The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter One - The Duke's Champion
The velvet purse of gold coins fell heavy in his hand. It was the prize of a champion, of the warrior of the day, of the young man who stole maidens' hearts, but who loved none so well as conflict and war.
To compete in the tournament seemed unfair to the other young men seeking favor, but to deny the spectacle of the Duke's champion-the House of Khushrenada's most honored knight-would have been a worse crime. Sir Heero Yuy would suffer the attention and accolades for his patron's benefit, for his victories here on the field of play were merely a reflection of the Duke's greatness and power. The Duke held great wealth and vast lands, and was cousin of the heir to the throne.
"This is a most splendid victory." The Duke reached a hand to his knight's shoulder and squeezed. "You have made me happy this day."
"You are most kind." Heero bowed deeply with a sweep of his arm. The crowd of onlookers, both noble and common, cheered.
"Sup with us this night, Sir Yuy. Let us celebrate our good fortune."
The Duke's feasts were anything but intimate. No less than forty dined on roasted partridge, venison pasties, sausages, and savory rice. This banquet was the culmination of two-days of spectacle to mark high summer. Let other lords and ladies fete the autumn harvest. Treize would have a celebration all his own mid-summer.
Heero was seated to the right of the Duke, a place befitting his strength as a knight and his standing in this household. He wore the Khushrenada crest proudly on his right sleeve-a golden lion's head emblazoned on a royal blue background with red roses. The crest of Heero's own family, a castle on a bluff, was worn more discreetly over his heart, the home of his ancestors in Strasbourg.
As the minstrels played and the guests ate and drank more than their fill, Heero reflected on the unsettling times that subtly permeated even this festive occasion. There were men who would destroy an entire country just to fill their pockets with gold. Rogues desiring to live by easy gain, targeted the helpless peasants in the countryside and threatened entire villages until their purses were filled with coin. Under these circumstances Heero had left his home to serve the Khushrenada banner in Lyon. Having fought with Treize in the Crusades, Heero knew him to be an honorable though proud man. And when the call came to fight once again, this time to keep order in the land, there was no hesitation.
The sound of a great clatter coming from beyond the hall quieted the reverie. All eyes turned to the service door where servants appeared, dragging the limp body of one of their own. An aged man, the butler of the pantry, stepped forward solemnly and bowed.
"What is the meaning of this? Why have you interrupted my feast?"
"Your taster... is dead." A gasp rang out in the hall as the man bowed more deeply and with a sweep of his arm indicated the unconscious man.
Heero and the other knights stood, their hands on the hilts of their swords.
"Someone has poisoned the wine," the servant said.
Treize swatted the goblet before him, spilling the wine onto the table. "Who would dare?"
"Where did the wine come from?" Heero asked.
"It was a gift to His Grace, as was much of this feast."
"Our enemies have become bold," one of the knights said.
Treize looked to Heero with uncertainty. There had never been a strike so close to his person. "Find a new taster," he commanded. Standing, letting his full height speak to his strength, Treize ordered his knights' council to attend him.
Six knights followed him into an anteroom where Treize seated himself on a fur-lined chair.
"What do you make of this?" he asked, waving his hand to signal an open discussion.
"It is an attack against the Crown!" one knight said. "The English pretender to the throne is behind this plot."
The comment stirred many of the knights who argued briskly over the validity of such an attempted assassination. Treize watched them carefully, listening to every word. These were his most trusted men. He would hear them out. But once the initial shock of the event had run its course, the knights' accusations became more practical. Perhaps it was merely a warning from one of the rogue bands.
"We struck at Hugh de Culevier's band last week," another knight spoke out. "This foul play could be in retaliation."
Treize nodded. "Word of this will strike fear in men's hearts. They will ask, if a servant in the Khushrenada castle cannot be protected then how can we, ordinary men with no walls to surround us?"
The knights became quiet with their lord's words. They had been fighting hard and long, and this most intimate blow disturbed them greatly.
"I have another concern," the Duke said, meeting their eyes. "I made a promise that I fear I will be unable to keep."
"What is it Your Grace?" a knight asked.
"Our work in restoring order seems far from over, and so I will find myself occupied and unable to return for my chestnut beauty by summer's end... as promised."
"Ah, ‘twas but a dalliance of early spring, but my love waits for me still." The knights watched as Treize dipped his hand inside a leather purse hanging from his belt and withdrew a long curl of chestnut hair tied with a black silk ribbon. "A sweet token of affection," he said, rubbing the hair between his fingers.
"Send your host to bring your fair love safely into your arms," one of the men suggested.
Treize smiled, pleased with their understanding. "Yea, my trusted knights could do this errand for me. A caravan laden with gifts would tempt and convey my love most surely."
The knights took up the mission. This was their chance for greater recognition. To bring their liege's lover back safely to his side was a high privilege and the most honorable of deeds a knight could undertake.
Though Treize regarded these men more highly than any others in his company, he needed to appoint the guardian of his love carefully. He looked to each of his knights, listening to their suggestions and considering each of them for the task. They were all men of great strength and prudence, but none was more devoted to him or more suited to a life by the sword than Sir Yuy. This knight had one more quality that would greatly serve the Duke in this situation.
"You have all served me well, but in the matter of this delicate errand, I must choose wisely."
The knights nodded, their eyes to the Duke, ready to do his bidding.
"Who among you has never been tempted by beauty or treasure?"
The knights looked questionably at one another. "Your Grace?"
"Who can say he is not swayed by great beauty?"
"Of course we revere beauty, Your Grace," one knight said.
"Ah, but there is one whose heart has never been tempted by love, whose thoughts and deeds are firmly fixed upon the sword and my command."
Now the knights understood and all eyes turned to Heero.
"Your Grace?" Heero asked.
"Yea, Sir Yuy. I choose you."
Heero went down on bended knee, humbled.
"You will ensure the success of this errand. Now go and recruit foot soldiers and men of strong arm to guard my precious caravan."
Heero bowed his head. "Your Grace."
The knights were dismissed, but Heero remained, kneeling.
"Rise, sir knight."
Heero stood. "I am honored to be chosen."
"Am I free to carry out your bidding as I see fit?"
"What do you have in mind?"
Heero looked to the door to be certain they were alone. "A caravan will invite trouble. The roads are dangerous, but alone I could outmaneuver any enemy and travel thrice as fast."
"You propose to see this done... alone?"
"Yea, Your Grace. Alone I am less a target."
Treize's eyes narrowed. "What of your return?"
"A letter from you will convey your trust, allowing me to transport your love and a single chaperone. An unusual request to be sure, but it is the only way to avoid unnecessary attention."
"And my splendid gifts? I need to assure my love that my affection has not dampened."
"A letter sealed by your hand, is all I need. Surely your lady will understand."
A smile twitched on Treize's lips. "There is wisdom in your words. Caravans are attacked everyday and the rogues are obviously watching us. They won't expect a lone rider to be on an errand of great import. Do what you must, but bring my Chestnut safely and at God's speed."
Heero bowed deeply. "It will be my honor, Your Grace."
~ ~ ~
At dawn the next day, Heero set off on horseback with a full purse, a letter of introduction, and a bundle of the Duke's love letters. Treize had described in great detail the Blois family home in the village of Valence. Henri Blois was a wealthy and ambitious merchant with undoubtedly a very beautiful daughter who had caught the Duke's eye. Heero knew the scenario well. In recent years, many merchants had come into great wealth, buying lands and with them titles. Perhaps this one hoped to gain favor and a title with the gift of his daughter? It was an epidemic Heero and his fellow knights abhorred. One was born to nobility, not bought into it. It was a sign of the times as much as the rogues on the highway.
Heero's journey was marked only by fatigue and solitude. Despite the nature of the errand, he liked having a purpose, a mission to complete. More accolades and honors from his lord meant little to him, but he would complete this task well and fast.
At last he came to Valence, a village of great commerce and trade. He rode past its cathedral with its spires reaching to the heavens, and down the narrow streets crowded with peddlers, shopkeeps and dogs. The village smelled of cabbage and meat stews, warm bread and human waste. Finally, he reached the very heart of the merchant district where the town was alive with chatter and the comings and goings of those with a few coins in their pocket.
He scanned the shops from atop his steed, looking for the cloth merchant who possessed what his master sought. He wondered how the Duke had come upon this place. Where had he met the young lady? Or had he merely seen her across a room at a banquet at a neighboring lord's manor? It mattered not. He found the shop with the residence above, dismounted his horse, and entered.
A woman in a brown woolen dress was arranging cloth on a shelf.
"Good day, my lady," Heero said.
The woman turned to him, her eyes quickly taking him in. "Good day to you, sir."
"Are you Madame Blois?"
"Nay, I am but a servant of Monsieur Blois."
"Then is Monsieur Blois at home? I am on an errand of great import."
"He is not, but I can assist in your purchase."
"I must speak with someone in the Blois family. Is anyone at home?"
"Madame is home."
The woman gestured to an open door at the back of the store. Heero could see green, a small garden perhaps. He stepped forward to make his way to the door, but the young woman intercepted him. "You cannot go there without being invited, sir. Allow me to announce your presence to Madame. Who may I say is calling?"
Heero appraised the young woman. He could force his way past, but that would not do to putting him in their good graces. If the Blois family were going to release their daughter to his care, then he needed to step lightly. "Sir Yuy in the service of His Grace, the Duke Khushrenada."
The woman's face lit. "You bring word of the Duke's return?"
"I bring word for the Blois family. Please announce my arrival."
The woman's demeanor changed. She was unhappy not to be included in the momentous news. She turned from Heero, her skirt swishing as she headed to the back of the shop. Heero thought to follow, but kept his eagerness in check. The day was still young. He would have time to collect the girl and her chaperone and be gone before nightfall.
The servant was away but a moment when she came back with a young girl in a dress of palest blue, her hair to her shoulders in soft curls. The girl curtsied and then giggled.
"This is Sophie Blois," the servant said. "The youngest daughter of my employer."
Heero bowed graciously and allowed the girl to lead him to the family's private quarters. Indeed there was a small garden behind the building. Being high summer, it was in bloom with roses and lavender, a small shade tree, and a vegetable patch. The mid-afternoon sun made the spot too warm for ladies, and so Heero was not surprised to find none of the family enjoying the green haven. He was instead led up a flight of stairs to the residence above the shop. Again, he did not understand why the Duke wanted to mingle with commoners, wealthy or not.
Upstairs, Heero was greeted by a servant who opened the door and ushered him in. The girl in the blue dress skipped away back down the stairs.
"Madame will see you in the parlor," the servant said, curtsying several times.
The accommodations were larger than expected and exhibited all the outward signs of a nobleman's house, revealing higher aspirations. Colorful tapestries hung on the walls, richly woven rugs covered the floors, and an abundance of furniture cluttered the rooms. In the parlor, Madame Blois stood to greet him. She wore a fine, green woolen dress over a linen under dress. Her hair was carefully tucked inside a linen and lace cap.
"Sir knight. We are honored by your visit."
Heero went on bended knee as he would for ladies of the court, and bowed his head. "I come with greetings from the Duke Treize Khushrenada." From within his cloak, he took the letter of introduction, sealed with the Duke's emblem, and handed it to the woman.
"Thank you, good sir." She returned to her chair to read the letter and indicated for him to rise and be seated across from her. "I regret my husband is not here to welcome you," she said, her eyes scanning the letter. "The Duke wishes for you to escort my Chestnut."
Yea, Chestnut, Heero thought. The Duke had also used that reference when speaking of his love.
"He says the roads are not safe, but you are his most trusted and brave knight." The woman looked to Heero, her eyes filled with concern.
"He honors me with his words."
"I know the Duke only very little, but I would say he is not one to give undue flattery."
Heero bowed his head slightly. "When will your husband be returning?"
"We expect him this evening. He has gone to inspect the progress on our country home. It came with the land we purchased, but was in ill repair. He did not want to move us until the place is more livable."
Heero nodded. The family certainly fit the type who aspired above their station, but despite his contempt for their ambition he found he liked Madame Blois. She had a sweet innocence about her.
"I'm sure Henri will be most pleased to meet you. We will all sup together this night."
Heero's brow knit. "Perhaps another time. My charge is to return quickly."
"But surely you must rest? How many days have you journeyed?"
"Only three? I thought the distance much greater to the Duke's lands."
"The highways are dangerous, my lady. I took no chances, nor will I on my return. Your daughter will be safe with me."
"Yea, her safe and speedy passage will make his Lordship happy. I do apologize for the hastiness of her departure, but it cannot be helped."
"I don't understand, sir. What has this to do with one of my daughters?"
"It is understandable that you expected a caravan to convey her in elegance, but the rogue bands have made such travel dangerous. This is the only way."
The woman shook her head, seeming confused. "Perhaps you would care for some refreshment? You must be overheated by your journey." She rang for her servant, telling the young woman to bring wine, fruit, cheese and bread. The servant curtsied and was gone. "Now tell me of the Duke. It has been some months since our acquaintance. Does he fair well?"
"Very well, Madame," Heero said. He was eager to quit this place and begin his return journey, but a true knight was gracious.
"Life in his court must be splendid. He's invited all of us, but as you say, this is no time for casual travel. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on the craftsmen to complete the work as specified and so my husband had to make the journey to our country home today."
"I pray he is sufficiently armed."
"He takes no risks. He hired two swordsmen to accompany him."
Just then a young woman wearing a dress of the deepest blue came into the room.
"This is my second daughter, Jean-Marie."
Heero stood and bowed.
"Dear, this is Sir Heero Yuy... one of the Duke's knights."
"Sir knight," the young woman said with a curtsy. "Where is the Duke? We have been expecting him."
"He is a man of great responsibility, but he has not let us down," Madame Blois said, patting the letter in her lap. "He keeps his promise by sending this knight in his stead."
"That's wonderful, mama. Does our little Chestnut know?"
"No, dear, but you could share the news. Let the cook know there will be a guest joining us for supper."
"Madame, I apologize for the lack of forewarning, but it is my intention to depart as quickly as possible. Please tell your daughter to prepare to leave... and to pack light."
Madame Blois raised her brow, a look of dismay on her face. "This cannot be His Grace's wish. We need time... there is much to do." The woman waved off her daughter, who rushed from the room. "Sir Yuy, you have only just arrived, and as you can see we were not prepared for your visit. We would not want His Grace to hear that we did not offer you every hospitality."
Heero took a breath. Would he need to abduct the Duke's lover in order to complete his task? Surely the longer he stayed here, the greater the chance that word would get out about his presence and his intentions. Women were never good at keeping secrets. Soon the whole town would be swarming with opportunists and criminals.
"If I may ask... how many daughters do you have?"
The woman's face brightened. "There are five, all of age except for Sophie. You will have a chance to meet the others soon. Henri can discuss their dowries with you."
Heero gulped. That hadn't been his intent, but it was too late to take the question back now.
A moment later, the food and wine was brought in by the servant girl and placed on a side table next to Heero. She poured the wine and left. Madame Blois continued the conversation as Heero ate and drank. Indeed, he did sorely need the replenishment. He noted the sound of hurried activity in the other rooms and suspected the girls were prettying themselves for his benefit. Though the mother and the two daughters he had seen were pleasant in appearance, they were not great beauties, and the Duke was a collector of very beautiful things. Heero had yet to see anything or anyone that would make this arrangement beneficial to the Duke.
As time passed, and no more daughters appeared, Heero became impatient. It would seem they were determined to keep him as long as possible. But why hadn't he been introduced to the young lady in question? Had some terrible accident befallen her and they were afraid to reveal this fact? Perhaps she had died in the months since Treize had been here? Or had been married off and now Madame Blois hoped Heero would take one of her other daughters instead?
At last Heero could wait no more. "Madame, there can be no doubt who I am and why I am here. Please forgive my abruptness, but I have letters of great import to convey." Heero stood, noting the look of surprise on the woman's face. "Now please, direct me."
With tightness in her voice, Madame Blois pointed down the hall. "The last door on the left."