The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Seven - Betwixt and Between
Duo waited nervously in the anteroom trying not to stare at the chancellor and his aide. The chancellor, a man of advanced years, was seated in a cushioned chair and dressed in a heavy blue robe edged in fox fur, and a linen cap on his head. The aide looked young, perhaps barely sixteen, and was dressed in a plain black tunic, red cowl and hose, and green leather shoes. They were an odd and unfriendly pair, and Duo jumped to his feet when Sir Yuy finally joined them.
The knight gave him a small nod of acknowledgement and then formal greetings were made to the chancellor. The meeting began at once with the Duke’s chancellor barking to his assistant to take an accurate account.
Sir Yuy stood before the elderly man, his hands clasped behind his back. He began their tale with recollections of the men at the inn and his sense that he and his charge were being followed. Duo swallowed hard hearing the accurate retelling and knowing that he had sourly opposed the knight on their journey.
He sat perched on the edge of a chair with eyes fixed on Sir Yuy. He was fascinated by his perspective and how he paused for the scribe’s sake. His language was careful and measured as though he was negotiating a treaty rather than simply relaying events on the road. Duo wished he knew more about him and that they had confided in each other instead of being at odds. He wanted to believe that their similarities outweighed their differences, being young men of about the same age, but their stations in life separated them in more ways than could be counted. Still, Duo found ways to admire him.
Sir Yuy held himself in an almost graceful manner. He was not so large, but his presence was noble and confident, and his stature that of a warrior’s. He was a man comfortable in his surroundings, whereas Duo stumbled to understand his place in the world and more immediately at Castle Khushrenada, although his place in the Duke’s bed chambers was well sorted out.
Treize was a generous lover, overwhelming Duo with lavish gifts and attention. Even the Duke’s demanding nature was tolerable. But each time Treize kissed him, Duo compared it to a kiss shared with another days before. A kiss that was bound by secrecy and he was at a loss to explain why it still ghosted his lips. He had been kissed by a string of men, and yet no kiss was as memorable as the one from a knight who would barely meet his eyes.
It tied Duo up in knots to recall how soft Heero’s lips had been on his. Even now, watching Sir Yuy regale their battle with the rogues, Duo was drawn to him. His thoughts drifted back to the woods, to the moment the knight had caught him in those strong arms. Oh, to embrace again with the rain upon them, and to have his body blush on finding himself in the knight’s bed, and not another’s.
The repetitive tap of the chancellor’s cane on the tile floor jarred Duo from his ruminations.
"Young man," the chancellor bellowed. "Do you have something to add to Sir Yuy’s account or do you intend on wasting my time?"
Duo blinked. He was unaware that his daydreaming had gone on that long. Fortunately, he had paid attention that morning when the knight had reported to Treize.
"The rogues," he said, standing somewhat uneasily. "Were a curious lot."
The chancellor’s eyes narrowed, seeming to indicate his annoyance. "Go on."
"They fought and carried swords like Crusaders, but their clothes were of coarse wool. If they were any good at highway robbery they would be wearing finer tunics."
The aide let out a giggle, and the chancellor smacked his leg with the cane to silence him. Then he turned his gray eyes to Duo. "A simple answer from a simple young man."
"Nay, sir. Their attire---"
"This interview is concluded," the chancellor said, cutting him off. The elderly man was eased out of his chair and slowly led from the room by his aide.
Knight Yuy turned to Duo with a scowl on his face. "You were disrespectful to the chancellor."
"If anyone was disrespectful it was him, calling me simple. I answered his question."
"You did not give him the courtesy he deserves. He has served the House of Khushrenada for two generations."
"And he looks it." Duo snickered. "Besides, I am right about the clothing. That fact should not be overlooked."
The knight shook his head. "Your spirit may amuse the Duke, but I doubt he will be pleased when the chancellor gives his opinion of you."
"Treize is not concerned about what others think. If he was, he would have taken a wife." Duo folded his arms over his chest and held his chin high, ready to engage, but the knight turned on his heel to leave. Duo’s heart leapt to his throat and he reached out, grabbing the young man’s sleeve. "Sir!"
Knight Yuy stopped and turned to him. "Yea?"
"I... I wish to inquire about your wound. Is it healing?" His evident concern seemed to fluster the knight who hesitated to answer.
"I am well," he said at last.
They looked at each other for an uncomfortable moment, and then Sir Yuy turned and made a quick exit. Duo plopped back down in the chair with a great puff of air from his lungs. Maybe it was best that the knight kept his distance. In the meantime, Duo would learn to navigate this strange world. Henri Blois had often chided him for never being satisfied-a criticism Duo could not understand coming from a man who schemed with the best of them. Certainly it was better to uplift one’s position in life rather than accept the cards one was dealt. If the class system would not let one move up in an obvious way, then attack the problem from a different angle. His stepfather had done as much by making his business successful and earning his family a comfortable life. But Duo did not dream of being a tailor with his own shop, he dreamed of spreading his wings. What that meant and how he accomplished it he did not know, but he had taken his first big step by leaving Valence.
A young page came looking for Duo and escorted him back to the stable yard. There he found a colorful assembly on horseback with the Duke at its center.
"We are riding in the countryside to inspect my lands," Treize said.
The Duke was mounted on an elegant white steed draped in sky blue cloth embroidered with red roses. Next to him, the gracious Lord Winner was astride a beautiful dapple gray horse draped in a striped cloth of sunflower yellow and white. The others, knights and attendants, completed the gathering.
"With your meeting complete you will be able to join us."
Duo swallowed a groan. His ass had never worked this hard in his life-on horseback and otherwise. But denying the lord of the castle the attendance of his personal companion was not an option. Duo managed a smile which brightened when he saw his roan draped in finery and being led by the quiet stable hand, Trowa.
"My lord, I am overwhelmed." Duo bowed at the waist and there was some murmuring among the knights.
Treize held up his hand to silence them. "You would do well to watch his form in the saddle."
Duo cringed, wishing the Duke had worded that differently.
The roan wore a metal bridle with double reins, one of which was decorated with green and red fabric. The same vibrant fabric was draped in strips across the horse’s chest and rump, and covering the horse’s back was a finely tooled leather saddle. Duo understood that an individual’s attire and the level of embellishment on each horse was an indication of status among the riding party. Comparing the fabric and decoration on his horse to the others, he was of a higher consequence than a retainer, but lower than a knight. Not bad for the son of a tailor.
The group set off from the bailey and through the castle’s main courtyard. As they trotted over the wooden plank bridge, lowered to allow daytime traffic to and from the fortress, Duo felt a sense of relief. The world was large and open beyond the stone walls and he breathed deeply of the warm air as though he had been trapped in a dungeon for days. Was he so restless that even the security of the castle was oppressive?
Some distance along the road they came to a small grouping of merchants traveling with their wares. The men bowed deeply and begged of his lordship’s time. Treize was eager to hear their concerns and announced they would pause for an interlude.
With the Duke distracted, Lord Winner pulled his horse back to speak with Duo. The young nobleman’s pretty features and calm nature were a curiosity to Duo.
"If he allowed it, the locals would line up all day and into the night to speak with him," Lord Winner said.
"They know he is a good man."
"Yea, and he enjoys a connection to them and the land."
Duo was confused by the nobleman’s interest in him. Surely one of the knights was better suited for this conversation, but he was not in a position to withdraw.
Lord Winner lifted his chin toward a large oak. "Shade would do me good. Join me?"
Duo nodded and broke away from the group with Lord Winner. They rode a hundred yards to the shelter of the leafy, ancient tree. When the nobleman dismounted, so did Duo, both tying their horses to a low branch.
Lord Winner stretched his arms and gave a great sigh of relief. "I am no horseman though I prefer it to traversing the roads by wagon."
"Your lands are in the north of Italy, my lord?"
"Yea, that is right. The Duke and I are distant cousins, but he has done much for my education. I have spent half a year here since I was a child."
"Your home away from home?"
The nobleman smiled. "It has become so, though I prefer the cool temperatures of the mountains where the Winner Castle is located. And what of your home, Duo?"
"Valence is not so grand though my family’s home was pleasant enough."
"And your family does a profitable trade in cloth?"
"Yea, my lord."
"Is it your intention to continue in the trade?"
"Nay, my stepfather and I did not get along. It was best for me to leave."
"Oh, I see." The nobleman looked on him intently. "Now, tell me about my dear cousin. Is he treating you well?"
Duo coughed, not expecting such a direct question. "I am most happy and grateful for the Duke’s generosity."
"You can tell me anything. I do not intend to share this conversation with him. I am merely curious about your well being."
"And not your cousin’s?"
"Treize can take care of himself. He is a formidable man and his wants can be overwhelming at times. But listen to me go on, my dear friend, Heero, would say I am like an old woman."
"Sir Yuy?" Duo’s breath caught, hearing the knight’s name.
The nobleman’s eyes lighted with Duo’s reaction. "Yea, the knight who saved your life. That is a debt not easily re-paid."
"Do you believe me to be remiss in my gratitude?"
"I am sure my cousin has rewarded him."
"But I have not... cannot reward him."
"Are you certain?" Lord Winner’s aquamarine eyes danced with mischief. "Methinks you are the only one that can repay him sufficiently." The blond nobleman looked about as if unsure they were entirely alone, and then leaned closer to Duo. "You could bring life to his dull existence."
Duo blinked in shock. Did he think that Duo should bed the knight, since he was already servicing another nobleman at the castle? The suggestion filled him with anger and embarrassment, but Lord Winner placed his hand lightly on Duo’s arm, seeming to sense his concern.
"I do not wish to upset you," Lord Winner said. "But I feel right to guide you toward a mutually acceptable resolution."
Duo shook his head, trying to make sense of the resolution the nobleman sought. "Sir, I beg patience as you explain this."
Just then one of the attendants rode up, announcing that the Duke was ready to continue, and effectively ending the strange conversation.
"We will speak again," Lord Winner said.
The northern Italian nobleman reminded Duo of someone back in Valence-the baker’s wife who was known for gossip and matchmaking. Duo’s eyes widened with the connection. Surely, Lord Winner was neither of those things.
~ ~ ~
In the castle’s courtyard the riding party was met by a flurry of servants, each one more anxious than the next to serve the lord of the castle. Duo watched with fascination as Treize was handed a cool cloth to wipe the perspiration from his brow, and a cup of deep, red wine.
On the surface, Treize lived a life of luxury without responsibility, but even in the short time that Duo had been at the castle he observed otherwise. Treize made himself available at all times conferring with his steward, chancellor, knights, and local officials on matters of great import. The rogues were but one of the many concerns brought before the Duke. He also looked after the well being and safety of those living on his lands, acted as judge in their disputes, and in times of war battled for crown and country.
Duo had admired Treize since their first meeting, and that admiration had grown under closer inspection. But he did not want to simply admire the man, he wanted to love him. He wanted to feel as if a fire-brand burned in his heart each time he saw him. Dalliances with men of consequence had never amounted to anything more than a few coins in Duo’s hand, and then Treize happened. He was a true nobleman, courting him, taking an interest in a way no one else ever had.
The beautiful love sonnets written in Treize’s elegant hand made it easy for Duo to commit to the offer of living within castle walls, but there was one unforeseen hurdle to overcome. Instead of Treize returning for Duo as promised, the man’s responsibilities kept him from the task. Honorably, he sent his best and most trusted knight to complete the errand. For all his anger at the change in plans, Duo had been intrigued by the dark handsomeness of his escort. Who was this forceful and duty-driven knight with the knowing eyes? He was like no other.
Duo walked beside the Duke as they made their way to his private rooms. There was every indication that Treize intended to spend the rest of the day abed, his strides were long and his hand was clasp firmly at Duo’s elbow. Their momentum was briefly interrupted when a page approached them holding out a small silver tray with a letter set on it.
The Duke took the letter and continued walking, opening it as they went. "Ah, it is from Henri Blois."
Duo’s shoulders tensed.
"He inquires to my health, and trusts that his son is of service to me." Treize chuckled.
"Is that all, my lord?" Duo asked anxiously.
"One moment... Yea, here is the purpose. He wishes to see his son knighted." Treize stopped in the corridor and looked down at Duo. "Is that right? Do you wish to become a knight?"
"My stepfather has grand ideas," Duo said with a weak smile.
Treize’s gaze narrowed on him, and Duo felt his position, tenuous as it was, begin to crack under the weight of those blue eyes. How was it that even from a distance, Henri Blois found a way to manipulate his life?
"You did not answer me," the Duke said, walking again and at last coming to his chambers. He opened the door, allowed Duo to pass and then closed it soundly behind them. "What is your desire?"
Duo stared up at the taller man, knowing that his next words might be the most important of his life. He swallowed and with all sincerity said, "My only wish is to serve you."
The Duke smiled. "Chestnut, I knew you would not disappoint me."