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The Loyalty of a Swordmaster

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Duke Atreides sat paging through the prepared speech on his filmviewer as their groundcar, third in the convoy, exited the ducal compound. Duncan allowed his eyes to drift over his lord’s dark, hawk like features, animated as he silently rehearsed the emotional beats of the speech. Hawat had warned the Duke of an impending assassination attempt and urged him to cancel his speech, or vidcast it from the security of the castle.

“If I cancelled every time there was rumor of an assassination attempt I’d spend the rest of my life hiding in an underground bunker,” the Duke had responded drily. His sole concession to security was to travel by groundcar rather than ornithopter.

Hawat and Gurney's men had cleared the Speaker's House, where twenty generations of House Atreides had heard the petitions of their people. They cleared it a second time, and worked out into the surrounding city. Then they'd cleared the Duke's planned route, and seven false routes from Castle Caladan through the countryside and local villages to the Speaker’s House. Now the Duke’s security was in the hands of Duncan and his men.

Duncan considered the thousands of ways Harkonnen agents might try to kill his Duke, weighing risk factors one against the other. He evaluated the planned retreats, reactions and contingency plans and reassessed them according to what he could see of the weather, crowd patterns, and his own instincts.

A pair of explosions, one directly ahead and the other behind, rocked the shielded groundcar, which skidded to a stop. The Duke had already activated his well-worn shield belt. He drew his dagger, eyes searching the clouds of billowing smoke and dust outside the groundcar.

Ears ringing, Duncan activated his own shield as his mind raced. Where there should be chatter, emergency reports from his men filling the airwaves - dead silence. The comms were down. They'd been bracketed in this precise location. Why? The Duke's groundcar was shielded, built so that nothing but atomics could harm it. Reinforcements would arrive in moments, so why - wait

Nothing could harm a shielded target except a heavy lasgun, resulting in the destruction of both the shielded object and the weapon.

“Out of the car, now, sire!” he shouted, throwing open the door and pushing through the Duke’s shield with practiced slow force to grab onto his arm and pull him out of the vehicle. He dragged the man a few steps before the Duke got his feet under him and began to run. Seconds later the world went white.

 Duncan felt himself tossed into the air by the blast wave; he tucked and rolled before smashing into the ground.  The shield absorbed the force of the blow, leaving him uninjured but disoriented by the sudden change in vectors.  He kept rolling across the ground, trying to make himself an unpredictable target, and then launched to his feet. Duncan froze, peering through the thick clouds of smoke and debris and called out the day’s battle code that would identify him to the Duke and his men.

Seeing a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye, Duncan swayed to the side, avoiding a sword that would have caught him in the back. He pivoted and grinned at the enemy; decades of training had Duncan’s long blade and kindjal dagger already in his hands.

“That’s the only chance you’ll get,” he told the hard-eyed young man in common Caladanian street clothes. A feint, a turn, and a precisely-calculated thrust put the boy on the ground, slowly bleeding out. With any luck Hawat’s men would capture him for questioning. Duncan went searching for his Duke.

The massive lasgun explosion had turned several blocks of the sleepy village into a war-torn battleground that reminded Duncan of Grumann. He came across the body of a civilian, dead or severely wounded, collapsed in a narrow alleyway. He avoided it – his Duke was his only concern now. Duncan made his way carefully over the ankle-turning debris. The rest of the locals had sensibly gone to ground. He caught sight of a candy shop the Duke had often visited with young Paul, the windows broken by the blast. The smoke made it difficult to see, muffled sound.

He had killed two more Harkonnen agents when he heard sounds of a fight. He headed towards the noise, until he could make out the Duke through the haze; the Duke was locked dagger to dagger with a middle-aged woman.  She must have already disarmed the Duke’s long blade. Although she was dressed as a merchant, Duncan could tell at a glance that she was far better trained than the ones he’d dispatched.  She fought like Harkonnen Special Forces, her entire body a weapon. As Duncan watched she nearly hooked the Duke’s feet out from under him – he avoided it, but his dodge brought him up against the unstable edge of the crater from the explosion. If he lost his footing, she would have him.

Without another thought Duncan approached them silently through the heavy smoke. The Duke’s eyes caught the movement and widened. She leapt backwards out of the Duke’s reach, spinning to face the new threat – too late. Duncan’s sword slid between her ribs. She wrenched herself off his blade, stumbled backwards and drew a breath to scream. Duncan’s sword swung down, slowing just enough to pass through her shield, and opened her throat.

Duncan’s flicked his blade to remove the blood before sheathing both weapons. “Did she wound you with the dagger, sire?” he asked his Duke urgently. “It might be poisoned.”

The Duke was staring at Duncan, chest heaving. There was a spatter of blood across his thigh.  “No, not a scratch. I had her!”

Duncan nodded. He noticed the Duke’s sword nearby on the ground and retrieved it.  He offered the long blade hilt-first to his Duke who stared at him for a moment, jaw set, before silently accepting and sheathing it. Duncan couldn’t help but notice that his lord had uncharacteristically sheathed his weapon without inspecting or cleaning it. The sound of an ornithopter and Halleck’s amplified voice guided them to the north, where they were surrounded and separated by the Duke’s outer security personnel.

Perhaps a quarter hour later, Duncan reported to the Duke’s private office. The two men standing guard outside, two of Duncan’s best, exchanged an uneasy glance.

“Careful, sir,” Singh said. “He’s in a mood.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m here about,” Duncan replied. “Don’t come in, no matter what you hear.” He stepped inside and closed the doors behind him with a thump.

The private offices were simple and comfortable, in contrast to the extravagance of the Duke’s public office. Duncan had spent many long evenings here with the Duke, Thufir, and Hawat, discussing and debating and drinking, planning how to keep House Atreides safe.  Duncan stood at attention in the middle of room and waited for his Duke to acknowledge him. More formal than his lord would normally prefer, in private, but Duncan felt he was about to be dressed down by a superior officer for some unknown transgression. The Duke, seated at his desk and still wearing his dirty, bloodstained house uniform, didn’t look up.

The Duke spent a few minutes listening to the reports being issued on his headset, taking copious notes, and then signed off. Duncan, still on high alert, watched as best he could without breaking his stance as the Duke stood up, stretched his neck, and stalked around the desk to stop right in front of Duncan.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” the Duke said cuttingly. There was a vein pulsing in his temple.

Duncan realized, with a sick feeling in his stomach, that the Duke was both running on a combat high and was deeply furious in a way he’d never seen before.

“We’ve tracked down the five Harkonnen personnel involved in the attack. Unfortunately, none of them were taken alive, but –”

“Not them,” the Duke said. “You. You saw me fighting that woman, and you decided to step in and save me,” he said, the sarcasm heavy in the air. “Do you think I’m that weak?”

The hair on the back of Duncan’s neck stood up.  “Of course not, sire, I –” There was a flicker of movement; Duncan instinctively spun away, right hand going to activate his shield while the left drew his kindjal.

The Duke studied him, one empty hand clenched into a fist.

Duncan flushed, ashamed to have pulled a weapon on his Duke. “My apologies, sire,” he said, dropping the knife to the ground and returning to attention. He took a deep breath and let it out, struggling to rein in his own combat reflexes. “No.”

This time Duncan saw the open hand slap coming and held perfectly still for it.

“No, what?” the Duke demanded.

Duncan tasted blood, felt more start to trickle down his cheek from where the ducal signet had cut him. “No, my Lord, I do not think you are weak.”

The Duke’s commanding, disdainful glare swept him up and down. He turned away and strode back towards his desk. He picked up a mug from his desk, one that had been gifted to him by a famous Caldanian artisan. The Duke inspected the piece for a moment, then turned and threw it at Duncan. Duncan dodged aside, heard it smash against the wall behind him, and then forced himself to not resist as the Duke rushed him.

Duncan felt his legs go out from under him as the Duke shoved him to the ground. Then the Duke was straddling him, hands around his neck, choking him. And, oh, that was his Duke’s hard prick pressing into his stomach, rubbing against him. Duncan went limp, growing ever more light-headed, black creeping in from the sides of his vision until all he could see was his Lord’s intense flashing grey eyes.

Then Duncan was gasping in air, choking on it and a rush of euphoria.

“Let me, wouldn’t you,” the Duke was panting, hand frantically working his own hard prick. “You’d let me do anything, anything I – ah!”

Duncan felt a warm splatter, so much thicker than blood, against his neck as he stared, mesmerized, up at his Lord’s face, lost in ecstasy.

I did that, Duncan thought dizzily. I gave him that.

The Duke blinked down at him, opened his mouth as if to speak, and then closed it. He stood up and left the room without a word.

Duncan laid there on the floor, rumpled and sore, the black of his house uniform soiled with another man’s semen.

The Old Duke, his lord’s father, had a reputation for recruiting attractive young Atreidies soldiers for his house guard and using them as entertainment. Hawat had warned Duncan about it, when he recruited him to serve House Atreides. The old man had never bothered Duncan though, not after he’d made his lack of interest clear.

But his own Duke, he had never – it wasn’t really perversion, though. Blowing off steam, that’s all it was.

And this wasn’t so bad. Duncan had taken plenty of more painful punishments in training. The Duke was always so careful, in public. Careful to be honorable, and brave, and kind. For him to show this side of himself to Duncan … to let go and be angry, lustful, even cruel… it was an honor to be so trusted. An honor to be able to serve his Duke in this, as in all things.

Duncan clambered to his feet, then retrieved his kindjal from where he’d dropped it to the floor and tucked it back in its sheath. He cleaned up in the Duke’s fresher. Duncan distracted the two concerned guards outside the Duke’s private office with a dressing-down for staying here guarding the office when they ought to be guarding the Duke himself after an assassination attempt. Then he changed into a fresh, high-necked uniform, checked in with Hawat for the latest intelligence updates, and went back to work. Three hours later he was summoned to the Duke’s public office.

The Duke looked exhausted. He had changed into his most formal house uniform, as if speaking before the Lansraad, and was seated behind the massive ducal desk from which he recorded vidcasts to broadcast to the populace. Earlier Duncan had been honored by an intimate glimpse of his Duke as a man; that man was gone now, hidden behind the untouchable Duke Leto Atreides I of Caladan. The Lady Jessica stood in her Bene Gesserit robes, still and silent, behind him.

They’d decided some years ago that this pose, echoing that of the Emperor and his Bene Gesserit wife, provided a significant psychological advantage for in-person meetings with adversaries and unreliable allies. It was dizzying, being suddenly placed in the position of a potential enemy to the House he had sworn his life to serve.

“Swordmaster Idaho,” the Duke said, “House Atreides is grateful for your many years of loyal service. We will be releasing you from your oath, and will proffer the highest recommendation to any House or corporate interest you choose to serve in future. In return, we will require an oath, sworn on your Blade, that you will remain silent regarding the –” his lips tightened briefly, “- the circumstances under which you choose to leave our service.”

Duncan controlled his breathing as he would to handle a great deal of pain. He had lived many places, but Caladan, at his Duke’s side - that was the only home he’d ever known. “No, sire.”

 “You refuse to swear yourself to silence on this matter?” the Duke said gravely.

“No I, …” Duncan went to his knees as he had when he’d first sworn to serve his Duke. “I’ll swear, if that’s what you want, my Lord. I’ll go, if you command it. But I do not, I will never choose to leave your service.”

The Lady Jessica leaned forward and whispered to the Duke.  The Duke listened to her and then stood up, walked around the massive desk, and approached Duncan where he knelt on the rug. “Duncan, I’m honored beyond measure. But what I did today … I went far beyond the limits of the service your oath requires of you. There is no excuse for it. I can only offer you my apology, and my own oath that it will never happen again.”

Duncan, still on his knees, stared up at his Duke. Duncan could accept this, and nothing would change. Or he could risk everything for a chance at something more. Duncan hadn’t become a Swordmaster through a desire to play it safe.  “What if I want it to happen again?”

The Duke took a half-step backwards. “If you seek a Lord who will abuse you, there are a number I can recommend,” he said coolly.

Duncan wished he had Gurney’s gift with words, to explain and persuade. He had only himself, body and soul, to offer up to his Duke.  “It’s not abuse. Not if I want it. You were powerful. You took what you wanted. I liked that,” Duncan explained.

And it was true, Duncan had liked it. He hadn’t gotten off on it, not in the moment. But he had liked being able to give his Duke something he needed, something no one else could. If it only ever happened the one time, he’d be getting himself off to that memory of his Duke taking his pleasure for the rest of his life. There was nothing wrong with that, with wanting to serve his Duke.

“Hmm,” the Duke said, his shoulders relaxing from the trained posture he always held in public. He sat on the corner of his desk, more natural, more himself than Duncan had seen since he entered the room. “Is this … desire something you’ve acted upon in the past?” he asked delicately.

“No, sire. I only want it from you,” Duncan answered honestly, and saw a sudden answering heat in his Duke’s eyes.

The Duke licked his lips. “Jessica?” he said, and his consort glided across the carpeted floor to curl into the side of his body. The two held a quiet conversation. Duncan caught his own name, several times, but little else.

Duncan moved to stand up.

“Stay,” the Duke snapped.

Duncan dropped back to his knees with a shiver. His knees started to ache – the carpet was elaborate and expensive, but not very thick. Duncan let his thoughts drift, lost in the hope that perhaps, perhaps he would be allowed to serve his Duke in this way.

Sometime later he found himself staring at the Lady Jessica's shoes.

“I won’t tolerate a rival, Duncan Idaho,” she said.

Blinking, Duncan let his gaze move up her robes to her face. The Bene Gesserit were renowned for their serenity. Duncan had long recognized it as a mark of their combat-training, although he’d still not been fully briefed on her capabilities for close protection of the Duke and his heir. Her hands were hidden within her robe. Whether they held a weapon or not, the Lady Jessica’s current stillness told him she was prepared for battle.

“I’m no threat to you, my Lady,” he said, responding to her body language as much as her words, knowing that the Lady Jessica would see it if he lied. “I’ve no desire for wealth, or power, or any station beyond what I’ve already earned here.” His throat hurt as he swallowed.

“No, you desire him. Why should I permit this?” the Lady Jessica asked, as if honestly curious.

Duncan glanced hesitantly past her to the Duke, who had moved to the far end of the room. He stood staring out the massive window at the sea of Caladan, giving his consort and Duncan some privacy for this … interview.  Duncan raised his hands to the buttons of the high-necked uniform he’d chosen to wear this evening, unbuttoned them one by one, and displayed his throat. “Do you want him to do this to you?”

She took her time inspecting and cataloging the damage. It had been long enough for the bruises to come up heavy and dark. The bruise over his cheekbone and the cut from the Duke’s signet, those could have come from fighting off the Harkonnen assassins, if he'd been careless enough to allow one of them through his shields. But the finger-shaped bruises around his neck, those were unmistakable.

“I do not,” she finally, quietly, answered.

Duncan nodded. “And he knows it. So he won’t ever hurt you this way. He won’t be rough with you, or domineering, or cruel. And that could have worked but he – he’s ashamed of it, of his own desires. He can’t afford that kind of weakness. And with me, he doesn’t have to. I’ll never blame him for it, never expect anything more, and I’ll carry his secrets to the grave.”

“Love can appear in the strangest forms,” Lady Jessica said. She shook her head, not in denial but in wonder. “The Old Duke would laugh,” she murmured before continuing. “Very well. I have no objection,” she announced to the Duke, her voice loud and regal.

The Duke turned away from the window, strode across the room, and joined his wife in staring down at Duncan. He saw the marks he’d left on Duncan’s skin and flushed. Duncan suspected he was caught between embarrassment and the desire to make more of them.

The Duke cleared his throat. “I’ll send Yueh to tend those injuries. I’m sure it goes without saying, but we will need to be discreet.”

The Lady Jessica laid her hand on the Duke’s arm. “And you will be wildly indiscreet when it comes to your pursuit of the local women. Is that clear?”

“Yes, my Lady,” Duncan answered immediately.

And so it began. Students of history know that Duncan Idaho would indeed take his beloved Duke’s secrets to his grave – and beyond.