Title: Vedran’s Hand
Author: Harper Kingsley
Landing page: https://harperkingsley.wordpress.com/dragon-knight/
Summary: A duel to the death is to take place between two unbeaten champions. The Emperor’s Hand, the man known only as Dragon Knight, has been tasked with giving out eighteen gold seals to men and women of his choice, allowing them to witness the legendary battle between Hezzero and Nasbeth. Everyone wants an invite, and they are willing to do whatever they have to in order to get one.
Meanwhile, machinations are going on behind the scenes and someone is planning for a new Emperor to be crowned. All they need is the death of Emperor Vedran Malvorta.
If there was one thing Dragon had learned, it was to repay his debts. Which is how he found himself leaving the palace and walking to one of the poorer sections of the city.
Neat cobblestone had given way to rough gravel, and he kept a close watch on his purse as he adroitly bypassed the clever fingers of thieves. There was the rich scent of heavily spiced meat roasting mixed with the sour stench of improper waste disposal and poverty.
He hadn’t been back to this section of the city in years, but after a few minutes of wandering he felt almost as though he had never left. He could see himself once again as that helpless child shivering in an alley, covered in human filth and certain that he was going to die.
It was the easiest thing to go back to a small, thatched roof house he had never thought to see again. The house was well-cared for, though the poorness of its owner was obvious the closer he came. The quality of the workmanship could not compensate for the cheap supplies used to build the small shack.
He drew in a deep breath and approached the wooden door, rapping smartly with his right hand. Then he waited, both hoping and dreading what was to happen.
His sharp hearing caught the sound of movement inside, then the thud of footsteps. The lock clicked over and the door opened to show a tall man with graying brown hair and a scarred lower lip. “Yes?”
“Hello, Master Vonn,” Dragon said slowly. He felt as though someone was pressing down on his chest; it was hard to breathe. “Do you remember me?”
Vonn looked around quickly, then met Dragon’s eyes. “You are the Emperor’s Hand.” He scratched the side of his head nervously. “I haven’t done anything illegal. I’ve always tried to be an honest man.”
“No, no, it’s nothing like that.” Dragon licked his lips. “You don’t remember when we first met?”
“Have we met before?” Vonn asked in puzzlement.
Dragon shook his head sadly. “No, not recently anyway.” He reached into the inner pocket of his coat and pulled out a black silk sachet that he held toward Vonn. “For you. Each seal is good for one person and a guest. You should wait to open it inside.” He glanced around quickly, catching a few eyes that were watching him with a bit too much curiosity. “There are a few too many interested parties out here.”
Vonn still looked puzzled, but he took the sachet in both hands. “Thank you?”
“No, thank you for your kind-hearted nature,” Dragon said. He gave Vonn one last lingering look, then turned and walked away.
He wasn’t quite sure what he felt, but he had to blink his eyes quickly as he walked, fighting back a stinging burn.
He shouldn’t have been surprised that Master Vonn didn’t remember him. He had been a young boy when he had met the silver smith, desperate and alone. Why should anyone have remembered him?
* * *
As soon as he slid the lock in place, Vonn sighed and leaned his back against the door. He scrubbed a tired hand over his face and couldn’t help the way his shoulders slumped.
The minute he had seen that face, he had recognized the boy he had met briefly years before. He hadn’t known what had happened to that half-starved child, had never realized that the boy had risen so high in government.
He could still remember closing up his shop and heading home only to hear a strange snuffling sound in an alley as he walked past. Caution would have had him keep moving–noises in alleys were never a good sign–but something had sent him closer to investigate.
And there, curled up amongst the garbage had been the shivering form of a dirty child. Vonn probably would have left him there and sent the Night Watch back for him later, except the boy had lifted his head and Vonn had been captured by a face of heartrending beauty.
There was no way he could leave such a pretty boy in that alley, not when he knew what would happen. There were so many predators cruising the streets that wouldn’t hesitate to scoop up such a boy and entangle him in a life no one would want to live.
He had scooped the boy up in his arms and carried him home. He had cared for him and given him a spare set of clothes and kept him long enough for the emaciated look to leave him, though his arms and legs were still stick-thin.
The boy hadn’t spoken a single word, had just looked at him out of helpless green eyes and done whatever Vonn asked with a hesitant grace, as though just waiting for the abuse to begin. It had made something unpleasant twist in Vonn’s stomach to know that someone had already hurt the child.
He had been tempted to keep the boy, but he had known it would never work. He simply could not raise a child on his own, especially not one that had suffered such obvious abuse.
It had been one of the hardest things he had ever done to pack a small knapsack with food and lead the boy to the gates of the palace. His old friend Greeves had accepted the small bribe he’d managed to scrape together and that had been the last time he had seen the boy. Though he had thought of him a handful of times over the years, wondering if he was safe and happy, working as a messenger or maybe in the kitchens or stables.
He had never been able to forget those depthless eyes–eyes that had seen far too much for any age–but he had never expected to see them again. So his shock had been absolute when he opened the door to a slender figure sporting that familiar hundred mile gaze.
It had pained him to pretend not to recognize the boy he had known in the important man before him, but he understood the reality of the situation. Dragon Knight was the Emperor’s Hand and was thus as far above him as the moon in the sky and he had no place in the life of such an important man.
He knew that there were perils involved with knowing someone like Dragon Knight, because there was always an enemy trailing after such an important person. An enemy that would have no problem using someone like Vonn as leverage, and he really didn’t want to see himself or his family dead.
Vonn sighed heavily. He was glad that the boy had done so well with his life, but there was nothing there that should involve a man like him.
“Good luck, boy,” he murmured, then pushed away from the door to head back to the dinner he’d left on the table. He tossed the sachet down next to his plate and sat down.
He would look at it later, when he could get the image of those eyes to fade back into his memory where they belonged.
* * *
Brocade lace bit into her finger tips as she ran her hands back and forth over the hem of her dress. It was a habit she had thought she’d put behind her, but it always seemed to return when she least expected it.
She sighed in disappointment and went back to flipping through the books on the table in front of her. Beautiful stories of love and happy endings that she was beginning to think she was never going to see for herself because the man she loved kept disappearing before she could confess her feelings to him.
Emera chewed on her lower lip and furrowed her brow. She’d woken up early and gone in search of Dragon Knight, but he’d already left the palace just a few minutes past dawn. It made her wonder if maybe he was avoiding her.
She sat back on the chaise lounge and opened the newest book by her favorite author and tried to enjoy the story. But all she could think about was Dragon Knight.
“Ah, sister, there you are. I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”
Emera drew in a surprised breath and lifted her head to find Selestra standing in front of her, beautiful in a deep burgundy gown. She blinked quickly. “You’ve been looking for me?”
Selestra laughed. “Of course. I know that we haven’t been as close as we should be and I want to rectify that.” She reached out to take the book out of Emera’s hands, tossing it on the low table before pulling Emera to her feet. “Come to my solarium with me.”
“Just the two of us?” Emera asked, cocking her head. She wasn’t quite sure what was happening or how she was supposed to respond.
“Yes, silly,” Selestra said cheerily. “I think that we should be friends and true sisters. Don’t you think so?”
Emera knew that Vedran felt badly about her inability to get along with his wife, and she did love her nephew Lulius dearly. It was just that Selestra had never before wanted to get to know her. They had been as distant as strangers and had never made any attempt to become family.
“Sisters,” she said slowly, then nodded her head resolutely. “We can be sisters. That sounds wonderful.”
Selestra held her hand and led her out of the library. Emera still felt nervous and unsure, but she would take this chance to be closer to her brother’s wife. She wanted this to work.
“We are going to have so much fun,” Selestra said. “I don’t know why we never tried this before, but I’ve always felt badly about not getting to know you better. We will be the best of friends.”
“All right,” Emera said.
* * *
“Look, look, I did it!”
“That you did,” Vedran said, smiling at his son. Lulius was all bouncy energy and a teeth baring grin as he danced around in his miniature green archer’s tunic. “Now, can you do it again?”
“Of course,” Lulius said with an affronted expression. He took his stance and fired an arrow toward the target, hitting one of the outer rings. “See?”
Vedran clapped his son on the back. “Good job!”
Lulius blushed lightly and rocked back on his heels. He was so excited about getting away from his tutors and being able to spend time with his father.
It made Vedran regretful to know that he wasn’t able to spend as much time with his son as he wanted, but the restless shifting of the dozen or so attendants waiting off to one side let him know that he needed to enjoy the time they had. His duties as Emperor would only allow him a few hours with Lulius.
He decided to focus all of his attention on his son while he could. Lulius was growing up so fast and it would only be a few short years before he would be a man.
“Oh, look!” Lulius pointed behind him.
Vedran turned and couldn’t help the smile that broke out on his face. “Dragon!”
Dragon Knight looked up. He had been striding swiftly passed the courtyard with all of his attention focused forward, but he changed course now and walked toward Vedran and Lulius. He was dressed in surprisingly plain clothes much at odds with his usual flamboyant style and there was gray dust on his boots and all the way up to the knees of his pants.
“What’s with that expression on your face?” Vedran asked concernedly.
Dragon’s somewhat introspective expression cleared and he shrugged. “Nothing. I just…” He shook his head. “I was disappointed that someone didn’t remember me. It’s silly.”
“Who would ever forget you?” Lulius asked. “You’re the strangest man I’ve ever met.”
“Lulius!” Vedran said, touching the boy’s shoulder.
Instead of being insulted, Dragon laughed and ruffled the Crown Prince’s hair, which evoked some outraged whispering from the watching courtiers that they ignored. “I know, right? I’m so strange, I would have thought he would remember me forever, but I guess not.”
Vedran couldn’t help wondering who “he” was. “And who’s this man that managed to forget the legendary Dragon Knight?” It came out sharper than he’d expected.
Dragon looked at him for a long moment, then his mouth turned up at the corners. “No one important to me now.” He lay a hand on Lulius’ head and smiled widely at Vedran, a bright expression that he seldom showed. “As long as you never forget me, nothing else matters.”
Unable to resist, Vedran reached out his arm to brush the fingers of one hand down Dragon’s sleeve, letting go before their hands met. “I could never forget you.”
He gazed into those bright green eyes and thought that maybe he could look into them forever. Then the moment was broken by Lulius holding an arrow out to Dragon. “Play with us!” he said in childish demand.
Vedran saw the cheery smile Dragon gave his son and felt warm inside. It was nice that two of his most important people got along so well.
“How could I ever refuse you?” Dragon asked, taking the arrow. He accepted the adult-sized bow Vedran offered and stepped up to the shooting line and expertly fired and hit the bull’s eye.
“Wow, you’re so good,” Lulius cheered, clapping.
“He is,” Vedran said, “but I’m better.”
“Really?” Dragon arched his brow. “Why don’t you prove it?” He tossed the bow back toward Vedran, who caught it.
“What will you give me if I win?” Vedran asked.
Dragon clutched a hand to his chest with an exaggerated expression of surprise. “Gambling, really? I would have thought you would have just wanted to prove to your son that you had some kind of martial skills, but instead you want payment?” He shook his head. “How sad.”
“Oh, shut up.” Vedran made a swiping motion toward Dragon, then stepped up to the firing line. He glanced down at Lulius. “I expect high praise and much applause for my awe-inspiring shooting skills.”
Lulius covered his mouth with his hands and giggled. “Then shoot, silly.”
Vedran glanced at Dragon. “See what you have done? My son once respected me above all others, and now he calls me names and thinks me silly.”
“You are silly,” Dragon said, “now stop your ridiculous stalling and shoot already.”
“Wounded by those I love, I am forced to shoot and prove my skills once and for all.” Vedran drew and fired, watching the arrow fly swiftly and strike the center of the target right next to Dragon’s. “There? You see that I am not all boasts.”
Lulius threw his arms around Vedran’s waist and hugged him as tightly as he could. “You were wonderful.” He glanced from Vedran to Dragon and back. “Will you teach me to shoot like that?”
“Of course,” Vedran said. “Every emperor must know how to protect himself.”
“We’ll turn you into the greatest warrior emperor the world has ever known,” Dragon said. “Archery first, then swords later.”
“Can we play with swords now?” Lulius asked.
Vedran glanced at the sundial posted in the middle of the courtyard. “We have several hours,” he said, ignoring the murmurs of his waiting courtiers.
He would spend the day with his son and best friend and he would not allow himself to be rushed. One day of freedom should not be beyond his reach.
X-posted @ http://harperkingsley.dreamwidth.org