When Dealing with Dragons
M/M, Fantasy, Romance
[50 Pages / 12,200 Words]
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When Prince Ercole Calistro's royal parents summon Sir Marion Rook to hunt a troublesome dragon, Ercole is prepared to hate the man on sight. He doesn't care that Rook turns out to be handsome and infuriatingly likable. Superficial charms are meaningless in a man cruel enough to kill a dragon who hasn't even hurt anyone.
When Rook returns from his quest bearing gifts, Ercole wants no part of them. He refuses to share in the spoils of a grievous wrong. Bad enough he failed to sway the king and queen from this course; he has no intention of befriending the sword arm they hired to enact such an injustice.
But Ercole's slights aren't met with the anger he expects. And when Rook admits a dangerous secret, the prince realizes he may have misjudged the old knight after all.
The knight arrives two weeks later, and he is not what Ercole expects.
From the stories about this proud and powerful warrior—and there were plenty circulating through Castle Calistro even before people learned the most lauded knight errant of Vos Cosmas would be coming to Danna—Ercole anticipated a man of daunting stature. He expected elegant armor, an arsenal of weapons, a massive steed, a vast entourage worthy of his reputation.
But Sir Marion Rook arrives alone, riding a tired and unremarkable horse. He carries only what fits in two saddle bags and a heavy traveling pack, plus a single sword at his hip. The sword is well made, but it hardly seems enough. Rook's armor is light and simple, scuffed with years of damage that even the most skillful metalsmith clearly can't buff and shine away. He wears no helm, and his boots are caked with mud.
Despite a still-smoldering rage at the purpose behind Rook's summons, Ercole is present to join the official greeting in the castle courtyard. He stands at the very end of a lineup that includes the entire royal family, and watches in quiet fascination as Rook alights from his horse without bothering to hand anyone the reins.
His movements are surprisingly graceful for such a stocky build. He follows the line of royals, from queen to king to eldest princess—offering a customary bow and greeting for each.
With so many sisters, nieces, nephews before him in precedence, Ercole has ample time to study the new arrival while he awaits his turn. Rook is older than he expected—forty or fifty by the look of him, which is surely older than most men in his profession hope to survive. He seems out of place amid the finery of an extravagant court and intricate architecture, though he moves with the easy confidence of a man who refuses to be bothered by this fact. His skin is deeply tanned, and his closely trimmed beard glints silver in the high morning sun. A vivid white sickle-blade of a scar stretches from temple to jaw on one side of his face, and a subtler scar at his throat twines up from beneath his burnished and battered gorget.
When he at last reaches the end of the line, a smile twitches at the corner of his mouth, and Ercole can't decide if Rook is laughing at him. Clever energy shines in the deep umber of Rook's eyes, and it's disconcerting the way he seems to size Ercole up with a glance.
All of this passes so quickly as to go unremarked by anyone else in line. Ercole's own expression doesn't change. He is here because ceremony demands his presence. He has no intention of offering this man a warm welcome. Better to stand impassive and accept the ceremonial greeting without reply.
It's only after the royal lineup has dispersed, Rook returning unhurriedly to his horse, that Ercole begins to wonder if he has misjudged the man. Rook's horse has remained docile and patient through the entire ritual, and she nuzzles her human with whuffling affection when he takes her reins in hand. Ercole is too far away to decipher the words he croons in answer, but there is no mistaking the affection in that tone, or the soft kindness that touches his dark eyes.
Perhaps Rook doesn't yet know why he's been summoned. Surely a man capable of handling his horse with such care—of smiling at such a simple creature with those infinitely kind eyes—won't be capable of harming a dragon whose only crime is existing at the edge of settled territory.
The official audience and announcement will wait until morning, after Rook has time to recover and rest from his long journey.
Ercole does not intend to spy on Castle Calistro's newly arrived guest. But curiosity twists and rumbles inside him, and he finds himself watching Rook from the shadowed corner of his favored parapet. The stable yard is directly below, and the outer wall of the keep beyond that, and Ercole can't explain even to himself why he is so fascinated with a complete stranger. He has this stretch of wall utterly to himself, no guardsmen in sight.
It's not an especially good hiding place, visible from both the ground below and from further walkways and parapets above. But it provides solitude enough. He comes here to think, and to be alone, and aside from Rook—dressed down to tunic and trousers now, no armor in sight—who is far too busy brushing down his horse to bother glancing up and catching Ercole watching in any case, no one will notice or interrupt him here.
Almost no one, he has to concede, as familiar footsteps tramp heavily toward him along the stone rampart.
"Go away," he says, to the one person he can trust not to compulsively obey his every command.
"Only if you tell me why you've been in such a foul mood," counters Dane Quist, captain of the Queen's Guard and youngest military advisor to ever serve the Calistro line. He sounds as cheerful and flippant as ever, and when he reaches Ercole's side, his towering bulk is enough to block out the sun. "What are you doing out here, anyway? Shouldn't you be on the training field at this hour?"
Ercole huffs a dismissive sound and folds his arms over the stonework of the wall before him, leaning forward in what he hopes looks more like an idle pose than a fit of pique.
Dane remains quiet just long enough to lull Ercole into a false sense of security, before murmuring in a wry tone, "I suppose he's handsome enough, if you favor the brutish ogre sort."
"He's not an ogre," Ercole protests, immediate and instinctive, and only registers a moment later that he could have—should have—pretended not to know who Dane was talking about. That he is still staring down at Marion Rook in the yard below. Too late to save face, but he still mutters a belated, "And I do not find him handsome."
"Don't you?" Dane counters, smooth voice turning the question into something light and teasing.
Ercole glares at him, long and hard, but when he returns his attention to knight and horse, something has shifted. New feeling twists in Ercole's stomach, anxiety and anticipation and something else entirely, and he realizes Dane is right. He finds Marion Rook handsome, and desperately fascinating, and suddenly he is praying more fervently than ever that Rook will refuse the court's commission.
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Cover design by Yolande Kleinn