"Do you recognize this insignia?"

This had not been uncommon in the early days of their partnership; Sydney had never been a soldier, and although he knew the marks for many of the forces which had traditionally pursued M├╝llenkamp throughout the years, there were some variations he was not aware of and some he'd never encountered before. Hardin knew far more, as well as how to tell the ranks among most of the valid military forces, and so it was usually his task to identify precisely who and what they were dealing with. He might have been disappointed that this was why he'd been summoned to the bedroom after dinner, if he'd had any reason to get his hopes up.

As it was, he peered at the scrap of paper Sydney held, marked with a careful recreation in ink. Hardin's eyes widened when he recalled the obscure symbol. "...The Riskbreakers. Why...?"

"Riskbreakers, you say?" Sydney mused. "Explain."

This was not a good omen. "The Riskbreakers are a special unit - it's no surprise that you would not know them. They operate primarily in secret, taking the most dangerous missions, knowing they may not return. The VKP oversees them, and uses them as spies, assassins, silent soldiers... Where did you see this, Sydney?"

"In a dream," Sydney replied simply, tucking the paper away within the stack of assorted documents at the center of the table where they sat.

"Has Duke Bardorba betrayed us, then? Did he not agree to keep Parliament and their men at bay?"

"The dream was not mine," Sydney explained, his gaze distant and thoughtful as he drummed his fingers lightly on the table, not quite gouging the wood. "It belonged to our dear Rosencrantz. I believe he may be one of these Riskbreakers. Or perhaps he may have been, once."

Rosencrantz, a Riskbreaker? And Hardin had gone against him, man to man, he remembered with abrupt shock - no wonder Rosencrantz had shaken him off so easily. Hardin was more than adequate with a sword, but against a Riskbreaker...! "He's been sent to spy on us, then?"

Sydney shook his head. "It is possible, but even if it is so, I believe he has little regard for the will of the VKP."

"What do you mean by this?"

"I am saying that as far as I can tell, Rosencrantz is... not loyal to us, precisely," Sydney said thoughtfully, searching for the appropriate word. "But he seems focused, which is as close as his kind can come."

This would have been enough for Hardin to let the matter drop, had not the wording been extremely unusual for Sydney. "'Seems' focused, you say? And 'you believe' he is not acting on orders from the VKP? Would you not know?"

Sydney offered a small, helpless shrug, with such a wry smile that it did not seem helpless at all. "I am unable to read his heart. ...Come now, Hardin - there is no need for such anxiety," Sydney admonished him before he'd managed to put his thoughts in order to make a coherent protest. "I've ways to get around this curious little problem. And besides - few can read hearts even under normal circumstances. Am I then blind if I can no longer make use of this ability?"

"No, of course not..." This was true, but Hardin was still uneasy.

"Trust in me, Hardin," Sydney told him, soft but firm. "You know I would take no chances with the lives of our brethren, nor would I turn my back on the task which the gods have assigned to me."

"I know, Sydney," Hardin assured him, quickly. "I could never doubt your motives. But..."

"But my judgment may not be so flawless, is that it?" Sydney smirked slightly. "You are the only one who would dare to say so. But you know as well as any other that I am no fool."

Hardin shook his head. This was all true...

Sydney stood suddenly, his boots clicking on the stone floor as he moved to stand beside Hardin's seat. His arms dropped over Hardin's shoulders in a light embrace, with the claws positioned dangerously - enticingly - close to his throat. Hardin could hear the knowing smile in his voice without having to scrye. "Forget not who I am, dear Hardin. All will be put in order, in time."

Once, Hardin would have relaxed into the touch, even if the words did not wholly ease his concerns. He'd wished for more of this, even recently, but when it came in the middle of a conversation that was on the verge of becoming an argument, it seemed more patronizing than reassuring. Coersion, rather than encouragement. It was as if he were only bothering to show signs of affection when he stood to gain something from it - not that this was any significant change from his recent behavior. It vaguely annoyed him.

Sydney must have heard the thought, because he sighed softly and let go, stepping back. "...What would you have me do then, Hardin? What would you not consider an attempt at coersion?"

If not for the edge of exasperation in his voice, Hardin might have apologized. As it was... Hardin had to admit that it was an excellent question. At such a time, when he was already suspicious of Sydney's motives, any affection Sydney showed him would seem to be nothing more than indulgence, appeasement. Any affection at all would be suspect, except...

"...I could not say," Hardin said brusquely, and stood to leave, closing the door firmly behind him.

There were, Hardin thought as he stalked away through the halls of the keep, things that Sydney could do now to prove that he was not simply being manipulative. He'd thought for a moment that it might be enough for Sydney to humble himself enough to say the words he had long refused, but Sydney knew better than anyone but himself that words were only words. Sydney would say anything to anyone if the need outweighed the truth or his own dignity.

However, now that the moment was past, there was no need at all. If Sydney came after him, if he pursued the matter further when it held no immediate benefit...

Hardin headed for the armory, to take up his broadsword; going through his forms would be suited to his current mood, as he felt very much like fighting something he could not see. Slightly alarmed by Hardin's grim countenance, his determined gait, and the fact that he was wearing his sword and heading for the city, Gwynn stopped him on his way back out through the courtyard to ask if something had happened. Hardin answered in the negative, and very briefly. When Gwynn had risen to call after him, Hardin had looked back to see that he'd been sitting beside Rosencrantz.

It was out into the town center then for Hardin, to find a quiet place to practice where he would not be disturbed, save by Sydney himself, who could find him if he chose. Hardin stayed there, atop one of the upper walkways, practicing until late in the evening, but Sydney did not so choose.

As Sydney had not come to him, he did not feel much like going to Sydney. Instead of returning to the bedroom, regardless of whether Sydney was there that night or not, Hardin sought sleep in the common barracks, sneaking in late at night to avoid questions from the majority of the brethren, and avoiding the questions of any who might follow by immediately feigning sleep. Once or twice he was vaguely aware of footsteps pausing as a latecomer stopped to regard his unusual presence, but he lay still until they'd passed.

He supposed this meant more rumors. Well, so be it. If anyone asked, he'd tell them that he'd had trouble sleeping, and didn't want to disturb Sydney. For all he or anyone else knew, given how secretive Sydney had become, he very well could have turned in early.

Apparently, Hardin determined later, he had not.

He woke sometime very late in the night to the sound of familiar footfalls, muffled though they were by boots of soft leather - Sydney's usual attire when he was trying to minimize the sounds of his passing. Though Hardin waited, wondering, the footsteps did not approach the bed where he lay, but came to a halt some distance away. Hardin listened, but heard nothing for a long time. He decided to open his eyes.

Sydney stood over a bed at the corner of the large room, a slim black silohuette in the dim lamplight from where Hardin lay. He did not seem to be doing anything at all, but Hardin resisted the urge to look closer with the Sight - no doubt Sydney would know, and he would block Hardin at once, possibly become angry.

But then, the worst that could happen, Hardin thought, was the same thing that had happened already many times over. He began his scrying, invisibly walking up behind Sydney. Nothing happened, so he looked.

Rosencrantz lay in the bed, sprawled lazily and comfortably beneath the sheets, fast asleep. Hardin found that he looked almost like a different person without the guarded, calculating gaze the man perpetually wore when awake. Sydney was watching him, unmoving aside from the subtle shift of his breathing, but Hardin couldn't guess at his motive. He did not dare scrye Sydney's face; he suspected that showing too much attention to Sydney in particular might make it more likely that he would attract Sydney's attention in turn, and he would be found out.

Nothing happened, nothing changed, though time continued to pass. At last, all of a sudden, Sydney drew a deep breath and put a hand to his head as if dizzy. Hardin frowned - puzzled and vaguely worried - but before he could decide whether or not to reveal himself, Rosencrantz opened his eyes at the quiet sound. Fortunately for him, the first expression to cross his face after the initial surprise was a look of concern. "Sydney!" Rosencrantz murmured, sitting up in a swift motion as if he might need to catch him. "Is something the matter?"

"Do not trouble yourself," Sydney mumbled, pulling himself together enough to stand straight again. "At times, the Dark can... become mischievous."

"Ah... Hardin said something to that effect once." Rosencrantz settled back, relaxing somewhat, but still looked wary. If it had been someone other than Rosencrantz, Hardin would have been pleased with his diligence. "That the Dark can be a painful burden, one he did not envy."

"I would expect not. He's had more than enough trouble in this life as it is." Why, Hardin wondered, could Sydney not sound sympathetic when they were in each other's presence?

"As have all who stand against the ruling parties' tyranny," Rosencrantz agreed with a small nod. "'Tis a shame that this burden must be borne by one alone."

"It is temporary, as you had guessed, and not without its rewards," Sydney pointed out. "However, if we are to speak of such things, we ought not to do so here, while those around us seek rest. Let us go to my own room, where we can speak freely."

Rosencrantz looked slightly puzzled. "I had thought that Hardin shared your bed..." Liar! Hardin thought, with a sudden surge of indignance. He was nearly certain that Rosencrantz had been one of those who had entered late, and paused to puzzle over his presence in the barracks.

Sydney shook his head. "Tonight he seems to have bedded elsewhere." And not far away at all, Hardin thought with growing irritation. If Sydney had bothered to look around, instead of going straight to Rosencrantz...

"...I'm sorry to hear it," Rosencrantz said, in a show of bewilderment.

"There is no need for that," Sydney assured him, and Hardin stopped scrying for the moment, for now Sydney was turning to go. From where he lay, Hardin could still just barely make out his words. "I shan't be spending the night alone, shall I?"

"Oh, no. Of course not." Rosencrantz got to his feet nearly as quickly as he spoke. "Pray tell, Sydney - why do you summon me thus?"

"I would like some information," Sydney replied as they skirted the edge of the large room, "about some of the organizations you've worked with. In particular, the Riskbreakers."

There was a short pause. "I was a Riskbreaker, yes. Why the sudden interest?"

"I had had the thought," Sydney's answer came, barely audible as they approached the door into the hall, "that a Riskbreaker might be a worthy successor to the Keeper of the Dark."

...So that was Sydney's game with the man, Hardin thought as the door closed gently behind them. There had been a moment of shock at first - he couldn't mean it! - but Hardin knew how Sydney loved to play games. Rosencrantz, who had seemed unusually interested in the subject of a future transferral of power, whose loyalties were suspect... What better way to ensure his cooperation?

And of course it must be a ruse. Too many things were suspicious about the man for Sydney to decide such a thing, if there was reason to decide at all. Sydney could not be certain about anything, if he could not read Rosencrantz's heart...

...Unless, Hardin thought suddenly, the comparable power was why Sydney could not read his heart.

No - it was certainly a ruse. Hardin would not think any more about it, for even if it were true, he could do nothing. There were plenty of valid reasons to be troubled by what he'd seen, besides. What had Sydney been doing, sneaking in to stare at Rosencrantz as he slept? Had he been completely unaware of what he was implying when he mentioned not being alone for the night? Or was that a part of the ruse as well? ...How far would Sydney go to ensure the man's loyalties? Rosencrantz was only one man, only one ordinary man. As far as Hardin knew.

...As far as Hardin knew, which wasn't very far at all.


Sydney was... reasonably satisfied with the results of his conversation with Rosencrantz. The man was somewhat more nervous than he had been previously - Sydney had casually referred to many names and scenarios that had never been spoken of in words, to the point where Rosencrantz must believe that Sydney could read his heart regardless of his resistance. He would be honest from now on, Sydney thought with a secret, smug smile that never reached his face. As honest as he could possibly manage while still managing to make himself look good. Now if Rosencrantz would only give up on trying to block him... but perhaps it was a reflex.

Moreover, he seemed to have guessed correctly about one of Rosencrantz's aspirations. Ever since he'd hinted at the identity of his still-unknown successor, Rosencrantz was particularly free with names and locations. Not blatantly, of course - the man had been a trained VKP agent, and he knew better than to show too much too soon, or to assume that everything was as it seemed. This was fine. Even before Sydney had come into all his power, he had excelled at playing mind games.

Unfortunately, he'd not yet managed to manipulate their conversation in such a way that he might learn about the man under the tree - the one the Dark had loved, who was clearly important, though Sydney still had not seen his face. He'd tried a second time after scouring Rosencrantz's dreams for more information on other subjects - but once again, he'd gotten close only to be overwhelmed. Perhaps in time, Rosencrantz would chance to speak of the incident, but Sydney would have to wait. Bringing up such a specific incident would likely seem suspicious.

In the meantime, he could make use of Rosencrantz and his skill. Although he was no longer a Riskbreaker, he'd lost none of his talent or his experience. Yes - now that Sydney was sure that Rosencrantz would not lie to him, he would prove very useful indeed...

"Very well - you shall leave on the second dawn," Sydney instructed him, once Rosencrantz had agreed. "And though perhaps I should not tell a professional how to do his job, I suggest that you not play the fool as you did upon arrival in Leá Monde. They will be more forthcoming, I imagine, if you show yourself cunning."

The smile on Rosencrantz's lips died; so did the distant look in his eyes, which hardened into something more substantial and far less pleasant. "...Well then, Sydney," he began with the hint of a smirk. "If I am not to play the fool for you... you must know that I am not one who will be used by others with no compensation. I must ask - for what am I to serve you?"

Sydney gave him not even a hint, but kept his own smirk hidden. He'd expected as much. "Few receive their rewards for such work as ours in the world of the living, Rosencrantz. First, you will serve for my trust - for all others who follow me have sworn an oath. You have offered nothing to bind us together, and I sense that you will not. You chafe under such bonds."

"First, for trust," Rosencrantz agreed, and the look in his eye suddenly informed Sydney as never before that he was indeed a very dangerous man. "But that will not be the end, or so you imply. You must know what my heart desires..."

Indeed, Sydney had guessed at more than one desire - this was also not unexpected. His serene expression did not falter even once. "Once you have proven yourself... we shall see, Rosencrantz. We shall see. But yes - first for trust. Let us find what our enemies are willing to part with."

Sensing that the bargain would go no further at this time, Rosencrantz stood from the table, looking down at Sydney. "I shall surpass your expectations, Sydney," he promised with a respectful bow before turning to go.

Sydney did not watch him go, but merely listened as the footsteps receded and the door clicked shut. "...I shall not surpass yours," he murmured, eyes lowered.