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The worst-kept secret of Duke Leto Atreides' court is this: his sword-master and his new concubine hate each other.

...well. Jessica isn't so new, having been at his side for just over a year now, but she’s still being called that by many as a reminder of the precarity of her position, her inherent replaceability, until she cements her position at his side by giving him an heir.

And it's not hate, exactly. More a cool antipathy, an aversion to spending time in one another's company, though they'll speak pleasantly enough to one another when their paths cross in mixed company. Those that seek to deepen the divide or use it to their own ends are given enough rope to hang themselves before the two close ranks around their Duke, protecting him from the ill-advised intrigue.

For Duncan’s part, he's wary of Jessica, as he feels all ought to be of a Bene Gesserit witch. She was hand-picked by the Reverend Mother herself for the Duke as a sign of Imperial favor, but Duncan trusts the Emperor as much as he trusts the Reverend Mother, which is to say: not at all.

Meanwhile, Jessica resents Duncan’s continued distrust of her, sign and symbol of her outsider status among the more established members of the Duke’s court. If she cannot win his most valued men’s respect, what good can she be at Leto’s side? She's painfully aware of her vulnerability, far from the Bene Gesserit cloister she was raised within, for all that her training had been rigorous there.

They reach a detente. And in that time, they each watch the other with the keen eyes of their respective kinds, warrior and witch, waiting for a moment of weakness.

Until.

 

* * *

 

“I think Duncan would do anything for you,” Jessica says to Leto one night, as they undress for bed. He stands behind her, unlacing her dress with nimble fingers, and she twists to catch a glimpse of his expression.

His face is carefully neutral as he replies, “Have you had reason to think otherwise?”

“Not once,” she tells him. “He would eat the Baron’s heart raw, if you asked it of him.”

Leto laughs. “Are you angling to send him to some front against our enemies?”

“The opposite,” she says. His hands go still in the small of her back, and she can feel his breath against her spine. She suppresses a shiver, willing herself from the distraction of his proximity. “I’m to travel to Kaitain next week.”

“For a month, yes. I’m sorry I can’t go with you.”

“You’re too popular among the Great Houses,” she reminds him. “Your attendance will be seen as a threat. I may be your representative, but I’m only a concubine. My presence will remind other Houses that you’re still eligible for marriage. I’ll be more free to maneuver on your behalf.”

“...you know I’ve no intention of taking a wife,” he murmurs after a pause. His hands slip into the open back of her gown, sliding over her skin to curve over her hips.

She leans back into his touch, allowing herself a moment of weakness before returning to the matter at hand. “But while I’m away, if you should find your bed too cold in the evenings…”

He gets her meaning immediately, and his hands clutch at her hips convulsively. “Do you take me for a Harkonnen, to abuse those loyal to me in such a way?” His voice is low, a prelude to anger, and she turns to face him.

No,” she says, framing his face in her hands and kissing him gently. “Only that Duncan is to be trusted, and I’ve seen how he looks at you. You wouldn’t be taking anything he wouldn’t gladly offer, if you gave him an indication it was welcome.”

Leto’s brows are still drawn, but quizzical instead of angry now. “Why would you suggest this? Neither of you can stand the other.”

She smiles, a slow, sure smile now that Leto hasn’t denied his own interest. “Perhaps I want him indebted to me,” she replies. It’s close enough to the truth.

“You wouldn’t see him as a rival?”

She shrugs, letting her dress drop to the floor in a heavy pile of brocade, gratified to hear her Duke’s breath catch. “He can’t give you what I can.” She leans in and kisses Leto again, lingering. “But he’s welcome to give what he is able.”

The conversation becomes somewhat diverted after that.

 

* * *

 

Duncan first notices that something's changed when he arrives in the Duke’s office to give his weekly report to find Jessica there, too. Until today, they've been scrupulous about ceding space to each other, minimizing the time they must keep up appearances. It’s as close to deference as they ever show each other, each recognizing the boundaries of their respective territories, and he hasn’t seen her here since they worked out the rules of their unspoken truce.

What’s more, she greets Duncan warmly when he arrives, rising from her perch on the edge of the desk to clasp him by the hands and kiss him on the cheek.

That is… unprecedented, outside social functions when they present a cordial face to onlookers. But there's only the three of them here, no audience to play for.

It raises all the hair on the back of Duncan's neck, but he musters a smile and a pleasant greeting nonetheless.

“We were just discussing my trip to Kaitain,” she says, with a significant glance at the Duke.

“Did you want me to accompany you, Milady?” Duncan asks. He has already suggested it himself — for her protection, he told the Duke, but privately, he wants to keep an eye on her movements, who she meets with, what she does when their Duke isn't watching. The Duke had vetoed it, but if she's likewise in favor, Duncan may not have to rely on the too-few informants he has among her retinue.

“Oh, no, that’s not necessary,” she says, laughing. “Gurney and his baliset will be companions enough. Only—” she leans in to drop her voice conspiratorially, her hand on Duncan’s arm. “—Leto may neglect himself while we are gone. Will you see after him for me?”

“Jessica...” the Duke grumbles, but fondly.

Duncan doesn’t tell her that it’s redundant to ask this of him, doesn’t remind her that he pledged himself to the Atreides almost as soon as he graduated from the Ginaz School, so impressed was he by the Duke, and that his loyalty has never wavered since. He doesn’t say that, no matter what else Fate has in store for them, he knows he will die serving his Duke with a blade in his hand, and he’ll do so without a qualm.

“It's my pleasure to serve,” is all he says, giving her a slight bow.

If she sees the rest in his eyes, she keeps her own counsel about it. “Excellent,” she says, squeezing his arm before letting it go. “I’ll leave you two to your business, then.” She goes back to the Duke to press a kiss to his brow. “I’ll see you at dinner.” And then she sweeps away, with the air of someone who’s just checked off an item on her itinerary and has more arrangements to make.

“She’s in an… interesting mood,” Duncan comments carefully after she’s gone.

The Duke gives him a rueful smile. “She’s meddling. She knows very well I can take care of myself without her.”

“Well,” Duncan muses, “you do have a Great House to manage — it’s up to the rest of us to make sure you remember to eat in the meantime. I can appreciate her enlisting help for that.”

“I think I like it better when you two aren't in accord,” the Duke grumbles. “And speaking of having a Great House to manage…”

 

* * *

 

They send Jessica off with all due ceremony. In her hands, she clasps a small gilt coffer, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and containing seaweed salt drawn from Caladan’s oceans, as a gift for Lady Anirul Corrino, the Emperor’s wife. It’s not the only gift she brings with her, but it is the one she will hand-deliver herself, the Lady of one planet and Great House to the Lady of the Known Universe.

It has not escaped Duncan’s notice that both women are Bene Gesserit.

The Duke and his concubine embrace warmly, their affection legible in the way their chaste good-bye kiss lingers, their hands reluctant to part. It’s not unseemly, but if any enterprising women in the Court have plans for the Duke during Jessica’s absence, they must surely be dashed by the display.

“Watch over her, Gurney,” the Duke says, clasping the hand of his Warmaster next. “And watch your own back, too.”

“Aye, sire,” Gurney says with a grin. “We’ll try not to shed any blood for you… on this trip!” The Duke laughs and claps him on the shoulder.

Duncan would tell Gurney to watch Jessica, too, but with different intent behind the words. But he doesn’t need to; he trusts Gurney implicitly in this regard. Instead, he leads the honor guard salute for the departing group as Jessica’s slim figure disappears amidst the crowd of her retinue, the flash of the green lace scarf that covers her hair a bright pennant in the wind coming from the shore.

Later that night, Duncan dreams that he’s running in the deep forest that blankets the largest mountain range on Caladan: stony, mist-shrouded peaks rise far above and wild greenery surrounds him. Every now and then, he catches a glimpse of storm-blue eyes watching him from the brush, and knows not whether they belong to predator or prey.

He wakes, heart pounding, with his blade in his hand.

It takes him a long time to fall asleep again.

 

* * *

 

Duncan is too high ranking to be assigned a standard patrol, but he walks the hallways of the Palace several times a day regardless, checking in on those on watch. One evening, he’s drawn into a card game with some off-duty guards and allows himself to be fleeced lightly before retiring to pace his familiar circuit through the corridors.

The door to the Duke’s chambers is open, golden light spilling out onto the ancient wooden floors. Duncan considers slipping past, not bothering the man, but the promise of spending a moment with his Duke holds greater appeal.

He remembers Jessica’s request, and shakes his head about the fact that she thought it was necessary to ask.

Duncan knocks, and his Duke answers, “...who is it?”

“It’s only me, Sire,” Duncan says, stepping into view.

“Ah, Duncan,” the Duke says, expression brightening where he sits at the table. Duncan's chest twinges at his smile, an old affliction he's long since made allowances for. “Come in. Any news to report?”

“Nothing of note,” Duncan says, then notices the food laid out. “...I didn’t mean to interrupt your meal.”

The Duke shakes his head. “No, it’s all right. Have you eaten?”

“I was going to, after my patrol.”

"Do you have someone waiting for you?" The Duke's eyes are dark and warm in the light from the hearth.

"No, Milord," Duncan says. He's had his share of lovers, to be sure — discreet dalliances, here and there, but never any that stuck around long enough to merit a routine engagement. "I have no plans this evening, if you have need of me."

"Need, no," the Duke says. He sits back in his chair. "But I always welcome your company, Duncan."

Duncan blames the fire in the hearth for the warmth that suffuses him at such a simple declaration. "I'm glad to hear that, Sire. I'm always glad to provide it."

"Then stay with me for dinner. And—" the Duke pauses, uncharacteristically hesitant. "—as late after that as you are willing."

Duncan blinks. Is he suggesting—?

"They bring me more food than one man can eat," the Duke says, gesturing to the lavish spread before him. "And, as I said, I enjoy your company." His eyes are patient, but there's an uncertainty there, too. As if he's afraid he's overstepped.

As if he doesn't know how hard Duncan's heart beats in his chest at the mere possibility

"I will stay, my Lord," Duncan manages. "I serve at your pleasure, always."

"No," the Duke says, eyes sparking with urgency. He lifts his hands and wrenches his signet from his finger, setting it aside on the table beside his cutlery. "Call me Leto, when we're like this. And it's not merely my own pleasure I intend to have served tonight." He smiles then, a little. "I’m not asking as your Duke. You may stay, or go, as you will."

Duncan swallows hard, considers his next words carefully. “Were you not my Duke, I would not stay,” he says at last, then holds his hands up placatingly at the Duke’s fallen expression. “Not out of fealty, but for how you have won it. Your kindness to your people, your justice in your rulings, your strength on the field… They're a part of you, and I wouldn't separate them from the man sitting before me any sooner than I would give up the blade I’ve sworn to your service.” He steps closer, drops to one knee, grasps the hand the signet belongs on. “For all of that, I will stay, until you send me away.” He presses his lips to his Duke’s knuckles, and feels Leto’s other hand come to rest on his shoulder, thumb stroking the bare skin above his collar. He shivers at the touch, in anticipation of more.

“We should have dinner first, I think,” Leto murmurs. “Despite how tempting a picture you make right now.”

Duncan slants a sly smile up at him. "I could stay here, and you could feed me from your plate."

That startles a laugh out of Leto. "Just as you wouldn't change me as I am, I'd ask that you not change yourself for my sake." He cuffs Duncan gently on the ear. "You're not my dog, and I won't treat you as one."

"Appreciated," Duncan says, bracing his hands on Leto's thighs to rise back to his feet, gratified by the hitch he hears in his Duke's breathing as his thumbs curl along the fine seams in his trousers. "Though I won't complain if I find myself on my knees again."

Leto's gaze is dark and heavy, promising. "Dinner first," he repeats.

Duncan takes the seat at Leto’s right and helps himself to a plate. The servants have indeed brought a surplus of food, more than they both can eat in one sitting, though they attempt to do justice to the chef’s considerable skills.

Talk meanders through pleasant, insignificant matters — Duncan tells Leto about the pranks that the troops have pulled on new recruits, most of which he's turned a blind eye to, as they're generally harmless. In return, Leto shares a few anecdotes from his time at flight school. The old Duke had insisted he be given no special favors, and his fellow pilots had embraced that directive with enthusiasm.

Dinner turns to dessert at a ring of a bell, small layered pastries with fresh fruit and sweet cream, a light dusting of melange and a small flake of gold leaf crowning each. Brandy is served in crystal snifters, and Leto breaks out his private stash of small, hand-rolled cigarillos, wrapped in rich brown leaves that have been soaked in centuries-old whiskey, as they speak of the old Duke, lost friends, and former lovers.

Duncan almost forgets there's anything else in store for the evening besides good food, strong spirits, and the rolling tenor of his Duke drifting through the air alongside the cigar smoke — the spice must have been the more potent stuff, reserved for Leto, fuck, Duncan hasn't had that much of it —

—when Leto stands and holds out one hand, question in his eyes.

"Yes," Duncan says, and then, "hell yes," taking Leto's hand and hauling himself to his feet, staggering a half step with the alcohol and the spice in his head.

"Whoa, there," Leto says, bracing Duncan with strong hands on his shoulders, "maybe—"

Duncan cuts off whatever well-meaning deferral Leto has readied by kissing him, sure and steady. "Will you order me gone?" he murmurs to his Duke. "Because I said I would stay until you sent me away."

"No," Leto exhales raggedly against Duncan's cheek. "Ah, Duncan, what have I done to deserve you?"

"Don't say that until I have my mouth on your cock, Milord," Duncan says with a grin.

That earns him a curse and a kiss, deep and desperate. "No titles," he reminds Duncan. "Just Leto."

"Leto," Duncan says. "Take me to bed."

They discard their clothes as they go, a layer at a time, hands roving appreciatively as skin is revealed. Duncan can't resist running his fingers over the firm, sleek muscles of Leto's chest; Leto bends to press reverent lips against each scar Duncan has earned in his service, already knowing their stories.

They tumble into bed, and Duncan pushes Leto back against the sheets to make good on his promises, trailing teeth and tongue down over Leto's body until he gets his mouth on his cock.

The melange and the brandy lets the world drop away in a haze, leaves nothing but the taste of Leto on Duncan's tongue, the feel of Leto's hands carefully — so carefully — threading through Duncan's hair where it's coming undone from its queue, the sound of Leto's voice going raw and desperate as Duncan takes him apart.

"Duncan, oh Duncan," Leto gasps. "Wait, wait—"

Reluctantly but obediently, Duncan draws away, resting his cheek against Leto's furred thigh as he catches his breath. There's a mechanical click, and Duncan tenses on instinct, looking up to see Leto reaching into a hidden drawer beside the bed.

"Will you have me, Duncan?" Leto asks breathlessly, pressing a vial of oil into Duncan's palm.

Oh. Far be it for Duncan to turn down such an earnest request from his Duke. He nods, throat too dry to speak, and watches Leto roll onto his stomach, baring the elegant line of his back, the dip at the base, and the firm swell of his backside below.

Leto has had his share of spice and drink, and yields easily to Duncan's tongue and fingers, his moans muffled by the folded arms he rests his face upon, his strong thighs quaking around Duncan's shoulders. "Please," he gasps at last, and Duncan rises from his pleasant work, tugging at Leto's hips.

"On your knees, Sire," he says, and Leto exhales shakily in what might be a laugh.

"Use my name, Duncan." But he gets to his elbows and knees obligingly nonetheless.

"Leto," Duncan breathes, planting a kiss to his Duke's shoulder. "Leto." And he lines himself up and presses in and in, seating himself fully in one long smooth glide. "Leto," he says, with as much reverence as he has ever used the title, winding his fingers with Leto's and beginning to move with slow, sure thrusts.

Time stretches and coils around them as their bodies roll and surge, point and counterpoint, and Duncan loses himself in the tight heat of Leto's body, the way his hipbones fit under Duncan's hands, the bunching of Leto's shoulders as he braces himself. Duncan drags his open mouth against Leto's spine, tasting sweat and spice and smoke.

"Harder," Leto commands, "I won't break," and Duncan laughs, a little wild, and redoubles his efforts until his Duke is moaning with every thrust, arching back to meet him. If there are any servants still clearing away the last of dinner, there must be no doubt as to what's happening here, for all that the door to the bedchamber is closed and locked.

Duncan slides a hand down between Leto's legs to find his cock, full and hard and leaking. He strokes in time with the movement of their hips. "Come for me, Sire," he says, voice rough. "I want to feel you come apart."

"Duncan," Leto groans, and his cock pulses in Duncan's hand, wetness spilling through his fingers to stain the fine silk sheets below them. Duncan follows his lord over the precipice shortly thereafter, burying himself to the hilt and shuddering at the tight clench of Leto's body as aftershocks rock through them both.

They disengage and collapse to catch their breath, legs still tangled in the coverlet they'd sloppily shoved aside in their earlier haste. After a few long, companionable moments, Leto twists to retrieve the vial and replace it in its drawer, opening another latch and pulling out a cigarillo and a lighter.

"We're going to have to try that again," he says, after taking a drag, his words casting eddies in the smoke he exhales.

Duncan props himself on one elbow, grinning. "Oh?"

Leto fixes him with a faux-stern glare. "And as many times as it takes for you to say my name when you spend."

Duncan laughs, and steals the cigarillo from his Duke's fingers to inhale his own mouthful of smoke. "That might take some time," he admits.

Leto grins at him, lazy and well-fucked, his hair a messy tangle of waves on the pillow. "We'll take all the time we need."

"What about Lady Jessica?" He hates to bring her up, but while he's sure she wouldn't object to a one-time dalliance — nobility have their own rules for such things, beyond Duncan's ken — a recurring affair might be seen as a threat to her own position, tenuous as it is.

"She's already given her blessing." Leto watches Duncan's face as he says this, as if wary of his reaction.

Duncan lifts his eyebrows. "Is this what she meant when she said I should see after you for her?"

Leto chuckles. "Well, you did also ensure I ate a proper dinner tonight," he points out, and Duncan laughs with him this time.

 

* * *

 

Over the next few weeks, they don't let their passions rule their schedules overmuch, but Duncan is surprised at how much time Leto is willing to spare for their intimacy, now that the option is there. When others are about, the Duke still treats Duncan with the respect and gruff fondness he always had, and Duncan likewise refrains from broadcasting his new relationship with his liege, to prevent court gossip as much as they are able.

But when they're alone, Leto doesn't hesitate to close that distance to initiate embraces that quickly turn heated, doesn't stop Duncan from crowding him against furniture for long, stolen kisses.

One evening abed, Duncan reaches into the drawer for the oil and finds that he's not the only one who's had Leto on his knees. He lifts out a velvet harness and an ivory phallus, both accented with gold, and raises an eyebrow at his Duke.

Leto chuckles. "I am very fortunate that my Lady's tastes are so complimentary to my own."

Despite himself, Duncan can picture it, Jessica's bronze hair unbound and hanging free to brush Leto's chest as she bends over him, pressing his legs apart and back…

He puts the equipment away and focuses on the man before him, attempting to banish the images from his mind.

He thinks about it later, though.

 

* * *

 

The night before Jessica's due home, Duncan is dozing in Leto's bed when he hears noises in the outer chamber and startles to full alertness. Leto runs a soothing hand down his spine.

"Relax," Leto murmurs, "it's just the advance team preparing for Jessica's arrival. Unpacking her wardrobe and such. They know not to intrude here."

"Still." Duncan sits up and swings his legs out of the bed. "I should probably go."

Leto's arm snakes around Duncan's waist, and his short beard scratches lightly against the small of Duncan's back. "Stay." Tempted, Duncan considers that this might be the last time for a while that he might be able to spend the whole night.

It's like this — seated on the edge of the bed with Leto curled around him, both of them wearing nothing but a sheet — that Jessica finds them, when she opens the door to slip inside. "Oh," she says, not sounding surprised at all. "Good evening, Duncan. Is that Leto behind you?"

Leto lifts his head to peer around Duncan's body, keeping his arm where it is. "Jessica! You're early." His voice is warm and welcoming, unabashed at being caught with his lover like this.

"I bribed traffic control to let my shuttle land in the first wave," she explains, stripping off her crimson gloves and veil to lay them aside on a table. Uncovered, her hair glints in the low light as she crosses the room. "I wanted to surprise you. But I didn't mean to intrude."

"I'm the one who's out of place," Duncan says gruffly, gathering his wits and his will to leave, but she stops him by stepping in front of him, blocking his exit.

"Nonsense," she says. "Did Leto not tell you that you were welcome in our bed?"

Our bed, she says, as if her claim is equal to the Duke's.

"I'm grateful to you, Duncan, for doing me the favor of caring for the Duke in my absence," she says, laying a hand on Duncan's cheek. "It would be rude of me to summarily expel you after such service." Her fingertips trail down, tilting his head with a gentle press against his jaw, and land on his neck, where the Duke had bit him earlier. "...he does like to leave his mark, doesn't he?" she muses idly. Her other hand reaches for the high collar of her gown, unfastening a few buttons deftly to bare the long, graceful line of her throat. There, at the base, Duncan sees the faded remnant of a love bite. "He gave me this to remember him by, before I left. He was quite… thorough about it."

Leto huffs a laugh against Duncan's shoulder. "I didn't hear you complaining," he retorts.

"Never," she says, smiling. Beneath her delicate fingers, Duncan's pulse hammers; he feels like a prey animal, trapped in a snare he'd noticed too late, so tempting was the bait.

"I should go," he says again, jerking away from her and extricating himself sideways from between them, Leto's embrace leaving a trail of warmth on his skin. "I don't want to intrude on your reunion." He grasps for his clothes and his dignity as he flees.

"Duncan—" Leto says, but Duncan's out the side door before he can hear the rest, pulling on his clothes as hastily as he can in the empty private corridor, face burning, pretending that his ears aren't straining to hear the faint click of a drawer opening.

 

* * *

 

They have a large dinner party to welcome Jessica back from her travels; those in the Atreides court who stayed behind are eager to hear what news she brings from the Emperor's homeworld. Duncan confers with his spies beforehand to hear of any suspicious business she had there. There seems to be none, save the private audience she had with the Revered Mother on her first night on Kaitain.

What they plotted together, he shudders to think.

Jessica seems to have behaved with perfect propriety the entire time, though, her every hour accounted for, her every spent credit tracked neatly, her every meeting — save the one — conducted with at least one chaperone present.

It doesn't escape Duncan's notice that every chaperone or group that accompanied her included either Gurney Halleck or one of Duncan's agents, as if she had known who the latter were and wanted to make sure Duncan heard of her impeccable comportment.

It makes his blood boil, this game she seems to be playing with him.

He puts on a cheerful attitude for the party, though, and keeps an eye on her the whole time. She stays close to Leto's side, both of them in deep green and black, House Atreides' colors. Her dress is heavy velvet, hanging off the shoulder and draping all the way to the floor, where the jeweled clips on the toes of her slippers wink in the light. Her long hair is bound up in a series of intricate braids, accented by black pearls on platinum hairpins.

If Duncan looks closely, he can see the ghost of a mark on her throat, mostly hidden behind the ropes of black pearls that coil there. He tries not to look too closely, too often. Tries not to imagine Leto's warm mouth on her, his beard scratching against her skin as she tips her head back and—

Duncan tries to distract himself. There's a very pretty young noblewoman, some relative of the Duke's by a marriage three generations back, who's seated next to him at the high table. She laughs at Duncan's jokes and listens rapt to his tales of battle, and her own contributions to the conversation are… not as dull as he dreads at these kinds of formal affairs. When he takes her on a turn around the dance floor, she makes an admirable partner, responsive and enthusiastic. She even lifts her voice to accompany one of Gurney's tunes when invited to do so, and her singing is sweet and clear.

Duncan applauds when she's done, noting the flush in her cheeks and sparkle in her eyes as she meets his gaze. He raises his glass to her with a smile — until his neck prickles with the awareness that he’s being watched. He scans the room, pretending idleness, and finds Jessica looking back at him.

She tilts her head and whispers something to Leto, and now they’re both staring.

Duncan recognizes the expression on Leto’s face; were Jessica not there, he would understand it as an invitation. With her there, keen calculation in the glint of her eye, it feels like an ambush. He looks away, asks the girl beside him to dance again.

He goes to bed alone.

 

* * *

 

Duncan spars with Gurney, on afternoons when they’re both available and present in the Duke’s palace.

“You’re distracted today,” Gurney tells him.

Duncan lands a palm strike to his sternum, and Gurney grunts, taking two steps back. “How can you tell?” he asks. “I’m actually kicking your ass, for once.”

Gurney huffs a laugh. “Blindness can take many forms other than the inability to see,” he says, quoting the Orange Catholic Bible. He strolls over to the shelf by the wall for a bottle of water, and drinks deeply. “Do you want to talk about it, or do you want to keep taking it out on me?”

Duncan looks away. “...what do you think of Lady Jessica?” he asks after a moment. It’s not the first time he’s asked Gurney this, but it’s been some time since he last inquired, and he wants to know if Halleck’s opinion has changed.

“She’d make a good Duchess, if she had the bloodline,” Gurney tells him. "As it is, she'll serve well enough. I think her affections for the Duke are genuine." He frowns, thoughtful. "She seemed… lonely on Kaitain. As if she missed him. I do wonder why she hasn't given him an heir yet, though."

"Maybe that's not why she's actually here," Duncan replies.

Gurney laughs. "You really are determined to stay sour about her, aren't you?"

"She's spent her whole life with the Bene Gesserit, and only a year with us. I think caution is wise, in her case."

Gurney nods. "I can understand that. But just because you didn't forge a blade, that doesn't mean you can't wield it for your own ends." His scarred face creases in a smile. "And I think it's safe to say that our Lord is adept with whatever weapon is at hand."

Duncan fights the heat that rises at the back of his neck. He knows Gurney is not speaking from personal experience — his tastes lie elsewhere — which means that Duncan and Leto have not been as discreet as they could have been.

A thought occurs to him. "...do you think I speak out of jealousy?"

Gurney shakes his head. "No more than a compass needle is jealous of the stars in a sextant's lens. Neither you nor Jessica are truly the masters of the course this House is set upon, but I can see why you'd each be concerned about the other's input." He claps Duncan on the back with one broad, calloused palm. "We'll find out if we're steering true eventually — and ‘till then, all we can do is prepare for any outcome."

"That's awfully cryptic and dour, Gurney, thank you," Duncan replies dryly.

"Well, last time I tried quoting cheerful poetry at you, you threw a plate at me," Gurney says, then tilts his head. "Then again, we were both deep in our cups at the time…"

Duncan laughs. "It was a good party, wasn't it?" It had been a wedding, but he doesn't remember whose. Some highborn that ranked enough for the Duke's presence, certainly.

"Indeed it was." Gurney’s smile is fond - he’s thinking of the dark-skinned rebecha player he’d slipped off with at the end of that night, no doubt. “And soon enough, we’ll be celebrating a new heir, his birthdays and eventual wedding, and all this fretting will be ancient history.”

"May it be so," Duncan replies, meaning it. As little as he likes Jessica, she and the Duke are a handsome pair. They'll make a fine son, and if he inherits half his mother's wits and half his father's wisdom, the House will be in good hands.

Gurney leaves with a casual salute, humming an old seafaring song, and Duncan starts gathering the weapons they'd been using. When he looks up again, he spots Jessica standing in the doorway.

“You two gossip like old maids,” she observes.

He refuses to feel ashamed, no matter how much she’s overheard. “You clearly don’t know many soldiers. Between battles, on watch, there’s often little to do but talk.”

She levels him with a look. “I know of battles. On different fields, perhaps, but I have my own weapons.”

He acknowledges this with a nod, then turns to pick up a dagger from the table. “How are you with real blades?” He flips it around so that the point is in his palm and sends it flying across the room to lodge in the doorway beside her.

Jessica doesn’t flinch, just turns and calmly draws the dagger from the wood. “Would you care to find out?”

Duncan looks her over consideringly. “Wearing that?” Her clothing is slate blue today, a long raw silk dress flared from the hips and slashed from knees to hem at the sides so that her dove-gray underskirts flash through with each step she takes. The edges are thick with embroidery, silver thread and tiny iridescent gemstones weighing it down. Its only benefit is that it has no sleeves, allowing for freedom of movement if she discards the matching shawl looped around her arms.

Jessica looks down at herself. “You’re right,” she says, and steps out of her heeled shoes, losing four inches in height as she kicks them away. The scarf drops into a glittering pile atop them. “That’s better,” she says, and paces across the room smoothly to face him in her stocking feet, unshielded.

Duncan watches her take a ready stance. It's a simple one, shared by many disciplines because of its effectiveness, and so gives nothing away of her knowledge. He gets a dagger for himself and salutes her in Atreides fashion, foregoing his own shield as well. She inclines her head a fraction.

They circle each other silently; he feels like he's staring down a coiling serpent, her motions sinuous and smooth. He wonders what she sees in him: a bull, perhaps, like the one that killed the old Duke? He must be twice her weight, with greater strength and reach, but she does not shrink when he feints, testing her defenses. She simply pivots, stepping inside his guard, and aims a blow at his jaw that he dodges.

They engage in earnest, after that. His first thought is that she's fairly competent, quicker than he expects, encumbered as she is by her clothing, but her responses are more practiced than intuitive, as if she's spent a long time training and none in the field.

Jessica gets a few good strikes in, though, one slashing his sleeve. “Why do you hate me, Duncan?” she asks as he inspects the tear and finds a slight, stinging cut beneath.

“I don’t hate you,” he says, going on the offensive. “I just don’t trust you.”

She dodges, moving like mist in the wind. “Have I ever betrayed Leto? Have I ever lied to you?”

Counterstrike, parry, twist. His blade ends up at her neck, just below her chin. Their gazes lock. Her eyes are a stormy blue, narrowed with focus.

"Why haven't you given the Duke an heir yet?" he asks.

She blinks, takes a step back. "If I gave him a child too soon, he would only see me as an incubator."

"—and you aim to be more than that," he finishes for her.

"Nothing is more important than the legacies we build for the future. You have the army you've built for the Duke. I will have a child to raise, to carry the weight of their bloodline. I must be trusted with the task."

"So the plan is to control the House by conditioning the heir?" He lunges at her, disarming her with a blow to the back of her hand, and her dagger skitters off to the side of the room as she pivots to kick him, missing his skull by centimeters.

"You think too small," she says, catching his forearm as he strikes at her again, pressing her fingers into the nerve cluster in his wrist so that his own blade falls away. He steps into her grasp, hitting her with his shoulder to back her up a few paces. "I have no intention of controlling House Atreides."

Do the Bene Gesserit mean to challenge the Emperor's rule? Leto's gaining popularity among the Landsraad, House Corrino has no male heirs yet, and given another generation of careful maneuvering…

Duncan doesn't voice his suspicions, just tucks them away in the back of his mind. "Good," he says instead, shaking his hand to offset the tingling sensation that lingers in his fingertips. "Because I would stand against you if you tried."

She acknowledges this with another nod, one between equals. "As would Leto." She looks away, admits in a quieter voice, "...and Leto's regard ranks more highly than I expected." She shifts to a ready stance again, this time one he's unfamiliar with.

Duncan grins at her. "He does have that effect, doesn't he?"

Jessica takes the offensive this time, and halfway through the next exchange of blows, he catches himself enjoying this. She's a better opponent than he initially credited, and there are few — save Gurney and Leto — who can rouse such enthusiasm in him for simple sparring.

Too late, he realizes that she's using the swirl of her skirts to hide her footwork. Her ankle hooks around his at a crucial moment and he falls backward, grasping at her waist with the intent to throw her as he tumbles. She shifts her weight and lands astride him, her thumbs pressed against the nerve clusters in his shoulders.

If he tries to move, she will deaden the feeling in his arms, rendering them useless. If she moves, he will be able to reverse their positions and pin her.

A stalemate.

Moving is the farthest thing from his mind. Her thighs cradle his hips, her body is sweetly curved beneath his palms, and her bronze hair is coming loose from its pins, one lock trailing along the arched line of her neck.

“What must I do for you to trust me, Duncan?” she asks, voice quiet.

“Is that all you want from me?” he asks, heart pounding. “My trust?”

“I want us to get along,” she says, shifting minutely atop him. He can feel the heat of her body, even through their clothes. He wonders if she can feel him half-hard beneath her, roused by their exertions and proximity. She bends low, storm-blue eyes fixed on his. “I want us to work together.”

He takes a deep breath, trying to gather his wits. This close, he can smell her perfume, something sweet and spicy, like the honeyed cider they drink at Midwinter, when the nights are long and the palace windows are thick with frost. He exhales raggedly. “...to what end?”

Her hands leave his shoulders, slip up the sides of his neck, cradling his jaw. “To serve our Duke,” she replies lightly, as if it’s obvious.

Duncan surges beneath her, rolling them both so that she’s pinned beneath him. "Do you think it would serve him or his reputation for us to be found like this?" he grits out through bared teeth. “Does he even know you’re here?”

Jessica’s arms wind around his shoulders. "I keep no secrets from our Duke," she says, smiling.

Duncan doubts that very much. "Does he know?" he asks again, insistent.

"I will tell him," she says, rising enough that her breath whispers across his own lips. "He’ll be glad to hear that we've… resolved our differences."

Duncan can picture it clearly, since it's a sight he's all too familiar with: the witch whispering in the Duke's ear. Who knows what web she will spin with her words. He will have to offer his own explanations, his own apologies.

"I still don't trust you," he says.

Her laugh gets muffled against his mouth.

This is not the first time his body has responded to someone his mind has classified as an opponent, but this is the first time he's been so overwhelmed by the urgency of it. There’s a broad choker of cloth around her slender neck, stitched with small carved chips of iridescent shells, and he pulls it away for better access to her skin, finding Leto’s mark already there. He presses his own teeth to that spot, feeling the vibrations of her answering moan through her skin, through his lips.

Her breast fits perfectly into his palm. He feels like a thief. They are both thieves, stealing this moment for themselves, their Duke working unaware in his office in another wing of the Palace. Duncan tries to imagine what Leto would say, were he to walk in on them like this, and fails utterly.

Jessica’s hands slip beneath Duncan’s shirt, pulling the tails free of his trousers and skating over his waist, his ribs, his spine, trailing heat as they go. In retaliation, he rucks up her skirts, running his palm over the soft curved line of her leg, finding the ribbon garter of her stockings and the silky-smooth skin above it.

She’s not wearing smallclothes. Duncan pulls away, catching his breath. Did you plan this? he wants to ask, but one of her hands drifts to the front of his trousers, kneading lightly, and he has to bite his lip to keep from moaning too loud lest the guards in the hall hear them. It’s pointless to ask anyway; she probably prepared for any outcome before she walked in the room.

He wonders if she came here equally willing to leave him bleeding as she left.

Then again, it could have nothing to do with him at all; it could be how she prefers to dress. Or how Leto prefers her to dress. That is no difficulty to imagine: Leto, with his easy affection, pushing Jessica back against his desk until she's spread out like a feast, —

The sharp pain of her fingernails digging into his shoulder brings Duncan back to himself. "Do you want to stop?" she asks.

"No," he says fiercely, and bends to kiss her again.

Duncan stays focused on her, after that. It's not difficult to do, their bodies finding an easy give-and-take as in the sparring they'd done earlier. He sinks his fingers into her slick heat, and she yields with a shuddering sigh; she frees him from his trousers, and he muffles his groan against her neck.

He blames her perfume for distracting him when she finds a way to twist beneath him, shoving him to his back so that she can sink onto him, rocking her hips in minute increments until he’s fully sheathed inside her. Her skirts pool around them both like a crashing wave, jewels sparkling like droplets flung up into the sun. He surges beneath her like the tide, and her body rolls in time as she rides the current that carries them both.

Duncan wants to see her swim, her slim figure cutting through the surf. Leto has an island off a temperate coast for his own private use; he took Jessica there with his inner circle, just after she came to Caladan, but Duncan was away at the time, raiding a Harkonnen mining facility, and now he wishes he hadn’t missed that holiday.

There will be other holidays, he thinks, and immediately curses himself for the thought.

Jessica carries him to his peak first, but Duncan drags her there with him by curling two fingers against the place where they’re joined, stroking circles upwards. She presses the back of her hand against her mouth to smother her cries, shoulders quaking.

Her gray-blue eyes are clear when she opens them again, but she seems more vulnerable than he's ever seen her, skin flushed, her hair falling from its pins to curl over her shoulders. She looks young; he remembers that she is young, and has spent most of her life in seclusion among sisters. He wants to reach up, wind a lock of her hair around his fingers, but her eyes dart away, and she pushes herself off him before he can move.

Duncan tucks himself away and sits up. "This can't happen again," he tells her.

Jessica crosses the room and retrieves her shawl, using it to cover her hair, hiding the mess he's made of it. "Of course," she says coolly, as if they're discussing the weather, or who will be assigned to guard her on an excursion. She gives him a keen look. "Do you want me to pretend it didn't happen at all?"

Duncan frowns. "I'm not asking you to hide it from the Duke, if that's what you're implying."

"I would never," she says. "I meant what I said. It won't upset him."

He looks away, at the latticed window. "We'll see," he says.

Her skirts rustle, and he hears the click of her heels as she steps into them. “Perhaps, when I am proven right,” she says thoughtfully, “you will learn to trust me. Just a little.”

Duncan huffs a laugh, turning to reply, but she’s already gone.

He puts a hand on the floor to get to his feet, and something bites into his palm. He pauses to inspect it: one of her hairpins, bent out of shape. He puts it in his pocket as he stands, then straightens his shirt, checking the wound beneath the slash on his sleeve.

Ah, he thinks, so she has left me bleeding after all.

 

* * *

 

Jessica does tell Leto that night about her rendezvous with Duncan. She expects him to take it well; she does not expect him to laugh. She gives him a curious look when he does.

“My sword-master has a reputation,” he informs her. “It’s amusing to know that even a Bene Gesserit isn’t immune to his charms.”

She makes a face at him. “You were the first to succumb,” she reminds him.

“True.” He shrugs, unbothered. “Now come, let me see if I can still taste him on your skin.”

 

* * *

 

Duncan spends that evening and the next morning making arrangements, and is unsurprised to receive a summons from his Duke for a private audience by midafternoon. Dread drags at his heels, but he complies promptly. When he arrives, he is given some small measure of relief, in that Jessica has not decided to intrude this time. It's just Duncan and his Duke.

“Sire,” he says, saluting crisply.

Leto's brows are drawn, his expression thunderous. "What is this?" he asks, thrusting a copy of Duncan’s itinerary across the table. "You're leaving?"

"It has been some time since I inspected the training grounds," Duncan says, keeping his eyes fixed to a point just over the Duke's left shoulder. "It seemed overdue."

Leto sighs. "Can't it wait until spring?" he asks. "The winter storms are almost here, and you'll have the devil of a time travelling in them."

"I thought it prudent to go as soon as possible," Duncan replies. And, screwing up his courage, he reaches into his pocket and deposits the contents on the Duke's desk.

Jessica's bent hairpin glints against the blotter.

Leto is silent for a long moment. "...you swore you would stay until I sent you away," he says at last.

"It's only a matter of time before you ask me to go," Duncan replies, the words feeling curdled and sour on his tongue. "I would rather leave before—" before I have to hear you order me gone, is the rest of that sentence, but his voice fails him. He swallows hard. "—before it comes to that."

Leto fixes Duncan with his dark eyes, searching Duncan’s face. Whatever he finds makes him flex his hands around the arms of his chair, restless. "I won't order you to stay if you're so certain you must go," he says. "But know that you will be welcomed back whenever — whenever — you choose to return."

Duncan nods. Given enough time, enough distance, things can return to what they once were. He will grieve the loss of what he once had, but the grief will fade.

His loyalty will remain. And that is what matters.

"Thank you, Sire," he says, and retreats.

 

* * *

 

The winter storms are indeed fierce, so Duncan starts his tour in the southern hemisphere instead, inspecting every training ground on every continent of Caladan. Each stop is much the same: he surveys the facilities, meets the troops, delivers heartening words of encouragement from the Duke, runs drills to test their readiness. All is as he expects. Some places need more improvement than others, but on the whole, he is satisfied with the state of their forces.

A few things stand out. There's one woman who beats him in a demonstration match, tall and copper-skinned and with gray eyes. He recommends her to the Duke's personal guard. There's a stocky, pale, craggy-faced man who makes the best of used equipment in one of the smaller facilities, saving them thousands of solaris per year, and Duncan asks if he wants to be transferred to the shipyards to make better use of his skills. The man says no, respectfully, that he prefers his more humble, less stressful post, so Duncan leaves him be, but marks him as a potential resource should he be needed in a crisis.

There's another man, whip-thin with restless hands, who's in charge of the funds for one base. Duncan can't put his finger on why the man strikes him as odd, and sends a note back to Thufir to see if the mentat can ferret out the issue. A week after Duncan's moved on from that base, Thufir sends a reply that the man had set up a clever embezzlement scheme, and has been dealt with appropriately.

Duncan sends reports to his Duke for every stop he makes. Every reply he receives is couched in appropriately official language, save the last line, which appears on every message:

We look forward to your return.

Every time he sees it, his chest constricts. But he stays away.

He sleeps alone, most nights, but there are exceptions there, too: Morgan Ghada, a general Duncan once served with for six months, when Atreides and Harkonnen were waging a protracted campaign over a mineral-rich asteroid belt. The Emperor had ended the conflict by claiming the territory for himself, and both Duncan and Morgan commiserate over their remembered bitterness at that outcome. Morgan travels with him to all the bases under their command, a dozen in total, and they welcome Duncan into their bed every night.

"Your troops will talk," Duncan says to them, after the third night.

"Let them," they say, stretching their limbs languidly, their olive skin glowing in the morning light. "I'll be retiring soon, anyway." They slant a coy smile across the sheets at Duncan. "Maybe you can invite me to spend some time at the Palace when I do."

Duncan huffs a laugh as he laces his boots. "Maybe," he replies noncommittally. "You don't seem the type to retire so easy."

Morgan's chuckle is low and wry. "I thought so, too. But all we do nowadays is raid slaveyards and defend outposts. This young Duke is too prudent, too cautious. His old man knew the value of war."

Duncan straightens from where he sits on the edge of the bed, propping one palm on his thigh. "Leto knows the value of his men's lives and loyalty," Duncan says.

Too late, he realizes he forgot the honorific.

Morgan lifts their eyebrows, but all they say is, "That kind of currency loses its value if it's not tested. My troops are restless."

Morgan's not the only one to say as much, though others are less blunt about it. In Duncan's next report, he recommends an increase in raids.

I will take it under advisement, Leto's reply reads. We look forward to your return.

When Duncan parts ways with Morgan, it's with good cheer and heartfelt well-wishes. He'll miss their company; it was a relief to be with someone whose desires were not exceeded by his own. It was a simple affair, no deeper entanglements lying in wait to cloud his judgement.

There are a few others he dallies with on his travels, all equally unserious and pleasantly diverting.

But he spends the bulk of his nights alone.

Time passes.

Until.

 

* * *

 

"You said he'd come back," Leto says one evening, after the servants have left. "That we should wait. But it's been months."

"You wish to press the issue?" Jessica asks, from where she's sitting at her vanity, brushing out her hair. "If we force him, he will resent it."

Leto leans in towards his own mirror in the bathroom, scissors held ready to trim errant strands of beard. "I miss him, Jessica," he admits to his own reflection.

There's a long silence. He lowers his hand and peers over at her. She's sitting quietly, brush forgotten in her lap. The cascade of loose waves over her shoulder makes him want to go over, run his fingers through the strands. She meets his gaze through the doorway. "...I do, too," she confesses, so quietly that he almost misses it.

He drops the scissors and crosses the distance between them, giving into the impulse and stroking her hair, gathering her close against his chest.

"I thought you hated each other," he says, letting a teasing note creep into his voice.

She thumps his belly gently with her fists, pulling away just far enough to glare up at him, but there's no real heat in it. “I have never been unaware of his appeal,” she says tartly.

"What shall we do then, my love?" Leto asks, gently running his hand down the side of her face.

"I only wish for him to come to us if he is moved to do so." A sharp glint enters her eye.

Leto grins. "Ah, I know that look. You have an idea."

"I have news that may compel him," she says, smiling up at him. "But whether he returns to us or no, I know it will please you."

Leto lifts his eyebrows. "What is it?"

She tells him.

He is, as she predicted, delighted.

 

* * *

 

Duncan has made a habit of reading the morning bulletins before his own mail. So he discovers the news not from Leto's message, but from a headline:

Lady Jessica Expecting - an Atreides Heir on the Way?

He sets aside his coffee and sorts through his personal correspondence. Sure enough, there's a note from Leto.

Duncan —

It's my happy privilege to tell you that Jessica is carrying a child. It's too soon to tell whether it is a boy, but my hopes are high. We will be celebrating the news in a week's time.

We look forward to your return.

— Leto Atreides

Duncan starts packing.

 

* * *

 

Gurney is there to greet him when he lands in the private hangar. "How are the troops?" Gurney shouts over the spring winds and the sound of Duncan's retinue landing in their own 'thopters.

"As fine a force as there ever was in the whole of the Empire!" Duncan crows, clasping Gurney's outstretched hand and thumping him on the shoulder with his fist.

"Glad to hear it! You've come back for the party, I take it?"

"Wouldn't miss it!" Duncan replies with false good cheer. He pulls a flask from his pocket and lifts it between them. "To the new Dukeling!" He takes a swig and hands it to Gurney, who does the same, beaming.

"You'll want to report in first, I'll wager," Gurney says when they're done. They stride across the hangar together. "He'll be in his office at this hour, as usual."

"Good to know some things never change," Duncan replies, and peels off towards the locker room to strip out of his flight suit.

He takes his time with his appearance, showering, braiding his hair, making sure his uniform lays just so, pretending that he's not stalling to delay the inevitable. Finally, when he can lie to himself no longer, he goes to see the Duke.

Leto is not in his office. His personal secretary — a stern, sturdy woman whose stealth abilities Duncan wishes for all Atreides troops — appears at his side as he stands in the doorway, perplexed. "Milord is at lunch," she informs Duncan. "You can find him in the Residence." She peers up at him through the little round lenses that perch atop her nose. "I'm sure he won't mind if you join him there."

Duncan doesn't want to know how much she knows about his dalliances with the Duke, some of which occurred in these very rooms. "Uh, thank you," he says. "I'll do that."

She nods at him, then disappears off into her own office.

Leto is, in fact, just finishing his meal with Jessica when Duncan arrives. Spotting Duncan, he smiles and rises to his feet.

Duncan ignores the twinge in his chest. Time away was supposed to help.

He keeps his distance and sketches a bow to each of them, precisely angled for their respective ranks. A flicker of disappointment flashes across Leto's face, but he schools his expression and sits once more.

"How go the inspections?" the Duke inquires politely.

"Very well. I assume you've read my reports, Sire?" Leto nods, and Duncan continues, "There are one or two sensitive issues I didn't trust to send over open channels — those can be dealt with easily, once you've given your word. But my tour is not finished. I'll return to the task when the festivities are over."

"Surely you don't mean to leave again so soon?" Jessica asks, and for the first time since arriving, Duncan meets her eyes. There is no sharpness to them, merely dismay at his news, and he wonders what she's really thinking behind the mask she wears for the sake of the servants still in the room.

"Duty compels me to complete the task," Duncan informs her.

Leto sighs. "And you are nothing if not dutiful." He moves his hand, a simple twitch of two fingers towards the door, and the footmen depart. Duncan's spine stiffens as they close the door behind them.

"Sire—" he starts.

"Duncan—" Leto says at the same moment, and they both pause to stare at one another.

Jessica clears her throat. "Leto, the man came all this way to ask us a question. Will you let him?"

Duncan drops his gaze to his boots. She's right; his throat burns with it, but he's afraid to give it voice. "The child," he starts, falters. "...is it mine?"

"No," Leto replies, not unkindly. "Yueh has confirmed its genetics for the records, as is custom for all possible heirs of noble blood."

"And I have my own ways of ensuring such things," Jessica adds. "The child is Leto's, truly."

Duncan lets out a breath, looking up again. "Then you have my congratulations, Milord, Milady. May it be a son, hale and hearty."

A shadow passes over Jessica's eyes for a moment, then is gone.

Leto beams, every inch the proud father-to-be. "Thank you, Duncan." He takes a breath to speak further, but there is a knock at the door. “Come in,” he says, impatience in his tone.

“Milord,” the messenger says, entering with a bow. “Thufir Hawat needs a word.”

“...very well,” Leto says with reluctance. He fixes Duncan with a look. “We must speak again before you leave.” He glances at Jessica, who gives him a nod. “Just the three of us.”

Duncan bows assent. “As you will it, Sire,” he says, and exits.

 

* * *

 

The palace fills quickly with guests arriving for the festivities, and Thufir drafts Duncan to assist with the additional burden on security. It gives him an excuse to avoid the Duke and his Lady, even though it does put him in conflict with the more… colorful members of the Duke's court.

Some of them bridle at the necessary restrictions Duncan sets upon them, the extra security measures that ensure the safety of the household. Some of them stare, whispering behind his back, and he wonders what gossip about him has sprung up in his absence. It doesn't matter; so long as his Duke is satisfied with his service, there is little the highborn busybodies can do.

Soon enough, the end of the week draws near, and everyone's excitement reaches a fever pitch. Duncan dons his best dress uniform, trims the edges of his beard, and makes sure his personal shield is in good working order. He arrives in the Great Hall early, when the entertainers are setting up and Thufir’s men are running their final scans of the public rooms and adjoining passageways.

Gurney is there, too, his baliset on his shoulder. “It won’t hold a candle to the child’s nameday,” he says when Duncan approaches. “But it will be quite the fête, regardless.”

“This news has been a long time coming,” Duncan says, nodding in agreement. Even before Jessica joined the House, since the death of the old Duke, the people of Caladan have been hoping for a sign of the continuation of the line. It took Leto a while to consider selecting a companion, so busy was he with the sudden transfer of power after his father's unexpected death, and once settled, it had still taken him two years of entertaining offers from other Houses before the Bene Gesserit volunteered the temporary solution of a concubine.

Temporary, hah, Duncan thinks to himself. Politically, it may be so — the Duke is still available for marriage — but Jessica’s place in the household is now secure. He can only hope that the reverse will be true, that the child will bind Jessica more securely to Leto as it will Leto to her, with no room for divided loyalties or… distractions.

All the more reason for Duncan to leave again after the celebration.

Once the guests fill the Hall, the place is transformed into a glittering sea of formalwear. Servants weave unobtrusively through the crowd, offering delicacies and drinks on polished platters. The musicians fill the air with cheerful melodies, and the dance floor is occupied nonstop.

And when the Duke and his Lady are announced, a cheer erupts from all in attendance. Duncan takes his customary place behind the pair; they are in green again, this time in fine soft wool appropriate to the chill still lingering from winter. Jessica’s neck drips with emeralds, and the Atreides hawk at Leto’s chest is polished to a high gleam.

Duncan does not allow his eyes to linger on them for too long; it feels like staring at twin suns, his eyes stinging from the glare. Instead, he watches the gathered celebrants, notes those hiding jealousy or disappointment in their eyes and those whose delight seems sincere.

The Duke and his Lady take their seats at one end of the Hall, and Leto gestures for the festivities to continue.

It takes longer than Duncan cares to admit, to notice that people are treating him differently. Familiar dining companions smile stiffly, women hesitate when he asks them to dance before agreeing, and even the young noblewoman who’d flirted so prettily with Duncan at the last gathering gives him a wide berth.

After an hour or so of this, he finds Thufir by the buffet table. “Enjoying yourself?” the spymaster asks, sipping delicately from a tall glass of nonalcoholic cider, his keen eyes scanning the room. When Duncan doesn’t answer, Thufir gives him a quick glance and frowns. “Ahh… no one told you.”

“Told me what?” Duncan says, loading up a small plate with food he has no intention of eating, despite the poison snooper hovering sentinel above the table.

Thufir leans in, drops his voice. “Rumor has it that you've fallen out of favor with the Duke. That, they say, is why you've been gone from Court for so long. People don't want it to catch.”

"Hell," Duncan says under his breath.

"Why you're out of favor is a matter of some debate," Thufir continues with relish. He lays a finger alongside his nose. "Don't worry, I've made sure to discourage the suspicions that came close to the truth."

Duncan sighs. Of course Thufir knows. It's his job to know everything. It still doesn't comfort Duncan to hear it. "Appreciated," he manages gruffly.

“Still,” Thufir muses, “it does us no good to have such conspicuous friction within the inner circle.” His gaze turns sharp as he eyes Duncan. “I trust you’ll settle the matter soon.”

“The matter is settled,” Duncan says firmly.

Thufir looks almost pitying. “It isn’t. But I suspect it will be.” He tilts his head to draw Duncan’s gaze across the room.

Leto and Jessica are still seated in their chairs, their food and drinks ignored as they bend close to each other to confer. Leto glances towards Duncan, frowns, and Jessica puts her hand on his arm, smiling as she speaks. Leto’s expression turns thoughtful.

Duncan looks away. He’s tempted to leave early, but he’s tired of running away — it goes against his better instincts and will only delay the inevitable. At least here, in this setting, there is only so far a scene can go.

He discards his untouched plate, nods politely to Thufir, and goes to get drunk with some old generals who he knows don’t give a shit about Court intrigue or petty gossip. As expected, they welcome him warmly and ensure his cup is filled as they swap tales of battle in the old Duke’s name. Duncan gladly shoves his worries to the back of his mind and is so successful in the endeavor that he almost misses when the Duke and his Lady rise after their meal to dance.

Nessa Vozar, a Navy woman thirty years Duncan’s senior with short steel-gray hair, one of her eyes a cloudy white and the other a penetrating black, sighs at the sight. “Ah, she’s a handsome woman, isn’t she?”

Duncan can’t help but look. He’s heard that pregnant women were radiant, but never put much stock in it ‘till now. Something of the sharpness of Jessica’s face has rounded out — or perhaps it’s his familiarity with her features that lets him see past the surface. Leto glows, too, visibly proud of his Lady and pleased to have her celebrated tonight. “They make a fine pair,” Duncan agrees aloud.

"It's a pity she's a witch," the man to Duncan's left says; he's just joined the group, some noble scion from a minor holding wanting to cultivate an air of martial vigor by proximity.

Duncan frowns at him. "Oh?" he asks, keeping his tone light. He wonders what version of the rumors about Duncan this man has heard, to speak so freely.

The nobleman responds, "Aye, she's not to be trusted — look at Lady Anirul, she's given the Emperor two children, both girls… I'll bet a thousand solaris that Lady Jessica won't produce an heir, either. The Bene Gesserit hold bloodlines hostage for their own gain, I'm sure of it."

Duncan doesn't know what his own expression looks like, but when he catches sight of it, the nobleman pales.

"I mean no disrespect to our Duke, naturally," the man stammers. "It's only—"

"—only that you think he's foolish enough to be snared by a pretty face," Duncan finishes for him in a growl. "Only that you think Gurney Halleck, Thufir Hawat, and myself would be irresponsible enough to allow someone like that close enough to our Duke… Only that you insult a Lady of our House on a day celebrating her good fortune—!"

Too late, he realizes that the crowd has gone quiet around them, and his voice has carried further than it ought.

"Well said," Leto's voice says mildly, over Duncan's shoulder.

If the nobleman looked pale before, he looks nearly bloodless now. He stammers some apology and slinks away. Duncan lets him go; Thufir will handle him from here.

Duncan's chest feels hollowed out as he turns to face his Duke. "I'm sorry to have caused a scene that interrupted your merriment, Milord, Milady."

"Nonsense," Jessica says. "That was highly entertaining."

"Besides, we came over because Jessica wants to keep dancing, but she's quite worn me out for the moment," Leto says. "I wondered if you'd step in for me for a turn or two."

Nessa elbows Duncan in the ribs. "If you don't, I will," she whispers, and Duncan can hear Jessica's amused exhalation, though it's not loud enough to be a laugh.

Duncan meets Leto's eyes quizzically, and all he gets is unwavering confidence in return. "...it would be an honor," he replies at last, and Leto transfers Jessica's hand to his.

"Nothing too athletic," Leto adds, winking. "She is expecting, after all."

The crowd around them laughs at the jest, then parts to allow Duncan to lead Jessica to the dance floor. "What are we doing?" he asks, as he takes her into his arms, holding her at the proper distance — no more, no less.

Her fingers rest lightly on his hand, his shoulder. "Dancing."

"Jessica." The next song starts, and they begin.

She lifts her chin, emeralds flashing in the light. "We saw you were getting snubbed and wanted to rectify that."

Duncan can’t say that he's as graceful as his Duke on the dancefloor, but he likes to think he acquits himself well enough. "...is that all?" He tries to ignore those watching from the fringes, concentrating instead on steering Jessica around the other dancers.

She meets his gaze squarely. "You know it's not." They twist together, step, pivot in time to the tune. "This is as close to a public declaration that we can ever give you. Unless you'd like to dance with Leto next?"

Duncan stares at her. "He wouldn’t.” It’s one thing for Leto to display his trust in Duncan by allowing him to partner his pregnant concubine for a turn, quite another for Leto to show his own sentiment so openly. If any outside the palace suspected the truth, that Leto has taken his sword-master as lover, it would affect all their reputations: Leto would be seen as a libertine, Jessica would be seen as failing in her duties as concubine, and people would whisper that Duncan’s rank was earned through… other skills besides those with a kindjal. Even the House’s standing as a rising military strength would be undermined, with such seemingly-preoccupied leadership.

Jessica smiles. “He would, if that was what it took.”

Duncan watches her face as he asks, “...to what?”

Her expression doesn’t alter, but her hand curls around his neck, stroking his nape once, subtly. “To prove to you that our affections are as genuine as your own.”

"I have never doubted that Leto's affection was genuine." On the next turn, he spares a glance over her shoulder at their Duke, who's watching them with a warm, pleased expression.

"No, but I doubt you think it as deeply-felt as yours." Step, step, spin. Her dress flares out around their ankles. "And, believe it or not, I have a fondness for you, as well."

Duncan gives her a dubious look. "You do?"

She smiles again, something small and wry. "Gurney won't spar with me."

That startles a laugh out of him. "Have you asked him?"

"I don't want to spar with Gurney." She makes a face. "Too much singing."

Duncan chuckles again, then shakes his head. "You are a witch."

"I never denied that." He bends her back over his arm and she yields without hesitation, trusting him to hold her. When he lifts her upright again, she says, "Will you have us, Duncan?"

“It’s not that simple.” He finds that his hand has tightened on her waist, that they’ve drifted closer than is strictly appropriate, his body giving the answer his mind resists. He shifts away, feeling her hand tighten on his, but she does not close the distance. "Are you asking me to be your pet, kept at Court for your entertainment?"

"Of course not," she says, sounding piqued. "Your duties would remain unchanged. If there is a front you are needed to command, a mission you are needed to complete, Leto would not keep you from it."

"But my time here—"

"Would be your time, to spend as you see fit." She tilts her head. "Naturally, we would be glad if you would spend it in our company."

"Naturally," he echoes. Too late, he realizes that he hasn't said no. This has become a negotiation. "Gurney was right about you," he says, as the music draws to an end.

"Oh?" Her eyebrows lift in a delicate arch.

"If you had the bloodline, you'd make a formidable Duchess." He bows over her hand, noting the smile he gets in return. It seems… genuine, for once.

"You should know as well as anyone," she says, curtsying, "that titles aren't what make one effective."

With that, she turns away and returns to their Duke.

The rest of the evening goes more smoothly, everyone present perfectly willing to pretend they hadn't spent the first half of the evening giving Duncan the cold shoulder. He finds no shortage of dance partners, and the fetching noblewoman who'd been avoiding him hangs on his arm every chance she gets.

Duncan barely pays attention to any of them. Instead, he feels as if his every cell is on alert, waiting for Leto to do something. Duncan knows his tactics. Leto’s already sent Jessica ahead to scout the terrain; now would be the time to act.

So it comes as a disappointment when Leto and Jessica retire early, citing her delicate condition — "leaving you all in the good hands of our dear friend, Gurney Halleck!" the Duke announces, to a hearty cheer, Halleck's popularity never having wavered — with only a brief, weighted meeting of Duncan's gaze as they go.

Gurney starts playing a rousing reel that gets hands clapping, boots stamping, and dancers spinning. Duncan slips off to an unobtrusive corner and nurses the remains of his drink, considering his options.

Thufir materializes at his side, pressing something into Duncan's palm: a message cylinder.

"What's this?" Duncan asks, alarmed. Has one of their rivals decided to take advantage of their distraction tonight?

Thufir leans in, pitches his voice so that only Duncan can hear: "A pretext, should you need one."

Duncan scowls at him, but his heart isn't in it. "You're a meddling old goat," he tells his comrade.

Thufir grins, unrepentant. "Enjoy the rest of your evening!" he says, and wanders off again.

Duncan pretends he's not going to leave the party early for exactly three minutes, and then slips away while the partygoers are still distracted by Gurney's song.

 

* * *

 

Recognizing Duncan and spotting the message cylinder in his hand, the guards in the private residence allow him to pass without question. He knocks at Leto's door, heart hammering nearly as loudly in his ears as he waits.

Jessica answers in a black silk robe that she clutches closed with one hand at her neck, her hair loose from the combs that had held it up earlier. When she sees who it is, she smiles and ushers him in without a word, closing the door firmly behind them.

Leto enters the sitting room from the bedroom, guarded anticipation in his eyes until he spots what Duncan carries. He frowns immediately. "What—?" he starts.

Duncan looks down at the message cylinder, then up at Leto. "It's nothing," he says, tossing the tube over his shoulder and reeling his Duke into a kiss with hands fisted in Leto's dress shirt where it hangs open from his shoulders.

Behind him, Jessica laughs. "And you thought he'd want to talk," she says.

"We should talk," Duncan says, between fierce, feverish kisses. "...later."

Leto laughs, catching his teeth against Duncan's lower lip and biting gently. Jessica's arms wind around Duncan's waist and she gets to work on the fastenings of his dress jacket. Between the two of them, Duncan’s torso is stripped bare in short order, his hair freed from its queue.

“Oh, lovely,” Jessica says, trailing her fingertips down Duncan’s chest. She catches Leto’s questioning look. “...we didn’t disrobe last time,” she says, a little defensively.

"No time like the present," Leto says, hooking a finger in the sash of her robe and pulling the knot open.

She does not shrink or preen as her skin is bared, merely lets Duncan look his fill. The first thing he notices is the smattering of freckles over her chest, then the slight swell of her belly and the small thatch of dark hair at the crux of her thighs. Of course she is beautiful: that is the first job of a concubine. Duncan cannot help but be moved by it regardless.  He curls his hand around her neck and pulls her close for a kiss. She matches his intensity, humming a pleased noise against his tongue, running her hands through his hair.

Leto busies himself with Duncan’s belt, letting it drop to the floor with a clink. The warmth of his breath precedes the heat of his mouth at the base of Duncan’s neck, and a sharp bloom of pain means he’s leaving his mark there, where it will be hidden beneath a shirt collar.

They leave their clothes where they fall as they wind an unsteady path to the bed. "What do you want?" Leto asks, dropping away from their embrace to sit on the mattress. He leans forward, drags tongue and teeth along the crease of Duncan's hip. "Whatever is ours to give is yours."

Jessica's nails trace along Duncan's spine, and he shivers, looking down to see Leto's mouth so close to his cock — tempting, tempting — but he would spend too soon that way. "I—" he starts, suddenly wanting too much all at once, the words colliding in his throat. He wants everything, and doesn't know where to start. "I want you both," he manages.

"And you shall have us," Jessica says, nudging him forward. He kneels on the bed, crowding Leto back against the pillows, welcomed into Leto's strong arms, between his splayed thighs, Leto's mouth slick and yielding against his.

Jessica follows, her sleek curves pressed against their sides, and her hand slides down over Duncan's skin, curving over his rear. He gasps when her fingers slip into the crease, and she laughs softly. "...do you trust me, Duncan?" she asks, her words low and intent.

Duncan pulls his mouth away from Leto's skin and drops his forehead against Leto's shoulder. "No," he lies, and she laughs again, pressing fingertips deeper to rub against his hole.

"Do you want me to stop?" she asks instead.

"...no," he says. One finger breaches him slightly, dry but gentle, before she does stop, shifting away. Duncan hears the familiar click of a drawer opening, looks up to see Jessica lifting out velvet straps and the vial of oil.

"Oh," Leto says, delighted, “yes.” His hands sweep down, over Duncan’s ribs and waist, down to his flank, a soothing caress.

"Do you want it, or do you want to watch Leto take it?" Jessica asks Duncan as she steps into the harness, sliding it up her legs.

Duncan's breath catches. "Take me," he says, meaning: I already belong to you both.

She smiles, strokes his face with her hand, and bends to kiss him, brief but heated. Then she pulls away, parts her thighs to press the curved end of the toy to her entrance, unselfconscious about working herself open as they watch. Leto rolls his hips against Duncan's, his erection hard and leaking between their bellies. Duncan grinds back, losing himself in the sensation for a blissful moment.

When he opens his eyes again, Leto has picked up the vial, pouring oil into his palm while Jessica is busying herself with the straps. Leto grasps her toy at its base, spreading slick along the shaft as he strokes it, rocking it against her. Her eyes flutter shut. "Leto," she breathes, halfway between annoyed and aroused.

"Yes, love?" Leto asks.

She opens her eyes to glare at him. "You're distracting," she says, taking the oil away from him. Leto grins, unrepentant. Duncan wants to distract him, take Leto’s cock into his mouth, but before he can shift away, crawl backwards on the bed, Leto catches him.

"I want to see your face," he says, thumb stroking Duncan's cheek. “Let me watch you, please.” Duncan nods assent, then covers Leto’s mouth with his own.

Either Jessica is remarkably efficient at preparing him, or Leto is very effective at diverting his attention, because before too long, Duncan feels the firm nudge of polished ivory against him. Slowly, slowly, she breaches him, and Leto kisses his forehead, his temple, his cheek as Duncan shudders, caught between them both.

"My darling Duncan," Leto breathes, pushing Duncan's hair away from his face. "Shh, we have you."

You do, Duncan thinks. You shall, always. "Move," he says to Jessica, voice raw. "Please," he says to them both.

They find a rhythm together, Jessica driving Duncan forward, Leto reaching between them with his oil-slick hand to stroke them both in time. Duncan feels like a sinking ship, split open and foundering, anchored only by the feel of them around them, inside him.

Jessica leans in, against Duncan’s back, her hair drifting in a net over his shoulders, his arms. “Come for us, Duncan,” she says, tone pitched low. He doesn’t know if it’s her voice or the changed angle of her thrusts that does it, but his body obeys. Leto’s grip tightens, wringing the last of his orgasm from him, and he hears Leto cry out moments later, more heat blooming between their bellies.

"...are you satisfied, my Lord?" Jessica asks, withdrawing from Duncan, a teasing note in her voice as she uses the title.

"I am," Leto says. His clean hand runs through Duncan's hair. "And you, Lady?"

"Nearly," she replies.

Duncan and Leto exchange glances. "Then let us rectify that," Leto declares, as they both turn to her, pulling her down on the bed between them.

Duncan works the buckles of the harness, stripping it away, and Leto pushes her legs apart, drawing the toy out of her and pressing his open mouth against her, licking into her heat. Duncan moves up beside her, drawing her into messy, misaligned kisses as she gasps. "Your turn, witch," Duncan tells her, fondness in his voice despite himself.

Jessica laughs, then nearly sobs as she falls apart, eyes squeezed shut. Leto eases her through it, not stopping 'till she shoves at his shoulders.

They all lie in a tangle, catching their breath.

"...did you want to talk now?" Leto asks, tilting his head so that he can look at Duncan.

"If you wanted pretty speeches, you should have invited Gurney instead of me," Duncan replies.

Jessica hits his shoulder lightly with the back of her hand. "Too much singing," she declares again.

Leto laughs, then sobers. "Tell me truly, Duncan: is there aught that yet worries you?"

Duncan is silent for a long moment. "...you have so much of me already," Duncan confesses at last, voice low and quiet. "It makes me wonder what will be left when you're done."

"We're only done when you say we are," Leto tells him, firmly.

"We do not betray that which is ours," Jessica says, her statement echoing with the older words: there is no faith that we betray. She carries Atreides blood in her now; Duncan wonders if that makes any difference, or if her loyalty has already been assured otherwise. Because he sees now what he did not before — it's the little things that betray her, here, where no one else is to see them, like the idle circles her fingers trace onto Leto's skin, the way her knee has hooked over Duncan's, toes tucked under his calf.

"If nothing else, I am that," Duncan murmurs to them both. Yours, he adds silently, 'till my last breath.

But that is perhaps too much to say aloud, just yet. So he stays silent, listening to their breathing even out into sleep until he drifts off himself after.

 

* * *

 

The worst-kept secret of Duke Leto Atriedes' court is this: his sword-master and his concubine hate each other. But Duncan Idaho is the Duke’s most trusted blade, so he naturally acts as their personal guard when the couple go on holiday.

Jessica watches her men as they swim, perfectly content to sun herself on a chaise while they do so, a broad hat covering her hair, the cool breeze off the water a soothing balm. Duncan had coaxed her into the sea earlier, and it had been pleasant to let the salt water buoy her weight, heavy as she is with child, but her stamina had given out before theirs.  Now she simply enjoys the view.

Far off in the distance, she can see patrols on the sea and in the air, ensuring the perimeter of the island is secure. But otherwise, they are alone for miles.

Leto crosses the sand to sit beside her. “Do you need anything?” he asks, as specially solicitous as he has been since the child started kicking.

“Perhaps more to drink?” she asks, and he nods, getting up to fetch more juice from the chilling-case in the shade of the treeline.

Duncan joins her, his loose hair hanging wet around his shoulders. “So have you picked a name yet?” he asks.

Jessica makes a face at him. He asks three times a day, trying to catch her out. “Paul if it’s a boy,” she tells him again. “Sofia if it’s a girl.”

“Good choices,” he says, as he does every time. “Do you have a preference?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Leto declares as he returns to them. “So long as they are healthy and live long, full lives, I will be satisfied.”

“They will,” Duncan says. “We’ll make sure of it.”

 

 

 

— END —