The Great Gallery
In The Devil and Deep Space, Security Chief Stildyne makes the intriguing acquaintance of Andrej Koscuisko’s Cousin Stanoczk, a Malcontent. Stoshi becomes a continuing character with a developing relationship with Stildyne (handy thing to have, relationships with Malcontents, even though you can never count on them). The following material is intended to cover the period of time between the last scene of chapter 11 and the resumption of the action on the following morning, when Andrej notices that Stildyne appears to be a little the worse for wear in some way (the second scene in chapter 12).
The Gallery was a wonder. As they walked through its intimate corridors Stildyne’s appreciation of its propaganda deepened step by step, but so did his suspicion. He had no cause to suspect Koscuisko’s cousin Stanoczk. But Cousin Stanoczk had no cause to take him up, either, no matter how companionable an arm the man put around Stildyne’s waist as they went. It was an affectionate, companionable gesture; and as such Stildyne distrusted it. Affection was not within his range of expectations of life. Cousin Stanoczk didn’t know him.
Such courtesies could be bought, like anything else; superficial, but as sincere as anything else on offer at a service house. Malcontents weren’t sex professionals by trade, as far as Stildyne knew. At least this one apparently wasn’t, not the way he came and went in Koscuisko’s household, not the way the people there — Lek Kerenko, for that matter — treated him. What was he up to?
Cousin Stanoczk slowed his step, drew Stildyne to a halt. “This is one of the newer of the records here,” he said, his tone of voice striking Stildyne as relatively somber and reflective. “You know these people. At least some of them.”
Several figures in a darkened room, but two in particular emphasized. One of them, near to the foreground of the frame, a man in a clear agony of shamed arousal, desperate for a sign, a word, release. Another seated at his ease and placed in opposition, tension within the composition, a man whose face was left in shadow but whose body language — relaxed, satiated, one foot bent up to rest on the opposite knee, smoking a lefrol — was instantly recognizable. Hastur Girag that was. Andrej Koscuisko.
“I don’t see the interest, myself,” Stildyne said. “What’s it to do with me?” Why show him this? Was Cousin Stanoczk trying to warn him off, suggesting he too might find himself on his knees in a darkened room? That would be a peculiar mis-step on Cousin Stanoczk’s part. Koscuisko had no charge to bring against Stildyne where the management of prisoners or bond-involuntaries assigned was concerned. Stildyne was confident of that.
“Only to explain a little, about Ferinc,” Cousin Stanoczk said, shaking his head — as if at himself. “So that you might perhaps have charity for him. There is no such obligation on your part, of course, and here is something of which I am sure will be more interest. It will just be this way. I hope I have not misjudged so far as to have altered your appreciation of these works of art.”
Not that, so much as Stildyne’s inability to believe that the Malcontent’s interest was purely recreational. The atmosphere was warm, secure, relaxing; there was a subtle scent in the air, as of the resinous perfume of the stunted evergreen trees he’d asked about during his tour of the rampart walls earlier today. Ancient, they’d told him, and they’d looked it, twisted, wind-polished, contorted; sculpted in stone, to look at them — and yet alive.
“Where are you in these pictures, then?” Stildyne asked. It seemed a reasonable enough question, and yet Cousin Stanoczk shook his head.
“Oh, ask not where you may find your Stanoczk along these walls, friend Stildyne. But rather where I would very much like to see you, should you not find the suggestion improper. Here we are.”
The corridor turned frequently on itself, so that each few paces opened up a new vista. This section of the ambit opened up, though, a wide half-moon of a room with several pictures along the outer curve of the wall and a half-curtained doorway in the middle of the straight run opposite. Half-curtained, with a warm yellow light shining soft and inviting from whatever was beyond. Cousin Stanoczk folded his arms and stepped back toward that waiting room, gazing at his choice of art appreciatively.
There was nothing in particular peculiar about the picture, nothing as desperate and contained as the one Cousin Stanoczk had called to his attention earlier. Two lovers, and engaged in the joys of mutually enjoyable intimacies; but one was clearly a larger man than the other, and dark of hair, and not as dominantly aspected in relationships as Stildyne had by default found himself since he’d been old enough to arrange his recreation to his own satisfaction. Or in conformance with common expectation. He’d grown early. People expected him to take the active role in his personal exchanges.
“Good technique,” Stildyne acknowledged, with a nod. “Looks like a good time. I’m interested in this why?”
Where he’d grown up, where he’d learned about sex, relative position was a function of relative social power, one way or another. There were ways in which the proposal Cousin Stanoczk seemed to be making could be interpreted as suggesting a relationship of relative passivity, which might be said to represent more of a subordinate role. That wasn’t how Stildyne necessarily felt about things; but he’d grown resigned to the cultural norm.
“Because I like big men.” Cousin Stanoczk said it as though that were so obvious that the question was a little unexpected. “I may like you. I would definitely like to know you a little better. And if a man is of a height, a man may find himself always in position to enjoy a passage, and wish to be in more immediate charge of providing enjoyment. If this is not to your taste I apologize, and hope that we may still enjoy some hours in each other’s company, however you best enjoy it.”
Well, when Cousin Stanoczk put it that way. In point of fact he was always being expected to do the lion’s share of the work. He’d learned sex from the bottom up, which meant he’d learned that big men in control of their environments were expected to assume the active role. And variety went missing in a man’s life when he had as few opportunities to visit a service house as the Chief Warrant Officer for a Ship’s Inquisitor did. All of that management of expectations to do. Bond-involuntaries to be squared away. Officers to check up on.
Which raised a question. “There’s just one problem.” He knew he liked the idea. He wanted to know what was behind the curtain. Koscuisko’s house-master had sent a woman to make sure everything was to his complete satisfaction, that first night at the Matredonat; and having been tipped off by first Koscuisko — then Lek Kerenko — Stildyne had observed the courtesies expected as a matter of guest-etiquette, and politely declined subsequent attentions without giving any apparent offense.
How the rest of the crew had fared he hadn’t asked. It was none of his business, but he was fairly sure that there was guest-sex on offer and he wasn’t getting any because what he liked wasn’t appropriate under such circumstances. So he’d been a little itchy. “You, and Koscuisko. He’s my officer of assignment. Isn’t that a little on the incestuous side?”
He’d surprised the Malcontent into a startled laugh that was very pleasant to hear. “I hadn’t thought. How if you simply let me know, if anything reminds you too closely of things the two of you have done together? And your trousers, to me they seem to have become uncomfortable in this past little time, perhaps you would prefer to take them off.”
Stildyne was beginning to think that would be an excellent and entirely acceptable thing to do. “Still not sure,” Stildyne said, but he was teasing, now, and hoped Cousin Stanoczk could hear it. “They tell me Malcontents are devious and untrustworthy, ready to use anything to advantage. How do I know your interest is sincere, and not a religious quirk of some sort?”
“Holy Mother,” Cousin Stanoczk swore, with a note of genuine impatience in his voice that was somehow fully as arousing as anything Stildyne had seen in all the astonishing array of the Great Gallery. “Tell me, Stildyne.” And he put his hands to Stildyne’s hips, and set one knee to the inside of Stildyne’s knee, and pressed himself with vigor and evident determination against Stildyne’s thigh. “Does this feel like religious obligation to you? Because if it does, I want an immediate acquaintance with these religious of which you speak, and I am willing to wait to hear the details only so long as tomorrow morning.”
It was for him, then, really for him, that hot hard urgency in Cousin Stanoczk’s voice. “Sorry,” Stildyne said, hearing with a half-drunk sort of amusement the gasp of surprised pleasure in his own voice. “Somewhere we can go to apologize?”
Of course there was.
There was a curtained doorway. And a room beyond.
“You can kiss it and make it better, if you like,” Cousin Stanoczk said, and pushed him toward the curtained doorway with a little shove and one hand sliding around the back of Stildyne’s thigh.
Slowly Stildyne surfaced from the warm embrace of sweet ecstatic delirium, howsoever reluctantly – the safety to surrender to the afterglow was an unaccustomed luxury. He smelled the faint perfume of resinous smoke; yes, there was a fire-box somewhere in the room, and a fire in it. The bed had the same perfume as all of the other beds he’d been in here on Azanry numbering two so far, so he decided it was just what Aznir bed-linen smelled like, and Koscuisko’s Cousin Stanoczk smelled like – what did he smell like? A man. One who had been sexually active, recently. Stildyne knew that smell, he liked it, it was usually friendly.
And also Cousin Stanoczk smelled a little bit like the fragrance of dry grass and dust at the airfield at Jelchick Field where they’d come in, a sort of herbaceous scent Stildyne thought he’d encountered again at the Matredonat when the house-master had taken him around on a tour of the grounds. There’d been huge warehouses of wood and slate, filled with dried grass for animal fodder. Hay. That was it. Cousin Stanoczk smelled like hay. Koscuisko didn’t.
Stildyne thought about moving, but he was comfortable, lying sprawled on his belly on the bed like a man who’d just run a month’s worth of laps in one series; except that of all of the muscles in his body none of them hurt. His head was resting across Cousin Stanoczk’s naked chest, and Cousin Stanoczk was playing with the hair on his head which was highly unusual, making little circles with two or three fingers over and over again. Stildyne didn’t care. He was grinning like a man on howie weed, and he didn’t care about that either, but there were things he was going to have to find out sometime soon.
“Tell me,” he said. It was a serious question, but he had his cheek pillowed on Cousin Stanoczk’s chest hair and it came out a little less serious than he thought it ought to have done. He’d have to move. He really would. “What is this about?”
Stanoczk didn’t stop making finger-circles. Maybe he needed a haircut, Stildyne thought. Things started to curl at the ends when he let it go too long, and he liked them to stay combed neatly. Also he liked to be sure he kept it short enough that no one could grab him by it, that was just common sense where Stildyne came from. Old coding, to an extent. And body vermin weren’t a problem in Fleet, but a man developed habits.
“Does it have to be about something?” Stanoczk asked. But then he took a deep breath, and sighed. “It is only taking advantage of opportunity, Stildyne. And if it is anything else it is only that I remember what my life was like, when I was young, and had no taste for courtesies. And felt alone.”
That was an angle Stildyne hadn’t considered. The hospitality of the house; Koscuisko had warned them. Yes, someone had come to see him, the first night they’d been at the Matredonat. He’d thanked her politely and shown her the door. Her mother had come, then, or at least that was who Stildyne thought she’d said she was, with a jug of wine and a plate of cured meat and a game of dice. Just so he wouldn’t lack for company. Just so he wouldn’t be alone.
Pushing himself up away from Cousin Stanoczk, Stildyne propped his head up on one hand and took hold of Stanoczk’s, to stop the scalp-circling activity. “I’ve got no complaints either way.” But what was it like to grow up on Azanry, if you were a man like Cousin Stanoczk? Stildyne didn’t know. He didn’t know all that much about what Cousin Stanoczk was actually like. “But your cousin has said things to me about Malcontents. Short version – never trust one.”
Cousin Stanoczk nodded. “That’s fair. Or fair enough.” He rolled to one side and away from Stildyne, sitting up, reaching for something on the side-table. For a moment Stildyne wondered if he’d made a fatal error of some sort; but what possible reason could Cousin Stanoczk have to assassinate him? And it was just a lefrol. Cousin Stanoczk turned back toward Stildyne, offering him the open container. Nice container. Wooden. Carved. Roses, Stildyne thought. He shook his head; Cousin Stanoczk put the box away, and went barefoot and stark naked over to the fire-box against the wall to light his smoke. He’d answer Stildyne’s question or he wouldn’t, Stildyne supposed.
In the meantime Stildyne could just lie there and admire the scenery. He knew Koscuisko’s body well enough, after all these years of surreptitious study, to appreciate the differences. Very similar in size and shape and general contour. But Cousin Stanoczk had more shoulder to him. And more fur. The line of the muscle at the back of his calf was all his own. Stildyne appreciated the fact that Cousin Stanoczk’s naked body wasn’t the same as that of Andrej Koscuisko, because he wasn’t sure he’d have been able to relax and enjoy himself otherwise. He’d been a little worried, early on.
“Are you warm enough?” Cousin Stanoczk asked, suddenly, and reached for something hanging on the wall near the fire. A curt-robe. He tossed it. “Let us drink wine together. It recruits the strength. How am I to talk to you, after the warnings of the son of the Koscuisko prince? This is a problem, among all Malcontents. And yet I have been allowed to speak with him again, this is unusual amongst those of my Order, and I am trusted to serve the Saint.”
Meaning nothing, as far as Stildyne could tell. The curt-robe was warm from the fire. Stildyne wasn’t cold, but Cousin Stanoczk had put one on as well, so Stildyne did the same. Cousin Stanoczk hadn’t belted the garment closed around the waist, which Stildyne took as a promising sign. There were no chairs at the table by the wall; there was a bench. A deep bench, piled with furs. Animal pelts. Long hairs; very thick, and probably not synthetic, given the wealth of this place, possibly not even farmed. Only the one bench, so Stildyne sat down beside Cousin Stanoczk and poured one from the nearest jug into two flasks. Cousin Stanoczk tore two ragged chunks from the round loaf of fragrant bread and laid one down in front of Stildyne, pointing at a dish of herb-flecked cheese – to indicate that Stildyne should pass it to him, Stildyne supposed.
“I could not expect you not to have it in mind,” Cousin Stanoczk said. Stildyne had to fight a little to parse sense into it. “You would not be the man you are, in the position of trust. Also my cousin trusts you. I trust his judgment, always has Derush been a good judge of character, and yours he values. This is evidence to me.”
Startling. If Stildyne hadn’t been as relaxed as he was he might have raised his eyebrows. An eyebrow, since there was only one of them that moved when he did that. As it was he wasn’t sure he wanted to talk about Koscuisko at all; that was the hub of the perplexity he was having, though.
“There are Bench intelligence specialists, Cousin. I’ve worked with one or two. You never know what their agenda really is. So you never know if you’re part of the problem or of the solution. Or both. When it’s just your own look-out it’s one thing.”
Whereas here it was almost certainly all about Koscuisko, and not him at all. Which made Cousin Stanoczk’s interest a way of gaining some leverage, some information, something. Stildyne didn’t know what it could be. He couldn’t afford to risk the chance that he’d be used against Koscuisko, in some way, if he went along with this evening’s otherwise very agreeable activities a moment longer. It wouldn’t be just that he had sex with men. Koscuisko knew that already. Stildyne had never tried to hide the facts of who he was from Andrej Koscuisko, even though he was sorry some of them had ever come up.
Stanoczk shook his head, grinning. It made Stildyne feel better. “A Bench intelligence specialist is a paragon of integrity, Chief, to whom a mere Malcontent cannot hope to be compared. But in this instance I mean only to indulge myself, because the Saint could not but respect your position in my cousin’s service and confidence, whilst I twitch for your further intimate acquaintance. Do I swear to you that he will never know? He may guess, though, am I to be bereft of your companionship because your officer is too perceptive a man?”
Stildyne was gradually becoming aware of an unusual sensation growing in his heart, rather than any more obvious physical location. “What’s this?” he asked, reaching across Cousin Stanoczk where he sat to snag a dish of ruby-red relish of some sort. It smelled sweet and sharp, but not sharp like acid; sharp like the edge of some fruit he remembered, suddenly, from the markets at one obscure world or another, a sharpness that was part of the sweet in a way that made the two elements one in a wonderfully satisfying manner. It was a long reach. He had to put one arm around Cousin Stanoczk to steady himself.
Dabbing a piece of bread – torn from the loaf – into the relish Stildyne tasted of it. Not the same as whatever it had been that he half-remembered; but similarly delightful. “Oh. Look. It’s red. Try some.”
He’d been in enough service houses to feel confident that he knew when a man was just being friendly. He’d had enough acquaintance outside of service houses to feel relatively sure about the difference between going along to get along, or scratching an itch, or passing the time. Here was an interesting man, an intriguing person, someone who genuinely did not seem to want anything more out of him than mutual enjoyment. He could be wrong. He’d have to watch it. But Cousin Stanoczk smelled friendly, and not just because of the obvious.
He held the relish-daubed piece of bread out close to Cousin Stanoczk, who looked at it cross-eyed for a moment – than closed his eyes and ate of it. “It’s nice,” Cousin Stanoczk said. “But try it also combined with this strained-cheese, no, truly, how are you to know whether you will like it, unless you give yourself a chance?”
Malcontents were devious, untrustworthy, shameless, accountable to nobody. Stildyne had heard that from Andrej Koscuisko. But Stildyne had also spent years in hungry and impassioned attention to Andrej Koscuisko, everything Andrej Koscuisko, all the time, and Cousin Stanoczk was the actual cousin of that same man. There was a certain degree of family resemblance; and, to the extent that there was a family resemblance, Stildyne felt that he was in a position to trust that Cousin Stanoczk was being honest with him. At least here. At least now.
“Yes,” Stildyne said, swallowing down the last of the mouthful of bread-and-cheese-and-relish that Cousin Stanoczk had urged on him. “That is nice. There’s something else I think I should try. I think this could be nice, too, let me know.”
Too soon after sexual climax and a man didn’t necessarily care to be touched. But it wasn’t too soon. And there were places to touch that generally responded even when it was almost too soon, as long as a man was careful enough. Stildyne sought his target carefully; Cousin Stanoczk caught his interest and cocked one knee up at an angle, leaning into Stildyne, relaxed, apparently trusting. “Holy Mother,” Cousin Stanoczk said. “Saints. All Saints in debauch, kiss me this instant and I am yours forever, or at least – for now.”
What had Cousin Stanoczk said, not very long ago? “Fair enough,” Stildyne agreed, and stroked the pleasure point just aft of Cousin Stanoczk’s furry stones with the same light circling caress as Cousin Stanoczk had Stildyne’s scalp, fully absorbed in making Cousin Stanoczk his.
At least for now.
There is the best of silences in the room, you understand, the kind that has in it the sleeping breath of a man who has had excellent sex and has lived to tell of it. Yes, I feel confident that I can call it excellent sex, because I have practiced, over the years, although mostly with my own kind because that is where the need lies after all. Away from here any man can go to a service house. In many places there is no reason, even, why a man should be forced to that expedient to find a little affection.
This man asleep here, though, is not one who has found much affection in his life. He does not even know he has missed it, not as far as I can tell, because while there is a little happy surprise in him to receive affection there is no bitterness of lack; which comes as its own kind of a surprise, but it is maybe only that there is no understanding in his bones that he ever deserved better of his life and the Holy Mother would, of course, only nod Her head and agree because he is outlander, but my divine Patron, may he wander in bliss, believes that all children deserve to know that they are loved and cherished even if he knew that before he knew that there were outlanders.
But of course he knew there were outlanders. He is the Saint. He had the knowledge always in his heart that there were in the world children who had not been cherished through no fault of their own and men who had become men without the experience of affection as the Saint would have wished it, even if there was I am sure camaraderie.
Do not, however, let me distract you from the fact that it was for my own selfish ends that I decided to attempt to engage the Stildyne of my cousin Andrej who is the son of the Koscuisko prince. Although I will to my reconciler lie bald-faced if I must and claim with uttermost sincerity that it was only my religious duty to take the measure of a man with so close and important a position in the life of the son of the Koscuisko prince, and hear me Holy Mother, I have taken the measure of this man across multiple parameters and found him worthy of respect as I believe he has found me also. It is of course likely that my reconciler would not be convinced, but that is my business thank you, mind that which is your own.
“You, Stildyne,” I say, and I nudge him because a man must wake. The night-kitchen has sent down a something which is to serve to hold a man over until fast-meal, and it is for two of my nation of course because for all the world has any business knowing it is with my own Ferinc that I engage, or some other soul. “It is time, I sorrow to say it. Let us wake up, and take a meal together.”
This is a man of dignity and grace, whose body carries marks of honor not just on his face which I find beautiful – yes, it is beautiful, he is the most handsome ugly man I have ever met. He stirs in the bed that I have had made up for us in honor of the hunt with the best linen that Chelatring Side has to offer, and the fur-coverings that befit a warrior prince of our history, and the bolsters stuffed with wheat-chaff and eider-down fit to pillow the head of a prince’s senior of body-guards. There is much of him. He has among other marks an ugly scar running from the middle part of his thigh down across his right knee-cap, I wonder that it did not lame him.
His body collects into himself as he wakes and I watch it with a sense of humility. He has granted me significant honor to have slept with so much abandon in my presence. This is a true thing. You may mock me if you like.
“Good-greeting,” to me he says. His voice is still asleep, but I have keen awareness. “What’s on the table? There’s meat, I hope, I need something solid after last night, Cousin Stanoczk. I hope you do, too.”
This is as if to say I have very much enjoyed your company, and hope that you have had at least equivalent satisfaction from mine. Which makes me smile. It is polite. Also I think sincere.
“Famished,” I assure him, honestly. “But I’m sorry about your clothes. You’ll want to get upstairs for a fresh change. Nobody knows we’re down here, well, that is to say, they know I’m down here yes, but not who is with me, and if I’d sent your garments up to be aired and pressed they would guess.”
This is at least in part my message, nobody knows about this though Ferinc will probably guess and he will say nothing, it is to be our secret. Your officer does not need to know and will not find out from me.
He has sat up. As I watch him he lifts the handful of bedclothes away from his lap to examine the sheets with a quizzical expression on his face. “It’s not silk,” he says. “But it’s not linen either. What am I doing here? I’ve never slept like this in my whole life.” So he has noticed. I am not offended, because he also has not noticed until now, which assures me that I have had his full attention.
“When next we meet it is not likely to be so,” I say, and I know in my heart that I have no business saying so. Therefore I qualify. “Should the Saint, may he wander in bliss, permit. For me, friend Stildyne, do you care for bean tea? Because I have asked for some, particularly, and hope that you do.”
“I’d be surprised, really,” Stildyne says. Standing up, he finds his curt-robe, and he ties its ties around his waist in a contemplative manner. Contemplation of his masculine gender and its currently very completely exercised if not depleted state, I wonder? No. He has something else on his mind. “But it makes for a nice fantasy, Cousin Stanoczk. This has all been – an unexpected pleasure. I’m not sure, really, how to take it all in.”
And yet he has taken it all in. And given it back, in very satisfactorily full measure. How am I to communicate with such a man? “I am the slave of the Malcontent,” I say. Which of course he knows, even if he doesn’t understand the fullness of its meaning. “Who in kindness and in charity has granted me these hours with you. It may be that I will be sent to my cousin, it may not be, but I would wish to know – ” – I am stopping to think about this, because I am meaning it, and I am surprised at myself who perhaps should not be. “ – whether I might be welcome to you, if that should be according to the Saint’s will and good pleasure.”
He has handled me with something which is an approximation of tenderness, and for myself, with nothing to do with his feelings always supposing he has any but about which I do not presume to speculate. I am in a position to know when a man approaches me as a surrogate rather than as myself. It is something that I have not encountered outside of the walls of a chapter house, before, in my life.
“You don’t need to call me Chief, if and when that happens,” he says. Stands up; joins me at the table beside which I have placed myself in a neutral and unthreatening manner in case he elects to interpret our engagement as a commercial enterprise, or a political exchange of some sort. He puts his arm around my neck, but I take no offense, because I sense in his body the keen and present knowledge of the fact that yes I could make a very good start on sending him into the wall behind us with persuasive force and perceptible impact if at any time I elected to do so. He bends his head and solicits a kiss from me, without words which is the best way.
I take his head between my two hands and kiss him back, chastely enough. Good-morning. He speaks on. “Call me Brachi, Koscuisko can’t. Not really. Unless he’s thinking about it. And it would be nice, to see you again. Pancakes?”
On the table, yes, and not in the sense of someone waiting in the next room to oblige. Brachi, then. It is his name. It is also a grant of intimacy, that is as significant as even the permission to call a man like my cousin by his pet name.
“Your officer is up within the hour Standard, Brachi,” I say. “This is not to hurry you. But I will try to find a way. The ways of the Saint are beyond comprehension. Here, pancakes. Syrup. Cream. There is of fried meat, also, I have a particular taste, who hopes to be called Stoshi, when I see you again.”
It is true what I have said to him earlier, whether or not he believes me and if he knows anything about Malcontents I would not blame him if he did not. It has not been any arcane direction of my divine Patron that I should seek Brachi Stildyne out, and see what species of lover he should prove to be.
And still, I tell you from my heart, of the few honest thoughts which I have ever thought this is the one that hopes that I will see this man again, and look forward to the day that my divine Patron will grant to me that pleasure.