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02 August 2007 @ 07:55 pm
Ficathon entry: A Bit of a Loose Screw  
Title: A Bit of a Loose Screw
Author: philomytha
Recipient: keswindhover
Prompt: some of the more minor characters having an adventure on the fringes of one of Miles's existing adventures - seeing something that LMB didn't have time to put in!
Summary: Some missing scenes from A Civil Campaign, as Byerly discovers that he's not a natural at covert ops.



Byerly Vorrutyer drifted through the party like a single molecule in a cloud of gas, bouncing off groups of chattering people with a smirk and a joke, his course gradually taking him closer to Richars and his cronies. He spotted Lady Alys with the ever-present Captain Illyan and tried to slip past with a bow and a smile, but as he straightened found Illyan standing directly in his path

‘I haven’t seen much of you lately,’ Lady Alys said in a tone that betokened no good. By turned towards her, mustering his defences. ‘We miss your wit amongst the younger set.’

Coming it a little strong, thought By, and proved it by saying, ‘I was desolated to miss your lunch yesterday. I’m trying to get in as many chances as I can to flirt with our delightful Empress-to-be before she finally kicks the groats.’

As he expected, a sour look flitted across Lady Alys’ face, instantly repressed. By kept himself from glancing towards Captain Illyan, who was now in his blind spot, as-if accidentally. Subtle intimidation must be instinct with him by now.

‘You’ve been much taken up with your two cousins and their, ah, dispute,’ Lady Alys remarked.

‘Oh, it’s been deeply amusing. They’re both so serious. Such perfect foils for my conversation, you know.’ He smirked at Lady Alys. ‘And watching the world’s reaction to Lord Dono is not an opportunity to be missed.’

Lady Alys only raised one eyebrow. By resisted the temptation to keep blithering on; better to leave her the work of worming anything more out of him. But she merely said, ‘Indeed,’ so he took the opportunity to retreat in good order.

‘I will certainly be at your river party next week,’ he said with another bow, and Illyan moved aside to let him continue his way across the room. Next week it would be over, and he could stop hiding what he was doing from ImpSec. He could feel both pairs of eyes still on him as he finally made his way into Richars’ orbit.

Richars was drinking with Vormoncrief and Vormurtos, and laughing.

‘Ah, it’s my cousin the super-spy,’ he said with a smirk as he saw By.

By raised an eyebrow. ‘Don’t go, ah, “blowing my cover” before I’ve even started.’

Vormoncrief and Vormurtos chortled. Richars moved towards By and took his arm in the South Content gesture that would have been courtly in anyone other than Richars. As it was Richars, it was slimy and domineering. He led By a little way apart from the others.

‘Did you find out, then?’

By shrugged Richars’ arm away and fussily smoothed his jacket. ‘Of course. What do you take me for? He’s—she’s—going on to Vorsmythe’s. They’re getting ready to leave now.’

‘I suppose that’ll do. I’d prefer somewhere quieter, though.’

‘They want to work the party at Vorsmythe’s. Makes sense, I suppose.’

‘Much good may it do them.’ Richars glared across the room at Dono. ‘Do you know how many there’ll be?’

‘I think just Donna and two Armsmen.’ Ivan had looked like he planned to extract Olivia from the whole affair, and By would rather he did. The less risk of innocent casualties in this affair, the better.

‘All right. Go and give your people the go-ahead.’

‘Are you sure you don’t want to speak to them yourself? Get in on some of the action?’

‘Oh no. You’re the one they know.’

By gave a nod. Richars was good, there was no denying it. But he was better.

*

The party was cooling now. Vormoncrief and two of his friends were slumped in armchairs, crooning a popular song tunelessly. Vormurtos had cornered one of the serving-girls on the other side of the room. By gave this arrangement a sharp glance, but the girl seemed willing enough.

‘Do you think they’ve done it yet?’

By gave Richars a very dry look. ‘You get off on that sort of thing, do you?’

Richars glared at him. ‘Of course not,’ he said, though his flushed face belied him. ‘But I want to know it’s all working.’

By’s enamelled comm link chimed. ‘You might just get your wish.’ He stood up and stepped a little way off from Richars to answer the call. He didn’t imagine the thugs would report back after the attack failed, but he would expect someone to tell him about the show that should be going on at Vorsmythe’s.

‘Vorrutyer here.’

‘Sir, we’ve been here over two hours and haven’t seen any trace of your friends. Has there been a problem?’ Patrol Officer Lin’s voice, slightly tinny on the comm link that had been chosen for decorative effect rather than function, was frustrated. By swallowed, highly aware of the lack of privacy. He certainly didn’t want to draw Richars’ attention to the municipal guards he had engaged to break up the attack.

‘No,’ he said. ‘They haven’t showed up?’

‘No. We’ve seen every vehicle that’s come by Vorsmythe House, and none of them have matched the ID you gave, and apart from some drunk Vor coming out there hasn’t been any disturbance either. What do you want us to do? Only I’m going to have a hard time justifying spending all this time here if we don’t actually do anything useful.’

It seemed By’s credit as an ImpSec agent was running out quickly. Convincing Lin to work with him hadn’t been easy in the first place, walking the tightrope between claiming Lin had to support ImpSec whilst not giving Lin any idea that he ought to talk to some more official ImpSec officer.

‘All right, all right,’ said By, letting Richars see his sardonic smile. ‘You can tell me all about it later.’

‘Sir?’ Lin sounded perplexed. ‘But what should we do?’

‘Just stick around. I’ll be along soon. Enjoy yourself.’ He closed the connection, still smirking.

‘Who was that?’ demanded Richars at once. ‘Not our friends?’

‘No, that was Peachy Vorvayne. He was looking for Dono, something about a joke he wanted to try out on him. Her,’ he corrected himself as an afterthought.

‘Hah. He’ll be in for a long wait, then.’

Richars launched himself into a torrent of anticipation of how the Council would receive the news of Dono’s attack (delighted that someone had done what they must all have wanted, naturally), whilst By restrained his fingers from drumming anxiously on the table. Nothing had happened, Lin hadn’t seen any attack, presumably he hadn’t seen the attackers either. Why? Dono should have reached Vorsmythe’s a good while ago, given when he had left. Something was wrong.

‘I’m surprised Vorvayne hadn’t heard anything, though,’ By said when Richars paused for breath. ‘And our men haven’t reported back yet, either.’

For all his other vices, Richars was not stupid about plotting. ‘Well, I’m not about to go chasing around trying to stir things up. It can’t be long now.’ He glanced at the antique clock. ‘But you’re right, they are overdue.’

‘Probably lost,’ said By dismissively. ‘They weren’t the brightest coals in the fire.’

‘I wouldn’t know.’ Richars gave By a hard look. ‘You chose them.’

‘There’s not a lot of choice for this kind of job.’

‘Well, if they’ve screwed up it’s your responsibility.’ The possibility darkened Richars’ face. ‘Perhaps you’d better go chase them up and make sure they catch Donna somewhere before tomorrow. If tonight is a wash-out you’ll have to intercept her before she gets to Vorhartung Castle.’

A vision of Dono, shaken from an attack, staggering into the Council of Counts, flashed across By’s mind. Yes, that might work too, but it would be difficult for him to avoid giving too much away, especially since he wouldn’t normally be permitted into the Chamber. Besides, he’d never persuade Lin to help him again after the first failure. His ears caught up with his imagination and he realised what Richars had said.

‘You want me to go traipsing around the city at this hour?’ he demanded plaintively.

‘You sure you haven’t had Donna’s surgery in reverse?’ Richars retorted. ‘Scared of the dark?’

By straightened his cuffs. ‘I prefer to leave the active work to you sweaty military types.’

‘Don’t be stupid, I can’t let them meet me, it would ruin everything. Go on, you can call them up and find out where they’ve got to.’

Reluctantly, By stood up. ‘As you wish,’ he said, with a little mock-bow. Richars gave a wide smile.

‘Tomorrow, you’ll be able to add ‘my lord Count’ to that.’

By smirked back, though it nearly choked him, and sauntered out of the room. He didn’t let his steps speed up until he was well out of Richars’ sight and earshot. Then he ran.

His groundcar was parked in the road outside, and he sprang in, polarised the windows and locked it. Then he called Lin back. Lin’s voice was frosty as he identified himself.

‘Yes? Enjoying your little joke?’

‘It’s not a joke. I’m sorry about earlier, I couldn’t speak freely. Can you tell me a bit more about what’s happened?’

‘Oh. I see.’ Lin still seemed dubious. ‘Absolutely nothing has happened.’

‘Where exactly are you stationed?’

‘It’s exactly the way you asked. I’ve got a man watching each of the roads approaching Vorsmythe House. I even have someone placed right inside the courtyard, chatting with the Armsmen. It’s all going perfectly except there hasn’t been any sign of the attack you said would happen.’ The anger in his voice was unmistakeable now.

‘You haven’t heard of anything happening elsewhere? No other assaults on Vor lords in the city?’

‘Nothing I know of, though I can’t get the latest reports out here.’

By began to swear under his breath. ‘I don’t know what’s going on. Stay where you are, if you can. I definitely set up the attack for the road outside Vorsmythe House. Perhaps Dono’s been delayed on the road somehow.’

‘I can’t stay here indefinitely.’

‘I’m going to try to call Dono and also my thugs, see what I can find. I’ll get back to you.’

But repeated calls to Dono’s home, his personal wrist-comm and his Armsmen failed to produce an answer, and he couldn’t find any traces of his thugs either. He sat in the front seat of his groundcar and put his head in his hands. He had failed. Richars had beaten him at last.

After a time he sat up again and got out of the groundcar to pace up and down in the empty road. The cool night air with its breeze from the river cleared his mind. If Richars had succeeded, why had the rest of the plan not gone as it ought? Why did the thugs not answer? How could the attack have escaped Lin’s watchful men? The return of hope was painful, replacing the urge to go somewhere and get more drunk than he’d ever been before in his life with a furious need to know what had happened. He got back into the groundcar and drove away.

Three hours later, By’s stomach was churning and his hands were starting to shake with exhaustion and nerves. He’d driven Dono’s route from Vorhartung Castle to Vorsmythe House twice, exploring possible false turns and side trips Dono might have made, and found nothing. He’d been in to Vorsmythe House, feigning drunkenness, he’d been to Vorrutyer House, to his own flat, to Ivan Vorpatril’s flat and to the Koudelka’s, but found nothing. He’d searched for several blocks in all directions from Vorsmythe House and driven Lin to distraction with his ever-repeating questions until Lin gave up and went back to his normal work. In desperation he had enquired at Vorbarr Sultana Hospital and at the municipal police station. Now he had exhausted all ideas and hope, and was reduced to driving erratically around the city, as if he might come across Dono outside an all-night boutique or at the spaceport.

An ugly vision of Dono, badly hurt and left for dead down some alley, kept hovering in his mind. Richars had showed disturbing interest in planning the details of the attack, wanting Dono to be conscious and aware whilst the thugs mutilated him, describing the kind of liquid bandage without anaesthetic that he wanted used. Whilst it had been all talk, By had let it wash over him heedlessly, certain that it would never come about. Now it tormented him twice over, first for the content and then for his own heedless reaction to it. He wished he’d taken Richars’ plans straight to Lady Alys when he’d first learned about it, let ImpSec deal with Richars in their normal way. He could hear Major Gordon’s furious voice in his head from the last time he’d taken a risk: Vorrutyer, I don’t impose these rules on you for a joke. And that had been a small thing. His commander would disembowel him for this.

He drove aimlessly back towards Vorhartung Castle, through the financial district and into the old city where most of the counts had their residences. He turned a corner and slammed on the brakes. Vorpatril House lay ahead of him, ablaze with lights. There were many groundcars parked in the sweeping front court, including an ImpSec vehicle and two flyers marked with the red-and-white of the municipal emergency guard. Executing a rather less than flawless turn in the middle of the fortunately deserted road, By pulled into the courtyard.

Instead of the normal footman, there were two municipal guardsmen at the door, who were reluctant to admit him or tell him what was going on, and turned stiff-faced at his mention of Dono’s name. By was considering getting out his ImpSec ID card, to be used only in dire need, when a door opened inside and an unexpected but familiar face appeared.

‘Aren’t those ImpSec men here yet—Vorrutyer! What are you doing here?’

Instead of the drawl that By was used to, Ivan Vorpatril was speaking in sharp, clipped tones: his Ops voice, By supposed. He’d never heard it before. The guards, at a nod from Ivan, let By enter.

‘What’s going on here?’ By demanded in return. ‘Is everything all right? Is Dono here? I’ve been looking everywhere…’ He closed his mouth; hours of pent-up questions were threatening to overwhelm him, and he was aware that exhaustion and panic were destroying most of his usual smoothness. He tried to see into the room Ivan had come from, but the door was half-closed and he only had a view of a portrait of some Vorpatril ancestor.

Ivan frowned. ‘Yes, Dono is here. Why are you here at this hour?’

By’s screaming tension wound up another notch. ‘Is he all right? What’s happened?’

‘Your concern for your cousin is quite touching,’ Ivan said, in tones that would have done Lady Alys proud. ‘Dono’s with the medics.’

By’s insides froze. ‘The medics?’ he echoed, horror in his voice. ‘What happened to him—they didn’t…’ He cut himself off. He’d failed. Visions of Richars triumphant, Major Gordon enraged, Dono… he didn’t want to imagine how he could face Dono.

Ivan stared grimly at him. ‘”They didn’t” what? What do you know about this?’

‘Not fucking near enough yet. Just tell me, Ivan, what’s happened to my cousin?’

Not smooth at all. But Ivan seemed to relent at his obvious anxiety.

‘He was attacked. The medics don’t think it’s going to be serious.’

The world seemed to spin around By for a moment. ‘He’s all right?’ he whispered.

‘He will be.’

‘You could have said sooner,’ By said, recovering himself a little. ‘What happened?’ His fertile imagination was flicking between options: Dono fighting the attackers off far more successfully than he had thought possible; someone else intervening; a thousand unpredictable possibilities.

But Ivan’s face turned grim again. ‘You first. Why are you running around the city looking for Dono at this hour? Why did you think something had happened? What was it you were expecting?’

Ivan’s spate of questions gave By a chance to think. The attack must have been foiled, though not with the grand entrance into Vorsmythe House he had intended. He realised abruptly what his next move had to be. He let guilt cross his face for a moment—not hard to do—and then said, ‘I don’t know what you mean. Dono said he’d be at Vorsmythe’s, and when he didn’t show up I went looking. But if he’s hurt, I want to see him.’

He waited whilst Ivan stared at him suspiciously. Finally, he said, ‘He’s through here.’

The drawing room was unexpectedly busy. Dono was sitting up on a sofa with a green-jacketed medic beside him and Olivia Koudelka standing possessively over him. Another two medics were accompanied by some municipal guards, standing guard on four men By recognised as his thugs. Watching them were a sergeant with ImpSec silver eyes on his collar and Counts Vorhalas, Vorpatril and Vorfolse. They all looked very stern. By hesitated on the threshold. He saw Ivan, beside him, let his hand drift towards his stunner, and told himself it was a good thing that he’d already provoked Ivan’s suspicions.

He headed for Dono. Even if he accomplished nothing else, he could at least find out how he and all the attackers had come to be here. ‘What the hell happened to you?’ he demanded. ‘Where did you go? I thought you were going to Vorsmythe’s.’

Dono gave him a long, assessing look, and By knew that he was anything but his usual suave self at this moment. Then he grimaced. ‘I was going to Vorsmythe’s, but we swung by to call on Count Vorfolse first, and those fellows jumped us.’

‘At Vorfolse’s? What on earth were they doing there?’ He swallowed further exclamations, but saw Ivan’s eyes watching him.

‘Waiting for us, I suppose. They attacked us, went for me with a knife, but Ivan and Olivia took them down before they could… do what they were planning. Then we came here.’

By felt rising incredulity as he listened to this simple account. All his careful plans destroyed by Dono’s desire to win one extra vote, and then saved from utter disaster by Ivan Vorpatril! He stood for a moment with his mouth open, looked from Ivan to Dono in amazement. A little grunt of surprise and exhaustion went out of him.

‘That’s what happened?’ he managed. ‘I would never have guessed.’

From across the room he heard one of the captives speak suddenly. ‘He’s the one.’

They all looked around. The ImpSec sergeant had been interrogating the man before he had come in, By realised, and the fast-penta effects were still lingering.

‘What do you mean?’ the sergeant asked.

‘He gave us our orders. I recognise the voice.’

The words hung in the air for a moment, then everyone spoke at once. By caught a few snippets:

‘… he must be telling the truth, we just drugged him.’

‘… he could be mistaken.’

‘But surely Vorrutyer wouldn’t…’

Over the top of the babble, Ivan spoke. ‘What is this, Byerly? What do you know?’ Somehow, his stunner had appeared in his hand. By wasn’t sure whether to be alarmed or flattered. What did Ivan think he could do with his bare hands?

He looked from face to face: Ivan stern and military, Olivia outraged, the three counts variously startled and suspicious, the ImpSec man watchful, the thug himself bizarrely innocent as fast-penta robbed him of his menace. Dono was unreadable. They were all waiting for his answer. It would have made a wonderful moment in a play, he thought foolishly, dramatic and exciting. He could have enjoyed it if he hadn’t been on the ragged edge of exhaustion. He forced his voice into its usual sarcastic tones.

‘It seems the game is up. Yes. I did arrange for these men you seem to have captured so cleverly to attack Dono.’

‘You?’ blurted Olivia. ‘We thought for sure it must be Richars.’

‘Oh, it was. Richars had the idea, he planned it all out, and then I helped him set it up. He didn’t want to get his own hands dirty, but I thought it would be exciting—something to make an unusual chapter in my memoirs. I’m not surprised it didn’t succeed, though, those men were idiots. As they must be, since you caught them.’

The ImpSec sergeant was speaking quietly into his wrist comm. Reporting this new development in the case, By supposed. He felt his courage quail. ImpSec would put the pieces together soon, and he would have to explain himself. His only consolation was that it would undoubtedly be his ImpSec handler, Major Gordon, and not Lady Alys whose immediate wrath he would face.

‘I knew it was a mistake to trust you,’ Ivan growled. ‘I thought you were far too pally with Richars to really be on Dono’s side.

‘Oh, I had you all fooled for a good while. Not that I’m desperately fond of Richars, but since all this started Dono’s been so insufferably virtuous and proper. Besides, better a real man than a fake as Count.’

‘Principled objections, from you?’ Dono muttered. His eyes bored into By, as if he were reading his mind and seeing his real intentions. By wished that he was. He didn’t mind making himself a figure of disgust before the counts and the guards, who probably thought him a worthless town clown anyway, but it was unpleasant to see the revulsion on Dono and Ivan’s faces.

‘You have evidence to prove Richars was behind this?’ Dono’s voice was as sharp as his gaze. ‘Enough to convince a jury?’

‘I imagine my testimony would serve.’ It had better serve, or else what was the point of this charade? Fortunately he had never been considered of sufficient importance by ImpSec to receive the fast-penta allergy treatment; he was a source of information to them, not a repository for it. ‘It’s a pity, but I don’t suppose you’ll win the vote even so.’

That provoked Count Vorhalas to say, ‘Well, if I have anything to say about it I don’t think Richars Vorrutyer will hold it.’ He looked at By with contempt. ‘Better an honest… person, than a criminal, as Count.’

At that, Dono raised his head. ‘Thank you, sir.’

That’s it, By thought. He’s won Vorhalas, the rest will fall now. Count Vorpatril was nodding, and Vorfolse was glaring at the thugs with unexpected decision. Relief shook him, and he let out his breath in a long sigh of exhaustion. Dono heard, and looked back at him, eyes widening with understanding. Then one of his eyelids shivered in what might have been a wink.

A minute later, the ImpSec reinforcements arrived and By made no protests as they led him away.
 
 
 
Anne-Elisaetrangere on August 2nd, 2007 07:31 pm (UTC)
brillant fic!
philomythaphilomytha on August 3rd, 2007 07:07 am (UTC)
Thanks! Glad you liked it!
fuzzyboo03fuzzyboo03 on August 2nd, 2007 08:13 pm (UTC)
Hee! I do love By. Great missing scene!
philomythaphilomytha on August 3rd, 2007 07:08 am (UTC)
Thank you! It's been fun getting to know By through writing this, he's a great character.
sahiya on August 2nd, 2007 11:57 pm (UTC)
That's a great missing scene! Your By voice is perfect. Thank you!
philomythaphilomytha on August 3rd, 2007 07:10 am (UTC)
Thanks! I'm glad my By voice worked. I've never tried writing him before, but it was fun letting my inner snark come out.
Curried Goat in a paper cupderien on August 3rd, 2007 01:24 am (UTC)
That's wonderful - it should have been in the original story.
philomythaphilomytha on August 3rd, 2007 07:10 am (UTC)
Thanks! Glad you liked it.
Curried Goat in a paper cupderien on August 3rd, 2007 10:10 am (UTC)
I'm a huge fan of Byerly, and thought we didn't see anywhere near enough of him in "A Civil Campaign." Your story seems to fit so well and is written just right - sounds perfect, to me at least. Also adored the little touch that he didn't like Ivan scorning him right up there with Dono.

(I did notice one possible tiny typo - a repeated word which must have happened from re-writing the sentence, I suppose - I don't know if you intended it, though:
There were many groundcars were parked in the sweeping front court, including an ImpSec vehicle and two flyers marked with the red-and-white of the municipal emergency guard.)
philomythaphilomytha on August 3rd, 2007 10:56 am (UTC)
Oh, thank you - I spotted that typo on a read-through but forgot to change it. Fixed!

By is a great character, and there's plenty of unknown factors in his life that make for fanfic ideas. I wonder how he came to be working for ImpSec at all, and why, and what else he's done (the Yarrow case, perhaps?). That scene at the very end of ACC with Ivan is one of my favourites in the books (granted, I have a long list of favourite scenes).

Perhaps it's the fanfic influence, but I can see the Ivan/By ship working, so I put in a few notes that could hint at it. I'm glad it worked!
Altariel: Gregoraltariel on August 3rd, 2007 05:54 am (UTC)
Oh, brilliant! Wonderful Byerly voice.

saved from utter disaster by Ivan Vorpatril!

Poor By!
philomythaphilomytha on August 3rd, 2007 07:18 am (UTC)
Thank you! I'm pleased you thought the By voice worked, since I was worried about that. Poor By indeed, he's having to rethink his opinion of Ivan after this.
Altariel: Gregoraltariel on August 3rd, 2007 07:36 am (UTC)
Poor Ivan too, everyone raising their expectations upwards, exactly what he doesn't want.

I forgot to say that I thought the title was perfect.
Alawa: spiffy bootsedge_of_ruin on August 4th, 2007 07:44 am (UTC)
Oh this is a great missing scene! And Ivan coming over all 'man of authority' while By comes apart at the seams. Lovely.
philomythaphilomytha on August 5th, 2007 09:17 am (UTC)
Thank you! It's fun seeing Ivan having a chance to shine, he doesn't get many in the books, but By's perceptions of him are quite different from Miles'.
Alawa: spiffy bootsedge_of_ruin on August 5th, 2007 08:09 pm (UTC)
I love Ivan - soft-hearted, loyal and hopelessly competent when the chips are down ;-)
Keswindhover: Quinnkeswindhover on August 4th, 2007 11:59 am (UTC)
Ooh, I've come back from holiday to find an excellent slice of fic served on a plate for me.

Excellent Byerly, and also a very effective tribute to LMB's style - I enjoyed this very much.

Thanks a lot!
philomythaphilomytha on August 5th, 2007 09:27 am (UTC)
I'm so glad you like it! It was a great prompt for fics, my only difficulty was choosing between all the options. But By was determined to get a chance to tell his story, so this was the result.
firefly_124: biologicalwealth by asefirefly124 on August 5th, 2007 07:38 am (UTC)
Oh excellent. Love your Byerly!
philomythaphilomytha on August 5th, 2007 09:28 am (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it.
filkferengifilkferengi on August 9th, 2007 03:43 pm (UTC)
This was lots of fun [just not for By ;)].