The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Fourteen - Best Laid Plans
Castle Khushrenada was remarkably quiet for late morning. Normally at this hour, pages were darting down corridors relaying messages and carrying correspondence and decrees, and villagers were queuing in hopes of an audience with the Duke. The calm, though appreciated, was strange and Heero was glad when he encountered Lord Winner speaking with the Duke's falconer.
Quatre smiled a greeting, said a few words more to the falconer, and then dismissed the man. "Good morn, friend!"
"Good morn. Is there hawking planned?"
"Yea, a demonstration for our Chinese guests. I'm on my way to join the Duke. Would you care to walk with me?" Quatre set out with quick, light steps, not waiting for a response.
"Your mood is bright," Heero said, following, and noting the cheerful hue of blue and yellow in his friend's tunic.
"Well, it is a most beauteous day," Quatre said over his shoulder.
The welcome banquet for Chang and his companions had gone on late into the night. Considering the great amount of spiced wine that was drunk by all except for Heero, he was surprised by Quatre's lucidity.
They exited the castle proper and cut across the courtyard towards the gate.
"My cousin is enjoying the morning air," Quatre said, seeming to anticipate Heero's question as to their destination.
The courtyard was filled with merchants, commoners and foot soldiers, but no one came up to Heero and Quatre. Perhaps their quick pace made them less approachable as they made their way through the open gate without hesitation.
As they rounded the corner of the castle wall, Heero saw the Duke's party in the distance, gathered at the archery range. The Duke was reclining on a chair under a red canopy with his greyhounds at his feet, and the Chinese visitors seated on the soft grass.
The closer they drew, the more details of the scene came to life, souring Heero's stomach. It was not the elegant placement of tables covered in linen and set with pewter plates and spoons, nor the vases filled with roses that bothered him. Nay, that was expected. Rather, it was the current mode of entertainment that tied him up in knots.
The servants served wine and sweet meats to the Duke and his guests; save for Chang Wufei and Duo Maxwell who stood facing a distant target. Duo picked up a crossbow from the ground and handed it to Chang. They spoke for a moment, unheard from this distance, then Duo stepped back seeming to give the foreigner room to shoot. Instead, Duo stood behind Chang, and ran his hand up the foreigner's arm instructing him-most intimately-on the proper stance for using the weapon.
Heero nearly growled. "What is this?"
"It would appear that Duo is giving Chang a lesson on crossbows," Quatre said.
"More like a performance."
"Does it bother you?"
"Certainly not." But Heero could not take his eyes from the scene. He followed the line of Duo's lean legs covered in emerald-colored hose, all the way up to his brown tunic, cinched snugly at his waist by a leather belt.
The way Duo touched the Chinese man suggested a comfort level beyond their acquaintance of one day. Were they attracted to each other? Their unnecessary closeness suggested as much.
Heero looked to the Duke for any hint of displeasure, but the man watched the pair enrapt. Either he was observing the lesson with a clinical eye or he was so mesmerized by Duo's beauty that the thorough instruction mattered not.
Treize broke his gaze long enough to greet the newcomers. "Dear cousin! Sir Yuy! A delight to have you join us."
Duo and Chang looked over at them. After a quick nod of greeting, Duo said something to Chang and they turned back to the exercise.
Heero bowed his head to the Duke as he stood next to the seated man. "I do not wish to interrupt your... entertainment."
Treize laughed. "You are most welcome. The falconer should be here shortly and afterwards we will feast under the shade of the oak trees."
"It sounds delightful," Quatre said. He nudged Heero. "Doesn't it, Sir Yuy?"
"Yea, it is the perfect weather for such distractions."
"Distractions?" Treize asked. "Why I say that distractions, as you call them, are as important as a man's work. My leisure and my indulgences," he said, nodding toward Duo, "are as much an indication of my status as my coat-of-arms."
Heero blinked at the chastisement. "I did not mean-"
Treize raised his hand. "I know what you meant, Sir Yuy. You are as noble and pure a knight as I have ever met and that is why you are my champion. But what would please me most is if we could coax some revelry out of you."
"Yea, I would like to see you laugh!"
Heero's eyes widened. Was he being made a fool or was the Duke simply in a mischievous mood?
A servant brought him and Quatre each a glass of wine, and the Duke's attention shifted again to the demonstration.
Heero sipped the wine as he considered retreating from this place or torturing himself a while longer. His eyes answered for him, following Duo and caressing the line of his back, and the length of his braid. The young man stood confident in his position as instructor. Heero recognized the natural archer in him, but Duo was no master. The fact that Treize had not invited the master archer to give the lesson was curious, unless the lesson was meant for entertainment only.
The easy rapport between teacher and pupil was evident, and had begun the evening before. The traveler had been seated next to Duo at the banquet, and now their camaraderie was like that of old friends.
Duo stepped away from Chang to give him leave to aim and shoot, and in the process turned toward the gathering. His eyes met Heero's and for the span of several heartbeats they looked on each other. Warmth rose from Heero's gut to his chest. He wanted to speak, but the applause broke the moment; applause for Chang's impeccable aim. The Chinese prince clasped his hand on Duo's shoulder, and Duo turned to him with a bright smile. It was all Heero needed to see... to know.
Heero set his cup down and with an apology to the Duke and to Quatre, he turned and walked away.
Duo had found another.
~ ~ ~
When Duo turned back from congratulating his friend, Sir Yuy was walking away. No matter how hard he tried not to love the knight, his heart quickened in his presence. It was surely a curse to find your love only to discover his heart was made of steel like his sword.
"What's wrong?" Wufei asked, coming to stand next to Duo.
Duo shook his head to clear his thoughts, and grinned at his friend. "You are exceptional with a crossbow."
Wufei nodded in the direction of the retreating knight. "He is a fool."
"Why do you say that?"
"He has won your regard and yet he ignores you."
"I am his squire. He can do as he wishes."
"And you wish he would do... more?" Wufei asked, raising an eyebrow inquisitively.
Duo gasped as he looked towards the Duke. "Please do not speak that way."
"He cannot hear us." Wufei took Duo by the elbow and turned him toward the target, as if to speak more privately. "Then I am right, you love each other."
"Nay," Duo said. He knew he should not say more, but he felt comfortable speaking with Wufei. The Chinese nobleman was a good listener and was uncommonly wise for one so young. "Perhaps..." Duo said quietly, "there was a time when I wished for more, but now I think only of my goal of becoming a knight."
"And Sir Yuy is to train you?"
Wufei's brow furrowed as he looked from Duo to the now empty path the knight had taken. He seemed to be puzzling together Duo's relationship with Sir Yuy, but thankfully said no more about it.
"How long have you known the Duke?"
"We met last spring in my home village. I was a mere tailor's son, but our difference in station did not bother Treize." As Duo relayed a few more details, he marveled anew at how the Duke had wooed him so patiently.
"He sees men for their true merit... a sign of a great leader," Wufei said.
"Yea, the Duke inspires loyalty from all."
"He must be one of the wisest men in your country. He is certainly the most noble I have met."
The high praise was appropriate, but premature considering that Wufei and his companions had arrived less than 24 hours ago. Perhaps this was Wufei's way of expressing his gratitude for the hospitality.
"You should share these compliments with the Duke. He does enjoy flattery."
"It is not mere flattery, I assure you," Wufei said, setting down the crossbow. "Not all noblemen deserve their titles. I have made the acquaintance of far too many whose minds are weak."
"I see." Duo looked to the Duke and back at Wufei, and wondered how far this foreign prince's admiration would take him.
"Is the lesson concluded?" Wufei asked.
"Yea, we should join the others."
"My sincerest gratitude for your instruction," Wufei said, bowing. "You have shown me the beauty of archery and the crossbow. No tutor has ever exhibited the beauty and spirit of this weapon as you have today."
Duo felt a blush warm his cheeks. "Thank you."
"I would like to return the favor. Is there anything that I may teach you?"
Duo knew without hesitation what he wished to learn with all his heart. It was the one thing that Knight Yuy had refused to teach him properly. "The sword," he said, earnestly. "I wish to earn the right to carry a sword."
"It will be an honor," Wufei said with a final bow.
"What's this?" Treize called to them.
Duo smiled and walked over to the nobleman, Wufei following close on his heels. "Wufei has agreed to show me Chinese sword techniques."
"That is most generous, Chang," Treize said. "I would like to watch these lessons, and perhaps learn something of your warrior ways myself."
Wufei bowed. "I could not presume to teach one so great."
"Everyone has something to learn and something to teach. The training will begin on the morrow," the Duke said by way of declaration.
Duo felt a thrill at the word "training." Perhaps this was the answer to Sir Yuy's refusal to mentor him. He would learn swordsmanship from Wufei, and continue to insinuate himself into the patrols to gain knowledge through observation. With any luck, Sir Yuy would not mention their falling out to the Duke and Duo could complete his knightly training.
~ ~ ~
The next morning, after a late breakfast in bed, Duo dressed in his favorite short, sage green tunic and hose, and leather boots. He was to rendezvous with Treize and Wufei in the garden for the much anticipated lessons. He hurried through the castle's corridors and out the door that lead into the garden. There, he walked along gravel paths, marveling at the lush flora, and breathing deeply of the air scented with juniper and rose.
At the place where several paths converged, Chang Wufei sat crossed legged and eyes closed. He was dressed in black leggings, a long white tunic slit up the sides, and soft black slippers, and before him lay several swords.
Duo slowed his steps not wanting to disturb the young man's prayers.
"In my country, a true warrior walks without sound," Wufei said, his eyes opening slowly.
"To what purpose?" Duo asked.
"It is a mark of his training to control his footfalls."
In France, warriors marched into battle with drums beating, horses' hooves clopping and armor clanking. It was a sign of strength and courage to meet the enemy on the field with a roar. Or so he had been told. Now he would learn the ways of the East, and hope that it was time well spent.
The Duke arrived, dressed in a handsome burgundy tunic, black hose and black leather boots. His wore his sword at his side, sheathed in tooled leather, appearing ready to duel or to intimidate. The height and breadth of the man was formidable, but it was his years of training as a warrior that gave him a presence that demanded respect.
Wufei stood to greet Treize and bowed.
"In our conversations," the Duke said, "I discovered that Sir Chang is a master warrior."
The honorific before Chang's name was new, and Duo wondered when Treize had decided to use it. And when had Wufei's master warrior status been discussed? Duo did not recall hearing about it in any of their conversations.
He looked to Treize. "You are a master warrior of France, Your Grace."
"Thank you, Chestnut." Treize stepped forward and cupped Duo's cheek in his hand. "The compliment is unnecessary, but most welcome. Now please proceed with the lesson." He sat on a stone bench, stretching out his long legs before him, and gestured for them to begin.
Wufei picked up a sword and stood in a swordsman's stance, holding the blade before him. "Watch me," he said, and proceeded to thrust and step and turn in a graceful, yet powerful display of swordsmanship. When he completed the sequence of movements, Wufei nodded to Duo and handed him the sword.
After such a beautiful demonstration and with the Duke present, Duo's apprehension was growing. He wanted to be worthy of both these men-Treize most of all, but also of Wufei for his skill and inherent respectability.
"Take the first position," Wufei said.
Duo grasped the hilt firmly. The grip was made of horn and was warm from Wufei's hand. He stood in a position mimicking Knight Yuy's stance.
Wufei nodded, seeming to approve, and asked Duo to lunge forward as though attacking an enemy.
With a quick glance to Treize, Duo focused his eyes forward to an invisible opponent and lunged. When he stepped back, Wufei was at his side.
"You hold the sword like an axe," Wufei said. "You must think of it as an extension of yourself... not a tool."
The advice was a revelation. No one had taken the time to explain this to him before. He looked to the sword in his hand, studying his grip carefully. This is a part of me. The sword had to move with him, for him as though it was part of his arm.
An hour into the training, Treize complimented the progress and left to attend other business. Duo was relieved to be able to continue without an audience. And continue they did for several hours, taking only short breaks to refresh themselves with wine and small meat pies.
Wufei was a serious young man who expected a great deal from his student. However, unlike the harsh methods used by Knight Yuy, Sir Chang respected the efforts Duo made.
"I see a marked improvement," Wufei said. "Remember, no matter how skilled a swordsman you become, there will always be someone stronger, faster, and more eager for blood."
Ultimately those who carried a sword used that sword, and in the process were often injured or killed. Duo had understood this at the onset of his knight's training, but had never heard it voiced so clearly. Wufei had fierceness about him that shown in his dark gaze and the severe manner in which he wore his raven black hair, but he also had a profound understanding of life. He was as eager to share tales of his long journey as he was the best methods to kill a man.
"Will you stay here long?"
Wufei shrugged. "It was not my intention to remain anywhere for long, but it would seem I am needed here."
"You have good timing." Duo smiled. "I am most thankful for your lessons."
"The Duke mentioned that your first lessons in swordsmanship did not go well."
Images of Knight Yuy striking him with his sword flashed in Duo's mind. "Knight Yuy is not as patient as you."
"Perhaps he is more patient than you give him credit for."
The odd observation left Duo without a response. Patience was not a virtue he associated with the knight. If he had acted patiently with Duo would it not have exhibited itself through kindness of word or deed? He wanted to ask Wufei what he meant, but he did not want to seem ignorant, so he let it go.
"We should break for today," Wufei said. "We can continue our conversation, but the sword training can proceed again later."
Wufei carried the swords as they left the garden, and stepped into the stable bailey.
"Would you care to go riding?" Duo asked.
"Perhaps another day."
Just then, Trowa came out of the stables. When he saw Duo, he hesitated before giving a greeting. "Good den, Duo."
Duo led Wufei to meet his friend and make the introductions. Still, Trowa looked at Duo as though he was pondering a great mystery.
"What is it?" Duo asked.
"I am surprised to see you."
"And why is that?"
"I thought you had gone with the others."
"What do you mean?"
"I was not here to witness it, but the marshal of stables informed me that the patrol left this morn before dawn."
Duo's brow furrowed. It seemed that Sir Yuy had found a way to exclude him from even learning by way of observation. "I see."
"By all accounts, it was a large force... nearly thirty men. And pack mules as well."
"Pack mules? Then it could not be a patrol. The mules would slow them down."
"Nay, it is so. They took provisions and will be gone for weeks, hoping to deal with the rogues once and for all."
Duo shook his head in disbelief. "I heard nothing of this. Treize said nothing."
Trowa shrugged. "When I got to the stables at dawn they had already gone. The horses were gone... I cleaned out their stalls."
"This cannot be..." Duo said, his voice wavering. Knight Yuy was gone? For weeks?
"You will join the next expedition," Wufei said, encouragingly as he patted Duo's back.
Trowa repeated all he knew, and when the marshal of stables walked by he added further details.
"Yea, the knights were eager to make haste. I was awakened in the dead of night by Sir Yuy himself. It was all very strange. The men gathered quietly and left carrying only a few torches to light their way." The man scratched his head as he remembered the scene. "I wanted to ask why the secrecy, why the rush, but I have learned not to question noblemen."
Duo turned on his heel.
"Where are you going?" Wufei asked.
"I must speak with the Duke." He took off at a run, heading for the Great Hall. He had to find out why he wasn't told, why he was excluded from the patrol. It must have everything to do with Sir Yuy, but how had he tricked the Duke into leaving Duo behind?
When he reached the heavy oak doors of the hall, a hand grasped his shoulder stopping him from entering. He turned to see Wufei.
"Allow me to inquire about the patrol."
"It has nothing to do with you." Duo pulled on the door handle, but Wufei pushed the door closed before it could open even a few inches. "What are you doing?"
"That is what you should be asking yourself."
"I have a right to know why I was not part of the patrol."
"Yea, but your agitation suggests more than a squire's wish not to be left behind."
Duo stepped back, offended by the remark, but when he opened his mouth to speak he saw the seriousness in Wufei's eyes. He paused to consider what he was feeling. Was it disappointment that his training might suffer for being left behind? Or was it the loss of Sir Yuy's presence at the castle-within sight-that had sunk a burning coal into his belly that made him want to chase after the man, chase him to the ends of the earth?
"Perhaps," Duo said, after a long moment, "You should inquire in my stead."
Wufei nodded, and didn't waste time opening the doors and crossing the hall to the hearth where the Duke and the Mayor of Lyon were seated by the fire.
"Forgive the intrusion," Wufei said with a quick bow.
"I was just telling the Mayor about you, Sir Chang. Do come forward."
Wufei did as he was asked and Duo followed behind him.
"Lord Mayor, this is Sir Chang of the Shensi Province of China. My knights met him on the road, performing for some of the villagers."
"Ah, Sir Chang, it is a great pleasure to meet you. The minstrels are already singing of your journey to our land."
"Thank you." Wufei bowed.
"And this is Duo Maxwell," the Duke said, gesturing to his lover. "Duo is from Valence and is training for knighthood."
"Splendid! You are in good company for the knights of Lyon are the finest in all France."
"Your Grace," Wufei said. "If I may intrude a moment longer..." He let the words hang in the air like a question. The Duke seemed to understand they needed a moment of privacy.
"Please excuse us," Treize said. He got up from his chair and walked a dozen steps. Then he turned to them, looking displeased, but gave leave for Wufei to speak.
"I wish to inquire about the activity early this morn. My curiosity was piqued when the marshal of stables described the large hunting party."
His unusual choice of words spoke to Wufei's training as a strategist. He could not know if the patrol's activities were public or secret, and it was best to error on the side of caution.
"Ah, the hunting party. Yea, there was a sense of urgency," the Duke said. He set his eyes on Duo. "There was no need for you to go. Your training will continue in earnest here."
"But how, sire?"
"The idea came to me yesterday when you and Sir Chang were working with the crossbow. There is an ease between you that you and Sir Yuy did not have."
"Sire, Sir Yuy..."
"There is no need to explain. Sir Yuy is my most favored knight, but I should not have forced him to mentor you. After all, a knight should choose his own squire."
Anxiety knotted in Duo's stomach, but Treize had said the training would continue. "Wufei will be my teacher?"
Treize smiled. "I surprised myself with the idea's unorthodoxy, but it could be to your advantage. Sir Chang can teach you methods unknown in this land. What say you, Chang? Duo?"
Before Duo could say anything, Wufei was bowing and accepting the honor.
Duo stared at them both a bit bewildered. Knight Yuy was not going to train him, but Duo could continue under the care of a man trained in the Eastern arts of warfare. Would that training be respected by knights? Would those skills be enough to diffuse any criticism and fend off any enemy?
Wufei put his hand on Duo's arm. "This is the first I am hearing this, too, but I see the Duke's wisdom in his choice of teacher and pupil. I would be honored to guide you to your goal of knighthood."
The formal, respectful words soothed Duo. "Forgive my hesitation. I was not expecting this." He bowed deeply to Treize. "Thank you." It was all he could say.
"Very good. Now I must not keep the mayor waiting. I expect to be kept informed of your progress."
Duo and Wufei left the hall. As they walked to the kitchen to get something to eat, Wufei shared ideas for the training regimen. Duo only half listened. He was pleased that he still had the means to reach his goal, but the rush of Sir Yuy's departure and the severing of their bond as knight and squire hurt him. No explanation for the patrol's departure under cover of night was given, but the timing seemed like a deliberate attempt to avoid questions and interlopers.
Sir Yuy was gone and Duo the Squire had been discarded like a worn shoe. If players acted out the scenario on a stage it would surely be a comedy with Knight Yuy playing a Saint who is tempted by the ambitions and lusts of the Devil, Duo Maxwell. But then, perhaps it was a tragedy after all. A tragedy of hearts trapped in two separate worlds, doomed to never hear his love's name spoken in passion.