The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Thirteen - Solace of a Captive's Heart
In the darkness of night, Duo ran from the castle and into the garden. Tears stung his eyes from the knight's cruel words. He had fallen in love with a man whose heart could never open to him, and whose opinion mattered most. What was he to do? Suffer the remaining days of his life on this earthly plain never experiencing true love?
In the young nobleman's eyes, Duo was nothing but a commoner and therefore unworthy of consideration. Why had he been so foolish to bare his chest open and show the knight how his heart beat for him? Having a flesh eating demon prey upon him would have been less painful than the rejection that was tearing him apart.
He sat hard on a stone bench and turned his eyes skyward to the starry night. A sob escaped his lips as he realized that Lady Fortune, like knights, had no interest in his fate. To think he had risked all to share his feelings with Sir Heero Yuy.
"Duo? Is that you?"
He turned to the voice, wiping at his eyes. "Trowa?"
Trowa emerged from the deep shadows of the garden. "You should not be here... alone."
"Are those for your love?" Duo asked, noting the small bouquet of roses in his friend's hand.
"Yea, I did not have time to go into the countryside to gather wildflowers, and Quatre won't mind if I bring him flowers from his cousin's garden."
"You are most fortunate to have someone who understands."
Trowa tilted his head, looking on his friend in curiosity. "Has something happened?"
"Nothing a commoner doesn't deserve."
"Why speak that way?" he asked, sitting next to Duo on the bench. "You are a knight's squire!"
Duo shook his head. "I was living beyond my station and have been put back in my proper place."
Trowa looked under Duo's bangs to his hiding, shimmering eyes. "Were you cast out? Is that why you're hiding in the garden?"
"I cast myself out, and when morning breaks I should leave this place for good."
"The Duke wishes it?"
"Nay, it is what I wish." The warm scent of the roses reached his nose, and he wished he had not chosen the garden for solitude. Roses were everywhere in this place, and Treize smelled of them in a wonderfully masculine way. It was a pity that the beautiful scented blooms would forever remind him of the Duke, and his own great foolishness.
"Well, you cannot stay here," Trowa said. "There are devils about, clever enough to climb garden walls."
Duo looked over his shoulder to the stone wall, fearing demons were creeping closer even now. "I cannot go back. I have betrayed the Duke in the worst way."
"Then, Sir Yuy and you-"
"Nay, I made my stand and lost."
"You told him of your feelings?"
Duo nodded, swallowing hard. "He said he would not have me." His lips trembled at the words, and he turned his face away, ashamed at how much it hurt.
"I am sorry, but are you certain of his feelings?"
"He spoke most plain. He was offended by my advances, accusing me of playing games and trying to ruin him."
Trowa shook his head. "Lord Winner has told me many times that men do not always act on what is in their hearts."
"Please, say no more." Duo was envious of Trowa's and Quatre's love so much so that it made him want to weep.
"Will you run away?"
Duo hesitated to answer. If he left in the morning would that mean he was running away? He wanted to be free of the shackles of this place, and the pain that was growing inside him. Heero's refusal had cut a deep wound in Duo's chest, stinging raw with hurt, but would it do to pack up and leave so quickly? Wasn't he more of a fighter than that? Couldn't he find a way to swallow the pain just a little longer?
"I am not a coward," Duo said, lifting his chin. "I have made my bed, thorns and all, and shall lie in it."
Trowa chuckled, seeming pleased. "I have never met anyone quite like you. Give them hell, Duo."
Duo smiled and patted his friend on the shoulder. "Count on it."
He left the garden with renewed conviction, but wondered at his own ambition. Did he have the will to see this through?
He went directly to Treize's chambers. The servants recognized him as their lord's lover and let him into the main room without hesitation. It was late, but the canopy bed was empty. The Duke often spent his nights reclined there, reading and entertaining.
The sound of a lute accompanied by singing drew Duo's attention to the adjoining room. He followed the sweet melody into the dressing room where behind a wooden screen painted in blue and gold, the Duke was in his tub bathing. The minstrel was on one side of the screen and the Duke on the other, and servants rushed about, pouring hot rose-scented water into the tub.
Duo peeked around the screen, and Treize smiled on seeing him.
"There you are, Chestnut! I thought the spirits had taken you."
The Duke's delighted reception brought Duo's guilt to the fore. In return for a comfortable life filled with luxuries, gifts and protection, the Duke expected Duo's devotion. A simple enough exchange and yet Duo had wavered from day one.
"Please forgive me, Your Grace," Duo said, going on bended knee before the nobleman.
The water sloshed as a wet hand came up to cup Duo's chin. "Is something wrong?"
In all good conscience, Duo could not complain, and yet a hundred things came to mind with the question. "I am sorry if I have disappointed you," he said, finding those words closest to the truth.
Treize released his chin, and looked on him closely. "You left the hall in great haste. Were you unwell?"
"What I have asked of you is not easy. Perhaps I have not been as attentive as I should."
Duo bowed his head, ashamed. Why wouldn't his heart accept Treize the way it wanted to accept Heero?
"What you have asked is not too much," Duo said at last.
"You are a curious one, Duo Maxwell." The Duke ran wet fingers across Duo's brow, smoothing the worry lines. "Something is troubling you, but I will not press you for an answer."
Treize clapped his hands and a servant came around the screen and bowed.
"Yea, my Lord?"
"Bring a towel. I have had enough of this bath." Treize stood, the water running down his long body and sloshing over the wooden tub.
Duo stepped back, watching as the servant returned with a large linen towel. The Duke stepped from the tub and the servant wrapped the towel around him. Two more servants appeared, making the space quite crowded as they dried their master and at last dressed him in a yellow damask robe.
Duo followed Treize into the bedchamber, and in moments they were alone.
~ ~ ~
Though the daily patrols had not resulted in the capture of the rogues, the attacks were moving farther from Lyon. It seemed the bandits did not care to tangle swords with knights of the realm. This fact should have pleased Knight Yuy, but instead it frustrated him. He wanted a confrontation, wanted to be rid of these pests once and for all.
At mid-morning, he gathered in the stable yard several knights and their squires, and a group of men-at-arms, preparing them for yet another patrol. The horses were readied by Trowa and a young assistant. Heero could not help but notice the sharp look in Trowa's eyes as he was handed the reins of his horse.
"Is there something you wish to say?" Heero asked, annoyed by Trowa's show of emotion. It was Quatre's fault, of course, for taking a stable hand as a lover, and making him feel an equal.
Trowa shook his head and turned away.
Heero mounted his steed and just then caught sight of Duo entering the yard. The young man's gait was purposeful, and he was heading straight for the patrol. Heero was stunned to see him after last night, damned to see him. Why was he here? Hadn't they exchanged final words and curses?
Duo flashed him a warning glare and walked past. Heero watched with restrained anticipation as Duo's horse was brought from the stable, ready to ride. Was it coincidence that he was here as the patrol was about to depart? Perhaps he intended to ride the roan in the stable bailey as he had on previous occasions. But no, Duo mounted the horse and took up position with the squires. To all those present there was nothing wrong with the scene, but they had not been in the chapel to hear Heero's condemnation.
He spurred his horse to the squires' grouping and faced Duo. His hands curled into fists about the horse's reins. "What are you doing?"
"Accompanying the patrol, sir knight."
The defiance angered and bewildered Heero. What was Duo hoping to achieve? Did he want to be publicly humiliated again?
"Armed men do not require an escort," Heero said to the amusement of the knights within earshot.
Duo glanced at the laughing knights and then focused his eyes back on Heero. "The Duke is pleased with my progress. I do not wish to disappoint him."
Heero had never seen such emboldened disregard for the order of things. He leaned forward, ready to cut Duo down, when he noticed him flinch. That tiniest waver in Duo's bravado gave Heero pause. Had Duo recoiled out of fear?
He sat back in his saddle, studying the Duke's lover a moment longer. He had hurt Duo before, he was certain of it, but did he have it in his heart to hurt him again?
"Your role is as an observer. Keep to the back of the line," Heero said in a warning tone. "Is that understood?"
Duo gave a firm nod, but did not speak.
Heero pulled the reins of his horse and headed to the front of the patrol. No matter what he did this problem was not going away. Did Duo's persistence have something to do with that look in his eyes? If only Heero understood the meaning of that flash in those brilliant blue eyes. But he would never understand, because he could not and would not know Duo better. That was the problem in a nut shell.
The patrol of knights, squires, men-at-arms, and one observer, left the castle grounds and headed out on the main road through Lyon. The day was warm and breezy and the villagers were out of doors going about their daily lives. Some avoided interaction with the sword carrying party, while others bowed, and several children ran alongside them for a distance singing a jousting song. Heero appreciated their enthusiasm, but his thoughts were clouded with the problem of the rogues and his inability to push Duo's presence from his mind. He made every effort not to look at him, but on occasion he needed to check that there were no stragglers. When he did look, Duo was most often in conversation with one of the squires, gesturing with his hands and smiling as though he hadn't a care in the world.
Why did Duo torture him this way? Was it revenge for what Heero had said? But Duo had slung his share of insults at Heero. If anything they were equal on that score. Perhaps he was simply here to fulfill the Duke's wishes. In that case, Heero would never be rid of him, no matter how much he slandered him. It was an impossible situation, and one that would require an extreme solution.
About a mile beyond the city limits, the patrol spotted a large grouping on the road. It was an unusual location for travelers to stop or for wandering minstrels to set up a show. The patrol proceeded with curiosity and healthy caution.
As they approached, Heero could see a crowd formed around a central, smaller group. It seemed a demonstration was in progress. The players were immediately recognizable as foreigners by their unusual clothes and slanted eyes. The main attraction was a young man wearing a long white tunic with slits up the sides, white pants, and black shoes. His hair was black as a raven's and he was holding a long, curved sword. He moved fluidly in an unusual warrior-like dance.
Heero and the others watched for several minutes in wonderment until there was a break in the activity. Then it was back to business.
"You there," Heero said, calling to the main player and silencing the crowd's applause. "What is your purpose?"
The foreigners, seven in all, looked to one another and muttered something in a strange language. At last, the young man with the short ponytail stepped forward to address the knight. "I am Chang, and these are my companions," he said in perfect French. "We are travelers from China. We seek knowledge of all lands."
These men were obviously not the rogues they were pursuing, but their demonstration suggested they knew something of war. Heero did not like the idea of armed foreigners roaming the countryside. It would be best to escort them to Castle Khushrenada where they could be questioned and observed more fully before allowing them to continue on their journey.
~ ~ ~
The strangers looked like holy men, for only a certain brotherhood of monks wore all white. Their simple attire also suggested a life of simplicity and prayer. They wore no adornments, and their clothes were not embroidered or embellished in any way. But their artful, physical display caused Duo to wonder if they were mercenaries come to fight for pay. Whatever the case, the man whose name was Chang was intriguing. He was slight of build like Duo, but possessed great dignity and skill.
For once, Duo agreed with Knight Yuy's caution. Although the patrol captain treated the strangers politely, it was evident that he had many questions and was not about to take chances.
"The Duke Khushrenada controls this land," Sir Yuy told the foreigners. "You will need his permission before you may continue."
"It would be a pleasure to meet such a great man," Chang said and bowed.
The Chinese men mounted their horses, one of which was harnessed to a wooden cart filled with supplies. The patrol escorted them in earnest and vigilance, but not as foes. It was the wisest course, considering how little they knew about the strangers. They could be enemies or they could be princes, so it was best not to offend while still protecting the citizenry.
The patrol moved slower returning to the castle, due to the foreigners' cart having difficulty on the rough road. Duo was anxious for this expedition to be over. He was glad he had chosen courage over fear and gone with the patrol, but it had surprised him that Knight Yuy had allowed it. A confrontation had seemed imminent, and then suddenly vaporized like fog in the morning sun. For whatever reason, the knight had allowed Duo to participate as an observer. Eventually, the Duke would learn of their fractured relationship and Duo's chances of knighthood might be put on hold for good. For now he could still maintain the charade.
In the castle's courtyard, Sir Yuy made the determination to disarm Chang and his companions before taking them to the Great Hall. There was a tense moment when the strangers seemed about to refuse, but they were surrounded by castle walls and a company of men-at-arms who were ready to fight at a moment's notice. They relinquished their swords with deep bows.
Knight Yuy dismissed the majority of the patrol, and dismounted his steed to lead the escort of the Chinese men. Duo followed at a distance. At this point, he didn't care if the knight considered him a squire or the Duke's lover, he just wanted to know more about the strangers. He had never seen people quite like them.
Like most days, commoners lined the castle's main corridor to see the Duke, and as usual the knight bypassed the line to head straight into the hall. Two knights and their squires waited with the visitors in the corridor while Knight Yuy went inside to speak with the Duke. Duo followed once again, and even though the knight most assuredly knew he had a shadow, he never gave him so much as a glance.
The knight stood about twenty paces from the Duke's seat of government, and Duo breezed past him, circling left. Treize's eyes met his, and he bowed to the nobleman before taking a seat near one of the scribes.
A peasant farmer was in the midst of his complaint that his daughter wished to marry a pig farmer when he and his wife had arranged for her to wed the baker's son. Treize heard the tale, asked several questions, and then advised the peasant.
"Love is not always wise, but it is rarely wrong," the Duke said.
Duo's eyes widened. The words sounded oddly like what Lord Winner would say. But of course, the Duke was as romantic as his fair-haired cousin.
"Delay an engagement until spring, and see if the pigs smell sweeter by then."
It was something of a non-answer, but Duo grinned realizing that there was wisdom in it. Patience was the key to gaining a new perspective. Give it time and solace can be yours.
The farmer was dismissed, and Knight Yuy presented. He bowed and quickly explained the situation. The Duke seemed relieved to be faced with something out of the ordinary. The strangers were brought into the hall by their knightly guards, and made a grand gesture of bowing deeply to the lord of the castle.
Duo watched as the leader, Chang, stood silent and attentive. He spoke only when asked a question, and answered with the brevity of a monk.
"I am Chang Wufei, youngest son of Chang Kwan, Lord of the Shensi Provence in China."
There were murmurs in the hall. Was this traveler claiming to be a prince from afar?
"Lord Chang, you say?"
The young man bowed. "We are humble servants of our most glorious Emperor."
"Tell me, Chang," the Duke said, slowly. "How did you learn our language?"
"From an Englishman."
"He's a spy!" one of the knights said, and there were more murmurings in the hall.
The Duke raised his hand, quieting the outburst, and nodded for the stranger to explain.
"An English traveler came to our village some years ago, and my father paid him to teach us about the West. My brothers and I learned about your countries and were taught French and English."
"And that is why you left home? Because you wanted to see those places for yourself?"
Chang grinned, seeming pleased by the Duke's assumption. "That is correct, my lord. Youngest sons are not necessary, so my desire to travel was acceptable to my father."
The conversation continued with Chang Wufei introducing his companions, two were sons of lesser nobles, and the remaining four were servants. He told of the countries they had seen in their thirteen months of travel, and how, eventually, he would like to go to England.
The comment drew more criticism and suspicion from the knights in attendance. Duo chuckled softly, shaking his head. For a world traveler and self-professed scholar, Chang was either remarkably naïve about French-English relations or it simply didn't matter to him.
The audience with the Duke continued for nearly an hour before he and his knights seemed satisfied that the strangers were not a threat. Of course, their pedigree could not be proven one way or another, but their intentions appeared honest. An invitation to remain at the castle as the Duke's guests was accepted, and a welcoming banquet announced for that evening.
"Duo," the Duke said, gesturing for his lover to attend him.
Duo went over to stand next to Treize's chair. "Yea, my lord?"
"I leave it to you to see to our guests' needs."
The request came as a surprise. It was the first time that Treize had given Duo any authority in household matters. It was a great honor to be tasked with the accommodations of foreign visitors.
"Thank you, my lord," Duo said with a bow.
In moments, Duo had servants airing chambers for their guests, and food and wine brought for their refreshment. He escorted Chang and his companions into an adjoining hall where they could rest until their rooms were ready.
Wufei Chang bowed to him in gratitude.
"Thank you, but you don't need to bow to me," Duo said, laughing.
The dark-eyed Chang looked at him carefully. "You are close to the Duke?"
"H-how did you know?" Duo asked, stuttering and wide-eyed.
"He calls you by your first name. In my culture that is a sign of intimacy."
"Is that intimacy a problem in your culture?"
Chang shook his head. "All great men take lovers... male and female."
"Oh." Duo didn't know what else to say. He knew nothing about China and the customs of its people, and Chang's stiff composure made him nervous.
"You were not introduced with a title," Chang said. "What should I call you?"
"Duo is fine."
"Nay," Duo said with a chuckle. "It's just plain ol' Duo. I don't have a title... yet."
"Then you may call me Wufei," the young man said with a smile. "In your land I also have no title."
Duo smiled at the equalizing statement. Here was a man who was probably a prince with servants and treasure beyond compare, and he was comfortable discarding his title. How refreshing.
"I think I'm going to like having you around, Wufei. Welcome to Castle Khushrenada!"