The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Sixteen -- Love and Do What You Will
As Duo waited in the Duke's bedchamber that night, his heart pounded in his chest. It was not the kind of pounding he got from dashing across a meadow. This was the pounding of indecision, unhappiness, unwillingness, and fear.
The evening meal had been pleasant, but Duo had spent much of it trying to hear what Treize and Wufei were saying as they conversed quietly. No one could have guessed that anything had changed or was wrong, except Lord Winner, of course, who seemed to be able to read people's hearts. He had taken a seat across the table from Duo and twice had frowned as though to convey his understanding.
Now Duo sat on Treize's large canopied bed fully dressed, except for his boots, and unsure of what would come next. Would he and the Duke spend the night like they had so many others? Or would the Duke bring Wufei?
There was a knock on the chamber door, but Duo hesitated to get up. It was not the Duke, for the man was accustomed to making grand entrances even in his private chambers. He would fling the door open wide, leaving it for a servant to close gently behind him. The knock sounded again, and Duo slipped reluctantly from the bed, wondering if it was a servant bringing a message.
His hose clad feet padded softly over the wooden floor. He opened the door and immediately wanted to slam it shut again. He had a most unwelcome visitor.
Duo took a deep breath and stepped back, gesturing for Wufei to enter. "Are we to wait for the Duke together?"
"I know not. He was speaking to a messenger when I left the hall," Wufei said, coming into the room.
"Do you intend to sleep here?" Duo asked, folding his arms over his chest.
Wufei shook his head. "Nothing has happened between me and His Grace."
"Nothing? But I saw you in the garden!"
"I know..." Wufei began to pace, but his shoes barely made a sound on the floor. "Do you think this is easy for me?"
"I have no idea," Duo said, his jaw tightening. "Your intentions are a mystery."
Wufei stopped and turned to him. He stood several paces away, which may have been strategic considering Duo's mood. "The Duke brought me to the garden to tell me his feelings. I did not know how to respond..."
"You are a quick study."
"It was not my intention to hurt you. I wanted the Duke to meet me later... to talk this through."
"Then you are not lovers?"
"We are not."
Duo was relieved, but confused. "Do you intend to be?"
Wufei bowed deeply, in great respect and humility. "When we sparred last eventide, something stirred inside me... I have never felt like this before."
Duo wanted to shout at Wufei for what he thought were lies, but the man's humble posture gave him pause. Perhaps Wufei was sincere in his regret. "Are you telling me that your attraction is new?"
Wufei looked up, slowly righting his posture. "I admit to feeling an attraction to His Grace on our first meeting, but believed it to be merely physical."
"And you do not act upon mere physical attraction?"
"I have... in the past, but I respected your place in the court and the Duke gave me no reason to believe he returned my feelings."
"As I said, crossing swords with His Grace changed how I felt."
Duo recalled Wufei's earnest words that morning: A challenge is good for a warrior's soul. It seemed that Wufei had met his match, but why did Duo have to be in the middle of it?
"Treize rules here," Duo said in resignation. "If he wants you, there is naught I can do."
Wufei focused his dark eyes on Duo and stepped forward to within an arm's length. "If you love the Duke, tell me now and I will withdraw."
"You would defer to me?"
"It is your place in this court... If your heart is true to him."
The words made Duo's breath catch in his throat. Wufei had cut to the bone, cleverly throwing Duo's own confused feelings back at him. How could he condemn them when he had pursued Knight Yuy with the same tenacity?
"You know the answer," Duo said at last.
"I need to hear you say it."
A shiver raced across Duo's skin. This was the place he did not want to be-facing the truth, facing an unknown future without love, without a roof over his head. "My feelings matter not. I need this," he started to explain. "Without Treize, I would still be in Valence making cloaks for nobles and dreaming of swordsmen. With Treize, I have the means to raise my station in life."
Wufei stared at him a moment and then gave a firm nod. "I will expect you for training in the morn."
"That is your reply?" Duo asked, confused as he watched Wufei leave. The man's acquiescence stunned him. How could Wufei give up his feelings so easily? Why was he so willing to desist in Duo's favor?
Because he is a man of honor.
"Wait!" Duo called, running down the hall after him. "Tell me," he said, when Wufei stopped and turned to him. "Tell me... Do you love Treize?"
With a deep breath, Wufei put a fist over his heart and looked Duo squarely in the face. "With all my heart."
Duo nearly stumbled back with the force of the confession. "But you are willing to defer to my position."
"That surprises you?" Wufei asked.
"But you love him..."
"Your position is more vulnerable than mine, and it would dishonor us both if I were to proceed under the circumstances."
"Wufei... I do not know what to say."
"Say that you will make him happy."
Duo shook his head. "How can I when you love him?" And I love another...
"As you say in your country, Lady Fortune is fickle."
"I cannot hurt you like this."
"You are not. We each have a role to play, and play it we must." Wufei turned on his heel.
Duo reached for him, his fingers brushing the long fabric at his friend's sleeve, but he was unable to stop him from leaving. "Please!" he called one last time, but Wufei did not turn back.
Duo ran into the bedchamber and grabbed his boots from the floor. He needed to be away from this room and quick. If the Duke arrived before he was gone, he would talk Duo into bed-Treize was very persuasive that way-and there would be no chance of gaining perspective on the situation.
He slipped one boot on, then another, and stepped to the wardrobe to grab his cloak. He would find a place to shelter this night, a place to ponder the feelings of three men.
As he turned for the door it swung open and he nearly smacked into Treize as he came into the room.
Treize gave him a curious look, and with a flick of his hand said, "Over there."
Duo blinked, not understanding until he saw a hunchbacked servant hurry from behind the lord of the castle, carrying a vase of red roses. He watched as the servant set the vase on a table near an open window. The servant moved quickly, eyes downcast, and bowed as he rushed from the room closing the door behind him.
"Now, where were we?" the Duke asked.
Duo stood as still as a deer in the presence of a wolf.
"You hesitate to serve me?"
It was not so much a question as it was a command, and Duo knew his place well. He stepped forward and on tiptoes placed a kiss on the Duke's lips. "I beg your pardon, sire."
"Did I interrupt your plans? You look dressed for flight." Treize moved to the armchair and sat down with natural grace. One long leg stretched out before him, and Duo marveled how a man could appear so tall sitting down. "Now tell me what is troubling you."
"It is not my place... to ask anything of you."
"Oh?" Treize chuckled. "I recall when I had you against the-"
Treize's brow furrowed. "Is it the business in the garden that has soured your mood?"
"I shall explain something to you, Chestnut. I have spent my life in pursuit of honor, love and beauty. Some say I have had more than my share." Treize shrugged, seeming to disregard the criticism. "But it is my right and the naysayers speak out of jealousy."
"I have heard no ill words-"
Treize held up his hand to silence Duo. "Your extraordinary beauty attracted me at our first meeting, but I quickly realized that you were also in pursuit of love and beauty. I wanted to give those to you, help you to experience them, and I dare say I have done that."
"You have been most generous, and I must seem a terrible ingrate."
"Nay, Chestnut. You are as bright and beautiful today as you were the first I saw you. Now, let us not spoil the night."
Treize opened his arms to Duo, and the young man took a deep breath and stepped towards him, but at the last moment hesitated to allow the embrace. How could he give himself to Treize when he knew the Duke's rightful lover waited in the shadows?
"I know I am here to please you and it is not my place to refuse-"
The Duke got to his feet, stopping Duo's clumsy apology. "You are right on both accounts, but I am nothing if not an observant man."
Duo gulped, worrying that he had offended the Duke for the last time.
"I am not eager to have you leave my side, Chestnut, but seeing you knighted has a certain appeal. I rather like the notion that you will not need me as you once did."
"Will not need you?" Duo was not expecting this, and was not certain he was ready to have these ties broken. Treize had made life so simple-warm my bed and all your needs will be met.
"Do not pretend that you hoped to be at my side forever," the Duke said, caressing Duo's hair.
At one time, Duo had wanted that. He had longed for Treize Khushrenada to be the man who would secure his future and to whom he would give his heart. The security had come, but love had not. For that trick of Fate involving a comely knight Duo now suffered, but he had also learned that he needed to stand on his own two feet.
"You have given me more than I can express," Duo said, smiling warmly at his liege. For all of Treize's complexity and hubris, Duo greatly admired him.
"And you have pleased me as well," Treize said, cupping Duo's face in his hand. "I am not about to cast you out, dear Chestnut." He stroked Duo's cheek with his thumb. "You are welcome to stay at Castle Khushrenada all your days."
Just weeks ago, Duo would have received such an invitation as the answer to his dreams. Now, he doubted this was where he was meant to be. He was fond of most everyone here and would be happy to take over as Keeper of the Wardrobe-a position his stepfather would envy. But this world tripped him up, and though he often found the key to maneuvering through it safely, he was just as often out of his depth. He would not lay blame at anyone's feet, but his own. His foolish dreams had brought him here. Some good and much folly had come from those dreams, and now he was ready for common sense to take hold.
"Thank you, sire," he said, taking the Duke's hands. "This castle, its people, and its master mean more to me than you will ever know."
Treize smiled. "You have grown in your brief time with me. Something has changed in you."
"Many things have changed... for the good."
"Then I am glad." Treize leaned down and kissed Duo's cheek. "This has changed as well?"
"I was content at your side, Treize... as content as I could be. But there is someone waiting for you who might be the love of your life."
"You speak of Sir Chang."
Duo nodded. "I cannot deny a measure of jealousy at seeing you spar. It was a thing of beauty."
Treize smiled more broadly, but chose not to comment. Perhaps it was the gentleman in him, keeping his affair close to his heart, but also not wanting to hurt Duo in the process.
"If it pleases you," Duo continued, seeing the path they must take. "Release me so that one more worthy may be at your side."
The Duke studied him for a long moment before inhaling and exhaling deeply. It was undoubtedly a moment of deliberation, but the smile in his eyes told Duo that all would be well.
"You have been a most worthy companion, Duo Maxwell." Treize leaned down, cupping Duo's face in his large hands, and plundered his mouth with a full kiss. "I will miss sharing this with you, but we each belong to another."
Duo's eyes went wide and he opened his mouth to protest, but Treize quieted him with another kiss. When he pulled back from the kiss, Treize looked on Duo with the scrutiny of a general in battle.
"Choose your next love more carefully than the last," the Duke said and turned for the door. "Sleep here this night, and I will have another room prepared on the morrow." And with a click of the door, Treize was gone.
What a most amenable ending to their affair. The conversation had been so pleasant that Duo felt a measure of guilt for not falling in love with Treize. He was a great man and deserved a great love.
As it happened, the Duke had use of Duo beyond the bedchamber. He would have a role at the castle, knightly or otherwise, and for that Duo could be well satisfied. He considered all that had brought him here, the triumphs and tribulations that had followed, and saw that he was indeed a new man.
His debt to Treize was great, and he would do everything in his power to serve him well.
A light tapping drew his attention to the door. He opened it to find a messenger covered in road dust, and holding a letter in his hand.
"I seek the Duke Khushrenada."
Duo blinked, unfamiliar with this young man. "He is not here."
"Where may I find him, good sir? I have a message... from Knight Yuy."
Duo's breath caught. "Knight Yuy..."
"I am to give the Duke this," he said, holding out the letter.
"Do you know what it says?"
"Nay, but I heard the men talking about an attack."
Duo reached for the letter, but the messenger tucked it inside his cloak. "You know naught else?"
"Nay, good sir, but I must make haste."
Duo nodded, though he had misgivings about searching for Treize, since it would undoubtedly lead him to Wufei's chambers. He headed out of the room with the messenger close behind. It took but moments to locate the lord of the castle, standing at his new paramour's door.
"Sire," Duo said, coming to stand close to his liege. "There is a message of great import."
Duo was as eager to hear the contents of the letter as the messenger was at delivering it. The folded paper was handed over with a bow, and the messenger given a silver coin for this trouble. He was told to go to the kitchen for a meal and to wait for a response.
Treize broke the seal and unfolded the letter.
The Duke's brow furrowed. "The patrol was attacked. One of the knights was wounded and his squire killed."
"How can that be, sire?" Duo asked, shocked that a well prepared patrol of knights and squires could be overcome by bandits.
"There is more... In the confusion several of the horses were lost or stolen. Sir Yuy states the deed was most cowardly. They were attacked at night with flaming arrows."
"What nature of men are these rogues?" Wufei asked, his indignation apparent.
"They were good men-crusaders-but now have a taste for blood and gold," the Duke said. "They must meet with justice."
"Revenge will put fire in Sir Yuy's belly," Wufei said.
Treize looked at the letter. "He was near Valence when he wrote this. They are pursuing the rogues on the north road."
Memories of the surrounding countryside of Valence came to Duo's mind. It was not a place he wished to return to, but it was lovely, and imagining Sir Yuy there was more pleasant than it should be.
"He should consider a smaller force," Wufei said. "Now that the rogues are aware of them, a small patrol would travel faster and draw less attention."
Treize and Wufei discussed the merits of small and large forces of men, the conditions of travel, and punishments befitting the long list of crimes the rogues had committed. Duo listened intently, growing more and more anxious as he realized he was uniquely suited to assist in the capture of the rogues.
Knight Yuy's patrol had encountered the rogues once before, at dusk, wearing masks. It was supposed that these bandits were allied with the ones Duo and Sir Yuy had met in the wood. From that fateful clash one man had survived, a man Duo could identify should he see him again.
"The north road passes not far from here," Duo said.
"Yea," the Duke said.
"Will the patrol stopover for supplies and rest?"
"With an injured man in tow, it would be wise," the Duke said. "They could refresh themselves here for several days before proceeding."
The chance of seeing the dark-haired knight again was appealing, but Duo wanted to take part in the effort to stop the rogues permanently. His role would require a bit of strategy.
"Sire, what if I was to spy on the rogues? While the patrol rests, I could keep abreast of the rogues' movements?"
"Is it not apparent? It is folly to pursue demons alone, and you not yet a knight."
"I would not engage them," Duo reasoned. "Simply watch and report back."
"It is unnecessary. Sir Yuy has the matter in hand."
"I do not doubt his ability-."
"And yet you continue to speak."
Duo bowed deeply. "Sire."
"Your Grace," Wufei said. "Duo has learned to mask the sound of his footfalls, and advances daily in his skills as a warrior."
Duo stood up and stared at Wufei. He knew very well Duo had not mastered silent footfalls.
"Advancing and mastering are very different," Treize said.
"Agreed, and a teacher can only teach so much," Wufei said. "To master the path of the warrior, he must walk alone."
"I forbid it. He is not ready and you know it."
"What if I were to accompany him?"
"You would deny me of my two favorite companions?"
"If companionship is your only concern, I could arrange-."
Treize put his hand up as he frequently did to silence people. "Do not presume to know me... yet."
"Then allow me to suggest that you know something of me and Duo, and that we could be the eyes and ears of the patrol as they prepare to strike back."
Duo grinned at Wufei's argument. He often marveled at the foreign prince's wisdom, but it was even more impressive to watch him out maneuver the highest noble in the land.
Treize's eyes narrowed, going from Wufei to Duo and back. And then he smirked. "I believe you two would conspire to make my life miserable if I did not agree."
Duo smiled broadly, but refrained from laughter in deference to the Duke's conciliation.
"I find no pleasure in your misery, Your Grace," Wufei said.
With that, Treize laughed and all good humor was returned. "Let us call it a night and meet in the morn to finalize your plans."
"Thank you, Your Grace." Duo bowed, and turned on his heel to give the lovers privacy. As he retreated, he thought he heard Treize say, "I let you win this time, but I shall not again."
Duo smiled, knowing that both Treize and Wufei were lovers of chess. He was certain their days and nights would be spent in an intoxicating progression to checkmate.