The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Two - Chestnut
Heero bowed and strode from the room, his cloak flowing behind him as his heart pounded with anticipation. Once he met the lady and delivered the letters, he could explain the need for speed. Surely a love of Treize Khushrenada would heed such advice and not delay, even if her mother had other plans.
At the door, Heero could hear the murmurings of female voices. With his tap, tap, tap the sounds hushed.
"Who is it?"
That must be the maiden in question, he thought. "It is Sir Yuy, proxy of His Grace the Duke Khushrenada."
The sound of giggling and soft footsteps could be heard. The door inched open and brown eyes blinked at him. "We are not ready."
"Time is of the essence," he said.
"Time is fleeting," the girl said and giggled.
Was this the one? "I have personal correspondence from the Duke."
"Give it to me," she said.
Heero's brow knotted. This could not be the Duke's love. "I must convey the letters directly."
The girl blinked. "Just a moment."
The door closed and whispers could be heard. At last, the door opened again, this time wide enough to welcome him.
He stepped inside the bright room and his eyes fell upon a grouping of young ladies. At their center, with her back to him and having her hair brushed by the others, was a lady with long, chestnut-colored hair. She had to be the one.
"Forgive my intrusion," he said, diverting his gaze. In an instant, he was on bended knee and bowing his head.
It was not customary for a lady to show her hair to anyone but her lover, for certainly her hair was the very symbol of her loveliness and seductiveness. Letting him into the room before she had properly covered her head was a great error. How could he explain to the Duke that he had seen his lady's hair?
Nearly stumbling over the words, Heero introduced himself as he knelt. "I am Heero Yuy, Knight of the House of Khushrenada. I am your humble servant, my lady."
Titters of laughter from the women brought Heero's eyes up, albeit warily. What had he said to humor them?
"His Grace has asked me to bring you safely to his side, but first I am to give you these." Heero reached into his cloak, pulling out a bundle of letters sealed and wrapped in red silk ribbon. He held out the bundle, his eyes downcast.
The lady in question turned. He could see the bottom of her green silk robe, pooled at her stocking feet.
"Thank you," came the response as the letters were taken from his hand.
Heero's brow furrowed. That voice was not the voice of a lady. It was far too deep. He looked up, his eyes meeting large, violet blue orbs and smiling lips. Indeed, she was not a lady at all, but a young man.
"What trick is this?" Heero asked, snatching the letters back.
"Trick?" the young man asked. "Why do you say that?"
"You are not a lady, sir," Heero said, getting to his feet.
"I thank you for noticing," the young man said, causing the ladies to laugh again. "But how is my sex a trick?"
"Where is the young lady who has captured His Grace's heart?"
"She does not exist," the young man asserted with some humor.
Heero was thoroughly confused. Why hadn't he thought to get the name of the young lady? He looked to the bundle of sealed letters, but the Duke had merely written "My Love" on the envelopes.
"Who is Chestnut?" Heero asked, knowing the Duke had used that appellation and hearing it here as well.
"I am," the young man said, now standing. "My family calls me that for the color of my hair, and His Grace found it equally appropriate."
Indeed, the young man's hair was of a rich, chestnut color. But still, Heero felt he was being made a fool. The Duke had never indicated his love was male. Though that was not entirely impossible, surely Heero would not have been sent on so dangerous an errand to retrieve a boy for his liege's bed.
"Now may I have my letters?" the young man asked, holding out his hand.
Heero appraised the youth carefully. He stood boldly, seeming comfortable in his skin, and was dressed in a deep brown, short tunic with long sleeves, and green hose covering shapely legs. The green silk robe had since fallen from his shoulders to the floor.
Heero was perplexed at how to proceed. On the one hand, he was bound by duty to see this through, but he could not help but feel anger and embarrassment at the position in which he had been placed. Male love was not unknown to him, but to be used as an accomplice to it made him uncomfortable. However, for the moment duty propelled him.
"How can I be certain you are who you claim to be?"
"How could I be any other?"
"This is no time for games," Heero said, losing patience.
The young man waved off his sisters who left the room. He sat back down at his bureau, taking a black silk ribbon and pulling his hair back, tying it off. The ribbon, Heero noted, was the same as the one that had been tied around the lock of hair the Duke treasured.
Heero stepped closer. "What is your name?"
The youth looked up at the knight, defiantly. "I am Duo Maxwell, but those acquainted with me call me Chestnut."
"Maxwell and not Blois?"
"Henri Blois is my stepfather."
It seemed the Duke had played a little joke on Heero, not giving him more details. But despite Heero's growing belief that this was the "Chestnut" in question, he needed more evidence.
"Is there no proof you can show me to identify yourself as the Duke's love?"
The young man sighed. "Perhaps he no longer carries the locket of my hair I gave him?"
Heero knew the boy could guess that a man would carry some of his lover's hair, but in this case it was true. To Heero's memory the lock of hair in the Duke's hand had looked remarkably like the hair he saw before him now.
"And what will the Duke say when you return without me?" The young man's eyes shimmered with the challenge.
"How can I be sure this is not a trick? And you are not trying to replace one of your sisters on this journey?"
"You think they would let me? They would sooner claw out my eyes."
Heero met the young man's gaze, hesitating to rebut his comment.
"Give me the letters. There must be something within to verify my claim that I am the one you have come to escort."
Heero looked to the letters and then back at the youth. It would be a breech to hand the letters to the wrong recipient, but in this case he thought to take that chance.
"Here," he said, setting the letters on the bureau. "But find your proof quickly or I will return alone, consequences or no."
The young man took the letters, running his fingers over the fine parchment and the Duke's seal. He glanced at Heero, seeming uncomfortable at opening them before him.
Heero stepped back, finding a small chair some feet away-to watch, but not to intrude. The youth paged through the letters, obviously not taking the time he would like to read them. Heero noted that if nothing else, this Duo Maxwell was literate, quick witted, and not as plain as the women of the household. Perhaps this was how he had stood out to the Duke.
At last, with the third letter opened, the young man looked up smiling. "Here it is. The proof you seek."
He held the letter out, dangling it for Heero to retrieve. Heero stood and leant forward, taking the letter in hand.
"Read the third line, sir knight."
Heero hesitated. How could he read the personal correspondence, a love letter of the Duke? But just this one line, if it truly held the verification he needed, then he would be justified. He skimmed down to the third line, carefully trying not to read anything unnecessarily.
"Read it out loud," the young man encouraged.
Heero looked up, hearing the challenge, and then returned his eyes to the line. "Your beauty shone to me in the early spring, if only I could see you, sweet Duo, lying in the summer's grass." He took his eyes from the page and handed it back, his embarrassment growing.
The young man slipped into leather ankle boots, got up from his chair, and collecting his letters exited the room without another word.
Heero followed, but was waylaid by Madame Blois offering more wine. With the goblet in his hand, Heero watched as the Duke's lover headed down the stairs and out of sight.
~ ~ ~
Henri Blois entered the house like a wild boar, cursing at the servants and sweating with the exertion of the slightest motion. He was a rotund man of average height with a heavy beard, and his green woolen clothes were dusty and smelled of the road. None in the household seemed to notice the sharpness of air about him-except Duo. Heero had not seen one hair of the young man since that afternoon, but now he magically appeared, along with the others, to greet the patriarch of the family.
Heero stood aside and watched as the daughters showered their father with kisses to his shining cheek, the servants took his cloak and handed him a goblet of wine, and his wife smiled approvingly. But Duo never quite approached the man. Instead, from several paces off, he said the obligatory, "You look well, stepfather." Turning, he scrunched his nose at the foul odor emanating from the man. Heero grinned inwardly.
At last the knight was introduced, and Monsieur Blois made certain to point out that Heero could find no better accommodations in Valence, not even at the mayor's house. Once again, Heero made his case for a hasty departure, but was rebuked. He was then ushered into the dining room with the eldest daughter on his arm.
The hearty and flavorful meal of pheasant, potatoes and leeks was consumed with such fervor that Heero was reminded of eating on the march with the threat of battle looming over the next ridge. Henri Blois dominated the gathering, hardly allowing anyone to speak save to agree with him. The man's self-importance and efforts to impress prompted Heero to only half listen.
The knight settled in, biding his time as he pondered a plan to escape with his charge. He had yet to accept Duo as a match for the Duke and wondered if this family understood Treize's intentions for their son. There seemed to be some indication that they thought Duo was leaving to join the Duke's household and take up a position of importance there, possibly even attaining a title. However, the women folk had hinted that Duo's favor with the Duke was more than platonic. No matter the case, they were anxious for Duo to depart, just not this night.
As the servant returned with another pitcher of wine, Henri held out his arm to stop her from refilling their guest's goblet. "Away with you now girl," he said.
Obediently the girl curtsied and left the pitcher at one end of the table.
"Duo, pour Sir Yuy another glass of wine."
All eyes turned to Duo. From across the table, Heero could see the mix of confusion and agitation on the young man's face as he stared at his stepfather.
"This knight represents the Duke, and you should look on it as an honor to serve him."
Heero could not be certain, but he thought he saw a flash of rebellion in those large, vibrant eyes. Slowly, Duo stood to retrieve the pitcher. Heero noted that Henri's scrutiny never wavered from Duo, seeming ready to criticize at each step as the young man made his way around the table.
At last, Duo stood behind Heero. Leaning over slightly, he asked, "Would you care for more wine, sir?"
"Of course, he would!" Henri bellowed. "Don't be such a fool."
Heero looked to Monsieur Blois, angered by the harsh words, and instinctively wanting to protect this young man from them. He opened his mouth to speak, but suddenly there was a gentle touch to his shoulder. He looked up into Duo's face. The young man had placed his hand on Heero's shoulder, seeming to sense the imminent confrontation.
"It is an honor to serve you," Duo said. A strand of the chestnut hair brushed Heero's cheek as Duo leant forward to pour the wine.
"Thank you," Heero said, swallowing hard. His eyes remained fixed on Duo's face until he stepped away.
~ ~ ~
After dinner the family disbanded into small groups, and Heero slipped away into the garden. The house had been quite warm even after handing over his cloak to a servant to be brushed clean of the road dust. It felt good to step outside and enjoy the evening air, attired simply in a short tunic and hose of fawn brown, belt and black thigh-high boots.
He found Duo sitting near a rosebush, reading the Duke's letters.
"It is a fine evening," Heero said.
Duo glanced up, but his eyes quickly re-settled on the ivory paper. "Yea."
Heero moved closer, curious. "I do not mean to intrude."
Duo looked up again. "Then why are you?"
"I only wished to say that I thought your father..."
Heero nodded. "Your stepfather had no right speaking to you that way."
Duo's brow furrowed. "What concern is it of yours?"
"Perhaps none, but you are now my charge and---"
"And nothing, sir. I don't know what Treize told you, but I can't imagine it included prying into my personal life."
The familiar use of the Duke's name surprised Heero, but he supposed Duo had a right to that familiarity in this private setting.
"You're right, of course." Heero watched as Duo's attention returned to the letters. He now had a sense for what they entailed-words of longing from a man who wanted this boy. No, not a boy, Duo Maxwell was a young man, and one with a definite sense of self. "I'll leave you to your privacy." Heero bowed.
"Why did Treize choose you to come here?"
Heero met Duo's eyes as he straightened from his bow. "His Grace honored me by his choice."
"Treize speaks highly of you," Duo said, as he raised one of the letters. "But I do not understand why."
"Perhaps it is not for you to understand."
"You think me simple?"
"Nay," Heero said.
"Then what say you now that you have learned your charge is male sexed?"
"If you are asking whether I was surprised to learn you are a man, the answer is yea. But I am no less honored to complete my task."
"All knights are the same," Duo said, shaking his head. "You speak of honor, love and beauty, but all you do is make war."
"Kings make war. Knights are merely their servants like all else in the land."
Duo laughed. "If you believe that then you are the simple one."
There is fire here, Heero thought. "Would you allow me the same candor?"
"Speak as you like, sir."
"Your family is ill-advised in suggesting that we delay. The roads are dangerous and the longer I am here the more likely our plans will become known."
"Everyone knows the roads are dangerous. Isn't that why Treize sent you? He writes that you are his best swordsman."
"He honors me with his praise, but I am but one."
"Then this is a fool's errand," Duo said, standing. "I'll wait for a proper entourage."
"You may wait if you choose, but I persuaded His Grace to send only me. And now that I have learned of your correct sex, we do not need a chaperone. We will move with greater speed and secrecy if we are but two."
The young man's brow tightened as he seemed to weigh his options. "You're serious?"
"I thought it was a game," Duo said with a little laugh. "Mother said you were alone, and Treize wrote you were alone, but I thought surely there would be more and you were but the scout."
"Now that you understand this is not the case, you must see the necessity of this hardship."
"I see that I have no choice," Duo said, brushing a leaf from his hose-clad thigh.
"There is always a choice," Heero countered, looking eye to eye with the rose-perfumed young man.
"Then I choose not to go," Duo said, stepping away.
Heero boldly took hold of Duo's wrist, stopping his motion. The boy's head turned sharply, his violet eyes boring into Heero's.
"You said it was my choice," Duo repeated.
"I cannot leave without you."
A coy smile curled Duo's lips. "That's what they all say."
Heero nearly growled as he let go of the wrist. "You are my charge and I'm telling you we must leave at once."
"What... at dusk? Are you mad? If you think the roads are dangerous in daylight they are deadly by night. Surely Treize did not ask you to return with me at the cost of my life!"
Duo fled into the house with Heero staring after him. What folly this had become. It seemed every member of this household conspired against him-Duo especially. For someone who was supposedly eager to be reunited with his lover, the young man with the long hair did not seem in a hurry to depart. But perhaps Heero could understand this. Surely Duo had expected finery and pomp, but was given merely a handful of letters and one knight as his escort. He was most likely disappointed, and his feminine qualities, all too apparent in his perfumed skin, coiffed hair, and softly tailored clothes, suggested he had not the sensibilities of a soldier or a nobleman.
~ ~ ~
His dreams were shrouded in darkness and whispers. He had been drawn into a world that he knew not and that did not want him. It was all wrong, but there was no way out, no turning back. He had to move forward, he had to get out, but something was holding him back. The more he struggled, the more his limbs felt weighted, and the tighter the grip on his arm.
"Nay," he said, beginning to panic. "I shouldn't be here."
There was a tug at his arm, a shake. He turned to see who held him, who was keeping him here, but there was only darkness.
"We must leave," a voice said.
He squinted, trying to see, but his eyelids were heavy and the room dark. "I'm trying to leave."
"Now," the voice said harshly.
A firmer shake and his eyes began to clear, to open. There was a dim light. A candle light at the foot of his bed.
"We can delay no longer."
"What?" He stared into a shadowed face. Was he still dreaming? No, this was real. It was the knight, waking him.
"We must leave before light, and I will take you with me willing or no."
He swallowed, not understanding. "Is Treize here?"
"You're dreaming. Wake yourself fully and let us be away. This has gone on long enough."
Hands gripped his arms, pulling him upright.
"Leave me," he said, pushing at the knight. "What hour is this?"
"Are you awake?"
Duo nodded, but his thoughts were still foggy with the dream. "Why have you wakened me?"
"It is time for us to leave, and you should thank me. You were thrashing in your sleep. I would say it was not a happy dream."
Duo rubbed his eyes. "Are all knights as arrogant as you?"
The knight's eyes narrowed. "Get up."
"I asked you the hour."
"It is several hours before the Angelus rings."
"What?" Duo sat fully upright now, his eyes focusing on the candlelit room. "We can't leave before dawn."
The knight yanked Duo from his bed, pulling him so hard that Duo fell into the young noble's arms.
"What are you doing?" Duo glared into dark eyes as he was held within the knight's black cloak.
"I'm taking you with me whether you're ready or not."
The arms about him were hard with purpose, but just as Duo felt inclined to lean further into the strong embrace he was set to rights. There he stood on the rug covered floor in his linen night dress and bare feet. "I can't leave without saying farewell to my family."
"There's no time. Do you have a bag packed?"
Duo pointed to his trunk and watched as the knight went over and opened it, shaking his head. "What is necessary for you to bring?"
"All of it," Duo said, peering into the trunk with him.
The knight looked at him with an intensity Duo had not seen before.
"Monsieur Maxwell," the knight said, his tone oddly calm, "What can I say to make you understand?"
"You want me to pack a smaller bag."
The knight nodded. "Now get dressed... and hurry."
With a rush, his escort stepped from the room, leaving the candle to flicker behind him.
Duo turned to his armoire, throwing the doors open to reveal his many choices. He laid his hands on a short tunic of light brown with sage green embroidery. A matching cloak, dark brown hose, and leather ankle boots completed his travel attire in which he quickly dressed. With the minutes ticking, and most assuredly the knight pacing outside his chamber door, Duo hurried to the trunk. There he retrieved a small bundle of letters he had written to the Duke, a comb, and a single change of clothes. This would have to suffice until he arrived at the Khushrenada fortress where he would be given a new wardrobe.
Closing the trunk, Duo stood back suddenly aware these were his last moments in this house. His mother had brought him here when he was only five after marrying the overbearing Henri Blois. The years had been marked with physical comforts, but little love other than that of his mother's. His stepfather never fully accepted him, hence the fact that he insisted Duo retain his deceased father's name. Even Duo's half sisters wavered in their affection, jealous of Duo's popularity among the townsfolk. Still, it was not easy to leave. This place was all he knew, other than vague memories of a seaport when he was quite young.
A light tap on the door broke his melancholy. He looked up to see the knight hesitantly re-entering the room. Without a word, Duo tucked the letters inside his tunic and retrieved a small woolen bag for his belongings.
"That's all you'll need?"
Duo nodded, certain his ability to travel light surprised the young man.
Knight Yuy took the bag from him and led the way out. Duo followed silently, feeling heaviness about him. He had long wished to escape this place, and when he had met the Duke Khushrenada his dream seemed within reach. The nobleman doted on him, offering him sweet words, exotic gifts, and at last the promise of a life far from Valence. When only this one knight appeared to fulfill that promise, Duo's dream of a triumphal departure evaporated. There would be no grand exit to turn his stepfather green with envy. Instead, he was leaving like a thief in the night.
Halfway down the hall, they were stopped by a tired little girl.
"What are you doing?" Duo's youngest sister asked with a yawn.
"Go back to bed, Sophie," Duo said, giving her a little push.
The girl looked to Heero, eyeing the bag and then back at her brother. "You're leaving? Weren't you going to say goodbye?"
Duo swallowed. He was very fond of Sophie. She had not let family politics interfere with her love of her big brother. But then, she was only six years old.
"I'm sorry," Duo whispered. "Say fare thee well for me... and tell everyone I'll write."
The girl lunged forward, grabbing Duo around the middle. "Nay, don't go."
Duo sucked in a breath, shocked by her affection. "Sophie," Duo cooed softly, petting her hair. "You know I can't stay here. I have to go... but we'll see each other again."
The girl looked up at him with shining brown eyes. "Promise?"
"I promise." Duo smiled, tears filling his eyes as well. "Now back to bed," he said, walking her into the room she shared with her sisters with her arms still about him.
Very quietly he tucked her into bed and kissed her forehead. The girl smiled up at him, her eyes blinking heavy with sleep. When he turned away a tear fell down his cheek. He swiped at it and returned to the corridor and his waiting escort.
"There'll be no more delays," Duo said, feeling as if he'd overcome a huge obstacle in his leaving.
The knight gave a curt nod and continued down the hall.
Outside, two horses were tethered to the back gate-one belonging to the knight, and the other to Duo's stepfather.
"We can't take this horse," Duo whispered. His heart was beginning to pound with the imminence of his departure.
"His Grace will make compensations," the knight assured.
Duo considered that, but realized this could be one way of getting back at Henri Blois for the years of emotional neglect. "I rather he didn't," Duo said with a smile. "Let's get out of here."
Despite having an armed knight at his side, Duo did not feel safe. There was something unnatural about being out after dark. Night travel was anything but the norm. No one roamed around after dark without good cause. For everyone's safety it was forbidden, unless you were of nobility and then you were exempt from all regulations.
Riding with the moon high above them, the sounds of the night called out to Duo. He heard everything as if for the first time-the scurrying of a rat, the screech of a cat in heat, and the cough of an old man from a darkened house. Each squeak, each stirring were cause for alarm as Duo swallowed hard and kept his eyes wide.
The oddity of being out after the curfew bell had rung made Duo's skin crawl. "I hope you know where you're going," he said, his tone staying low so as not to disturb whatever waited for them in the shadows.
"It's a clear night and there is only one road out of Valence."
Duo wasn't sure what to make of Sir Heero Yuy. He had not been among Treize's entourage in the spring when the Duke had made such a grand entrance at the wedding of a local countess. Nor had the name Yuy ever passed Treize's lips when he spoke of his host of knights. Yet, Treize's letter of introduction was so full of compliments for Heero Yuy that Duo wondered why he had never heard a ballad sung by the traveling minstrels in the young man's honor.