“Be yourself” was, Ctirad thought, the strangest, most unhelpful suggestion he’d ever gotten from an Owner — not even an order, it was just a broad guideline for behavior that meant, well, absolutely nothing.
He rose and put himself just behind and to the right of Timaios — Tim — running through the things his new Owner had told him. He wanted him to be somewhere between a bodyguard and a boyfriend in public. He wanted him to be used to physical contact. Sometimes, he might ask him to show off that he was more clever than the average idiot.
Okay then. That was enough for a role. He let his hands fall comfortably in front of him and shifted his stance to “Waiting to hit someone”, feet just shoulders’-width apart, weight on the balls of his heels. It felt comfortable and proper and some part of him was still niggling with guilt, but bodyguard, Tim had told him, and he was good at that.
“Mai! Jorge! Good to see you! Come on in, sit down. Ctirad, this is Mai Tansure and Jorge Talbot; Mai works for — runs, really, but don’t tell anyone — Surry Consolidated, and Jorge is a consultant. Mai, Jorge, this is Ctirad. Here, everyone, have a seat,” he gestured again and flopped back down in his chair. “Tristin will bring us some refreshments, but why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”
Ctirad considered his options and then leaned against the side of Tim’s chair, easy to touch and still easy to move if he was needed. He let his hand drop in a faux-casual move down inside the chair, where TIm could ignore it or do as he pleased with it.
He watched Tim’s guests take in the scene, the way that he’d been fully and formally introduced to them and they’d only been told his name. Tim wanted them off-balance, then, despite the hearty welcome — or maybe including it.
Mai Tansure was a black-haired, handsome woman who, in the hour when most people were dressed casually, was wearing tailored silk pants and a coordinating shell with a necklace that was the jewelry equivalent of an over-the-couch painting: it said nothing and did nothing except coordinate with the outfit. She’d slid her shoes off and, seemingly prepared, was wearing matching silk slippers.
Either she really liked lilac or she kept a pair of house shoes to go with every outfit. Ctirad wasn’t going to put money on which yet.
Jorge Talbot was a tall, tall man, a head and a half taller than Ms. Tansure, with curly brown hair cut very short and three thin scars running down the left side of his face that contrasted his otherwise well-manicured appearance. He’d unbuttoned the top two buttons of his bespoke dress shirt and his tie — silk, a red that clashed with Ms. Tansure’s outfit — hung loose and sloppy.
It was Jorge who seemed to actually see Ctirad, looking him up and down and nodded as if he knew what he was looking at. “Pleased to meet you, Ctirad. Sir. There’s something hinky going on with Hester Electronics and the Ermentraut account, and we’re not sure exactly what it is, but it bears looking into.”
Ctirad leaned forward suddenly. He knew those names!
“Ctirad?” Tim looked down at him. “Something?”
“I heard those names, last week…” He trailed off. It was important information, but-
“Ctirad used to work for Ermenrich Hester,” Tim explained easily. “So you heard him talking about the Ermentraut account?”
“About Dr. and Mr. Ermentraut and… some reason they weren’t going to turn him down.” It had involved some fae magic. Ctirad was pretty sure that part was off limits. “He seemed pretty sure of himself. It was part of his – ah. The plan he wanted to discuss with you.”
“Interesting. So he’s trying for a grand plan, is he? What’s your estimation that he’ll succeed?”
Ctirad hesitated. “I think it depends on you, sir-” He wasn’t supposed to say sir. He plowed on anyway. “-and on exactly how oblivious Dr. and Mr. Ermentraut are, and how the head of Hester – because it’s not actually run by Mr. Hester – handles the whole thing. There’s a lot of moving parts, but if everyone involved is a reasonable person, I don’t think Ermenrich can succeed. He’s just not as clever as he thinks he is.”
He felt strangely disloyal. He also felt like he wanted praise for managing that many words, and, at the same time, felt ridiculous for wanting the praise.
Tim squeezed his shoulder. Ctirad fought down another wave of pleasure-chagrin-warmth and watched the guests instead.
“Not as clever as he thinks he is?” Ms. Tansure tasted the words thoughtfully. “You think he’d going to fall on his face?”
“I think that when he tries to plan too far ahead, he ends up making mistakes,” Ctirad countered carefully. “The trick is to find the mistake and, ah, make use of it before he notices that he’s made one – or before someone else can tell him he’s made some sort of error.”
Jorge was giving Ctirad a very interesting look. “You really do know him well, or you believe you do.”
“I worked for him for a very long time.” Ctirad nodded his head in a way that imitated a polite bow while still suggesting he wasn’t budging an inch. He hadn’t had a chance to use that bit of body language in a long time. He found he liked it as much as he remembered.
Liking things again was a nice sensation. He let a small smile touch his lips, the sort that didn’t say much at all, and leaned back against Tim.
Jorge definitely had some military or police background. He noticed things most people wouldn’t. Ms. Tansure, on the other hand, was dismissing Ctirad entirely.
“The thing is, Tim, that we’re worried about what he could do if he got his hands on the Ermentraut properties. They’re worth a lot more than anyone knows – I’m pretty sure the Ermentrauts themselves have no idea what they’re sitting on. And if Ermenrich does know, he’s going to push forward, and he’s going to do it fast. We don’t have time to wait and see if Ermenrich fails on his own.”
That hadn’t been at all what Ctirad was suggesting, but he didn’t bother to pick apart that part. “Dr. Ermentraut is brilliant. She gets underestimated a lot, because she’s short, and female, and attractive.” He let his eyes linger on Ms. Tansure for a moment like she must know exactly what he was talking about. “I think that if she’s sitting on something expensive, she knows what it is. And she may actually be playing Ermenrich .” He chuckled a little, and held Ms. Tansure’s eyes while he did so.
She found herself chuckling right back at him, the way he’d been pretty sure she would. He’d caught her underestimating him and pointed out how foolish it was without ever saying anything of the sort.
Ctirad was a little proud of himself. He hadn’t managed anything like that in a long time – and it had been easy. He leaned harder against Tim’s legs and let himself relax.
“So, as Ctirad has suggested, we should look for the weaknesses in Ermenrich’s plan. That means that we need to consider…” Tim’s hand landed in Ctirad’s hair, and Ctirad stopped trying to pay attention. He had done his job. He kept part of his awareness on the movements of the visitors, ready to attack if they turned out to be a threat, and let the rest of his mind settle into the pleasure of being caressed, of doing something right.
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