The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Eight - Duty Bound
After the meeting with the chancellor, Heero politely excused himself from joining the Duke's surveying party. There were other knights eager to protect and escort the Duke, knights who needed opportunities to be recognized. The time away would allow Heero to attend to personal matters pertaining to his lands.
Foremost on his mind was detailing plans for the stable roof to be replaced, and for a peasant to be compensated for the loss of a cow. He had left his manor house and land in the care of his loyal steward, Howard of Belfort. Even with Howard competently overseeing his lands, it was difficult to be away for an extended period. His holdings were not as vast as the Duke Khushrenada's, but the peasants who worked his farm and the servants who maintained his home depended on him in much the same way. Once the matter of the rogues was resolved, he could return to the north satisfied that he had fulfilled his duty.
Later that day, he received an invitation from the Duke to supper in celebration of his return. It was near dusk when Heero arrived at the great hall for the feast. The long table was covered in red cloth and set with steel knives, silver spoons, cups and salt bowls. A fire burned in the hearth, and additional light came from wall sconces and two candelabras set on the table. By the number of place settings, Heero was one of the last to arrive. Lord Winner and several knights and their squires were already seated.
"Good eventide," Quatre said, smiling.
Heero nodded and took his place directly across the table from his friend. "The Duke is late?"
Quatre shrugged. "As long as the wine keeps flowing, I don't mind."
"Your mood is bright this evening," Heero said.
"I had a most interesting conversation today."
Just then, an attendant opened the doors to the great hall. The Duke and his companion entered and all in attendance rose. The lovers were dressed handsomely in tunics of similar shades of green cloth. As they drew nearer, Heero's eyes followed Duo. He was compelled to watch the young man, even if it meant remembering things best left forgotten.
To mask his unease, he raised his cup of wine to the Duke. "To the House of Khushrenada."
The others at the table repeated the toast to the Duke's delight.
"Please, friends," the Duke said, walking to the head of the table. "This celebration is in Sir Yuy's honor, not mine."
Protocol dictated seating by status. Lord Winner was to the Duke's right and Knight Yuy to the Duke's left. Duo was placed at mid-table between two squires which confirmed his unusual status as the Duke's lover. As a mere commoner, Duo would not have been seated at the high table which made Heero wonder if this celebration was meant to honor Duo's arrival as well? Or to parade him before Treize's court now that the lovebirds had emerged into the light of day? Tonight, no one would recognize Duo as a commoner in his finely tailored tunic, and his braid woven with a golden ribbon that matched the edging on the Duke's sleeves. Even though they sat apart, that decorative connection between the Duke and Duo made Heero's chest tighten. He took another long drink of his wine.
At last servants brought out bread, butter, and bowls of fruit, followed by a thick stew of beef and vegetables. The conversation around the table was pleasant, and the Duke often interjected praise for his champion. Still, Heero was glad when the conversation quieted in favor of eating, and listening to a trio of musicians who entertained with song and music.
The meal concluded with almond milk pudding, a favorite of Heero's. It was garnished with raspberries and rose petals, and presented in large pewter bowls from which each guest spooned a portion onto his plate. As Heero was about to enjoy his first mouthful, he heard a moan from one of the guests. All eyes turned to the Duke's lover.
Duo smiled and licked his lips. "Forgive me, but I have never tasted a delicacy so heavenly."
The Duke chuckled and encouraged his lover to eat his fill. Heero watched enrapt as Duo took another spoonful and licked it clean in a remarkable show of sensuality. That tongue was so talented, and the look on Duo's face so beguiling that warmth rushed from Heero's face to his groin like a lightning bolt. These physical reactions to Duo overcame Heero in such a flash that he was at a loss at how to stop them. He could only hope that no one noticed, for certainly it was not his wish to betray the Duke, even though his body seemed determined to act against his knight's vows.
Gratefully, the spell was broken when Treize clapped his hand on the table approving of his lover's performance, and also ending it.
Tonight, the meal was not followed by an evening of conversation and more drink around the hearth. Instead, the Duke announced that he had business with his steward that required his attention. Heero nearly sighed in relief to be free of this torture.
With the lord of the castle gone from the table, the gathering dissolved quickly. Heero got up from the table and crossed the hall to the doorway, noting that Quatre had stopped to speak with Duo. Their voices were hushed and the words undistinguishable. Just as Heero exited the room, his friend joined him, placing a companionable arm around his waist.
"The ride was lovely today," Quatre said, propelling Heero down the corridor. "It is a shame you could not join us."
"I was otherwise engaged."
"Sharpening your sword?"
"A knight must be prepared."
Quatre nodded. "It will please you to know that I looked at the captured weapon. I believe the markings are Germanic, belonging to the Gramaltz or Von Heusen families."
"What do you know of these families?"
"They are ambitious and favor the English. I would not be surprised if one or both are encouraging these men to cause mischief."
"These families seek money and power, not war. If my suspicions are correct they are motivating the attacks to make trouble for Treize."
How could they end the pattern of violence and harassment if a powerful family was pulling the strings from afar?
"Thank you. This information may be of use." Heero bowed a goodnight, ready to head to his private chambers.
"There is more to tell." Quatre took him by the arm and pulled him into a dimly lit alcove. "I spoke with Duo today."
"About the rogues?"
"Nay, about you." Quatre's eyes sparkled with mischief. "He returns your feelings."
Heero's brow tightened. "What?"
"He spoke of you and his heart was full."
Heero had never fully accepted his friend's strange ability to read others' emotions. To have it thrown at him now, made Heero flush with anger. "You cannot know that."
"But I do. You know I can feel it." Quatre grabbed Heero's sleeve. "I merely wish to enlighten you."
"Priests enlighten, you meddle where you are not welcome."
"Friend, I am telling you this to give you hope. I know it in my heart-"
"Stop it." Heero took Quatre by the forearms and looked him straight in the eyes. "The cards are dealt. We serve a great man and I will not have you conspire against him."
Quatre pulled away, visibly shaken. "You know I would not betray my cousin. But Treize is in love with love. Once the blush is off this relationship he will discard the boy as easily as the last."
"That is not my concern."
"Oh, but Heero, it is. The way your heart-"
Heero held up his hand in silent command. "No more words." He turned, determined to put the conversation behind him.
"He's waiting in the garden," Quatre whispered. "Go to him."
Heero swallowed and closed his eyes. Why did Quatre play these love games? Was it not enough for him to have a lover of his own? He had to find lovers for all those around him as well?
~ ~ ~
The last time Heero felt this unsure was the first time he had raised his sword in battle. It was years ago now, but he remembered that day with an unwavering clarity. The enemy had surprised the King's forces in magnitude and skill. Wave after wave the infidels attacked, and one by one knights fell.
Barely fourteen, Heero had seen battles, trained for them, but had never been thrown into their midst. That day Lady Fortune played a wicked game, turning fate against Sir Owen, Heero's uncle and mentor, and daring Heero to survive. The battle was lost, Heero had known that, but men continued to fight as daylight waned. He picked up Sir Owen's sword and charged with fire in his veins, and revenge in his heart. He struck down all who came in his path. Afterward, they called him brave and dubbed him a knight, but the moment was bittersweet and came before he was truly ready for such responsibility.
The foolishness of youth had propelled him into battle and he had never looked back. He deserved the knighting, however premature, but years on he still marveled at the emotion that had taken him from squire to knight in one day. The minstrels still sang of his bravery, but he did not feel that courage tonight. Give him a sword and tell him to take yonder hill from the enemy and he would do it without reservation, but ask him to speak his heart and he cowered inside the bowels of this fortress, staring out over the gardens with curiosity and longing on the face that captivated him.
Heero had retreated instead of charged, but it was the wisest strategy. Looking on the garden from an open window on the second floor, Heero watched Duo wait for him. There was enough light spilling out from the castle's rooms to define Duo's shape and illuminate his face. A mix of emotions played on Duo's features that even from this distance could not be mistaken-worry, confusion... hope. It was that stirring of hope in Duo's large eyes that made Heero falter and step back. He clenched his fists against that hope and against his own.
We serve a great man, Heero had told Quatre. It was a reminder and a warning to them both not to play with fire, and not to forget duty and honor above all else.
A figure appeared out the shadows. It was Quatre. He had been watching, too, and no doubt had come to make some excuse for Heero's absence. He spoke softly, his words mingling with the rustle of wind in the trees, but Heero caught a word here and there-Sir Yuy... Not... Truth. Quatre reached out to comfort him, but Duo put up his hands in defense. After an awkward moment, Quatre turned and went back into the castle.
Once more, Duo was by himself in the garden. He wrapped his arms around his chest and when Heero thought he would cry, he laughed instead. It was a bitter sound, tinged in sadness, but Heero understood it well.
"We are both alone this world," Heero whispered from the shadows.
He felt some guilt watching the scene play out, a scene in which he had been mis-cast when the role belonged to the Duke. Treize was the epitome of knighthood-strong, handsome, intelligent, and above all a patron of beauty, love and art. Knights spoke of courtly love and recited lengthy poems about its virtues, but Heero had never been caught in love's snare. That fact was a matter of pride to him, but recently his emotions were oddly out of control.
Defending and uplifting love was part of the chivalrous code, but Heero fulfilled that duty by uplifting other people's love, and never his own. When the Duke had asked him to retrieve his fair Chestnut, Heero had not hesitated. What could be nobler than an errand of love? And yet, Treize had chosen Heero because he was not swayed by beauty and love. He had attained his position as the Duke's champion by strength, skill and bravery, but he was nothing like the Duke. Treize believed that love was an essential ingredient in the mastery of a noble life. Heero saw it as an impediment.
Perhaps the loss of his mentor at such a critical time in his training had set him on this path. Heero had taken up the sword too soon and it had tainted his vision and hardened his heart. He had been angry and isolated much too long.
I am resolved not to be close to him, Heero thought. Duo must find his own path as I have found mine.
He turned from the window with his heart empty. The cards were dealt.