“With respect, your Excellency, and excepting present company. There has not been an Aznir in the history of Creation who could find his own buttocks with both hands in the dark. Sir.” — I hated to lose that line. It’s in here somewhere. — Andrej is fleeing from the scene in which he opened the Record for Karol Vogel in Secured Medical and did a little snarling with Wheatfields on his way out; otherwise, it’s the same basic action as the scene in the published text in which Lek Kerenko wakes up missing something, but there’s some nonsense in here about navigation that might give a giggle.
With his head so full of fearful images that he thought it might explode Andrej Koscuisko fled from Secured Medical, and his Security with him. They were good to him. They would protect him. They would not let him go back, no matter how badly he might be wanting to; they had stood between him and the object of his lust before. And they had suffered for it, but had kept right on — behavior that could have, would have earned them death in other circumstances, it had nearly killed Kaydence, he had nearly killed Kaydence, and Kaydence had just been doing his best to help —
Kaydence was free. Lek Kerenko was in quarantined recover. He needed to check on Lek anyway, and he didn’t want to go to his office, didn’t want to be alone to think. He couldn’t stand it.
Once his people were free it wouldn’t matter, any more. He would be free then too. Marana didn’t need him; his son — his son didn’t know him, and was better off never knowing him, never, ever. It was too bad that there was no way in which to be sure Anton would never learn the truth. It would be better for everybody if Andrej were dead before that happened, and once the bond-involuntaries who had meant his life to him time and again were gone there would be no reason why he should hesitate. His family would grieve, but Anton was heir, they would not have to deal with the despicable Iosev. No reason why.
Stildyne, perhaps — but Andrej was here, he was arrived at quarantined recovery. Robert stood up quickly as Andrej came into the room, but Andrej only nodded, his attention focussed almost desperately on Lek. “The scans say he’s waking up,” Andrej said, to explain why he was here in case Robert wondered. They did, but he hadn’t checked them until now. Robert need not know. “Have you seen anything?”
Lek’s color was good, and all of the physiological indicators were well within the normal tolerances. Things had gone well with Pyotr — though there were issues with Pyotr in particular to be carefully explored. Pyotr was near to Reborn, and might elect to have the operation reversed. It was possible.
Robert nodded an affirmative answer — yes, he had seen something — but the answer was not quite what Andrej had expected. “Chief was by, sir. Checking on Lek. Wanted to know if it was the same virus that the others have been down with, because if it was — since everybody else who was going to get it has been down with the virus, now — he was looking forward to being able to staff from a full duty roster again.”
In his currently unsettled state of mind the suggestion seemed sinister, and Andrej felt himself going pale. Had that been a friendly dig on Stildyne’s part, or a warning? He had done what he could to minimize his exposure. But given the way Chief’s mind worked it was entirely possible that the message Andrej was meant to take was that the secret was compromised. Perhaps it hadn’t been so much of a secret from the beginning.
Did it matter? Nobody had said anything to him. Wheatfields might well have told Mendez and the captain, and Two was unquestionably on to him as well. To imagine that she had not put three and five together and derived seventeen was not possible for anyone with more than the most superficial acquaintance with her, but she didn’t share information unless it was solicited, and Robert was waiting for his response.
“I will virus Chief Stildyne,” Andrej promised, grimly. “If I hear a single wrong word from him. I swear it.” The diagnostics were steadily rising across all levels of consciousness indicators, blood pressure, respiration, heart rate, cortical activity in selected areas. He didn’t have time just now to struggle with the agony in his heart. He had a medical task to accomplish. Reminding himself of his errand, he surrendered his conflict to the back of his mind, secure that it would be there to torment him the moment he had nothing more urgent to attend to; and joined Robert at Lek’s bedside.
“Mr. Kerenko. You are awake, or shortly will become so,” Andrej said, gently, in case Lek had not yet realized that he was conscious. “Open your eyes and speak to me, that I may know what is in your mind.”
It was a phrase. Only a phrase, something in Standard that mimicked the Dolgorukij of it. A folkish idea that Sarvaw and Aznir had in common; it also happened to touch almost too nearly on the exact issue with which Andrej was concerned. Exactly what was in Lek’s mind? Andrej had fantasized about hiding his Bonds away and simply pulling their governors; but a healthy governor resisted pulling, and could only be soothed by the precise set of signals that the Safes provided. Under normal circumstances there was only one Safe on board, and that in the captain’s personal custody — even a Ship’s Inquisitor had to sue to Command Branch to obtain it, if necessary.
If approached incorrectly the governor would destroy the brain to which it was linked rather than let itself be withdrawn without authorization or before the full term of a bond-involuntary’s sentence was up. The emergency surgery that had saved Robert’s life at Port Burkhayden had left his mind whole only because the governor had been dying anyway, and the surgery had only been risked even then because the governor was killing Robert — so that Robert would have died if they hadn’t tried the surgery, and might well have died during the surgery, but if Robert had died during the surgery it was only what would have happened to him in a few days’ time anyway.
The doctor at Burkhayden had made the right choice to risk Robert’s life on the operating levels in order to save him from a prolonged death in undeserved agony. Chief Stildyne had suggested that there hadn’t been much mind there in the first place: but there had always been issues between Stildyne and Robert, and the remark had been made in an almost affectionate context. Really.
Pyotr had already undergone Andrej’s illegal surgery and survived; but Pyotr had been bonded at the Micmac detention center somewhere in Supicor Judiciary, unlike Lek who had been placed under Bond at Kerenko Displacement and Processing in Sant-Dasidar Judiciary, the home of the Dolgorukij Combine from which both Andrej and Lek hailed alike. And perhaps there was some variance in governors; perhaps Lek’s governor was more suspicious of tampering. Andrej hadn’t tampered with the governor, not per se. He had unquestionably tampered with Lek’s brain very close to the governor’s implant site, however.
Lek opened his eyes and blinked, frowning, looking from Robert to Andrej and back to Robert again. Andrej didn’t see any finger-code passed — he didn’t notice Lek’s hand twitching on the coverlet — but some sort of a message was apparently passed none the less; because Robert grinned as broadly as Andrej had ever seen him do, and nudged the mattress with an ungentle hand.
“Say something impertinent,” Robert suggested. “Go on. Say it out loud. Say ‘no senior officer from the Dolgorukij Combine could find his own boots without a homing device and two manservants.’ Go ahead. Say it.”
As shocked as Andrej was to hear such a thing — from Robert, his Robert who had also it seemed learned much more about the domestic life of a Dolgorukij autocrat than Andrej had ever imagined — he had to admit that he was as eager to hear the result of Robert’s challenge as if it did not insult him, to suggest such a thing.
And of course it did not insult him. Robert was speaking of some generic and abstract senior officer, not any specifically Aznir Andrej Koscuisko at all — and also of course Lek’s governor would be as sensitive about such an ethnic slur directed against his officer of assignment as Andrej himself was. More so, because Sarvaw were beaten for impertinence of that sort, governor or no governor. It was a well-chosen challenge that demonstrated a good deal of depth of understanding on Robert’s part.
Lek did not seem nearly as certain as Robert apparently was. He cleared his throat; Andrej offered him a flask of water, and Lek drank it down gratefully. Leaning on his elbows, propped up on the bed’s surface beneath him. “I, ah. With the officer’s permission.”
A promising beginning. The use of the first person was not something that came easily to bond-involuntaries even when they felt completely confident and sure of themselves. Bond-involuntaries were conditioned, very carefully trained to keep out of trouble at all costs. They would never be punished for maintaining too perfect a formality, whereas they might or might not be punished for an excess of familiarity depending entirely upon the personal whims of the officer they were with at any given time; and why take the chance?
“Shall I leave the room?” Andrej asked, but it was only to give Lek courage, because he didn’t want to leave. Lek sat up and put his feet to the floor, Robert at his side to support him.
“With respect, your Excellency, and excepting present company. There has not been an Aznir in the history of Creation who could find his own buttocks with both hands in the dark. Sir.”
Lek had apparently surprised himself saying it, especially as it actually came out a little more strongly even than Robert had suggested it. Lek raised his head as he finished, staring up into Andrej’s face with obvious anxiety — but no hint of pain; concern, apprehension, but the fear was not there, the fear that a bond-involuntary experienced when his governor started to consider how strictly he should be punished for a transgression.
Carefully, slowly, not wanting to startle anybody, Andrej reached around behind his back. Laying one hand on his backside he let his face flood with relief and gratitude — he was, in act, capable of accomplishing such a feat, whether or not any Sarvaw would credit it — and was rewarded for his clowning.
Lek laughed, then swallowed his laugh as though startled to have heard it; realized what it meant to laugh so spontaneously, and laughed again, but with a certain overtone of glad disbelief in his voice. Men under Bond did not laugh like that. Men under Bond laughed only with care, politely, alive always to any hint that they were laughing too loudly or at the wrong time.
“Robert slanders me,” Andrej grumbled, melodramatically, and dusted the palms of both hands together with the air of a man having won a wager. “I am very sorry that he should hold me in such contempt. Clearly I have failed to instill in him sufficient respect for my skills in navigation. We will speak of it later. Lek, how do you feel?”
“I don’t know what to say, sir,” Lek confessed, frankly. Andrej could easily believe it was so. “There’s something missing. Frankly I’m a bit anxious. Wearing the Safe wasn’t quite like this, your Excellency.”
Andrej had no answer for that observation, having no personal experience from which to speak. “It took me some getting used to after Burkhayden,” Robert said to Lek. “It’s taking Pyotr some adjustment as well. We’ve all still got the dancing-masters in our minds, after all, you have to learn that it’s safe to not listen to them but they still remind you of how you’re expected to act, that helps. And we’ll help too.”
“Wondered what you were doing,” Lek said, with a suspicious hoarseness in his voice. “And Hirsel. And Garrity. As though they had a secret, a painful one. Godsalt keeping to himself as if he was insulted about something. Oh, there’ll be some scores to settle.”
Andrej had to sympathize. He hadn’t dared do more than one at a time; and nobody would know better than a bond-involuntary how little hope a man under governor had of keeping such a shocking secret. It had been difficult for all of them. They had so much to adjust to, and in so short a period of time.
“Lek, this is a new thing that we do,” Andrej said. “I don’t need to tell you that it is illegal, and though I have trusted in Wheatfields’ trinkets we do not know if it will work in the long term. Keep your Safe with you all of the time, wear it as though you needed it. It will explain any incautious lapse, should one occur, but more than that if the implant should begin to fail you must have your Safe with you. Promise me this, I ask it of you.”
Confusion and wonder were still evident in Lek’s face, but he answered with confidence — and a note of affectionate reassurance that Andrej did not believe he had ever heard before, or that had never been as obvious as it seemed now. At least not when Lek was talking about him. Lek and Andrej’s child Anton had become fond of each other; Anton was a loving little man. “Very good, sir. I’ll be careful.”
That was enough for now. To wake up to the freedom Lek experienced — that Robert had learned at Burkhayden — was enough exercise for any man, particularly one who had just undergone a complicated surgery in his brain. Lek needed to be left alone to get used to the idea. Robert would sit with him, and keep him quiet.
“You are on ward here for the next day, Lek, you are to rest. And do as Robert says, always assuming that Robert has no ideas for mischief.” Robert looked shocked, but not very shocked; they understood each other too well. “And let me know at once should something occur that begins to seem unpleasant. At once, Lek. Give me your promise. I once let a man believe that I was with him angry, the shame of it will stay with me until I am dead.”
Lek had not been assigned to Scylla, and Captain Irshah Parmin had kept Robert from accompanying Andrej to the Domitt Prison; so Robert had not witnessed Andrej’s shame either. But he had done it. He had allowed Kaydence to believe that he was angry at Kaydence’s supposed impertinence, and a moment — the fraction of a moment — had been all Kaydence’s governor had needed to decide that an offense had been committed, and initiate cruel punishment. Andrej wanted no heroics on the part of his gentles. He had seen governors in action, and did not mean to ever tolerate such an event for the rest of his life.
Lek nodded, though he could not know the truth of what Andrej was saying. “I promise, your Excellency. — And sir. I really do know. About your, ah, boots and the dark, sir.”
Which was charitable of Lek, since in times not too long past it had been frequently necessary for Security to find Andrej’s boots for him with all the lights on when Andrej was too drunk to know his knee from his elbow. Andrej smiled back.
“Thank you, Lek. Robert. Carry on.”