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Count Daynar returns from the first mission where the young Sorel has accompanied him. Takes place after "Terms of Service" but before "Ravens...".

- Written in September 2006. Rated MA.

 

Stroke of Genius

The trodden grass underfoot was beginning to show a clear path, but the man who'd made it didn't even notice. He was worrying his lower lip between front teeth as he paced back and forth, stopping every now and then to listen and to direct an expectant frown at the hillock to the west.

Around him the camp was waiting as well, the men busy with their daily chores. Every now and then they would pause as well, glancing at the hillock or tilting their heads as if hearing some sounds, then go on once more with the task at hand.

A smattering of snow covered the frosty ground that would've let out a crunching sound under the tall man's boots if he hadn't already worn it soft by that same relentless pacing. Well, at least the chilly wind carried no alarming sounds, such as the ragged snorting and thundering hooves of a horse driven past its strength. That could be taken as a good sign.

The scarred man growled under his breath as he turned around and began yet another round in front of the empty tent. Of course he'd known that it would take time, but he couldn't help being goddamn worried nevertheless.

Should he have worked harder to convince his commander not to ride to this meeting without retinue? That would've been so easy to interpret as a sign of distrust, even weakness, that much was true. But was it really necessary to take such risks when meeting a person with a reputation like that of Lord Meness? This wasn't only about their next pay, this was about much more, and the meeting was taking place in one of Lord Meness' strongholds! Riding there without armed guards, with only one man as a security... no, he didn't like the idea at all, but he'd been overruled.

Noras sighed and kicked a tuft of grass at his feet.

Not many moments later he paused, head jerking up to listen, then whirled around. His ears hadn't deceived him ĘC someone was indeed approaching! He held his breath, then slowly let it out when two horses appeared on top of the bare hillock in a leisurely canter, side by side. Even from this distance he recognized easily the proud carriage of his commander's nearly black charger, and the pale, flowing mane and tail of the horse alongside it.

Noras watched as the two horses trotted down the sloping hillside and crossed the shallow river that cut the little valley in two, and his lips pulled into a pleased, relieved smile. Once the riders were on dry land once more they spurred their horses into speed again and were soon approaching, riding straight towards the camp.

The awaiting lieutenant arched an eyebrow. Was that a smug grin he saw hiding amidst Daynar's trimmed beard?

"Good to see you back, Sir," he greeted grabbing the dark horse's reins as Count Daynar jumped down from the saddle. A young man hurried to look after the horses and Noras pushed the reins into his hand. "To be honest, I didn't think you'd look even half that pleased."

"I look pleased, do I?" the Count smirked, then turned to face Noras and shook his head slowly, appreciatively. "Goddamnit, Noras, you are a real genius. A genius, I tell you!"

The scarred man glanced at the young Belter who was standing half a pace behind the Count and peeling gloves from his hands, eyes modestly downcast. "Oh? So it was a good idea to take the lad along?"

"Better than good!" Count Daynar was nearly purring with satisfaction. "I told you, it was a stroke of pure genius!"

"What happened, Sir?" Noras demanded. "Come on, spill it! Sorel?"

"You were so right," Daynar chuckled. "On our way there I told him to just stay quiet and generally pay no attention to anybody but me, unless I tell him otherwise. Well, that's what he did, and they couldn't believe their eyes when they saw him there with me. Just him, such a boy, with those angelic curls and all."

Sorel met the Count's glance and a small, pleased smile wafted across his lips.

"You should've seen him, Noras. Following me like a shadow, not a word out of him. Like a block of ice. Upon my word, did he put them off!"

Daynar shook his head again and laughed under his breath.

"At first they were just surprised, tried to startle him a bit I guess, but he took it without a blink. Then when I insisted that he sit beside me, they thought he was a scribe or something, but of course he didn't lift a finger to take notes. Goddamnit, they just couldn't work it out! I could see them looking at him and trying to decide why I'd taken him along. Then at some point I guess someone caught a glimpse of the knives, and that's when they got nervous ĘC figured that no matter how innocent he may look, he's got to be someone to reckon with if I'm arrogant enough to ride into this meeting with nobody else but him."

The smile on Noras' face broadened with every word, and he slapped the youth on the shoulder. "Well done, Sorel, well done! So, you got what you wanted, huh?"

"More or less," the Count nodded. "I have the first draft in my pocket, and you can be sure we'll be haggling over the details yet. The main thing is that we've got into a good start with Lord Meness, and by the looks of it he takes us quite seriously enough."

He pulled out a piece of parchment and showed it to Noras who let out a low whistle.

"This is what we'll continue the talks from," Daynar said with satisfaction. "And Lord Meness won't be allowed to retract from this one single crown, or he'll have to do what he can without us. Now, is the food ready yet?"

"Soon, I expect," Noras replied. "Everybody will be eager to hear the news, Sir."

"I bet they are!" Daynar headed towards the big fire burning in the middle of the camp, Sorel on his heels. "Though I won't be discussing any details until we have got them straight with Lord Meness, so bear that in mind, Noras."

"Of course, Sir," Noras said, turning to follow his commander. "Hey, Sorel, kid ĘC were you even nervous?"

The blond youth glanced at him.

"Really nervous," he said. "Good that I didn't need the knives, I'm sure my hands were shaking."

"Bah, your hands don't shake when you're throwing a knife!" Daynar huffed over his shoulder.

Noras grinned when he saw Sorel's pleased smile at the retort.

"The main thing is that nobody noticed anything," he said. "I guess you'll be Sir Count's bodyguard from now on, huh?"

"At least now it worked like a charm," the Count chuckled, "so I'm tempted to say that this is a permanent arrangement."

Noras nodded, then leaned closer to Sorel and added in a low voice: "After all, you have a lot of reason to guard that body of his extra well, huh?"

He avoided the quick kick and walked after Daynar and Sorel to the campfire, chuckling under his breath.

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