In a previous draft of this novel the interrogation of Skelern Hanner took place on the Ragnarok, and was therefore on Record. Andrej suspects that anybody who looks at that Record will see that there is a particular point at which the entire thing goes south in a very great hurry, and that any intelligent person is going to be able to guess all too easily exactly what the problem was – and then go looking for some Nurail who does have a crozer-hinge who was in port Burkhayden that night, numbering precisely one that Andrej knows of, Robert St. Clare.
So, at the end of the novel, Andrej’s psychological equilibrium is still not the most stable platform in the world to begin with at this point in his life, and he is worried about St. Clare whom he loves.
In this speculative scene Andrej makes up his mind to do something about the uncertainty in his mind before he’s quite thought things through, and things get baroque.
No question, it was so odd as to be unsettling, to be called for in this way. Robert had never known his Excellency to call for one of his Security to join him in Secured Medical when there was no prisoner there.
Lek’s face displayed clear apprehension; but there was nothing to be done about it except go. His Excellency was the officer. It was for them to only do as they were told, and the fact that their Judicial masters had not replaced his governor didn’t really change anything about that for Robert. He was a bond-involuntary, as was Lek. He had years of conditioning behind him, whether or not there was a governor implanted in his head poised to provide discipline for resistance of conditioning.
Since Lek had been sent to fetch him, it wasn’t necessary to post to First Officer’s duty status with his whereabouts; as long as he was properly accompanied he was allowed to go in and out of quarters, after all. Still, it almost seemed to Robert that Lek glanced toward the talk-alert on the wall as Robert rose in obedience to the summons, as though Lek rather wished he was required to tell somebody.
Or was it just invention on his own part?
It wore on a man to be free in his mind, and understand by the absence of the governor how much of a slave he had become over the years.
If Lek was worried there was little either of them could do about it. Checking his uniform for the proper trim, only half-hesitating in front of the mirror, Robert followed Lek out of quarters, to go and see what the officer desired of him.
A fearful place.
The door to the wait-room was closed, but not secured, and the wait-room itself was empty inside. They had to wait for the outer door to close before they could signal for admittance, but Lek had nothing to say while they stood waiting. What good would it do to say anything? Lek couldn’t know what Robert himself knew. There was a reason that Koscuisko might want him here in Secured Medical. But no one except for his Excellency — and Chief Stildyne — could know what that reason might be; unless . . .
The inner door opened, but Koscuisko did not stand in the doorway waiting, as he might when he was at work within and wished to conceal the distressing sight of a wounded body from the eyes of his Security. The officer sat in his chair in the middle of Secured Medical, leaning well back with his legs stretched out at length in front of him and one arm fallen limp to the outside of the chair’s arm.
“Stand on watch, Lek,” his Excellency said. “Outside. Robert, come in, and close the door. I want to talk to you.”
There was nothing to be read in Koscuisko’s voice, except that he didn’t sound as though he had somehow become beguiled and bewildered by some remembered prisoner’s torment. The officer’s voice was not usually very opaque; it was almost always possible to guess at his mind from the weight he put on one word or another. Not just now, though.
He wouldn’t want to give Lek clues, Robert thought.
The idea should have made him tremble in fear for his life. But he’d been expecting this; this, or something similar in one way or another. The conviction that was growing in his heart seemed to bring no emotion but relief.
Lek bowed and stepped back through the open doorway, a look of curious hunger on his face. Koscuisko had never shielded himself in front of them, and Lek clearly knew that something was wrong.
Lek would know equally as well that Koscuisko particularly meant him to mind his own business and watch the door.
Robert waited until he heard the door slide completely closed before crossing the room to stand before his officer, and bow in turn.
“His Excellency called for me, sir.”
Koscuisko would not look at him, staring past him at the wall beyond. There was something in Koscuisko’s hand, Koscuisko’s right hand — the hand that had been concealed from sight as long as Robert stood at the door to the left of the room. Whatever it was, it was about the size and shape of an index cube: something on Record.
“Indeed I did, Robert.” A quick glance up at Robert’s face, now, and the look in the officer’s clear ice-gray eyes was torment. Pure and simple. “Be so good as to have a look at this with me, it is of young Hanner. It is not pleasant. But there is a problem.”
Well, if Koscuisko wanted them to watch something together, he had to get out of Koscuisko’s line of sight. The Record displayed against the wall, when it displayed. Robert shifted to his post without comment, but Koscuisko would not let him step back half-a-pace once Robert had moved to Koscuisko’s left. The officer put out his hand and held Robert on a line with where he sat, and Robert stilled himself in obedience to Koscuisko’s unstated wish.
Koscuisko keyed the rehearse.
The Record came on line.
Skelern Hanner, bound and bloodied, beaten, chained on his knees on the floor.
The officer in his under-blouse, crouching on his heels beside his prisoner, reaching out his hands to Hanner’s shoulder with an expression of greed and keen hungry desire on his face.
Eight years, and it never got easier to see —
No, there was something in particular that the officer wanted him to attend to. Koscuisko hadn’t ever sat to rehearse the Record for his pleasure; still less had he ever called his Security to watch. There was some reason that Koscuisko was showing him this sequence.
Koscuisko on Record worked with Hanner’s shoulder, and Hanner screamed and screamed and screamed, but it did him no good to scream — and Hanner knew it, as far as Robert could tell. It was just that a man could not help screaming. It hurt too much. Koscuisko had laid hands on him in such a way, once, years ago, and Robert could still remember —
Frowning, the image of Koscuisko on Record sat back from digging his thumbs into Hanner’s shoulder. Thought, or seemed to think, for a moment. Went for the boy’s right shoulder, then, but not like before, and wearing a frown that spoke of realization and increasing horror.
Robert understood it, all too well.
Koscuisko stopped the Record, but it was too late. There was no mistaking Koscuisko’s point; not for either of them. Robert closed his eyes against the image and swallowed hard. He couldn’t quite keep his balance, with his eyes closed; and staggered where he stood.
Koscuisko’s hands caught him and kept him from falling, guiding him carefully to his knees on the floor. Koscuisko was on his feet, then. Robert could feel the warmth of Koscuisko’s body close beside him, and waited in hopeless humility for what would happen next.
“You have seen the problem, then, Robert,” Koscuisko murmured. Almost as if he were talking to himself. The fist of Koscuisko’s right hand lay lightly on Robert’s left shoulder, now, and Robert was grateful for the touch. He couldn’t look. He didn’t want to look. What was there to look at? And there was nothing to see anyway, because there was water in his eyes now, hot and salt and stinging.
“Even so, your Excellency.” Robert’s voice sounded surprisingly strong and confident, to himself. Almost soothing, really. Almost as though it was Koscuisko who was to be comforted, which was not really the point of this. Not really. “The problem. As you say. Sir.”
“For days I have upon this problem meditated.” Robert could hear the grief in Koscuisko’s voice, as clear as the heart-rending cadence of the man abandoned in the weave that was called Bitterest of Fates. It didn’t make things very much easier either. “If there should be a review. It is a question natural to arise. And if a man had no warning. Else measures could safely be postponed.”
Koscuisko was a Judicial officer, as well as a Fleet officer. Koscuisko knew as much as — or more than — anyone about how such things might come about. Robert could find no argument with the officer’s line of reasoning.
He had nothing to say.
Therefore he merely reached up to his shoulder to take Koscuisko’s hand, and kissed the knuckle of Koscuisko’s thumb in reluctant — but absolute — submission to Koscuisko’s will.
He was only a bond-involuntary.
But it went much further than that.
Eight years ago and more, now, when he had first met the officer, Koscuisko had defended him before the Bench, and accepted responsibility.
“Oh, Robert,” Koscuisko said, and put his hand to Robert’s eyes, thumb and fingertips touching the closed lids. “Only I will not insult you, by telling you how keen a sorrow it is to me that such a thing should come between us.”
In eight years or more there had been no distance put between them, not by the officer. Eight years. He had seen his sister. She would be well, and the Danzilar prince was to be her patron, and preserve her in dignity and honor until the Day. The hand that Koscuisko held to Robert’s eyes was delicately placed, he put so little pressure to the lids of Robert’s closed eyes that it was almost as much just the warmth of proximity that kept Robert’s eyes closed.
But Robert knew what the gesture meant.
And would not go back on the submission he had made, kissing Koscuisko’s hand; not even knowing as he did what Koscuisko had in mind when Koscuisko put his hand up to cover someone’s eyes.
What could he say?
There was a sound, there, subtle and innocuous, except that Robert knew what it was and what it meant. It was the catch on the sheath of the knife that Koscuisko wore on his forearm, up his sleeve. Releasing, so that the knife would slide into its master’s hand, to be there ready for Koscuisko’s use.
Koscuisko raised his hand to the back of Robert’s neck, and Robert felt the pinprick, the point of the knife. The officer had always dealt honestly with him: dealt honestly with him now. They both knew that he was going to die. As much as Robert wanted to live — and he didn’t want to die — he could not find it in him to reproach the officer, or fault Koscuisko’s reasoning.
“Could I ask, sir.” Nothing was more certain in his mind than that Koscuisko wanted desperately for it to be different, and had not been able to find a way to make it so. Koscuisko was much more intelligent than he was, Robert had always believed that to be so. If the officer could not find a way there was quite possibly no way to be found — and still it was his life. “That you would use the one that liberated Joslire.”
Keyed up and determined as Koscuisko was he staggered in turn, hearing the words, and caught at Robert to steady himself. “As you best like, Robert,” Koscuisko said, in a voice that was almost just a sob. “Oh, but I have loved, and will miss thee — ”
The door between rooms began to slide open, and Koscuisko turned, holding desperately to Robert where he knelt. Chief Stildyne’s voice, and it sounded as though it was coming from a very great distance away, to Robert.
“I don’t like it, Lek. It’s uncharacteristic. Over-ruled. Your protest is noted, thanks. Now get out of my way.”
“Oh, not so soon as this, no, surely not,” Koscuisko whispered, as if to himself, in a voice heavy with dread. “It cannot be that I have failed you, Robert, no, I will not fail you, I must not – ”
The officer had never failed him. The officer could not. But there was no way in which to tell the officer so, or if there was Robert had yet to puzzle it out. It was too late. He was to die. Koscuisko was not willing to put him at risk of suffering the penalty for his crime, and just as well, for what would become of him else when he was placed once again under governor?
“Your Excellency.” Stildyne was inside the room, now, and approaching, from the sound of his voice. “Stand away from St. Clare, sir, let’s talk about this.”
Koscuisko would not stand away. Koscuisko slid his hand away from Robert’s eyes to the side of Robert’s face, and held Robert’s head to him in a desperate embrace. “You have no right, and no idea. Go away. Leave me alone, it is bad enough already.”
Though Robert could open his eyes he had trouble getting them to focus. He could hear as well as ever, though. Stildyne was not backing down; and Robert wished him fervently into Hell for his interference.
This was nothing to do with Chief Stildyne.
Resent it though Stildyne did there were intimacies Koscuisko adamantly reserved for his bond-involuntaries assigned and no one else; and this was one of them, the pricking of the knife against the back of his neck to take his life, as Koscuisko had taken Joslire’s life. According to his Excellency’s good pleasure.
“Sir, I don’t know what’s on your mind, but I have a right to be consulted. I’m responsible to First Officer for your people. I’m responsible to you. Talk to me, Andrej.”
So near as to touch, now, but not presuming so far as to touch. Koscuisko straightened up a bit. But he still kept his hand against the back of Robert’s neck, and the blade of the knife still lay against the palm of Koscuisko’s hand, between them.
“It is between me and him,” Koscuisko insisted, stubbornly. “Nor do I intend to be put aside from what must be done. You are insubordinate, Mister Stildyne. I tell you again to go away.”
Oh, it was an unfair thing to say to Stildyne. Robert knew the injustice of it even as Stildyne replied, accepting the rebuke, not protesting, but not going away either.
“If it must not in fact be done. Sir. You’re making a mistake. I didn’t put him through that to have him killed. You’re over-reacting. Stand away.”
Stildyne understood. Why should that surprise him? Robert wondered. Hadn’t Stildyne put him to keep watch over his Megh?
And still the officer had intended and determined upon it, and was not to be turned from his purpose easily. Robert knelt quietly where he was, as certain as he’d ever been of anything that Andrej Koscuisko wished him only well and would take care of him as best Koscuisko saw fit.
“What do you mean to say, Mister Stildyne?”
“Sir, Robert’s governor.” Now at last it seemed that Stildyne dared to reach out for the officer’s knife-hand, and move it away. “He probably doesn’t even remember. Traumatic amnesia, temporal proximity. All of those things.”
Something was happening. Koscuisko’s center of gravity seemed to shift, somehow, and though he still held to Robert with his free hand there was no sense of holding him away from interference on Stildyne’s part. Koscuisko was holding him because they were each balanced against each other, and if Koscuisko moved they were both going to fall over. “This you had not told me,” Koscuisko said, and it was an accusation – one that seemed to strike Chief Stildyne to the heart.
“It was the only thing I could think of to keep him quiet.” But Stildyne had made up his mind to confess himself, apparently. Since there was to be no help for it. “You think I meant to mention it to either of you? Ever? But there it is. It’s my fault the governor went critical. Me that pushed him over. I didn’t like what he was trying to say to me. And I wasn’t about to let him say anything at all, where somebody might hear him.”
“Let me see if I understand you.” The officer’s voice had gone flat neutral: which could be a bad sign. For somebody. “You mean to invoke — what means of assurance, against what we all fear?”
“Vogel’s claimed the deed.” It came out petition, rather than the statement that it would otherwise have been. “And. Governor gone critical, just a few hours after the incident. Unrecoverable evidence, sir, and no reason for anyone to ever come looking for it.”
“And on such grounds as these – you wish to risk – “
It came to Robert, now, finally, that he was not going to die today, at least not at Koscuisko’s hand. There had been no words to that effect: not yet. And still the idea came to him quite suddenly. The emotional impact of the relief was more unnerving than his earlier apprehension of near death had been.
“I respectfully request permission,” Stildyne replied, with grim petition. “To be responsible. And do what is required. Only when it is clearly required, sir, it’s early yet, we could get clear of this, and you can’t want him dead. I won’t believe it.”
What had he told himself, Robert thought, the first he could remember after the operation, in the fresh and keen dread he had of being alive with such a thing held over his officer and him alike?
Stildyne would kill Robert himself, before Stildyne permitted grief to touch the life of Andrej Koscuisko.
It had given comfort to him then.
It made sense even now.
“To suggest such a thing, Chief, it would have repercussions, and they would be more severe for you than for me,” Koscuisko reminded Stildyne. But Koscuisko was half-convinced. Robert could hear it in his voice.
“It’s Robert subject to severe sanctions.” Well, about time someone remembered him, Robert decided. His knees were beginning to hurt. His heart already ached: for the distress his maister had been in, to force him to so extreme a course of action; for Stildyne, helpless against Koscuisko’s displeasure as he had probably never been helpless in his life, without ways or means to shield himself from the calamity that was Andrej Koscuisko; for himself. Because he’d almost died, almost been killed. And death was terminal. He could take his death from Koscuisko’s hand and thank his maister for it, Robert knew that. And yet — not to have to die —
Stildyne was still talking. “But only if something goes wrong. You don’t need to do this yet. Wait a while. I wouldn’t steer you wrong on this one, Andrej, you can believe me or not, I can’t make you.”
So Stildyne didn’t believe he’d be found out.
And was willing to pledge to Andrej Koscuisko to take the Law into his own hands, if Robert was found out, and murder him before it came to the Tenth Level. It would mean the same for Stildyne, more or less, but Robert knew something about Stildyne that he didn’t think Koscuisko understood. Stildyne was serious. Nothing like Andrej Koscuisko had happened to Stildyne in his life, till now. Operating outside everything he understood, everything he’d learned, everything he thought he knew, Stildyne was as naked in front of the officer as any fool passionate with love and helpless to communicate it.
Robert was convinced.
He didn’t have to die. Not yet. Not today.
Could the officer be convinced, though?
Koscuisko knelt down suddenly to crouch on his heels and look up into Robert’s face. There was a faint and hopeful light in Koscuisko’s eyes that Robert almost dreaded to see; because he knew he would say anything to set that hope free in his maister’s heart. And it was a risk.
“What is your thought, Robert? Do we trust in our good Chief to protect us?”
He could hardly speak. And could only guess how the intimacy of Koscuisko’s phrase, “our good Chief,” would burn in Stildyne’s mind. “It is his job, your Excellency.” Stildyne was a Chief Warrant Officer. It was his job. He was responsible to First Officer for the lives of his troops assigned, bond-involuntary and not bonded. “His Excellency has frequently held forth at length on the sensibleness of letting a man do his job without interference.”
It was only the first thing that Stildyne had loved about Koscuisko, Koscuisko gave honor and respect to Stildyne as well as bond-involuntaries, and Stildyne had too often shared the subordinate’s experience of being spoken to as though he did not know his own job. It was a trick Koscuisko had learned from his childhood, Robert thought; one that had served Koscuisko well in Fleet.
Koscuisko dropped his gaze for a moment’s consideration, but when he met Robert’s eyes once more his fear was naked on his face. “The risk,” Koscuisko said. “Robert. Dare we.”
All right. He would say it. Since he had been asked. Because his obligation to Koscuisko was deep and wide and strong in its current, but it was his life, even if the officer had purchased it from the Bench with four-and-fourty all those years ago.
“It’s the only life I’ve got, sir.” An obvious point; but Koscuisko was clearly too much distressed in mind for subtle concepts. “I’d just as soon hang on to it. With permission. There will be time enough to decide what to do when the issue is raised.”
If it ever was.
It took time to process evidence and condemn a man to the extreme penalty. Fleet would want to autopsy, to see what had gone wrong with his governor. Maybe they wouldn’t invoke the Tenth Level against a bond-involuntary at all. An embarrassment, surely, they’d have to acknowledge that the governor had failed; it would be easier for Fleet to remind him that he had transgressed, and then let the new governor that they would impose on him do its work.
Stildyne bent down, reaching for Koscuisko’s elbow to help him to his feet. “Where there’s life there’s wiggle room,” Stildyne said. “I won’t let you down, your Excellency, either of you. I promise. I’ll swear, if I need to.”
And in that moment of time as Koscuisko rose Koscuisko made up his mind. “Your promise is enough, Chief. I accept. Take Robert away, he has had a terrible shock, I have abused his trust.”
Stildyne reached for Robert himself, now, and Robert didn’t mind bracing himself against Stildyne as he struggled awkwardly to his feet. He was shaky. He had been so close. He couldn’t think about it.
“Sorry, sir, we’re all going together. Lek will help Robert. Leaving this place now, sir.”
No, Stildyne could not let Koscuisko be alone in Secured Medical. Koscuisko had been ready to murder Robert, because he had convinced himself that he had no alternative. Koscuisko would be in sad shape too, and Koscuisko had less shape to sadden than Robert did in the first place.
“Holy Mother, Stildyne, am I never to be obeyed by my own people — ”
But Koscuisko’s voice was too clearly almost at its breaking point.
“We can sit outside for as long as you like,” Stildyne assured Koscuisko, with grim implacable resolve. “But not in here. Robert, if you would go let Lek know we’re leaving.”
Robert staggered for the door, and out of the room.
He was not dead.
Koscuisko had not had to execute him.
Whatever came of Koscuisko’s fears Stildyne would manage the problem, surely. Stildyne managed Koscuisko himself well enough when he had to.
The combination of emotions was too much for Robert. He fell into Lek’s arms, and wept.