One velvet glove a tale.., p.1

One Velvet Glove: A Tale of The King's Blades, page 1


One Velvet Glove: A Tale of The King's Blades

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One Velvet Glove: A Tale of The King's Blades

  One Velvet Glove

  A Tale of the King’s Blades

  By Dave Duncan

  Five Rivers Publishing

  Five Rivers Publishing, 704 Queen Street, P.O. Box 293, Neustadt, ON N0G 2M0, Canada.

  One Velvet Glove, Copyright © 2018 by Dave Duncan.

  Edited by Dr. Robert Runté.

  Cover Copyright © 2017 by Jeff Minkevics.

  Interior design and layout by Éric Desmarais.

  Titles set in Dauphin Normal and Oldstyle serif font used for titles.

  Text set in Gramond Regular released in 1989, it was designed by Robert Slimbach for Adobe Systems, based on a Roman type by Garamond and an italic type by Robert Granjon.

  All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of the book.

  Publisher’s note: This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Published in Canada

  Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

  Duncan, Dave, 1933-, author

  One velvet glove : a tale of the King’s Blades / by Dave Duncan.

  Issued in print and electronic formats.

  ISBN 978-1-988274-32-4 (softcover).—ISBN 978-1-988274-33-1 (EPUB)

  I. Title.

  PS8557.U5373O54 2018 C813’.54 C2017-904680-2 C2017-904681-0

  I dedicate this book to the fans who have read and enjoyed all my previous books about the King’s Blades and have begged me for another.


  Book One: Death

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Book Two: Love

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Book Three: Chance

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Book Four: Time

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  At the start of Lord of the Fire Lands (Book Two of the Tales of the King’s Blades series) a Blade hero, Sir Spender, brought back to Ironhall the swords of two Blades who had died defending their ward. Spender himself had been grievously wounded on the same mission. He never reappeared in any of the later stories, so details of this tragedy have never been published.

  New information having now come to light....

  Book One: Death

  Chapter 1

  He had grown old and lame—and also fat. His beard had faded to white and he rarely ventured out of the palace. Yet, like a wounded bear in a cave, he was still dangerous.

  Having ruled Chivial for over a third of a century, Ambrose IV no longer went galloping like a madman through the royal forests in pursuit of venison, or paced his workroom barking dictation at his secretaries. Gone were the masques and balls that had once made his court sing and sparkle. Most evenings he settled quietly in his withdrawing room, where he would not be disturbed, made himself comfortable in his oversized and thickly padded chair, put his sore leg up on a stool. There he might listen to a minstrel or fiddler; or reminisce with an old crony, although those were dropping like fall leaves now, one after another.

  Quite often he would discuss important business with Lord Chancellor Roland. That way no one else need know that the royal eyesight had faded until he must have everything read to him. The idea that Lord Roland had a wife and family and might like to see them once in a while probably never entered the royal head. If it did, it was not allowed to stay there for long.

  But one unseasonably hot evening he had an appointment, a duty that he could not delegate to any man. It would be a sad reminder of former times, of friends cast off and forgotten—even of decisions that might have been hasty and ill-advised, but could never be recalled, and so must not be discussed.

  A diffident tap on the door heralded the arrival of Sir Dauntless, the new commander of the Royal Guard, leading in three other Blades. Ambrose had always honoured his swordsmen, or at least flattered them that he did, so he heaved himself out of his chair and rose to his full, imposing height, hiding aches and stiffness with a fearsome, piggy-eyed smile.

  All four of the newcomers were tense and nervous—Dauntless because it was less than a week since he had been appointed Leader, and he had not done this before. He saluted, and indicated the first of his white-faced followers. “Sire, I have the honour to—”

  “No need to introduce them, Commander!” Ambrose growled, in the husky residue of a voice that had once boomed like a great bell. “I know Sir Trusty as I have known every Blade who has served me in the last half century, and I am grateful for his many years of service. Your sword, Guardsman.” He held out a huge plump hand.

  Many times the king must have watched Blades whine and plead when faced with this terrible moment of release, and for a moment it seemed as if Trusty would refuse the royal command. He handed over his sword obediently and sank to his knees, but his reluctant fingers took a shamefully long time to open his doublet, unbutton his shirt, and pull them both back to uncover impressive shoulders.

  The king raised the sword that he once had driven through Trusty’s heart in the conjuration that had bound him, but this time he merely used it to tap those husky shoulders: right and then left. “I dub thee knight in our Loyal and Ancient Order of the King’s Blades. Rise, Sir Trusty.”

  Trusty blinked in momentary confusion as the conjuration that had bound him for the last ten years faded away. Then he rose, smiled, stepped back, and bowed. The king passed the sword to Commander Dauntless, for only a bound Blade might bear arms in the royal presence.

  “May the spirits favour you, and lead you to long life and prosperity,” Ambrose said. “And my doughty Sir Sharp...”

  The ritual was repeated, word for word.

  “And Sir Rhys...” But when that third Blade had been dubbed, the king said, “Our blessings go with you also, Sir Rhys. We have not forgotten Sir Spender and we honour him still. Give him our regards. You have our leave, gentlemen.”

  The king watched them go and the door close. He sank back into his chair with a sigh for the passage of years, for memories of all the terrified youngsters he had skewered in the Forge at Ironhall, for the few who had died for him and for the fortunate majority who had lived to be released and given their lives back, like these three. Now he could sit and watch the candles burn down until he saw t
hat it was a respectable hour for him to summon Scofflaw to help him into bed. Until then he thought of old, unhappy, long-ago things.

  Spender? That had been the year he was tied up in the Nythia campaign. He had never gotten the whole truth out of that boy... Not a boy any longer. Might be a good idea to keep an eye on what his son did now. King Ambrose reached for the handbell that was always within reach.

  When an alarmed footman’s face appeared around the door, the king growled, “What kept you? Tell my secretary I want him. Yes, I mean Master Kromman, you idiot. Find him. I want him now!”

  A bear in a cave.

  Back outside in the anteroom, Dauntless returned the precious cat’s eye swords to their owners—True to Sir Trusty, Speedy to Sir Sharp, and Dragon to Sir Rhys. Then he shook their hands.

  He said, “Good luck, lads. Now you can go and get drunk.”

  Thus was the milestone passed.

  Dauntless had not mentioned the one last duty his three former subordinates owed to the Guard, but he had earlier warned the court haberdasher of the three men who were to be dubbed that evening, and new clothes in their respective sizes had been laid out, waiting for them in trade for their Guard uniforms—respectable, quality garments, fit for belted knights to wear into the unfriendly world outside the court.

  In each of King Ambrose’s palaces, there was a place where only Blades ever went, a lair in which to gossip, gamble, and drink ale. Sharp, Trusty, and Rhys were still Blades, but they were no longer Royal Guard, and to enter that noisy, yeasty lair that evening in civilian clothes would be to advertise the chasm that had so suddenly opened between them and their brethren. They would be greeted with a complex mixture of envy, horror, and sympathy, leading to a painful blend of celebration and wake. It was unthinkable. Without discussion the three free men headed instead to one of the mess halls where lesser mortals fed and quaffed—clerks, officials, secretaries, and such like.

  They found a shadowed corner and ordered ale, two tankards apiece. Intoxication might be in order, an intriguing state that none of them had ever explored, because the magical oath that bound Blades did not allow them to become drunk. Even when they were off-duty, a mild buzz was the best they could achieve before their beverage began to taste like sewage. That restriction no longer applied to dubbed knights. They clanked pewter together in a toast and poured ale down their throats in a wild demonstration of their new freedom. Then they put the tankards down and looked at one another rather sheepishly, as if wondering why the world seemed to have changed so little.

  They were all cast in the standard Blade mould—average-sized men, trim and agile. Trusty and Sharp were both thirty, Rhys was two years younger, which made him the odd man out, but the others hadn’t noticed that yet. Sharp was slightly taller than the others, and Trusty was heftier in the chest and shoulders, a natural sabre man. Rhys was the smallest, although not by much, and notably the fastest. All three were superb fencers, but he was outstanding, having won the King’s Cup in 379 and 383.

  He was amused to note the costumes the other two had chosen. Sharp was flaunting red and green, and the feather in his hat was almost as long as his rapier. Trusty had gone for unobtrusive grey and browns. Rhys himself had chosen blue, because although he had jet black hair, his eyes were an intense blue; several girls had told him how well the Guard’s blue livery set off his eyes.

  Boys admitted to Ironhall were allowed to choose a new name for themselves—within reason, for many thirteen-year-olds had gruesome imaginations, and Grand Master would veto anything too outrageous. Trusty had chosen his from the approved list, saying that it would give him something to live up to, and he had done so, for he was placid, solid and steady, a man who never been known to raise his voice in anger. In fact, he rarely had need to, for his face was scarred, one corner of his mouth being curled up to expose his left canine. Combined with his extra brawn, that let him look unusually menacing when necessary. The disfigurement predated his stay in Ironhall. Wounds there were not uncommon, for even button-ended foils could do damage in fencing practice and seniors usually practiced with real weapons, but Master of Rituals would swiftly organize a healing conjuration. Even his skills could not remove old scars, though.

  Sharp, by contrast, was fidgety and outspoken, always ready with an opinion on anything. He liked to be in charge, and had fancied his chances of being appointed Leader after Crenshaw was knighted, but Ambrose had chosen Dauntless. That might be why Commander Dauntless had taken the first opportunity to send Sir Sharp packing.

  Predictably, he was the one to start the conversation. “So what are you two planning for tomorrow and the rest of your lives?”

  “Two buxom dollies and stay in bed till noon,” Trusty said.

  “The dollies could be a problem,” Rhys warned, and they all sighed. Blades staunchly believed that their bindings made them irresistible to woman, and most would offer personal testimony to that effect. Increased freedom to drink was a poor exchange for liberal wenching.

  Trusty raised his tankard. “To the good old nights!” All three took another slurp of ale.

  “We need to find profitable employment,” said Sharp. “Failing that, honest employment.”

  “I recall Grand Master telling us that old Blades never starve,” Rhys said.

  Sharp snorted. “But some of them end up eating Ironhall food until the day they die. We could try Old Durendal,” he added, in a disrespectful reference to His Excellency Earl Roland, Lord Chancellor of Chivial. “He can often find jobs for relics like us. He tucked Crenshaw into bed as sheriff of Wayeshire. How about chief guard for some rustic earl? Husband for a lovely young heiress?”

  “Prison warden somewhere?” Rhys suggested. “State executioner?” He faced two angry scowls. “That would still be better than going back to Ironhall to teach snot-nosed sopranos which end of a sword they’re supposed to hold. What are you planning, brother?” he asked Sharp.

  “I don’t know. That’s why I asked you two turnips. You?”

  “I’ll be heading north, to Squires Willow, near Ambor.”

  “Why?” Sharp demanded. Trusty would not have asked.

  “Because I have family there.”

  “Most Blades would rather forget their families,” Trusty said philosophically. “And vice versa.”

  Sharp frowned at Rhys. “What are you doing here at all, sonny? The king bound Trusty and me on the same day. He was the Brat when I was admitted. I might add that he promptly turned into the worst sadist in living memory.”

  “I’d been Brat for six horrible weeks!” Trusty said. “I had a lot of suffering to avenge. You were Brat for only eight days, although a particularly odious one.”

  “But young Freckles here,” Sharp said, indicating Rhys, “was two years behind us. He was bound two years after us. We’ve both served out our decade. Why are you being thrown out already, baby brother?”

  Trusty grunted as he saw the discrepancy, but it was Sharp who said, “Well? Why?”

  Here it came. “Because I asked to be released.”

  The other two stared at him in shock. No Blade ever wanted to be released from his binding. Most were happy afterward, but to ask for it was unheard of, because the binding conjuration itself was an enormous motivation against it. Sharp’s divided loyalty had almost made him weep when Dauntless told him he was to be dubbed.

  Sharp said, “You did? And the Fat Man agreed?”

  Rhys nodded. “He must have done. Dauntless just said he’d ask.”

  Sharp glowered. “He asked, but then he added us to the list! So it’s your fault that we’ve just been chopped?”

  Rhys shrugged. “I might have shortened your careers by a week or two, brothers, but no more than that. You know Leader is trying to cut the Guard numbers. Ambrose doesn’t need guarding anymore. He never goes anywhere. He wouldn’t even go to Ironhall to bind the seniors if he didn’t have to d
o that in person.”

  Sharp asked, “What was it that Fat Man said to you at the end there?”

  Rhys sighed again, more deeply this time. “That he hadn’t forgotten Sir Spender. He’s listed in the Litany of Heroes.”

  “I remember. A private Blade, bound to some lord.”

  Rhys nodded. He was both amused at his companions’ puzzlement and annoyed at the interrogation. When a man has kept a secret for more than half his life, he doesn’t like to have it dragged out of him. On the other hand, he might have a very nasty problem ahead of him, in which case these two could be of considerable help.

  “Spender was bound by Lord Bannerville when he was appointed Chivian ambassador to Fitain. He already had two Blades, but it was a tricky posting, so the king awarded him a third. They got caught up in a civil war. Bannerville’s Blades brought him out alive, but Burl and Dragon died. Spender survived, badly wounded. When he could walk again, he Returned the others’ swords to Ironhall.”

  “He’s listed in the Litany and yet he’s still alive?” Trusty looked shocked at this breach of tradition, although death was not a compulsory requirement for hero status.

  “He earned every word of it!”

  “You named your sword Dragon, didn’t you?” Sharp said. “So what’s the connection?”

  “Spender is my father.”

  Even more shock. “A Blade the son of a Blade? Never heard of that happening!” Trusty said. “But he’s alive, you say, so you’re no orphan. He threw you out? You must have been a hellion and a half.” Ironhall admitted only the rejected and the hopeless.

  “Just a fool kid,” Rhys said. “He was a great dad when he could spare any time for me, but an only Blade has to spend every minute guarding his ward. I was too young to understand, and I suppose I resented it. As soon as I was old enough, I walked out and headed for Ironhall to prove I was as good a man as he was. If I’d had the brains of a squirrel, I’d have taken four times as much food with me and waited for springtime.”

  “I remember that!” Trusty said. “The butcher wagon found you on the moor and brought you in, looking deader than the beef. They rushed you to the elementary and conjured you back to life.”

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