The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Five - Castle Khushrenada
A shove to his leg woke Duo abruptly. He opened his eyes to see Knight Yuy peering at him over the edge of the hayloft.
"We leave at once."
Those were the first words he had heard from the man since they had kissed. Like a command they were impersonal and harsh. Duo bristled from the tone.
"At once? I am not even half awake."
There was no reply as the knight disappeared down the ladder. He had slept elsewhere in the barn, and though it hadn't surprised Duo, it bothered him. He felt like a pariah, like all the cachet he had garnered for his bravery in the fight had washed away with the rain and a kiss.
"I'm too impulsive," he said, frowning.
He shouldn't regret that kiss-that bright moment of clarity that had drawn him to the knight's lips-but he ought to for his own sake. It was still early and he could easily be rejected by Treize if word of this reached his ears. But would the knight share such a delicate matter with his lord and master? He prayed not, and quickly pulled himself together, slipping on his leather boots and brushing the straw from his clothes. His cloak was still damp, but he was much improved physically from the previous rainy afternoon.
Outside, in the dim light of the new day, he found the horses ready to depart, and the knight handing coins to the old peasant. Knight Yuy turned, his eyes locking on Duo's for a split second and then he looked away. Duo shuddered, burned by the anger he saw there.
Duo mounted his mare and followed the knight back up the path to the main road. The horses were walked for some minutes, then trotted, and finally galloped. By their speed and the early hour of departure, Duo judged that the knight intended to finish their journey this day. The castle was yet a day's ride, but at this pace they might well make it inside the castle's gates before nightfall.
All at once, Duo felt a mix of excitement and dread. For months he had imagined living at the castle as the Duke's companion, but now he was unsure what to expect, or rather what was expected of him. Though Treize had sent him beautifully written letters expounding on Duo's beauty, there had been relatively little information about life behind the castle's walls. Certainly he knew it would be grand, and full of important people, but how would Duo fit into all of that? Would the great courtesies and attention shown to him in Valence continue? He was led to believe they would, but he was doubtful.
His stepfather had been delighted by the Duke's interest in Duo, interpreting the relationship as a nobleman's charity toward the less fortunate. The pudgy man made his stepson promise to do right by his family once settled in Lyon. He wanted Duo to promote Henri for the position of Keeper of the Wardrobe, and possibly buy a title for himself-Sir Maxwell had a certain ring to it. Duo was repulsed by Henri's schemes, but pretended to listen to keep the old man from shouting.
It was at the end of a very long day when Duo first glimpsed the Castle Khushrenada high on the Rhône River's banks. A substantial village clung to the west side of the castle's walls and down the hill, while the castle sat perched above the river. There was plenty of traffic on the river and on the road. They were no longer alone in their journey, and with the night fast approaching, all made great haste.
Duo frowned at his companion's back as they approached the castle's guardhouse. Knight Yuy had not spoken or looked at him the entire day, and Duo felt heaviness in his heart. There had been such promise of friendship between them that Duo could scarcely believe a simple kiss had washed that prospect away. And yet, the kiss had not been so simple. He had spent the better part of the night and this day thinking on it. It had been sweet like the first taste of wine in the morning, and nothing like Duo had experienced before.
Knight Yuy was recognized immediately by the guards and they were let through the castle's gates. Their horses' hooves echoed on the stones of the great courtyard. Torches were being lit as the last warmth of sunlight dipped under the horizon.
Their journey was at an end.
~ ~ ~
A groomsman came forward out of the stables to take their horses, and the pair dismounted. Duo made certain to take his bag with his few belongings before his horse was led away. Standing in the courtyard of the great castle, he suddenly felt very small. The stone walls and towers rose high above him, conveying the House of Khushrenada's strength. The courtyard bustled like market day in a town square. Servants unloaded carts of fresh melons and green vegetables while chickens ran between their feet, and young men wrestled as knights watched and placed bets on the outcome. Duo smiled, knowing Treize was lord here.
A young squire approached, bowing to Knight Yuy. "My lord, may I escort you to the main hall?"
"Nay," the knight said, seeming annoyed. "I know the way."
"His Grace will be pleased by your return. He mentioned your name just this morrow."
The knight was cutting across the courtyard now, and Duo followed quickly, feeling he could be easily forgotten out here. All day he had suffered silence, and now it seemed he was being discarded like an old shoe.
Duo caught up with the squire, who was at the knight's heels. "Is there somewhere I might wash before being presented to His Grace?"
The young man looked him up and down, and then smiled. "As it happens, the Duke is meeting with his steward. You will have ample time to prepare."
"Thank you, young sir," Duo said. At last, a small kindness today.
Inside the castle, Duo was handed over to a servant who led him down a dark hall to a small room. Despite a window with a pleasant view of the courtyard, the room's only purpose seemed to be for waiting. It was too small for a gathering of any size, and it held only a chair, and one wall tapestry.
By the time the boy returned with a basin of cold water, setting it on the window's ledge, Duo had changed out of his hose into the fresh blue hose from his travel bag. The matching tunic, draped over the back of the chair, was immediately noticed by the young servant.
"My lord, I will see to you."
Duo bit back a smile. He had never been called "my lord" before. The respect pleased him greatly. In just the few minutes he had been in Treize's hold, he could see how different his life would be.
The servant tended to him as though he was visiting nobility. His brown tunic was pulled over his head, along with his linen shirt. The boy dipped a cloth into the rose scented water and gently wiped away the dust and sweat on Duo's face, neck, hands and under his arms. Duo was grateful for the attention and to be able to meet Treize looking and smelling more presentable.
Another servant entered the room with a carafe of wine, and poured it into a goblet. Duo drank the sweet wine quickly, eager to quench his thirst, but also to calm his nerves. After several months of sending and receiving letters filled with promises and pretty words, Duo was unsure of the path he had set in motion. He closed his eyes and conjured an image of the man who had wooed him in the countess's garden. Tall, noble and worldly, Treize was like no man Duo had ever encountered. He had been overwhelmed and flattered by the Duke's attentions, and incapable of saying no.
He held the goblet out and more wine was poured and drank. He was making too much of this. Treize had sent for him, sent his best knight to bring Duo to his side. They would enjoy each other as promised, and when Treize grew tired of him, Duo would be sent away with jewels and baubles and pleasant memories.
Refreshed by the rose water, hair combed and re-braided, and wearing the blue tunic, hose and leather boots, Duo was ready to be presented. Gathering his letters, the ones he had written to Treize the night before his journey began, Duo was led to the main hall-the center of activity and prestige in the castle. There he came face-to-face with Knight Yuy once again.
The door to the hall was closed and guarded by two men-at-arms with pikes, wearing black tunics with the Duke's crest sewn over their left breasts-a golden lion's head emblazoned on a royal blue background with red roses. The guards reminded Duo of the towers outside, meters high and strong as stone.
He turned his eyes to Knight Yuy and gave a tentative smile. He felt a pleasure at seeing him again. "You must be pleased to be home," Duo said cordially.
"My home is in the north country."
"But you will remain here at the castle?"
The knight nodded.
"It's most beautiful," Duo said, looking about. There were tapestries on the walls, benches with cushions, and copper lamps hanging from the ceiling, illuminating what would be otherwise a dark corridor. "There must be a hundred rooms and more servants than I can count."
The knight glanced down the hall as if distracted by comings and goings there. Duo blew out a puff of air, stirring his bangs. He did not like being back to square one. It was as if they had not spent three days together, had not traveled side-by-side over rough terrain, through rain and mud, and across the dangerous countryside, and had not overcome great odds against rogues who would have preferred them ransomed or dead. No, Duo knew with certainty that this lack of chivalry had everything to do with breaking the spell of their growing friendship with a kiss that should have sealed their bond, but instead had shattered it.
"Sir knight," Duo began, ensuring the young man's attention. "I am sorry I kissed---" Just then the door to the great hall opened, startling Duo and ending his apology. He turned to the squire dressed in a green tunic with a rose-shaped brooch pinned over his left breast.
"I can announce you now," the squire said.
Duo followed the squire and the knight into the hall and was immediately overcome by its grandeur. The room was long, and nearly every inch of its walls covered with colorful tapestries. The floor was a mix of stone and tiles; the tiles red, yellow, white and blue and some held scenes of birds, animals, and people in daily tasks. Duo's eyes went up to the high ceiling painted in a heavenly scene of blue sky, white clouds, golden shooting stars, rare birds, and a bright sun at its center. The hall was meant to impress and Duo was honored to be here.
At the center was a large, long table set with iron candelabras and surrounded by benches. A massive carved chair sat at the far end of the table for the lord of the manor who was at the moment absent. Despite it being high summer, the castle's stone walls made the air inside cool and damp, and so a fire burned in the double hearth. Duo imagined the hall filled with guests dressed richly for a great feast, and hoped that he would soon experience the splendors of such a spectacle.
A side door opened and several men appeared, all wearing fine tunics of varying shades of brown and green. They bowed toward the room from which they came and walked with purpose out into the corridor. Seconds later a pack of greyhounds bounded into the hall, and following them the lord himself. Wherever he went, Treize commanded attention and respect, and even here, amid this vast space, with an audience of two, Treize was larger than life. He strode into the great hall, wearing a deep russet tunic with long sleeves, a heavy gold chain hanging loose at his waist, and thigh-high brown leather boots. He was the epitome of grace and power, and Knight Yuy immediately went on bended knee to greet him, with Duo following his example.
Duo's heart pounded. He suddenly felt very foolish and very out of place. Could he fit into this world, make Treize happy, and hope for some happiness himself?
"This is a most splendid day indeed!" Treize bellowed. "My most favored knight and my most fair Chestnut are here to greet me! Arise and let me look on you."
Duo raised his head, timid in responding to Treize's command.
"Yea, rise dear, Duo. You are most welcome in my home." The Duke held out his hand and Duo took it. "Ah, you are as fair as I remember." He kissed Duo's hand and smiled. "A kiss filled with welcome and promise."
Duo warmed, and took a breath before speaking. "It is a great pleasure to be in your presence again, Your Grace."
"Then you are not unhappy that I did not send a caravan?"
"Nay. Your letter explained your decision most clearly, and Knight Yuy brought me here safely."
Treize's eyes turned to the knight. "Sir Yuy, you have done me a great service. Your fealty will be rewarded."
"Thank you, my lord, but I seek no reward."
Treize chuckled. "That is refreshing to hear, but rewarded you will be." With a clap of his hands, servants appeared with wine and food, setting it on the long table and lighting one of the candelabras. "I know you are tired from your journey, but indulge me a short while."
~ ~ ~
Heero was tired. He longed to disappear into his bed chamber and sleep for days, but he would not fail his liege even in his whims.
Treize sat at the head of the table in the dark wood chair of his ancestors, oak inlaid with teak, mahogany and cherry, and intricately carved. Heero had seen lords with more elaborate seats from which to govern, some gilded in gold and others encrusted with jewels, but this chair spoke to the Khushrenada family's strength and longevity.
Heero was seated at the Duke's right on a long, wooden bench, and across the table from Duo Maxwell. Although Treize was capable of great theatrics, and his new love was certainly spirited, Heero was surprised and grateful for the chasteness of their reunion. He had struggled through the night and on the last leg of the journey to forget how it felt to have Duo close, to touch his hand, and to have his lips pressed against his own.
"I will light a candle in the chapel and pray this night," Heero said.
Treize popped a walnut into his mouth and chewed it slowly as he appraised his knight. "You have much to be thankful for or much to be forgiven?"
Heero glanced across the table. Was that a blush glowing on Duo's cheeks or was he merely warm from the fire?
"Yea, I am thankful for the journey's end," Heero said. He was thankful, but could not deny the guilt he felt in the small pleasure his time with Duo had given him.
"Tell me of the roads." Treize seemed satisfied and now wanted news of the countryside.
"I have little news of the main highways, but it would seem the rogues have cast a wide net. We encountered a small band west of the river in the forest lands."
"And you dispatched them?"
"They were five, well-trained men. Three or possibly four are dead."
Treize looked him over and then eyed Duo. "I'll want a full report of this, but tonight I see no reason to delay you." Treize was speaking to Heero, but he was no longer looking at him. It seemed the Duke now had other things on his mind.
"I am at your command."
"Yea, thank you, Sir Yuy." The Duke stood, prompting Heero and Duo to stand. "You have my deepest gratitude."
The knight bowed his head. "Thank you, my lord."
As he exited the hall, Heero turned to catch one more glimpse of Duo. The Duke held him in a tight embrace, kissing him. An unfamiliar ache stabbed at his chest. He put his hand on his breast and sighed. What had he done to deserve such a fate as this?
Fully intending to light a candle in the chapel, Heero headed in that direction though his legs would sooner take him to bed. Midway to his destination he encountered a cousin of the Duke's, the young Lord Quatre Winner.
"My lord," he said with a slight bow.
"Greetings, Sir Yuy. I heard but moments past that you had returned."
"Yea, we arrived safely after several days' journey."
The blond nobleman smiled. "We? Oh, you must be referring to the Duke's new love."
"Tell me, is he all Treize has said?"
"He is most... spirited."
Quatre laughed, but paused before speaking again as several ladies passed them in the corridor. "I understand you traveled alone. That was a gamble."
"The roads are dangerous."
"Yea, these are dangerous times," Quatre affirmed. "Would you care to join me for a late supper? I would enjoy hearing of your adventure and I have some time before my appointment."
Heero knew all too well the appointment of which Quatre spoke. The northern Italian nobleman was having an affair with one of the servants, and as Quatre's friend, Heero was uncomfortably privy to many of the details. Trowa Barton, a peasant by birth, had worked his way up to a position of responsibility under the Marshal of Stables. Trowa's innate understanding of horses had made him an invaluable member of the staff, and the apple of Quatre's eye.
"Your invitation is most appreciated, but I would not be good company this evening."
Quatre stepped closer, seeming to search for something in Heero's eyes. "You look tired, but I sense that something in you has changed since last we met."
"Nothing has changed."
"Then perhaps I am mistaken. I will delay you no longer, but let us make plans to sup together soon."
"I would enjoy that. Fare thee well, friend."
"Fare thee well," Quatre said with a smile and was quickly on his way.