Soft-footed in the fallen leaves, the pack-animals that went on before them moved more deeply into the blackwoods with hardly a sound to betray their passage except for a small rustling of leaves and the occasional muted grunt from one of the Security. Andrej was riding beside her, and more behind than before, insisting in word and deed on her precedence as the mother of his heir. Thorough, he was, and it was abstractly possible that he was also being a little tiresome about the whole thing. Why had he asked her to come with him, if he didn’t want to so much as talk?
But the blackwoods were splendid, in their early autumn gilt and bronze, and he had been away for so long. The deep rich smell of damp blackwood nut-husks was heavy in the pleasantly cool air. Perhaps the sensory range simply overwhelmed a man, after so long on board of a ship.
Through the woods, then, till they found their way to the stone track – overgrown now, and much disturbed by frost and neglect, but easy going for the animals even so. If more difficult for their inexperienced riders, for all the stoic expressions on their faces – or at least on that “Mister Stildyne’s” face. Andrej himself had not ridden since he’d left home, but the body did not forget the important things, such as how to sit if one hoped to be able to stand without discomfort later.
The stone track led up to the top of the hill, to the Groom’s Vigil, the grassy ruins of what had once been a sentry-post during the days when the Matredonat had still fielded its own militia. She had not been up here for quite a few years herself, and she looked around as with new eyes while the Security set the hobbles on riding-animal and pack-animal alike and limped gingerly down the slope a little ways toward the pump-house.
It did not look much changed, since the days when she used to creep away from class to meet Andrej after dark. She had ridden here then, too, because the old ram had known the way in the dark – Andrej had never failed to make much of Benerki, with treats and caresses – and because it was a good five veserts from the little women’s college at Peretris to the Groom’s Vigil, and the mashounds loosed on the grounds for curfew.
His Security had got the pumps on line; the old waterworks was beginning to yield a stream of cold fresh water, for the refreshment of man and beast alike, filling the channel, filling the long basin, and the yowes and the geldings and her ram all crowding to get their noses into it. There was plenty to occupy people, and nothing in particular for her to do, so she sought out the faint trace of the footpath to the hollow, and began the short climb into the mossy basin that lay within the curve of the ruined tower. It was no more than a deep curved wall, any more, but the view encompassed the Matredonat almost in its entirety, and as nearly as she could remember Anton Andreievitch had been engendered there. She had gone back, once or twice, after Anton’s birth, lonely for the memory of Andrej’s body; she had been able to glean a feeling of his arms around her, when she stood in this place. But she had had much to do, and had stopped coming. Now she had not quite made up her mind, yet, about whether she even wanted his arms around her. He was too strange to her; and too familiar for her to be able to take him as a stranger, and set about to make his acquaintance from first-meeting.
She scarcely heard him behind her until she had reached the hollow and stopped to admire the ripe fields of grain that seemed to stretch so far, so deep, down in the valley. He had brought the ground-cloth and the hamper, and passed her without speaking to lay the ground-cloth out on the sun-warmed stones.
Surely he could not be thinking . . .
No, of course not, she reprimanded herself, with some little amusement. Not on the stones. There had been a time when she had been black and blue for days, and a difficult time explaining, too. He would not have chosen the rock-tiled incline had he had anything to do with fishing on his mind.
“Come and sit beside me, Marana,” he said, with peculiar formality. “I must myself to you explain, and they will only be able to force themselves to respect our privacy for a certain period of time. Being out under an unsecured ceiling makes Security very unhappy, have you noticed?”
“You are mistaken.” It was only a few steps to where he had prepared a resting-place, and the glass of cool wine that he offered her was very welcome. Even if there was clearly nothing to be nervous about. “It is the exercise that makes them unhappy. I think that only your Sarvaw green-sleeves is enjoying himself astride.”
Andrej frowned, but sat down on the ground-cloth, taking the wine-flask with him. “Fresh air, it is good for them. And I would not want the others feeling very badly, to have been left out. Better if they have mistreatment to complain loudly of, when we return.” That was right, he had not brought the people with him that he had originally intended to. But he was not saying why. “How do you like to be the mistress of the Matredonat, Marana? Is it a tolerable life, for you?”
What a question. She had made the choice to abandon her choice when she had first decided to require a child of Andrej’s body, knowing very well that it was imprudent, knowing also that if the child was a boy she would lose control over a good deal of her life. “It is as a life full and fulfilling, Andrej Ulexeievitch. Even when the master of the house is not at home.”
She was comfortable with her position as the chatelaine of the Matredonat; she’d not realized how accustomed she’d gotten to a regular schedule, early rising, early retiring. Andrej Koscuisko had not been home in more than eight years, and there had been nothing but cousins, and school-mates, land-pledges and the husbands of women he had flirted with, visiting medical professionals come out all the way from Makitar Center halfway across the world . . .
There had not been a single quiet day in the eight days that he’d been home; she had noticed – as a mother could not help but notice – that throughout this time Andrej had ever and again sought out his child, turned toward his child, absorbed himself so completely in Anton Andreievitch that no force seemed capable of tearing him away. Until the next cousin, or the next family friend, or the next familial contractor had arrived, to seek the very special pleasure of the merest word with the son of the Koscuisko prince. Andrej left Anton’s side with the face of a man in pain, every time he was called away. “And there is of course our child to keep after.”
“What if the master of the house should not return, though. There will still be young Anton. But I do not remember that we understood that you could be tied to your keys, here, forever.” He was frowning, staring down into the valley. It was not as though her position here was an unpleasant one; she had wealth and power, respect, and unchallengeable custody of a young man who had recently become one of the most important people in the entire Koscuisko familial corporation.
“There are worse things.” What could his comment mean, about not returning? Had his experience in port Burkhayden put the fear of his own mortality into his heart? “Eight years is not forever, Andrej, you will come home. What troubles you, that you should ask this question?”
This took her back to old times, to the philosophical discussions going on late into the night. She was content to try to draw him out; she could afford to listen. Especially with a glass of wine in her hand, and her back to the smooth warm stones, and the friend of her childhood – her first, her true and only lover – sitting by her side.
Or the man who had once been her first and true and only lover, at any rate.
Settling down on one elbow, lying on his side facing her, Andrej looked long and deep into her face before he spoke. His expression was serious, measuring; but at length it seemed that he decided.
“I can only say this once, here, now, Marana. And I must trust you not to say it further. I especially cannot say this in front of my Kerenko. I do not – expect – to come back to this place, once I have returned to Fleet again.”
It was said in such a matter-of-fact tone that she hardly heard the meat of it until he had finished speaking, and was waiting for her response. “A premonition, Andrej?” No, it could hardly be that; there was no reason why he could not share so innocuous a thing as a premonition with his bond-involuntary troop. There was no reason why he should not say anything he liked, in the presence of the man Kerenko, unless it were contrary to the rule of Law. And there was nothing that an Inquisitor had to fear from the rule of Law, because the Writ protected the one who held it against prosecution for every crime under Jurisdiction.
Except for treason, of course.
“A determination,” he replied, carefully. “With potential consequences. Almost certain consequences. And only the timing in question, Marana.”
It helped to sip her wine and pretend that they were children, playing romance, rather than grown people with a son between them to complicate their lives. She wasn’t fooling herself for a moment, with such a pretense; she was only giving herself room in which to analyze.
“Explain to me why you should want to die, my lord. And what you imagine could explain it to Anton.”
If it were treasonous conspiracy, there would be no reason not to speak it in front of Chief Stildyne, for instance; only Kerenko would have to be kept in ignorance. So he was not contemplating treasonous conspiracy or mutiny. What other ways were there in which an Inquisitor could earn the final penalty? If not treason or mutiny, it would have to be an individual act, an individual rebellion. He could murder his Captain, she supposed.
Or he could have decided to withhold his Writ.
“I do not want to die. Oh, it was stupid to have come here to meet Anton, because it would be so easy to remain complicit in the crimes which I have practiced, if only to win time to see him grow and to be happy.”
Andrej had withdrawn his Writ once in his life, before, and it had been a frightful scandal. He had refused further support to the administration of the Domitt Prison. They had tried to hush it up and smooth it over and send him back to Scylla with as little fuss as possible, but Andrej had refused to be patronized and protected. There had been a Judicial inquiry, of course. Andrej’s refusal had been potentially treasonous, potentially interpreted as mutinous, and the issue could not but be carefully weighed before the Bench then Presiding could begin to consider the assessment of Tenth Level Command Termination.
Nobody that Marana knew had thought for a moment that it would go so far as that. Andrej was the son of the Koscuisko prince, and his refusal to cooperate was only treason on a technicality. There had been more distress over the very poor picture thus presented, clearly rebellious behavior from a very visible representative of the Dolgorukij Combine, than real concern for Andrej’s life or career.
And then of course the hearings had exposed the fearful realities that the prison administration had successfully hidden for so long, the corruption and the senseless cruelties, and the furnaces that had consumed the living and the dead alike. Andrej had been vindicated by the Bench, the Domitt Prison shut down and cleaned out. He had fully exercised his Writ, upholding his Judicial function with widely admired thoroughness, when the Bench had granted him the execution rights adjudged against the prison administration; so there had been no further question of mutiny or treason.
This time there was no Domitt Prison. He was assigned to a mere testing model, an experimental model still in its proving stage. He could not withhold his Writ from reasonable and lawful exercise of the Protocols, of his Judicial function, and hope for vindication. Especially not for the second time in a single career. Especially not with a new First Judge, and the need to affirm the Judicial order that a change in administration always carried with it.
“But, Andrej, that Captain Alid is dead, and have you had any assignments to perform since? It need not be as bad, for you. Surely not so bad as to throw all you have to live for away just to escape it. Anton adores you.”
He sat up quickly, suddenly, as if reacting to a sharp pain in his belly. “Oh, Marana. If only I could make you understand.” She did not understand. He had survived for eight years, and still come home Andrej, howsoever changed and different. “Even if. Even if I could sell myself to do such things, to save my life. He would find me out. It is hard enough that he shows such fondness for me, now, when he cannot know what I have done. I could not bear to see it, in his eyes, the day he came to understand the crimes that I have done – and the pleasure that I have had, in them.”
She could remember the sound of certainty in his voice, and she knew the way to read his face and his eyes, even nine years strange as he was to her. It had been a fearful burden to him from the very beginning; perhaps there had simply finally been too much for him to bear. She was convinced that he was convinced that he was going to refuse his Writ and would necessarily die for it.
He had always suffered from a certain degree of binary perception, under stress, everything either one way or the other, and no room in between until it was pointed out to him . . .
“I want you here.” She couldn’t ignore his determination; she couldn’t simply set his speech aside, to think on later. She owed him her honest and unstudied reaction, in return for his decision to trust her with his heart. As he had once before. “I want you alive and whole, for myself, for the Matredonat, most of all for our beautiful child. If there are things you cannot do, then you cannot. Only promise me that you will try to win back, Andrej. Pledge to me that you will fight, for your life, and I will only praise you to your child, no matter what should happen.”
Relaxing from his tense huddle of apparent pain, he lay down on his back on the ground-cloth, closing his eyes against the bright sun in the sky. There were sounds near the entrance to the ruin’s bowl, noises of Security wishing very much to check on things and be sure of where everybody was; after a moment or two Andrej spoke.
“‘For such a woman, and for such a son, only a coward would not shed his blood.’ I will promise and pledge to you as you have required, Marana, with a whole heart, and gladly.”
It would be easy, perhaps even comforting, to lie down beside him, and put her head against his shoulder. Security or no Security. She recognized him now, finally, completely, as Andrej, even through all the differences of years; and he had been right to share his thought with her. She wasn’t happy with the whole idea. But she unquestionably had the right to know.
This did explain why he had been determined to claim Anton as his heir, as well as merely his son.
She only hoped that he would find a way to serve his years with Fleet, and come back home.