Feyd-Rautha did not yet excel at concealing his gait. Piter could identify the boy’s footsteps from afar; it was a sound unlike the plodding beat of Rabban’s heavy boots, or the Baron’s eerie dancing fleetness, or the House guards’ military heel-to-toe march. Feyd stalked the halls with greater subtlety, but his movements were yet overconfident, and Piter could detect his approach in the corridor behind him.
It was evident from the very rhythm of his steps, sharp and purposeful, that Feyd-Rautha was bound and determined to trouble Piter somehow.
The footsteps rounded a corner and quickened as Feyd caught sight of him, growing louder with each step. Having reached his target, Feyd paused, soles squeaking on the tile, and cleared his throat. When Piter halted, but did not turn or reply, Feyd cleared his throat again, more forcefully.
"May I be of service?" Piter asked at last, his voice unreadable.
"I am entitled to know who I shall marry," Feyd snapped.
Directly to the point, then.
Allowing himself a short, sharp exhale in lieu of a sigh, Piter turned to face the boy, who had grown almost as tall as Piter himself in the last two years. The boy stood with his hands on his hips, chin raised with an air of haughty authority that still seemed to suit him ill. Were it a garment, it would have billowed and swallowed his wiry frame, too large by far, its hem trailing on the floor.
"Very well," Piter said. "The answer will not please you: your uncle has not decided."
Scowling, Feyd folded his arms over his chest. "My uncle cannot keep me unwed forever."
"Quite so. Indeed, it may surprise you to know that he is eager to find you a match befitting of your station."
"Then why has he not done so? Perhaps Shaddam won't let his precious Irulan be married off so soon, bargaining chip that she is, but he has other daughters. I would accept any of them."
"Presuming that the Emperor would accept you as his son by marriage." It was an issue of some concern that, as a Baron's heir, Feyd felt himself owed the Emperor's daughters. Piter had hoped his political tutoring would disabuse the boy of such a notion.
With heavy-handed teenage bravado, Feyd asked, "Why shouldn't he? We're doing his dirty work, as you said. Surely we have some leverage."
Feeling no need to belabor such a meritless conversation, Piter said, "We will discuss this further when you have come of age, Feyd-Rautha. You have more than a year yet to wait."
Feyd was sixteen, and appallingly precocious. At his age, a year no doubt seemed interminable.
"Then I'll be married off at the last minute?" He scowled. "You wait too long!"
Piter regarded Feyd with an impassive stare. When Feyd had been prone to tantrums as a child, Piter had faced those, too, with careful stoicism until Feyd became weary of performing his outrage and at last relented. Years later, the same method remained more than viable.
"What would you have me say?" Piter asked, though his acidic tone suggested that he did not desire a response. "I cannot promise you a princess."
"You were promised a concubine."
"I do not want a concubine," Piter countered. Each syllable carefully enunciated, he clarified: "I want one dead." After a moment of unblinking silence to ensure Feyd grasped the concept, he continued. "Her pain has been promised to me, yes. If the Lady Jessica will be bound to me indeed, it will be in death."
"Ah-h-h," Feyd breathed, sounding dreadfully like his uncle for a moment. "That did confuse me, when he spoke of it," he admitted. "For — well, you do not like women, do you?" Feyd let out a barking laugh, though it sounded forced.
"My appetites do not concern the na-Baron," Piter replied, terse and aloof. He found it most indecorous that Feyd presumed to speak of adult matters with him, as though he were a peer — as though Feyd possessed the faintest understanding of such things.
When Piter attempted to proceed without dignifying Feyd's question with an answer, Feyd interrupted:
"I'm not trying to blackmail you, Piter. I mean, I would think that everyone already knows what manner of company you prefer — though no one in his right mind could stand your company."
"You are testing my patience." Piter felt no shame, but he did not relish and would not encourage such childish invasions of his privacy.
"What I mean to say is — what would you know of marriage? No one in this blasted House has married." Feyd crossed his arms over his chest. "Though I suppose it's natural that no one would stoop to wed Rabban."
Piter scoffed. "Indeed." Turning sharply away, he added, "Walk with me, you imperious whelp. I shall not discuss such matters in a hallway."
Feyd thrust his hands into his pockets, sulking, but he followed with a smirk twisting his lips.
The Baron's library was not far; the pair walked in silence, Feyd stalking a pace behind like a sullen shadow. When the library door had fallen shut behind him, he resumed his previous attempt to make a significant nuisance of himself.
"You never deign to speak to me of these things," Feyd complained. "You're limiting my education."
"Find yourself an educator from Gamont, in that case." There was no sympathy to be found in Piter's whiteless eyes. "I will not waste time entertaining such spurious adolescent fascinations."
"Marriage is politics," Feyd protested. "Pleasure is politics. You are my political advisor, and I want to know something of marriage before I reach the altar. Is that spurious? Tell me, how many concubines would befit my station? I will take only one wife, but—"
Seeing no need to allow Feyd to hypothesize needlessly in ignorance, for he found it grating, Piter interrupted: "Much will depend on the match itself."
Feyd's open mouth curved into a frown, his thought curtailed.
"Keep your seraglio as you will," Piter hissed. "But your obligation is to sire a legitimate heir with a suitable match. Do not, in your childish pawing and rutting, get a babe on a woman you are not wed to."
"Seraglio..." Feyd scoffed, mocking Piter's disdainful enunciation. "I've no issue siring an heir to this House! That wasn't what I meant to ask."
"To the point, then." Piter's patience, already worn thin, had waned dangerously.
Feyd hesitated, squaring his shoulders. His jaw tensed; his eyes darted beneath his furrowed brow. Then, scowling, he said, "Surely I can afford to keep a man, if the women grow tiresome. If I desire a novel experience."
Piter felt no pity for the boy, and not the faintest sense of companionship, but something irritated him about the way Feyd spoke. He was still such a child, so naïve.
"The cost of any concubine, if we recoup our wealth as I've predicted, will be trivial."
Feyd still seemed off-balance, in a way Piter had rarely observed since Feyd had been no more than knee-high and still capable of shame. He would not meet Piter's eyes. Something remained unsaid — no doubt something crass.
Brow furrowed, Feyd spoke slowly. "You don't share my uncle's tastes, correct?"
"No," Piter confirmed. It was true; he had absolutely no interest in the Baron's carnal diversions.
"I thought not. If you did, I ought not to have been alone with you so often." Feyd's lips quirked into an uneven smile. It was an unseemly jape.
"A man with an interest in men would waste no time with a little boy, to follow your logic." Piter raised a sharp brow.
"True enough." Feyd snickered, no doubt amused by the roundabout way Piter appeared to acknowledge his own predilections. "Have I found your only scruples, then, Piter? That you would not bed a child — or a woman?"
His gaze and tone perfectly level, Piter replied, "Does that amuse you?"
"I've already said that I don't intend to blackmail you," Feyd-Rautha insisted, glancing away. "But who else am I to ask? My uncle? My brother?" He scoffed. "I am not so stupid."
"Then that is what discomfits you so." Piter began, hearing the exhaustion creeping into his own voice as the hypothesis formed. "You suspect yourself of certain preferences."
"No," Feyd said, too quickly, wrinkling his nose. "I'm not a homosexual. I enjoy women."
Piter did not doubt that such was the case, but he knew that Feyd had only a child's dim understanding of the words he used. He lacked nuance. "As you say.'"
Feyd scowled. "But I never said I'd forsake my duty to the bloodline—"
"So I recall." Piter raised a hand to command Feyd's silence. "I require no further data."
Feyd shrugged. "For such a pervert, you really are a prude, Piter."
Piter did not dignify the jab with a response.
Piter was no eunuch, but although he was indeed a twisted Mentat, the organs between his legs did not supercede the function of his well-honed brain. Piter would not allow himself to be led about by the phallus like a common stud. On some level, it disappointed him to think that Feyd would aspire to become such an animal.
Ignoring Feyd's attempt to vex him, he said, "If you asked it of him, your uncle would acquire men on your behalf."
Feyd thrust his lower lip out in an exaggerated, snarling pout. "Ask him for me."
"I will not." Such a display had never had any effect on Piter, but Feyd had been far too old to deploy it for many years.
"He will see no harm in it. So long as you remain committed to your duties, you may have whatever diversion you like — particularly those which can produce no illegitimate heirs."
Feyd rolled his eyes and turned away. Having located a plush chair beside one of the room's towering bookshelves, he sat down heavily, a great huffing sigh escaping his lips. A pall of sullen silence began to settle over him.
Piter considered leaving the room altogether, the better to teach Feyd that he would not countenance such displays.
Before Piter could reach the door, Feyd at last articulated what troubled him.
"If I were to… admit, perhaps, to some interest in the male sex..." he ventured, then paused, nose wrinkling with scorn. "He'd not view that as some invitation? A come-on?"
Piter considered the odds, unpleasant as such a calculation was. "I would find it unlikely," he said. "He has learned that you are clever, boy — too useful to waste or misuse thus. What's more, you are aging."
"And he's now seen me kill," Feyd added. Piter lacked the patience to inform him that such was beside the point. "But if youth's the thing, then… Well. You haven't…?"
"I tire of this cowardly circumlocution. I've insisted before that you speak plainly."
"You know, Mentat." Feyd spat. His voice growing tense and impatient, he demanded, "Has he — done things to you?"
"No," Piter answered, and the simple forthrightness of his reply brooked no argument; any Truthsayer would have identified it as unadorned honesty, his sharp, clipped tone concealing only the deepest extent of his disgust and contempt. "That you would suggest such a thing is idiotic. Do you, Feyd-Rautha, consider yourself an idiot?"
It was not the first time Piter had felt that a disciplinary strike across the face would have been warranted, had his liberties permitted it, but it was not to be. He was limited to a verbal upbraiding.
"Shut up!" Feyd's mouth turned downward sharply. "I figured that, too," he insisted, recovering his composure. "It'd break you — after one night, he'd have to replace you. Your twisted pride is too frail! And you're expensive — all that wealth thrown away... A foolish thing, that."
Though Piter resented the conclusion, it was not an incorrect one. He was twisted, but any twisted thing could be broken, were improper pressure applied, and the Baron knew it well.
Yet it would not do for the Baron to discard a Mentat as though he were no more than a pawn. To reduce a Mentat to a gibbering madman on a mere carnal whim would be too decadent even for Harkonnen, whose foremost avenue for pleasure stemmed from his wealth. Replacing any Mentat, let alone one so hateful and well-trained as the one he currently owned, would force him to limit the budget he reserved for Gamont — and that, to be sure, would not do.
"Immensely so," Piter agreed. "Understand this: that which your uncle desires, he will have, in almost all cases. He is rarely abstemious in any pursuit — but he is not wasteful, as you have gathered." Piter spoke plainly, tonelessly, so as not to appear to speak favorably of the Baron; it was merely data being recited. "He will, in certain matters, exercise restraint."
"I understand that already." Feyd tapped his foot on the floor, a quiet but frenetic rhythm. Piter did not believe him.
"Then consider the following: there are methods for preserving one's dignity." Piter heard the harshness of hateful truth in his voice, and found himself momentarily unable to conceal it. "By any means."
He would not allow Harkonnen to debase him. There would be no final, spiteful act of degradation. His life was not his own, but he was willing to claim his own death, if need be.
There were tried-and-true methods, and Piter was not squeamish when it came to their application. A poisoned needle in a major artery, quickly applied and quickly effective. A delayed-release capsule, swallowed in advance to allow for final plans to be carried off until the last moment.
A poison tooth, installed as insurance, for use in an emergency.
He had yet to decide. Disposal of the corpse, of course, would have to be arranged in advance to prevent post-mortem defilement, but there were enough avenues for that, too, inelegant and messy as many were.
There were ways and means, and Piter was an expert.
Carefully, Piter found himself suggesting: "The na-Baron is not without the same choice."
Though he doubted Feyd would take it, or be forced to. He harbored doubts that Feyd had even understood the insinuation behind his words.
All the same, Piter regretted sharing such a dangerous notion, however vaguely, for he could not rescind it easily. If Feyd understood, it would be within his power to use it against him — but a strange admixture of skepticism and realization dawned subtly in Feyd's features, which suggested that he would not.
For a time, Feyd said nothing. Piter stared at him all the while.
At last, Feyd's agitated posture slackened. Silent and resolute, he nodded, glancing up to meet Piter's eyes.
"Never speak of this again," Piter said, lightly enough, smiling as if they had merely discussed some topic of no importance over tea. "If you choose to persist despite my wishes, you may no longer consider yourself a beneficiary of my Mentat functions."
Feyd seemed deflated, unwilling to summon the energy for a riposte — though he might have effectively argued that Piter could not withhold his functions in earnest. He tilted his head and sneered. "Very well," he agreed. "I've heard enough."
It was as close to a word of thanks as Feyd-Rautha was capable of uttering. Piter neither expected nor desired such tepid, pitiful acknowledgment; he only wished to know that the boy grasped the information laid out before him, and would not misuse it.
Feyd stood abruptly and gathered himself, cracking his neck from side to side. With a last glance up at Piter, he turned to leave. If the coiled, furtive energy of his steps was anything to go by, he would no doubt be alleviating his frustrations in either the training room or the pleasure wing, seeking one or another outlet for violence.
Out of habit, Piter kept his eyes on the door — but he knew that Feyd would not return, and his gaze was far away, for he was embroiled in thought.
The boy took too many liberties by far, speaking to him thus, but the conversation was well and truly over. Its avenues had been exhausted, and Feyd would not be able to sustain the courage to resurrect it.
Unpleasant considerations surfaced in the wake of Feyd's questions.
Piter had never allowed himself to grow complacent. If Harkonnen wished to humiliate him before his inevitable execution, it was within his power to do so, but he had not yet made such overtures. If he did, they would be detectable, clearly telegraphed. Piter knew him: he would not be able to resist the thrill of threats or innuendo, unwittingly giving Piter advanced warning.
It was the Baron's reputation which preceded him; even Piter's handlers on Tleilax had coached him as a younger Mentat, advising that his master-to-be was ruthless in his sadism and pederasty — but Piter was not a child, even then. Nor was he a creature to be used and discarded, like so many cheaply-bought boys from Gamont — or an ill-favored concubine, like his mother had been.
Piter had accepted the data without sparing it further consideration. The negotiations were too far along for him to refuse the deal, and indeed it was not his place at all to refuse. Nor was it his place to consider anything distasteful; his lessons in morality — its subjectivity, its limits, its uselessness — reinforced that.
And his years on Tleilax reinforced the notion that the choice was not his to make. He was a twisted Mentat, and he was to be grateful that so wealthy a patron would purchase him at all.
In a bored, placating tone, one of the handlers had assured him, “You are now entitled to all the data we have on this House, and you will be cautious regardless, I think. I doubt you shall have to say even once that you are not to be a concubine.”
The other, an aged twisted Mentat, narrowed his eyes. “Depravity doesn’t tend to trump fiscal sense, and the Baron Harkonnen can be frugal indeed in his dealings. No one would purchase from Tleilax, at our prices, what he would better find on Gamont at a fraction of the expense!” He had smiled, showing several gleaming metal teeth and too much gumline. "Make no mistake, young de Vries, we are gouging him deeply for you!"
Here, the other man had cleared his throat. “It is a matter of no importance, really. There is only a slim possibility that it will affect you, and only insofar as you shall be obliged to manage his funds. You are not to his tastes, you see. Too old. A bit too ugly. Thus, well-matched for your role!”
That guileless Mentat honesty.
But it was so — never did Piter have to lower himself to saying that he would not play the role of concubine, and never did Harkonnen presume him to be such a plaything. He had made no such overtures, or threats, for Harkonnen knew the worth of his Mentat, and dreaded the terrible inconvenience of replacing him. Their mutual disdain for one another fostered a functional distance between master and Mentat which allowed Piter to work more efficiently, never weighed down by loyalty or the revolting prospect of friendship — the likes of which would be the downfall of a Mentat like Thufir Hawat.
The Baron had laid hands upon his Mentat only rarely in Piter's many years of service. He always did so chastely, and with some measure of hesitation. At times, he chanced a patronizing pat on the hand, or a similar gesture: the kind of restrained touch one would offer to a stranger. As if Piter were a leprous creature, he would make contact only briefly, withdrawing as if he thought better of lowering himself thus to touching something so beneath him. As if Piter were a weapon so foully caked with blood that he might dirty his hands.
That suited Piter best.
With Feyd-Rautha, his own flesh and blood, the Baron took greater liberties. Though Feyd had grown far too large to be held, a fact for which Piter was personally grateful — the boy had been a clingy, overly-affectionate toddler — the Baron often gripped his wrist, hand, or arm as he spoke to the boy. His large hand would dart out like a viper to seize Feyd's, and Piter would note Feyd schooling his features and steeling himself against the urge to pivot away or rip his hand out of that clammy grip.
While warped by a privileged adolescence, Feyd was not dense. He felt the possessiveness in that touch, and loathed it, and Piter could read it plainly. He was glad not to have suffered the same regard from the Baron — but he was inconvenienced by the wear which that clear and present hunger placed on Feyd's mind.
Piter saw in Feyd's eyes, in his unguarded expression, in the very tension of his muscles, that he was prepared to kill on behalf of his own dignity. But unlike Piter, Feyd was not prepared to kill himself. His life was not disposable in the same way. He would act rashly, and no doubt make an attempt on the Baron's life — perhaps a successful one, at that, but Piter found the possibility unlikely.
Feyd was becoming an experienced killer, but he was accustomed to being given every advantage. Though his tactics far outclassed his brother's, he did not yet excel in subtlety or subterfuge. He would inexpertly bungle avenging himself — for he would only think to do so when it was too late.
Piter, however, planned ahead.
Whether the Baron planned to execute him chastely or perversely, Piter would endeavor to punish him for every degrading thought he had harbored in their decades of acquaintance. Every insulting sneer, every belittling turn of phrase, every dose of melange.
Whether he died by his own hand or another's, so long as Piter made his exeunt before the Baron wished it, Piter would win the day — even having lost his life.
He knew this well, and it brought him some small measure of comfort. He could deny the Baron the satisfaction of killing him, of having him strangled as he had promised. One final mocking salute, and Piter could sever his thread of fate of his own accord, at the slightest notice.
If he foresaw an ugly death — or an unwelcome prolonging of life — he would ensure the Baron's myriad schemes collapsed in on him.
Even if another beat him to the task — an overzealous Atreides spy, perhaps, or some Fremen bravo — he would find pleasure in it. The cheops board was set, and with Piter's piece knocked aside, the Baron would be put in check. Piter would die knowing that the Baron would suffer for his absence, reduced to a sycophantic fool groveling at the Emperor's feet.
Let Harkonnen think himself the zookeeper, and Piter the beast in his menagerie. Piter knew himself to be the more clever and dangerous animal.
With his dying breath, he would blow over Harkonnen's house of cards.