Taken from Times of Change the second book in Fortune's Fools and volume two of Transgressor Trilogy by E.M. Swift-Hook.
He was waiting in the courtyard for his pony to be brought to him when an excited shriek of glee made him turn. A small human cannonball with vivid golden-red hair threw itself at him and wound thin arms around his neck.
“Tell me a story, tell me a story!” The Most Honoured Princess, the Lady Karlynne Roussal looked up into his face and repeated her demand more insistently. Durban was very aware of the nurse, Turla, looking disapproving a few paces away and in deference to her expression he disentangled himself gently and held the heiress of Harkera at arm’s length returning her smile.
“I will, with the greatest pleasure, Most Honoured Lady, but alas right now I am engaged on your Lady mother’s most urgent business.” Karlynne looked so crestfallen he had to soften the blow. “I will be back soon and then I will tell you a story – I promise.” The child brightened, her face like the sky when the clouds have passed.
“I want a story about a young princess who is rescued from an evil demon by a handsome Vavasor,” she told him firmly. Durban felt a strange sensation of fatality and it took more conscious effort than usual to maintain his warm smile as he looked down into the eager face.
“Ah – well in many stories it is an evil Vavasor who kidnaps the young princess, but the princess is so brave she wins free and lives happily ever after.”
Karlynne seemed to consider the idea seriously for a moment then shook her head vigorously.
“No. I want the Vavasor to be handsome and good and brave,” she insisted. “And he must really kiss the princess – really-truly, not just pretend.”
“You are too old to listen to such stories, Highness.” The old nurse had closed the distance between them and she sounded cross. She never approved of Durban’s effect on Karlynne, feeling it over-excited the child and he knew she had protested so to Jaelya. “And decent folk have more important things to do than storytelling anyways.” This last was accompanied by a strong glare at Durban, who merely shifted his smile to embrace Turla as well.
“No one is ever too old for stories,” he corrected gently. “Storytelling is one of the most revered and respected professions amongst the Northern peoples.”
“Filling a young girl’s head with daft tales?” Turla sounded contemptuous. “You just don’t know where that will lead.” It was as close to an accusation as Durban had ever heard.
“You’re not too busy are you?” Karlynne asked oblivious to the hostile adult undercurrents around her. There was a note of genuine appeal in her tone which tugged at his heart. For a moment he saw the world through her young eyes, where the adults she cared most about were always putting her off with the excuse of eternal important events that needed dealing with – things that were obviously so much more important than Karlynne in their lives.
“Of course I am not,” he told her warmly and saw the delight glow in her eyes. “If your Lady mother agrees, then I shall most certainly tell you a story when I have been to Cressida. But right now, I can see you are about to go riding with your friends.”
On the other side of the courtyard a group of ponies was being led out and three girls, all slightly older than Karlynne, were waiting with an escort. As Durban looked across he saw another figure join them from the palace, a young nobleman whom he recognised. The young man exchanged a familial hug and a few words with one of the girls, who pointed across to Karlynne. The new arrival followed her pointing finger and his expression changed instantly to one of rising anger.
“You do promise?” Karlynne tugged on Durban’s arm. He bathed her in his sunniest, most carefree smile and made a slicing action with one finger over his own throat in the childhood gesture and oath of unbreakable commitment.
“I will, I vow, or may I die,” he promised. This seemed to satisfy Karlynne who embraced him tightly, pressing her cheek against his chest before she allowed the glowering Turla to lead her away to join the group of girls on the far side of the courtyard.
Durban’s pony stood waiting and he took the reins from the groom with a brief word of thanks, flipping a coin to the lad, who caught it grinning. He mounted and was turning to leave the courtyard only to find his way barred by the young nobleman, who was now mounted on a superb pony. His face was dark with anger. Durban smiled at him winningly.
“Honoured One, how may I be of service to the Vavasor Ramyth?”
“Stay away from her, Chola,” the younger man snapped. “I don’t know what you are doing here, like some kind of vulture picking over the bones of Harkeran gossip to sell to the highest bidder, or are you spying for Vyazin perhaps?”
Durban took a moment to realise his rhetoric was not, in fact, rhetorical.
“I am here on business for the Regent,” he replied evenly, there was no point denying that. It would be the gossip of the servant quarters anyway by now.
“Spilling your poison in her ears,” Ramyth snarled, driving his mount closer in towards Durban’s making its ears pull back and its eyes narrow. Durban’s pony, placid and mature, ignored the hostility as did her rider.
“I am the Regent’s most loyal servant in all things, Honoured One,” Durban responded smoothly and with total honesty.
“Loyal servant?” Ramyth rasped, his boyish face now puce with emotion. He spat at Durban, the saliva hitting him full in the face. Durban did not flinch. “If the Princess commands your presence you will make your excuses, do you understand? If I find you have been near her, I will cut your vicious tongue from your mouth and have you flogged for the common rumourmonger you are.”
Durban heard him out without response. Ramyth was a Vavasor and himself a commoner – had he been acknowledged as a Harkeran citizen, that would have given him protection under the law. But the ruling Dewan had yet to be persuaded to extend full legal protection to those who were not Harkeran. So, in theory, the Vavasor could carry out his threat there and then in the courtyard of the palace and be fully within his rights to do so. In practice, Ramyth was probably too wise to take such action against one he knew was considered to be of value by the Regent, but his fury was still intense.
“Your will, Honoured One,” Durban said at last. “We are both the Regent’s to command.”
For a moment he thought he had pushed too far as the Vavasor’s hand went to his sword. But then the young nobleman seemed to come to himself and pulled his pony’s head round, too roughly for the highly bred beast, making it buck briefly and squeal in protest.
Durban remained unmoving until Ramyth had ridden out in the wake of the group of young girls and their escort, then he wiped his face. It seemed the Vavasor was making it a personal chore to ensure the Princess had no further unfortunate encounters whilst out riding.