So sorry, everybody, the last few weeks have been crazy. But now I'm done.
Jeb Cain knew, of course, that there was quite a number of people frowning at his presence in numerous council sessions – he would have had to be blind, deaf and stupid not to. So far, however, he had taken the reason for the barely – if at all – concealed displeasure to be his lack of age. So far, he hadn't cared – he knew he was good at what he did, and so did the people whose opinion mattered to him, and if certain idiots thought that age automatically translated into skill and experience and vice versa, they were welcome to underestimate him.
This far more sinister reason had not crossed his mind, up to now, and while it made sense, Okra's Razor – or whatever the thing was called, DG had unwisely introduced Glitch to – told him that Zero had much to win if he managed to stir up distrust among his opponents. Unsure how to react and playing for time to think, Jeb settled for a sarcastic "I'm flattered."
The Longcoat general smirked. "You should be. Poster boy of the common rabble officer, highly popular among the soldiers, very friendly with the Younger Princess while close enough in age to count as eligible… "
The older man laughed, while Captain Fitzalan gave him a look of such condescension as can only be extended by a young male towards a slightly younger male.
Oh, you've got to be kidding me. If Jeb gave the matter any thought at all, the tomboyish princess was at best something like a sister to him – a younger one, despite the opposite age difference. Sometimes adorable, sometimes annoying, and very occasionally great fun to get into trouble with – there had been that memorable instance, when the boy that had grown up on the run and the girl raised on an out-of-the-way Otherside farm, had decided to explore the luring mysteries of Central City's nightlife…. He had never before seen his father quite that furious.
Zero's amused voice drew him back into the present. "You better get used to it, boy, speculations about who is doing whom are a staple of palace life. Be glad you're considered in terms of marriage prospect and not just a temporary stud."
Not helpful. But that was never the intention, was it? Jeb cleared his throat. "Nice try. Checking out the draft areas will be easy enough," he ignored the icy glares suddenly leveled in his direction, "but if there was an actual point in this whole politics spiel, I need a name."
The Longcoat captain was still glaring frostily, while Zero's cold smirk wasn't any more accommodating. "Sorry, boy, I'm out of free gifts for today. Everything else is up for negotiation."
"Then you better start negotiating, General! I may be inexperienced," Jeb matched the smirk tooth for tooth, "but I'm not stupid. To aid an outlaw is to put yourself outside the law, too. At the level you implied a minute ago, we're talking treason, and if that's true – which remains to be seen! – it needs to be stopped or we'll have a civil war on our hands pretty soon. Which you don't want either – or you would have started one, already."
"So?" Zero shrugged unconcernedly, before his smirk turned mocking, again. "You shouldn't do that, boy, first declare yourself 'not stupid', and then insist on negotiations when you are in no position to make demands. It disproves the first statement."
The young captain of the Royal Guard mirrored the mockery, too." You so sure? After all, you want me, of all people, to support a proposition you have come up with."
Two pairs of eyes regarded him sharply, assessingly. "And you think that your opinion on the matter is of any importance?" The young engineer sounded sceptical, very sceptical, but with an undertone of shared frustration, not derision.
Jeb shrugged. "Area of expertise. If you tell him," a negligent wave indicated the Longcoat general, "with all due respect, sir, but that tik-tok thing here is going to blow up in your face, he at least is smart enough to listen to you. If I say, with all due respect, Your Majesty, but that Longcoat thing here is going to blow up in your face, I get listened to, too."
Zero gave him a long, appraising look. "You drive a hard bargain." The older man sounded almost approving.
Jeb bared his teeth in a grin, of sorts. "You have only yourself to blame for that." Of course he could haggle like nobody's business, he was his mother's son, and a displaced single mom trying to feed a growing lad had to be extremely shrewd – or willing. And his mother had NOT been the latter.
The Longcoat general seemed to take that as a compliment, judging by the resultant smirk. Or maybe that was working up for the air of great obligingness when he finally gave in.
"I wouldn't change my horse at Ravren Hall, if I were you," Zero advised, "no matter how convenient it might lie."
More he wouldn't say.
Oh well, at least Jeb got a horse out of the bargain, too.
Oo oo oo oo oO
On the way up, the young captain of the Royal Guard considered the hint he had been given. Lord Ravren. Not a name he would have expected, the man had never actively opposed his presence, even if he was always irritatingly condescending – of the 'impressive trick you've got there, for a kid your age, but now shoo, the grown-ups have work to do' kind. But then, his lordship had gotten out of the Sorceress' reign with his lands intact, he had to have his politicking down pat.
The former rebel leader grinned wolfishly to himself. He was so going to enjoy his next meeting with the patronizing nobleman.
Oo oo oo oo oO
Topside, Sergent Heawl was waiting just beyond the main gate of the mine, with a saddled horse which he relinquished to the young man with barely a nod of greeting. The big man kept around, however, regarding Jeb silently but guardedly, while the latter checked through the gear out of habit, and stayed a faithful shadow while the younger man led the horse down the ancient road towards the edge of the encampment. The young captain had barely made it a dozen steps past that, though, when a familiar stocky figure stepped into his path.
"And just where do you think you are going, Graham?" Bookends, huh? Major Anjil had used that selfsame tone of razor-sharp silk, when he had first addressed the suspect young man forced on him by his general, perhaps it was only fitting that their last conversation – at least in the foreseeable future – would start in the same vein.
"General's orders," Jeb gave back curtly, "you want to know more, I propose you take it up with him. Sir."
"Don't try to bullshit me, boy, you used that excuse once already, tonight, it won't work twice."
Just for the hell of it, the young captain gave the short scout leader a look of wide-eyed, wounded innocence. "Ask the sergeant, if you don't believe me, sir, he prepared the horse."
"That's true, sir," the huge non-com supplied without prompting, "the general himself gave the order to have a good horse ready for the boy."
"A good horse?" Anjil repeated with a grin that would have done a shark proud, "now what would you need that for, huh, Graham?"
"Not for me to say, sir." Jeb gave the cinch a last tug and swung into the saddle. Twelve hundred pounds of horseflesh wouldn't stop a blade aimed by a man who undoubtedly knew how to fight mounted men, but they always added a certain convincibility to one's willingness to move out. Plus, the extra height gave him the opportunity to check for lurking scouts hidden behind the closest bunch of bushes. None were visible – beyond the usual lookouts, and those had, naturally, their backs towards him.
Of course, if the scarred major seriously meant to throw him a farewell party after all, that half a hundred or so Longcoats behind Jeb were probably more of a problem.
The stocky scout leader kept his vaguely threatening stance for another few tense seconds, before nodding approval to the young captain's unyielding refusal to explain. "You sure, you know what you are doing, boy?"
You bet I do. Jeb nodded with conviction, and Anjil stepped aside a moment later, seemingly satisfied with what he had read in the younger man's eyes. "Good enough for me."
No fool, the young captain of the Royal Guard urged his horse forward, eager to be gone while the going was good.
Oo oo oo oo oO
He had almost reached the old landslide, before some indefinable urge made him look back. There were no detectable signs of pursuit – nor any other indication of the Longcoat army that had fought a pitched battle all day just yesterday, unless one knew to look for fresh disturbances in the field of scree above the tree line.
Jeb shook his head, struck by a strong sense of unreality. If not for the solid evidence of black leather covering his arms, the last three days might have been nothing but a really, really weird dream. He shook his head once more.
Then he turned his mount downhill again and rode off into the first rays of the new dawn.
A/N: That's it, folks. It has been a year, almost exactly, and a much more extensive story than I originally envisioned – those things somehow grow on you. Also my first foray into the realm of (mostly) regular updates, with only the first few chapters written out when I started going online.
I wouldn't have gotten that far without you, SO MANY, MANY THANKS TO MY STEADFAST READERS, especially my faithful reviewer KLCtheBookWorm, who has really gone above and beyond the call of duty, but also to the loyal lurkers – I don't know who you are, but I know where you live ;-). There is a reliable pattern in the Visitor Country statistics….
There will be a companion piece in the near-ish future, some time, tying up a few loose ends once Jeb is back in Central City, but until then…