The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Nine - Done to a Turn
The corridor leading to the great hall was crowded with common folk from countryside and town. Shop keeps, peasants, and craftsmen alike were welcome to bring their problems and disputes before the Duke, to receive justice and advice. On these days, the halls were clogged and difficult to pass and the castle reeked with the unwashed humanity.
Heero edged past the commoners, making his way to the front of the line. He had been summoned, and for a knight there was no wait. Conversations hushed as he passed, the curious stared, and the meek bowed. His status was immediately known by the sword at his side and his attire consisting of a handsome fawn brown tunic with silver clasps, black hose and black leather thigh-high boots, and the House of Khushrenada's crest embroidered over his chest.
A page stood outside the great hall with two men-at-arms. As Heero approached, the page bowed. "Sir knight. His Grace awaits you."
Heero nodded, and waited but a moment for the page to open the door.
The Duke sat at the far end of the hall with tall, iron candelabras lighted and flanking him. He wore a long tunic of vibrant blue with matching hose and boots, and gold chains about his waist. His chair was set on a raised platform like a throne, and several of his greyhounds lay on the imported carpet before him.
Seated several feet away were two scribes, each with his own table to note any judgments the Duke made.
It had been nearly a week since Heero had been in the Duke's presence. His decision to keep his distance from his master's paramour had that unfortunate consequence. Usually, Heero shared meals with the Duke or met to discuss the events of the day. Now, the knight made a point of joining the daily patrols of the countryside, and kept the Duke informed by written report. It was efficient, but this summons made Heero think that his absence had been noticed.
Heero went on bended knee before his liege. He took great care to show his respect, even when the Duke grew tired of it. "You requested my presence, Your Grace?"
"Rise, my friend. It is good to see you."
"Thank you, my lord."
"I have grown weary of reading your reports. Tell me, how goes it?"
"There is little progress, other than the villagers' increased awareness of our efforts."
The Duke gave a thoughtful nod. "This problem does not seem to want to be solved."
"The matter is complicated by the fact that the rogues strike and move on. There is only one instance I know of where they blockaded a town for several days until its mayor filled their purses with gold. If we could track their activities to one area, we could send a force to dispatch them."
"Causing mischief, as my dear cousin put it, like highway bandits."
"The locals are powerless against them. I received word only this morning of another attack, but the location was far removed from the previous attack. Methinks there is more than one band of men."
The Duke sighed. "We must do all we can to stop them. Perhaps more knights are needed?"
"Yea, more knights would allow us to cover more ground and better our chances of encountering the rogues."
"Send a proclamation," the Duke said, waving to his scribes. "All men of able body and sword must present themselves to fight this threat... and so on. You know how I like it worded."
The scribes nodded and they wrote so fast that their quills made a scratching sound on the parchment.
The Duke returned his attention to Heero. "It will be weeks before I can expect more knights to assemble. In the meantime, you will take a squire."
Heero blinked, certain he had misheard. "A squire, my lord? I don't have time-"
"You will make time. As you said, more men are needed to engage the bandits."
"But a squire requires a good deal of training and-"
"A squire provides an extra set of eyes and ears to find these men. You are my most valued knight, and cannot do this thing on your own."
Heero stood motionless and quiet, unable to immediately respond. Treize's odd insistence perturbed him, but he would have to submit to the man's greater wisdom. "If it pleases you, my lord," he said, bowing at the waist.
"Indeed, it does." Treize smiled. "You are the only one to whom I would entrust this task."
The command had a familiar resonance like the time the Duke had sent him on his errand of love.
Heero's eyes widened as he stood fully again. "Whose noble son will be my squire?"
Just then the door to the great hall opened. Surprised by the intrusion, Heero turned and his breath caught. It was Duo. What was he doing here?
"Ah, Duo the Fair. Your timing is perfect," the Duke said.
Duo breezed past Heero, light on his feet and smelling of roses. Heero turned his eyes away as warmth spread across his chest. When he dared looked at Duo again he admired how his light blue tunic brought out the blue in his eyes, but the yellow hose were a touch flamboyant. Duo crouched next to the greyhounds, scratching one behind its ear, his new brown leather boots creaking with his movements.
As far as Heero was concerned, Duo's behavior was too informal for the occasion, but Treize seemed unwilling to chastise him.
"Good morn, Sir Yuy," Duo greeted pleasantly as he stood.
"Good morn," Heero said, decidedly less enthusiastic.
Duo moved to stand at Heero's side, seeming to finally grasp that this was an audience with the Duke and not a rendezvous with his lover.
"Sir Yuy and I were discussing the problem of the rogues," the Duke said.
"It seems to be on everyone's minds," Duo said. "I heard as much as I walked by the people waiting to see you."
"Then I shall get to the point." Treize leaned forward for emphasis. "It is my wish for you to be knighted, Duo, and to reach this goal you will be squired to Sir Yuy."
"What?" Duo asked with a gasp.
Heero looked at Duo taken aback by his response, even though he felt the same way.
"What say you, Sir Yuy? Do you take Duo Maxwell as your squire?"
Now Duo stared at Heero, his indigo eyes wide and mouth agape.
"He is too old to begin the training. If he wishes to help with the patrols it can be arranged, but-." The Duke raised his eyebrows as if waiting for Heero to misspeak. They had never confronted each other in this way. The raising of commoners to noble status was a plague on the nation. He had to stand up for what he thought was right even if it meant displeasing his master just this once. "There must be another way to address the problem of the rogues."
"You surprise me," the Duke said, standing. "By your own account, Sir Yuy, Duo was most brave in the fight against the rogues. And Duo, your horsemanship gives you a fine start on the training. Do you not see the benefits of knighthood?"
"My lord," Duo said with pleading eyes. "It is my stepfather's wish, not mine."
The Duke stepped down and put a hand on Duo's shoulder. "You told me that you do not intend to take up your family's trade. Then what will you do? I am concerned for your future."
Duo's eyes saddened and he lowered his head. "I don't know, my lord."
Heero's mind raced. This couldn't be happening. The last thing he wanted was to spend time with Duo, but seeing him pained, and seemingly about to be discarded, Heero was filled with the need to protect him. It was a foolish emotion, possibly fueled by Quatre's remarks that the Duke was in love with love, but what was he to do? Let Duo be thrown into the world unprepared?
"If I do this..." Heero said, lifting his chin. "I do it my way." He couldn't believe his own words, but what choice did he have?
The Duke cocked his head and smiled. "You are my best knight. If anyone can teach him it is you, Sir Yuy."
"But Treize!" Duo said, putting his hands on the man's chest. "I can't do this... Not with him."
The nobleman looked between his lover and his knight. "Do not fear, little one. Sir Yuy's bark is worse than his bite." He patted Duo's hands, and then turned for his chair. Seated again with his legs stretched before him, he gave a last long look at the two men. "Make him worthy of the title, Sir Yuy. Then I will bestow it."
Heero knew a dismissal when he heard it. He bowed deeply, and nudged Duo into doing the same.
"As you wish, Your Grace," Heero said.
~ ~ ~
The crowd in the corridor quieted when the two emerged from the great hall. Duo slowed his steps as the common folk stared at him. They reminded him of the people from his village, set on their life's path with little hope of betterment and no hope of change. He didn't want to be like them. That's why he had come here, had broken free from the trap of a tradesman's life. Now Treize was offering him something he had long desired-the means to be his own man. But why did it have to be the one thing that his stepfather wanted? And why was the only way to achieve it by the hand of Sir Yuy? A man so hardened that he would not even meet Duo for one moment in the garden.
The memory of that hurt flashed across Duo's mind. The garden had been quiet as the evening settled heavily upon it. Only a lone, red-breasted robin had chirped in a distant tree. As the dark had fallen upon the living, Duo had felt exposed, despite being within the safety of the castle's walls. Priests were fond of expounding on demons and the terrible things they did to folk who strayed out of doors after dark, but surely that did not apply to castle gardens.
If not for Lord Winner's encouragement, Duo would not have gone. The young nobleman's words had lured him outside, had tempted him to face the threat of demons.
"Go into the garden," Quatre had said. "I have a surprise for you."
"A surprise?" Duo had been nervous, but when Lord Winner had smiled sweetly and nodded toward Sir Yuy, a shiver had raced through Duo's body.
Had Sir Yuy asked his friend to arrange for a rendezvous? Had he been told that Duo meant to repay him? Would a kiss be enough? Would the knight get close enough for their breath to mingle and their lips to touch? And so, Duo had waited for Sir Yuy, a man he found more beautiful than any swordsman he had seen before. It was easy to admire Crusaders and knights at jousting festivals, but compared to Heero they were brutes, little more than giants in armored casings.
When at last a figure had approached, Duo's heart had pounded as all the feelings he had experienced on his journey came back to him. The knight had defended him nobly, but had not been so high as to forfeit compliments of Duo's bravery. He had revealed a light heart by sharing the fresh cow's milk... and that kiss. No matter the aftermath, the kiss had been warm and sweet and Duo was sure the knight had enjoyed it.
But the silhouette that drew closer had been too slender and the gait too light. Quatre had come to make excuses, to apologize for his friend's absence. Duo had been made the fool-caught in the games that noblemen play.
For six days, the knight had remained unseen... until now. This was an impossible situation. Was Treize playing games, too? Or did he truly want to see Duo knighted? He supposed it didn't matter. Treize ruled. Duo had learned to please him privately, now he would have to please him publicly.
He dodged those gathered in the corridor as he hurried to catch up to Knight Yuy. "What does it mean to be your squire?"
The knight glanced sidelong at him. "It means you are apprenticed to me."
Duo rushed ahead of him, turning to walk backwards so that they could talk, since the knight seemed unwilling to stop. "Then tell me what to do. I know not."
"You should not walk in front of me."
Duo stopped, feeling his heart sink at the harsh tone. The knight walked past him, continuing on his way. He stared at Heero's back, watching him disappear down the corridor. Could he obey this man?
"That your knight?" a woman with a chicken tucked under her arm asked.
"He's getting away."
He looked at her, and saw the slightest grin on her worn face and a twinkle in her eye.
"Methinks I should let him go," Duo said.
"Nay, you should chase him."
Duo gave an amused snort. "Why would I do that?"
The woman shrugged. "A lone wolf is dangerous, but you could tame him."
The people around her laughed at the remark.
Duo turned a sharp gaze on them. "Careful," he said, coolly. "Sir Yuy is the first knight of this realm, and your master's champion."
The snickers quieted and eyes turned away, seemingly chastised by his words.
Satisfied, Duo headed down the corridor in search of his knight. He shook his head in amazement, realizing he had just defended Sir Yuy's honor.