Title: Vedran's Hand

Author: Harper Kingsley

Genre: fantasy

Copyright 2012 by Harper Kingsley. All Rights Reserved.

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CHAPTER ONE

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The man known as the Emperor's Hand was certainly not what people expected on first sight. He looked more like an expensive courtesan than a topless fighter and the Emperor's most trusted champion.

He was younger than most people thought he would be, and too pretty by far. He dressed in the height of fashion and looked as though he had never swung a sword in his life. To see him, he looked like yet another worthless noble living off the wealth of his family. Few would have ever thought that he had built himself up from nearly nothing, using his family name to earn the chance to serve the Emperor, but becoming the Hand on his own.

The name that he was known by was Dragon Knight. He had been an orphan even before he came to the palace, so there was no one to remember of what family line he had originated from. All anyone knew was that he was the Emperor's most loyal servant, fulfilling any need that arose.

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So when he was summoned before the Emperor, he did not hesitate a moment to answer the call.

"You sent for me, Sire?" he said, kneeling before the golden throne.

"Ah, Dragon, it is good that you are here," Vedran said, looking up from the scroll he was reading to give his most loyal servant a warm and welcoming smile. "I have a little job I want you to do for me."

"Yes, Sire, what do you wish for me to do?" Dragon bowed his head, exposing his bared neck as an offering, showing the trust that he only placed in the Emperor. No one else would ever see him in such a vulnerable position.

"Hezzero has challenged Nasbeth to a duel that is to be held in the Imperial Coliseum," Vedran said. "I want you to oversee the duel, and in that capacity I am giving to you eighteen golden seals that you are to gift to whoever you think best. Each seal will allow one person with a guest to enter the Coliseum to witness the duel."

"What criteria would you like me to use for the gifting?" Dragon asked.

Vedran smiled at him. "That is up to you," he said. "I trust that whoever you choose will be the appropriate choice."

Dragon bowed his head again. "As you wish, Sire. I will ensure that those that are chosen are the best ones to view the duel."

"Whoever you choose will always be the best," Vedran said, his eyes sparking for a second with something Dragon didn't dare name.

Dragon moved gracefully forward on his knees to press a kiss against Vedran's offered ring. It was the sigil of the Empire, representative of the power that he served so faithfully. The hand that wore it was the hand of his oldest and greatest friend, his master since he was an orphan child and Vedran was Crown Prince Vedran Malvorta.

Now they were both men, one an emperor, the other his most loyal servant. They no longer had the kind of freedom they had enjoyed when they were young, but that didn't mean they weren't still close, it just meant they had to be more careful about how they showed their affection, or if there was any for others to see.

"Be careful out there," Vedran whispered just for Dragon's ears.

Dragon raised his eyes just enough to catch a glimpse of his friend's face. "Always," he breathed, knowing that Vedran felt his assent against his skin.

Dragon rose to his feet and backed slowly away from the throne, never once turning his back on the Emperor. "Your will is my command," he intoned, the traditional phrase of leaving for a servant of the Emperor.

Vedran picked up a scroll he had set aside and went back to reading it. He didn't look at Dragon again, his body screaming that he had no more interest in Dragon, but the eyes that he hid told a different story. He wanted more than anything to run to his friend, to hug him again, to laugh with him, to once again be as carefree as they were when they were children, back before the well-being of the Empire intruded on their friendship.

The Emperor's Hand, known as Dragon Knight, left the throne room without a single glance back. He had been given a task to perform and he would complete it to the best of his ability.

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He was barely through the double doors that guarded the audience chamber when Emera was on him, all bubbling enthusiasm and youthful invulnerability.

"Dragon! Dragon!" She threw her arms around him and hugged him hard. "I haven't seen you in nearly two months! Where have you been?" Her face scrunched up in childish anger that quickly melted away into a delighted grin. She was always so happy to see him.

"I have been on the Emperor's business, Princess," he said, granting her a smile. He knew that he was nearly her only friend other than her brother and Kameris.

She slapped him on the arm. "Well, you should have told me before you left. I kept thinking you were going to come walking in, and you haven't until now. I missed you so much and I didn't know where you were."

"Why didn't you ask Kameris?" he asked.

She shrugged and pouted. "He wouldn't tell me where you were, just said it was the Emperor's business. He wouldn't even tell me when you were supposed to be back. I was going out of my mind with missing you." She hung on his arm, laying her cheek against his sleeve as she gazed up at him.

He smiled down at her. Princess Emera Malvorta was a pretty young woman with an exuberance for life that simply could not be ignored. She threw herself head first into everything that she did and never really seemed to consider the consequences of her actions. Which meant that trouble seemed to follow her wherever she went and Dragon was always the one that had to save her from whatever she managed to get herself into.

"I missed you too," he said. "You always make me smile and I really needed a smile during this last mission."

"What happened?" she asked.

He squeezed her gently. "You know I can't tell you."

She rolled her eyes. "I know, I know, classified mission."

Dragon tugged her along with him. "Come with me. I will buy you the largest, most delicious pastry at the bazaar."

"Ooh!" she squealed, hurrying him along even more. "Let's go!"

He enjoyed her enthusiastic response to everything that life brought her. If it was up to him, she would never have a reason to frown.

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The bazaar was busy at any time of day, though they managed to find a table at an open air bistro and settled in against the comfortably padded chairs. The richly dressed man and woman received a few curious looks, though none dared approached once they spotted the hard-eyed men and women that lurked in the princess' shadow, prepared to give their lives in her protection.

Dragon Knight bought a sweet, fruity drink and a honey and nut pastry for Emera, and a mug of khava for himself. He had no real liking for sweet things, though he enjoyed the way the princess' eyes lit up when she received her treat.

There was something relaxing about being in her company. She was just so uncomplicated that he never had to fear dissimulation on her part because she was just exactly what she appeared: a pretty girl that looked up to him as her older brother's dearest friend.

"What did brother tell you you had to do?" Emera asked, leaning back in her chair.

Dragon Knight shrugged. "Hezzero and Nasbeth are having a duel on the Greens. There are going to be eighteen outside invitations and I'm supposed to decide who they go to since I am overseeing the whole fiasco." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the eighteen golden discs, each marked with the personal seal of the Emperor and hung with a thin, woven chain.

"Wow!" Emera reached out to take one, but Dragon hurriedly tucked them back into his pocket. She pouted a little, but let it go. "How are you going to choose who gets one?"

"I'm still thinking about it."

"Well, think fast or there's gonna be trouble. Everyone's gonna want one of those invites."

Dragon nodded. "I know. I really wish Vedran hadn't given this task to me. It's a headache just waiting to happen."

Emera laughed. "That's what you get for being the Emperor's Hand. All the impossible tasks are automatically assigned to you."

Dragon sighed and sipped his khava. The weather was a little cool, which made him appreciate the hot drink. He had never been very fond of the cold, and it looked like it was going to be a rough winter this year.

"Do you know why Hezzero and Nasbeth are fighting?" Emera asked.

"Hezzero accused Nasbeth of being the one that killed his brother last year during the Paladene Incursion," Dragon Knight said.

Emera stroked her chin thoughtfully. Her brow was lightly furrowed, which gave her face a rather quizzical air, like a young owl. "If Hezzero thinks Nasbeth killed Tark, then why did he wait so long to call him out? I would think he would have done it right after they got back."

Dragon shrugged. "Hezzero said he just got information about it a month ago."

"From who?"

"He wouldn't say. I'm a little suspicious about the suddenness of the accusations, but there's nothing I can do about it. Hezzero's not listening to anyone, and Nasbeth had no choice but to accept the challenge after all the insults Hezzero threw at him. Now they're going to have a fight to the death at the Imperial Coliseum with the Court and eighteen witnesses all in attendance."

"Wow," Emera said. "Everyone is going to want to be there, and you're the one they're going to have to go through. You're not going to have any peace until this is all over."

"I know," Dragon said. "I really wish Vedran hadn't done this to me. I don't really appreciate the circus my life is about to become."

Emera laughed and lightly slapped his hand. "When is the duel?"

"Five days," he said.

"Well then, that's not very long at all, and once it's all over you'll have your peaceful life back the way it was."

"I can only hope."

Emera grinned.

Kameris waited until Dragon Knight was halfway through the door before pouncing, sending them both tumbling to the floor. Once he had Dragon down, he began lightly slapping the other man on the cheeks, making him flinch.

"Hey, you garzak, what do you think you're doing?" Dragon demanded, bucking his hips to throw him off. Kameris could tell it wasn't a serious attempt or he'd be halfway across the room with a fist-sized hole through some part of his anatomy.

"Come on, admit it, you like the power and control of being the one to decide who gets to see Nasbeth and Hezzero's duel." Kameris leaned forward until his mouth was next to Dragon's ear. "Does all that power give you a hard on, or what?"

Dragon growled and suddenly flung him off, sending him rolling and sliding across the floor until he hit the wall with his back. "That is nowhere near funny, Kameris. You know this whole appointment has upset me, and I really do not need your attempts at humor making things worse." Dragon rose gracefully to his feet, as though he hadn't been lying full out on the floor just seconds before.

Kameris chuckled and rolled to his own feet. "Aw, D, I didn't mean to hurt your delicate feelings."

Dragon gave him a disgruntled look and crossed the room to the cabinet next to the window where he fetched himself a bottle of red wine. "You know how far from delicate I truly am," he said, popping the cork and drinking directly form the bottle. "Just because I like the finer things, everyone assumes that I am as fragile as I appear."

"You're just too pretty," Kameris cooed, fluttering his eyelashes. "You need to ugly yourself up. Maybe a few nasty facial scars or..." He stopped at the killing glare Dragon was giving him. "It was just an idea, no need to get hostile."

"I am not going to let anyone think that they've bested me just so I can have some disgusting scars to show off. If anything, scars like that would be a sign of an inability to use a sword properly, or at the very least an inability to duck."

That, and you don't want Vedran to see you at less than your best, Kameris thought, then hurriedly buried the irreverent idea. A person never knew when someone was Listening, and thoughts like that about the Emperor and his Hand were nothing but trouble. Besides, they were his friends and he knew the painful truth of things, and it really was nothing to laugh about.

Sighing quickly, he threw himself backward into a comfortable chair. "What do you want to do tonight?" he asked.

Dragon smiled at him. "I was thinking we could pay a little visit to Lady Merris' fine establishment. I have a bit of energy I would like to work off."

Kameris rolled his eyes. Of course Dragon would want to visit the most expensive pleasure house in the city, especially after an audience with the Emperor and accepting such a headache of a task.

"All right, let's go," Kameris said. "Those lovely ladies are going to need a chance to rest up after you're done exhausting them with pleasure."

Dragon laughed, but it was nothing like his real laugh, which Kameris hadn't heard in years.

Sometimes Kameris missed the days before Vedran became Emperor, when it was just the three of them against the world. Dragon used to really laugh then. Vedran would smile and tell jokes and it was less like he was carrying the burdens of the world on his shoulders. And Kameris had had his two best friends and there were a lot less lies for any of them to live.

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Lady Merris was happy to see them, as usual. A visit from Dragon Knight was invariably a profitable one since he had unlimited access to the Imperial Treasury.

Kameris remembered all the objections the Imperial Advisors had made when Vedran had ordered that Dragon be given full access to anything he wanted. It had been like someone had knocked down a hornet's nest for a few days until Vedran had stepped in and commanded that his orders be obeyed. Dragon was to have whatever he wanted whenever he wanted, no questions asked.

And how did Dragon use that great largess? To pay for whores and fancy clothes. Unlimited funds at his fingertips, and all he wanted was pretty clothes and sex. It made Kameris wonder what the people of the Empire would think if they knew about the untold power the Hand could have, but didn't even try for.

Kameris had heard all of the whispers and rumors told about the Emperor's Hand. To most people, Dragon Knight was a complete mystery, the Emperor's shadow, with no family and no past. He had just appeared one day at the Crown Prince's side as a child and had stayed there as Vedran rose to power.

Other than the few people that had survived seeing Dragon Knight in action, there were few that really believed he was anything more than an Imperial ornament. They saw his pretty face and body and labeled him useless, unable to believe that anyone so beautiful could have any more purpose than to be visually appealing.

Watching Dragon disappear up the stairs with four of Merris' best, Kameris couldn't help but to see why people would believe the rumors about Dragon Knight. The man spent far too much time in the pleasure houses and all of the proprietors knew him by name.

With a sigh, Kameris allowed himself to be led away by a buxom redhead. It would be several hours before Dragon was ready to leave and there was no sense wasting the opportunity to find his own enjoyment.

Sometimes he wished that things could be different. In a better world, Vedran and Dragon Knight wouldn't be so miserable all the time. None of the lies would ever have been told and there never would have been any hurt feelings. In a better world, things could magically go back to the way they were when they were children, when they were happy, back before everything went out of control.

Allowing the redhead to undress him, Kameris pushed aside his melancholy thoughts and focused on the girl and her rather obvious charms.

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Pounding his fist on the closed door, Kameris yelled loudly, "Are you done in there, D? It's time for us to get back."

"Just come in," Dragon Knight's voice ordered in exasperation. "I swear, I sometimes have to wonder if you were ever trained in the niceties of polite company. Screaming at me through the door, bothering everyone."

Kameris grinned at him cheerfully once he got the door open. "I truly doubt there's anyone here that's sleeping, and if they are, they better wake up before they end up owing a fortune for services rendered."

Dragon was lying on the large bed, the red satin sheets pooled over his bare lap. The four women rested beside him, their hair spread around them as they slept curled together. Four women, all exhausted by one man. Kameris could almost be jealous.

"Come on, Dragon, we have to get back before second bell if you plan on conducting interviews tomorrow."

"Interviews for what?"

"To decide who receives the invitations," Kameris sighed.

"Oh, that. What will be, will be," Dragon said, stretching and sitting up. Muscles flexed under the smooth flesh, not a single scar in evidence. Some people would take the lack of scars to mean a lack of experience, but Kameris knew it just mean Dragon Knight was that good. No one had ever managed to get the best of him, and if they did, they were never able to leave a permanent mark.

Few people ever got the opportunity to see the Dragon Knight go all out, and those that did understood perfectly why he was the Emperor's Hand. He was never so beautiful as when he wad a sword in his hand an enemy against the Empire to face. He danced divinely, his passion undeniable, and his purpose fully disclosed.

Dragon Knight was a weapon in the service of the Empire. His beauty was just a camouflage for his lethality.

As Dragon rose from the bed and began dressing with a calm efficiency, Kameris could only wonder how more people couldn't see his true nature. It was just hard to believe that so many people could be that blind, unable to see the predator in their midst even as he evaluated them for consumption.

From the first moment he had seen him, Kameris had known that Dragon was dangerous, and never mind that he was just twelve at the time, four years younger than him and Vedran. Even as a child, Dragon was not someone to mess with.

"Very well then," Dragon said, shrugging into his jacket, "let's go." He walked out the door, not giving the women a single backward glance. His time with them was done and he had no more interest in their charms.

Kameris flashed the women a toothy smile before following Dragon out. "I still don't know how you do it," he said as they were walking down the stairs. "Four women all exhausted from a single night with you, and you could probably go another ten rounds before having to sleep."

Dragon shrugged unconcernedly. "I have a high threshold for both pleasure and pain. The same ability that allows me to withstand torture also means that it takes more for me to receive release."

"From their satisfied expressions, I don't think the women look down on the ability." As they walked down the stairs, Kameris bumped shoulders with his friend, knocking him against the banister, and shot him a grin.

Dragon snorted and opened his mouth to say something when the front doors slammed open.

"Dragon Knight! Bring me Dragon Knight!" the mountain of a man thundered. He was dressed in rough cured leather breeches, furry boots, a tan shirt, and a dirty brown fur around his shoulders. Behind him stood four other men, all roughly dressed and tough looking.

"And who might you be?" Kameris asked, stepping in front of Dragon.

"Are you Dragon Knight?" the man demanded, his right hand holding the hilt of his barbarian-style sword.

"And if I was, what would you do about that?" Kameris asked mildly, using his body to completely block Dragon from view.

"I heard Dragon Knight had eighteen invitations for the duel between Nasbeth and Hezzero. I want five of them," the big man growled.

"Why do you think you should have them?" Kameris asked.

"Because if Dragon Knight doesn't give me those invitations, I'll make him," the man growled, his meaty hands curling into ham-sized fists. "Me and the boys are going to see that duel no matter what."

"Is that so," Dragon Knight said, shoving Kameris out of his way and standing forward. "And how exactly will you make me give you those invitations?"

"You're Dragon Knight, the Emperor's Hand?" the big man asked in disbelief, staring at the much smaller man. "I heard tell Dragon Knight was as pretty as a girl, but I didn't put much store by it. But look at you!"

Kameris winced when the man laughed. He wanted to tell the man to stop before it was too late, but he knew that wouldn't work. The man had already formed an opinion about Dragon Knight based on physical appearance and he wasn't going to change it until he was on the ground either spitting up blood or dead.

Dragon seemed to vibrate with anticipation for the violence to come. There was no other time when he was so alive as when he was teaching someone the error of their ways. It was kind of frightening how involved he got when he was fighting. It was as though he completely shut out the rest of the world.

"So," Dragon purred, "you think that you're going to force me to give you five invitations to the duel?" He laughed, a spine chilling sound. "I really do not think so."

The man looked unnerved for a moment, then straightened his shoulders with a growl. "It don't matter what you think. I'll get those invitations and either you'll give 'em to me freely or I'll take them for myself." He stepped forward, half drawing his sword in preparation for things to come.

Kameris might have tried to stop things, but he knew better than to get in Dragon's way. So he hurriedly moved to the side and readied himself to watch what was going to happen.

Even knowing how fast Dragon Knight was, he still managed to be surprised when the big man reached for his blade and Dragon blurred forward.

Dragon Knight's sword was out of its sheath before the bigger man could even finish drawing his own, and with a SWISH! SWISH! KWIK! it was over.

Dragon had literally sliced through the other man's blade to remove his head.

The four companions took one look at what had become of their leader and turned and ran away.

"Well that was certainly disappointing," Dragon said with a snort of derision. He flicked his sword, flinging off the small amount of blood marring the blade, then sheathed it. "I was hoping for something a bit more energetic. It really wasn't worth drawing Silva Morte for that."

Kameris blew out a breath he didn't remember holding. "I really didn't expect you to draw that blade."

"And what else was I supposed to do?" Dragon asked. "That oaf was attempting to steal the invitations that had been entrusted to me."

"But still... Silva Morte..." He was very disturbed that that sword had been used.

Silva Morta, or Silver Death, was Dragon Knight's official blade, the one he used in his more darker capacities as the Emperor's Hand. Once he drew it, the blade was always used to take a life. It could not be sheathed until someone was killed.

"It's just a sword," Dragon said. "Besides, I knew I was going to kill the man, so why not use the appropriate instrument for the task?"

Kameris sighed. Dragon simply didn't understand and probably never would. "Whatever. Let's get you home before Vedran orders out the guard to find you."

Dragon shrugged and followed him out into the cold night air. They both just stepped over the dead body as though they no longer saw it. Lady Merris would call the Night Watch and they would send someone out to collect the body.

Slinging one arm across Dragon Knight's shoulders, Kameris leaned down to speak in the ear of his much shorter friend. "So, do you have any idea who you're going to give those invitations to?"

Dragon flashed him a suddenly cheeky grin that was as cute as it was rare. "Nope. I just figured they could go to whoever asked the nicest."

"Maybe you could sell them?" Kameris suggested.

Dragon rolled his eyes. "What would I need with money?"

Kameris shrugged. "It doesn't have to be for you. I could use some money."

Dragon slapped him lightly on the arm, then snuggled back into the shared warmth. "You are still a complete child sometimes."

Kameris grin was unrepentant. "I know."

Watching out his window, he breathed a sigh of relief to see Dragon Knight and Kameris return to the palace. He always worried that something was going to happen to them when he wasn't there to watch their backs.

With a heavy sense of regret, he accepted the mantle of responsibility back on his shoulders and turned to return to bed. It was late and he knew tomorrow was going to be a busy day.

The various foreign diplomats were arriving for the signing of the non-aggression treaty and the state ball afterward. At least the Paladene Incursion had had one positive affect.