CHAPTER FOUR

Walking into his private chambers, Vedran paused with his shirt half off when he saw a strange bedspread on his bed.

"What is this?" he asked, turning to his valet.

"The Empress had it made for you," Gerard said, reaching out to help Vedran out of his shirt.

"Really." Vedran pulled his arm free and walked over to the bed and ran his hand over the bedspread. A dark green silk background with one large orange and yellow tiger lily in the middle with a frame of smaller tiger lilies in a repeated pattern of patches. "It's really quite lovely."

"Yes, Sire. The Empress thought to surprise you," there was a hint of warmth in Gerard's voice when he mentioned Selestra.

"Hm," Vedran hummed, turning toward his changing room and his nightclothes. "Make sure to give her my thanks."

"You do not wish to see her tonight?" Gerard asked.

"No," Vedran said. "I'm too tired now."

There was a vague sense of disapproval from the valet as he helped Vedran change into his nightclothes, but he didn't say anything. "If that will be all, Sire?"

"Good night," Vedran said. He stepped out of his changing room and approached the bed. Somewhere behind him he heard the door open and close as Gerard left the Imperial Bedchambers.

Vedran pulled back the covers and climbed onto the bed, settling in for the night. Idly, he fingered the smooth silk of the bedspread as he closed his eyes.

It truly was a lovely gift and he would have to remember to personally thank Selestra. She must have been planning this gift for months.

The light in the room dimmed around him; he didn't open his eyes, but the light no longer shone on his eyelids.

He sighed and turned his face to the side, rubbing his cheek against his pillow. More than anything he wanted to be able to sleep, but he knew that Dragon Knight and Kameris had left the palace. He hated the anxiety he experienced whenever they were out of his sight.

Stroking his fingers over the precise stitching of the bedspread, he really felt grateful for the gift.

It was like being able to wrap all of his memories of Dragon Knight around himself as he slept. He would surely have good dreams if he ever managed to fall asleep.

Vedran sighed and forced his eyes to stay closed. Standing sentinel by the window did no good and only added to his sense of agitation. It was better to sleep and dream that his loved ones were all safe.

Another visit to Pleasure Row and Kameris was once again left to wait for Dragon Knight. It seemed to have become his new hobby.

"Would you like me to fetch you a drink, milord?" the very pretty, dark skinned girl with black hair in hundreds of braids asked. She was wearing a very short pink dress that just skimmed the tops of her thighs and barely contained her large breasts.

Kameris waved her away brusquely. "No, I'm fine."

She pouted a moment, then turned to walk away with a flirty swing to her hips. He watched her go, his eyes tracing the shadow of finger-shaped bruises on the back of her left upper arm. It looked like one of her customers had gotten a bit grabby.

He shifted around impatiently, trying to find a comfortable position on the dark floral print chaise lounge. He adjusted his sword so the hilt wasn't digging quite so painfully into his hip and sighed heavily.

He had been waiting for Dragon Knight for a long time and he was more than ready to leave.

After another ten minutes, he stood and strode toward the last direction he had seen Dragon go. There was a flight of stairs and he had to walk passed closed doors behind which there was the muffled sounds of raucous laughter. He couldn't help the surge of distaste, but it wasn't like it was any of his business.

Reaching the top floor, he came to the best room in the house and he had not a single doubt that Dragon Knight was inside. The man had an eye to the finer things.

Sighing heavily, he rapped his knuckles sharply against the door. "Are you finished yet?"

Dragon's voice floated to him from the other side, "Come in."

Kameris grabbed the doorknob and held it for a long moment before he got up enough nerve to open it. He kept his eyes aimed straight ahead and used his peripheral vision to make sure Dragon Knight was presentable. Embarrassing him was something Dragon would find hilarious.

To Kameris' relief, Dragon and his three companions were covered. It didn't even look as though they'd done anything of a sexual nature. They were sitting cross-legged on the bed playing cards and sharing a bottle of wine.

Dragon Knight gave Kameris a rather saucy smile and swallowed the last of his drink. "Have you come to join the entertainment? We have a rousing game going here."

Kameris shook his head, his hair flipping wildly. "I think it's time for us to go."

Dragon Knight raised an eyebrow. "Why? We have all night."

"The Duel is in a few days," Kameris said, "and you still have much to do."

"I just have to give out some seals. It's really not that hard." Dragon Knight showed his cards to the pleasure girls and they groaned. One gathered up all the cards and began to shuffle the deck expertly.

Kameris crossed his arms. "I don't think you're treating this situation with the seriousness that you should."

Dragon laughed. "I think you're taking things far too seriously." He reached into his pocket and pulled out three seals, carelessly tossing them one by one into the girls' laps. "There you go, darlings. Now you lovely ladies are invited to the greatest event of our lifetimes. Each of you are allowed one guest."

A blond girl clutched her seal to her generous bosom with a delighted squeal. She had a sweet face and large blue eyes with a fringe of lashes that made them seem guileless. "This is wonderful! Thank you, milord, all the other girls are going to be so jealous."

"There, you see?" Dragon said to Kameris. "It takes but a moment, just like all the really important choices in life." For a second his expression tightened and his eyes were dark. "There is no reason to fret, dear friend. I will fulfill the duty my Emperor has bade me, and all of the seals will be given out before the Duel."

The curly brown haired girl that had been shuffling the cards had laid them down by her thigh and held her seal up in front of her eyes, watching the way it spun and twirled. "So this came straight from the hand of the Emperor himself?"

Dragon snorted. "And who did you think you were entertaining?" Then he laughed and winked at Kameris, who blinked once before sighing and shaking his head. That was the kind of childish humor Dragon Knight appreciated.

The girl blinked large eyes made larger by kohl. "You must be really important."

The last girl made to slap her for her impudence, but Dragon stopped her with an upraised hand. She subsided with a poison-glance at the girl and busied herself by drinking her wine. Kameris couldn't help admiring the graceful line of her neck and the short black strands of her hair.

"You must be new to the city," Dragon said quietly.

The brown haired girl started to nod, then visibly stopped and straightened her shoulders, her chin firming decisively. "I've been here long enough. I finished my training and everything."

Kameris winced when he saw the glint of cruel displeasure in Dragon Knight's eyes. He'd only ever seen it a couple of times, and both times things hadn't ended well for the person that put it there.

"Politeness is a trait it would do you good to possess," Dragon's voice was chilly.

"I don't understand," the girl said, cocking her head.

Dragon Knight stood up. "No, I don't think that you do. Why don't you go back with your dear sisters here," he waved at the other girls, "and learn what they have to teach you. I should not like to see you interacting with gentle company until you do. There are many out there not nearly so kind as I."

The girl still looked confused, but Kameris felt it was time to step in. "Dragon, we really should go. It's getting late and I would like to sleep in my own bed tonight."

Dragon Knight looked at him for a long moment, his eyes cast in some inner shadow, then he nodded briskly. "Give me a moment to make myself presentable and we can go."

Kameris gestured at the door. "Why don't you ladies get out of here? We really don't need any distractions."

The blond the girl, the oldest of the group, bowed to him and gathered up her shawl before bustling the other two toward the door. "And my lord," she nodded toward Dragon Knight, "I will make sure Shereith receives some further instruction."

Dragon grunted. He buttoned his shirt, then pulled on his jacket, his movements precise.

The girl didn't seem to expect much more than that. She just bowed her head gracefully and left with the others, the door clicking shut behind them.

"That was Entiera," Dragon said.

Kameris furrowed his brow. "And why are you telling me this?"

"Because I know that you never remember any of the girls' names," Dragon said. "Entiera isn't like that; she's a girl to remember. She has a good head on her shoulders."

Kameris' mouth made an "o" when he finally got what Dragon wasn't saying: Entiera was part of Dragon Knight's spy network. Which meant she was much more than a pretty face and maybe this evening hadn't really been that much of a social occasion for Dragon.

He winced. "I'm sorry I interrupted your evening." And ruined your operation, went unsaid.

Dragon shrugged, then resettled his sword belt. "There's no reason to fret. I am a wonderful customer and I have no doubt that Entiera will see me again in the future. I daresay she would never even consider turning me away." He walked toward the door. "Come on, let's get out of here. I suddenly have an overwhelming desire to seek out the welcome warmth of my own bed."

Kameris followed him out into the hallway and down the stairs to the main floor. They passed door and the sounds of laughter and lovemaking. Music played to cover the sounds, but it was too soft.

"I hate to force my preference upon you, but I honestly like Lady Meris' place better. At least she has better music and the walls are a bit thicker," Kameris said, holding the outside door open for Dragon, then following after.

Dragon laughed, his mood lightening as they stepped out onto the street and into the cool night air. "I never thought the day would come when you would have an opinion on pleasure houses, well, one that you would say aloud at least. You have always been so moral in your objections."

Kameris frowned. "What's put you in such an odd mood?"

"'Odd mood?'" Dragon raised his eyebrow. "This is how I've always been."

"You don't seem as though you've been drinking, but you seem to be in a strange mood." Kameris followed Dragon Knight's hurried footsteps down the darkened street, the lamp lights barely touching them. "If you have something you need to say, you know you can count on me to listen and help if you need it."

"I promise you, I'm fine. Thank you for needlessly worrying and trying to be a good friend. But I am fine." Dragon slowed to match his speed to Kameris. "I just have the strange feeling that something bad is going to happen."

"You haven't heard anything though?" Kameris asked.

"No," Dragon said, "there's been nothing. I just have a strange feeling, a creeping chill. And how can I possibly use that to justify put the palace guards on high alert?"

"You think it's that serious?" Kameris scratched his chin.

"That's the problem," Dragon shrugged. "I feel as though something is going to happen soon, but I don't know when it's coming or even what direction it's coming from. I can easily handle someone attacking straight on, but I don't do well with surprises."

Kameris eyed him for a solemn moment, then slapped him on the back. "Then I guess the world is doubly blessed for Vedran's existence. Once for being our might Emperor, and again for being the brain behind your brawn."

Dragon swiped a fist at him, but laughed. "You always seem to know what to say to break up my sour moods. Thank you."

Kameris slung his arm over Dragon's shoulders. "You're such a silly little man. Now come on, let's hurry up. It's a bit chilly out here."

"I guess winter is on the way," Dragon said.

"Must you remind me of the least favorite season?" Kameris groaned. "Gods, but I hate being cold."

"Baby," Dragon laughed.

"Hey, I know you think it was nothing, but I almost died. I fell through the ice and it was the worst cold I've ever felt and I almost died." Just the memory made him shiver. "I've never forgotten it, and I will always hate being cold."

"And that is why I'll always love you," Dragon said.

"What do you mean?"

Dragon smirked, his teeth shining in the darkness. "You're a grown man that honestly believes he's the person in the world that hates the cold the most." He lowered his voice to a whisper, "You're not the only one. But you are the lucky fool that gets to spend the winter months in the lavish comfort of the palace."

"Nepotism, that's all that that is. If I were not Vedran's friend... to my awful country estate I would go. And I would shiver out the winter, miserable and alone." Just thinking of his country estate sent a jolt of psychosomatic horror through him when he remembered a childhood of drafty corridors and irritated loneliness.

"But you don't have to do that, so why do you complain so much?" Dragon asked. "There are many that would kill to spend winter being pampered at the palace."

"Alas, that is why I weep," Kameris swiped at an imaginary tear under his right eye. "Not for myself, but for the poor peasant folk forced to face the true rigors of winter." Seeing Dragon's twisted expression, he laughed and dropped the act. "Honestly, I just hate the cold. And I miss the sun."

"Snow is beautiful," Dragon tipped his head back to look up at the clear sky, the moon swathed by a thin ring of clouds, "but I miss the sun too. Flowers seem a lot more colorful when they first bloom after winter. I don't think I would enjoy spring so much, if winter wasn't so bleak."

They reached the palace gate and the guard let them through with a nod.

Kameris glanced up just at the right moment and caught a shadow in the window of Vedran's private chambers. He might have been worried, but when the shadow turned and moved away, he recognized the way the body moved as the Emperor himself.

Glancing at Dragon Knight, he saw that the other man hadn't noticed Vedran in the window, and once again he felt honest pity for the most powerful man he knew. To have everything except the one thing he truly desired: love. It really was a pitiful thing.

He had to wonder how Dragon could be that entirely oblivious. Then he thought, But that's Dragon Knight. He can be completely ignorant of some of the most commonplace things.

He knew that Dragon was an orphan and had spent some time on the street. A boy of gentle birth somehow left to fend for himself in a semi-hostile world. He had had no family to teach him and had learned everything he knew as a child from whatever he could pick up on his own, which had left him far too knowledgeable about the darker sides of life, yet woefully ignorant of the things every child should know.

The first time Kameris had met Dragon, he had seen a young ragamuffin with a startlingly beautiful face under a mass of rain-colored hair and green eyes that wordlessly begged for someone, anyone, to love him. Dragon Knight had possessed a somehow mature beauty that had metamorphosed into a more grown up handsomeness, but at the time he could have been an incredibly pretty girl down on her luck, begging to be saved. Kameris still remembered the shocked regret he'd experienced when he'd realized that Dragon was a boy.

"What are you looking at?"

Kameris twitched at Dragon's demand and hurriedly looked away, though he couldn't help smiling at his own foolishness. "I think I had one too many drinks. It's put me in a mood."

Dragon snorted. "Well, focus your attentions elsewhere."

"You're certainly very sensitive tonight, aren't you?" Kameris quirked his eyebrow.

"The same as I am every night," Dragon said. He flashed Kameris a sudden bright smile. "Race you!"

Stunned by that unexpected flash of beauty and the childishness of the demand, Dragon Knight already had a good lead on him by the time Kameris chased after him. "Cheater!"

Dragon laughed, his boots clattering on the cobbled street as he ran with an easy grace Kameris could only envy. There were some times when it was hard to believe Dragon Knight was merely human. He seemed like some mystical being.

Kameris ran after him, his belt jangling around his waist. It felt almost like it had when they had truly been young and carefree. The only thing missing was Vedran's effulgence, and having seen him standing at his window waiting for their return, he wasn't really missing at all.

The air was thin and cold around them, but their laughter was bright and full even as they shushed each other playfully.

Stepping away from the window, Vedran gave a heavy sigh. He'd been unable to stay in his bed until he was certain that Dragon and Kameris were home safely, but now that he'd seen them return he felt exhaustion falling over him, pulling him down.

His weary steps had him stumbling as he walked back to his bed and laid down, pulling the covers over him. His eyelids closed and this time there was nothing to hold him awake.

He drifted off beneath the tiger lily bedspread. And Dragon Knight was waiting there in the eternal summer of his dreams.