The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Twenty-Five - The Pageantry of Knights
The castle was a flurry of activity with preparations for the grand feast. The Duke's guests were encouraged to stay in their chambers or leave the castle grounds to avoid being trampled by one of the many servants scurrying through the corridors with tableware, tapestries, flowers, and produce.
Heero and Duo spent time alone in the garden before visiting Quatre and Trowa. While Quatre slept much of the day, Trowa appreciated the company.
"Will he be well enough to attend the festivities?" Duo asked.
They were seated around a small table near the hearth playing chess, though they paid little attention to the game.
"It may be too much excitement, but he insists on going," Trowa said. His eyes drifted to the bed where Quatre napped soundly. "He will be carried to the hall in a chair."
"That is sensible," Heero said. "If he tires, he can return to his room."
"He will be surprised to learn the townfolk are invited," Trowa said.
"Yea," Duo said, smiling. "Duke Milliardo is a generous lord. He asked that their families come as well."
"I am anxious to see their faces when they partake in the feast," Trowa said.
"The Duke has promised a great spectacle," Duo said.
"The courtyard has been filled with merchants all day," Heero said. The comings and goings of carts could be heard from the window. "We did well to stay hidden away."
Duo chuckled. "It seems so unlike you to be satisfied with idleness."
"We deserve this leisure, at least for one day."
"Indeed," Duo said. "That battle was well fought."
"What of the rogues and Sir Tsubarov?" Trowa asked.
"For now, they can rot in the castle's dungeon," Heero said.
"When is the trial?" Duo asked.
"The Duke of Nevers is petitioning the King to make an example of these men."
"How long will that take?" Duo asked.
Heero shrugged. "It could be weeks before he receives a reply from the King, and the trial can proceed."
"Are we to remain here until then?"
"Nay, we can return to Nevers if we are needed to bear witness."
"Are you anxious to return to Lyon, Duo?" Trowa asked.
"I was hoping to travel north... to Strasbourg."
"Strasbourg?" Trowa asked.
"It is my home," Heero said.
Trowa grinned. "It seems we have similar plans. Quatre has asked me to accompany him on his return to Italy."
"That is good news!" Duo said.
"Shh," Trowa said, reminding Duo of their sleeping friend. "I am pleased he asked, but I am merely a stablehand."
"That matters not to Quatre," Duo said.
"You are right, but I wish to make him proud. We will never be equal in rank, but perhaps I can establish myself in another way."
Duo's eyes darted to Heero. This was much like their situation. "If a tailor's apprentice can become a knight's squire then surely a stablehand can become the marshal of stables and more."
"That is my hope."
It was late afternoon when Heero and Duo returned to their appointed chamber to dress for the evening's feast. The Duke's tailor and staff made quick work of new clothes for the guests. The tunics were placed on the bed, side-by-side like lovers. Both tunics were a soft fabric in royal blue, the knight's tunic edged in gold embroidered ribbon at the hem and sleeves, and the complementary squire's tunic was trimmed in silver ribbon. Donning fresh linen shirts, black hose and cleaned boots, Heero and Duo appeared very much a pair. Most would see a knight and his squire, but those with a more discernable gaze might catch the glances and small touches that marked them as lovers, too.
After securing their sword belts and scabbards, they pinned blue and red ribbons to their breast in allegiance to the Duke Khushrenada.
"Are you nervous?" Heero asked.
"Merely anxious for the night to begin."
Heero grinned and leaned in, placing a kiss on Duo's lips. "We should have stayed abed today."
"You wanted to walk in the garden."
"And you wanted to visit Lord Winner," Heero said.
Duo put his hands to his lover's hips, and flashed a wicked grin. "Shall we stay abed when we arrive at Castle Yuy?"
"If you wish it."
They kissed deeply, now regretting the evening would not be spent alone.
"Let us not be late," Heero said, brushing a wisp of hair from Duo's face. "You wanted to greet the guests."
"Methinks they will be more at ease seeing a familiar face."
They left the chamber and made their way to the corridor leading to the great hall. The door to the hall was open and a guard stood on either side. From the sound of laughter spilling from the hall, it was evident that many guests had already arrived.
They hurried into the hall to find it shimmering in candlelight, flowers and a beautiful pewter table setting. Guests were standing about the room, conversing and enjoying wine as a harpist played a pleasing melody. Duke Treize and Wufei were speaking with knights from Castle Peacecraft. Wufei was dressed as he usually did in his long Chinese tunic, but also wore embroidered black shoes. Treize wore a long, azure blue tunic with bell sleeves embroidered at the cuffs in a scroll design; his beautifully tooled leather sword belt hung low on his hips.
Duo would have liked to converse with them, but his first priority was the commonfolk who were gathered near the hearth. They were wide-eyed and no doubt overwhelmed by the opulence around them.
"I am Duo Maxwell," he said with bow. "Thank you for accepting the Duke's invitation."
"Sir Maxwell," the healer, Sally said, stepping forward.
"I am yet a squire, good lady."
She grinned. "You look well, squire. How is your friend?"
"Lord Winner is improved and will be joining us."
Heero alighted at Duo's side, nodding to the group. "We are most grateful to you."
"Thank you, sir," several of the people said.
"This is Sir HeeroYuy," Duo said. "He is a knight of the Duke Kushrenada of Lyon, and has been tracking the rogues."
"You tracked the rogues to Nevers, squire," Heero said, correcting him a bit formally.
"We are humbled by your efforts," a middle-aged man said. He was dressed in a new tunic of fawn brown. "The rogues made trade with neighboring towns difficult."
"What is your name, good sir?" Duo asked.
"I am Jean-Paul the blacksmith of Nevers," he said with a bow.
"You must have been well satisfied to beat those men!" Duo laughed.
"Yea, and I would like another chance. I hear they are in the castle's dungeon."
"The Duke will see that they are punished," a meek voice said. From behind the man appeared the lavender seller, her cheeks rosy.
Duo smiled and stepped forward to greet her. He took her hand and bowed to give it a little kiss. "Good lady."
The elderly woman laughed. "You will embarrass me in front of the nobility."
Duo stood. "You were first to heed my call for help, and I thank you with all my heart."
"I tried, but could not get past the guards."
"Yea, you tried, and that is all I hoped for."
"You have a way with words, young squire. The maidens will need to guard their virtue."
The group laughed, and Duo gave Heero a glance. Perhaps he could use his charm on the knight later.
The distinct peep, peep of a hornpipe turned their attention to the door. A group of minstrels came skipping into the hall dressed in the colors of the Duke's banner, their tunics and hose were each half red and half white. The hornpiper led a drummer, flutist, and bell player, all engaged in a cheerful chivaree. They danced about the room, inspiring many guests to clap their hands and dance as well.
At the close of the happy melody, two men stepped into the hall wearing handsome dark gray tunics and red and white hose. The trumpeter put the instrument to his lips and played a series of notes to command attention. The man at his side spoke in a clear, resonating voice. "Honored guests, the Duke of Nevers, Milliardo Peacecraft, joins you for the feast!"
The Duke entered with a loud "Hurrah!" from the guests. He wore a beautiful long white tunic, heavily embroidered in shades of blue.
"I have never seen such exquisite cloth, and so many yards of cambric embroidered," Duo said to Heero. Although he despised his stepfather, the man had taught him a good deal about textiles.
The Duke's hair was pulled into a ponytail. At his ear he wore a long, pearl drop earring, and around his waist an intricate silver belt. He smiled to his guests as they bowed and came forward to greet him.
"Shall we get in line?" Heero asked.
A long line of guests had formed to make their introductions. Duo turned to the villagers and their family members and waved for them to follow. They were still uneasy, but with his encouragement they waited to meet the Duke.
When it was at last their turn, the Duke Milliardo gave his subjects a warm welcome.
"I am well pleased to have you at my feast," he said, smiling brightly.
The commoners bowed deeply, including the smallest among them, a little boy grasping his mother's skirt. In addition to the ten villagers who assisted in the fight, they brought twenty-five family members. Still, the hall was not crowded. Duo guessed it could easily accommodate one hundred. It took several minutes for all to be introduced, but the Duke Milliardo never wavered in his patience. He seemed sincerely interested to meet each and every one of them.
Just then, Lord Winner arrived, carried on a chair by two hulking servants, and Trowa walking beside him. It was not surprising that all attention turned to the injured nobleman. His chair was set down and he was enthusiastically greeted by Duke Treize, Sir Chang, Sir Yuy, Squire Maxwell, and Duke Milliardo.
"Friends," Quatre said with a smile. "It is good to see you."
"You look well," Treize bellowed.
Indeed, Quatre's cheeks had a lovely pale blush and his eyes were bright.
"I am sorry to have caused you so much conern," Quatre said.
Sally came forward with her apprentice, and each bowed to the young noble.
"You remember the good ladies who cared for you?" Duo asked, uncertain how clear Quatre's memories were of last night.
"Yea," he smiled. He held out his hand to Sally and she took it warmly. "Thank you."
"Thank you, my lord," she said, dipping her head in a bow. She nodded to her assistant to come closer. "This is Lucrezia, my lord."
"Is your name Italian?"
"Yea, I was born in Genoa."
"I spent a year studying art in Genoa. What brought you to Nevers?"
"Sally," she said with a grin.
There was something about the way she said the healer's name that made Duo think for the women might mean more to each other than teacher and student.
The conversation would have continued, but the servants began bringing out platters of bread and cheese and set them on the tables. The sight and smell of the warm bread was enough to entice the guests to take their seats. The eight tables prepared for the banquet were decorated with white tablecloths, pewter goblets, knives and forks, and pale green glass vases overflowing with roses and lilies. Each table had long benches for seating, except for the Duke's table which had ornately carved chairs with embroidered cushions for each guest. Each table sat ten, and the Duke generously offered two places at his table for commoners. There was little discussion as Katherine the lavender seller, and Jean-Paul the blacksmith were pushed forward by the others to take the honor.
The Duke Milliardo sat at the head of the table with Duke Treize and Lord Winner placed first next to him, a sign of their high ranks. The table was complete with Sir Chang, one knight from the Duke Milliardo's host, Sir Yuy and Squire Maxwell, Trowa, and Katherine and Jean-Paul. Duo made a point of sitting at the end of the table with the commonfolk to further put them at ease.
As the meal was brought out of the kitchen, the musicians began to play as they walked between the tables. The food set before the guests was beautifully prepared and well seasoned with herbs and spices. There was roasted beef from Charolais cattle, roasted quail and boar, wild mushrooms sautéed in red wine and butter, buttered carrots, freshwater fish paté, and sausages with mustard, all served on bread trenchers. More and more dishes were brought before them, and the wine flowed freely. The laughter and the conversations grew louder as the evening went on. The guests enjoyed desserts of honey-crepes, almonds and marzipan as they listened to the sweet voice of a bard who sung the nobilities' praises, and watched the antics of a jester who skillfully juggled colorful ceramic balls.
When it seemed quite late and the guests would disperse, the Duke Milliardo stood and raised his cup to the gathering. "You are the reason France is great!"
The guests erupted in a loud cheer, many standing and raising their cups to the Duke.
"We will conquer any enemy!" the Duke said.
It was clear to all present he was not merely speaking of the rogues and their nefarious leader, Sir Tsubarov, but also the English.
Duke Milliardo stepped away from the table to stand before the ancestral chair of the House of Peacecraft. Like the chair from which Duke Treize ruled his people, this chair was placed on a platform at the end of hall, and the platform covered in a Persian rug.
"This feast," the Duke said in a clear, loud voice, "is a celebration of our victory, and also our strength and honor. Duke Khushrenada, please join me."
Duke Treize went to stand at Duke Milliardo's side. They were impressive men, tall and handsome, and proud.
"It is our shared belief," Duke Milliardo said, "that the people of Nevers who bravely joined the fight against the rogues deserve our gratitude."
The noble guests clapped their hands on the tables in approval, and Duo smiled in delight.
Duke Milliardo nodded to his chamberlain, who in turn gestured for three pages to bring forward baskets filled with unknown items.
"Will the peasants who aided in yesterday's battle please come forward," the chamberlain said.
In an orderly fashion, the ten villagers got up from their seats and made their way to stand before the Dukes, except for Katherine.
"I cannot," she said to Duo.
"It is your due," he said.
"My part was most small."
Duo shook his head and got up from his chair, holding his hand out to her. "I shall escort you."
The lavender seller grinned. "Do you always get your way?"
"Yea," Heero said from across the table.
"Some people make me work for it," Duo said and chuckled.
He helped Katherine from her chair and walked with her to stand with the others. When he stepped back to leave, she grabbed his hand again. This level of humility was common among the lower classes, but had rarely been practiced by Duo. Now that he thought about it, his lack of humility was one of the first things Heero disliked about him. It made him grin to remember it.
"Each of you played a role in yesterday's victory," Duke Treize said. "The hunt for the rogues took many months, and came to end in Nevers thanks to your bravery."
"In gratitude," Duke Milliardo said, gesturing to his chamberlain. "You will each receive 100 francs."
The people gasped in surprised, as did their families still seated at the tables.
"It is too much your Grace," some of them said. It was more money than any of them would see in a lifetime.
"The Duke Khushrenada and I are in agreement on this. Our men were outnumbered and without you would have lost the day."
The ten villagers sank to their knees in deep humility.
"Wait, there is more," Duke Milliardo said with a pleased chuckle.
The chamberlain was asked to read one of the documents, in part to announce its contents to all present, but also knowing that many of the commoners could not read. "The individual named herein is a loyal servant to the Duke Peacecraft of Nevers and Duke Khushrenada of Lyon. He may do trade with the castle and live freely on the Duke's lands without rent for all time, under the protection of the Dukes."
Duke Treize and Duke Milliardo then handed each commoner a document bearing the person's name, and sealed with the insignias from their ducal rings. It was more than any of the villagers could have hoped for or imagined. They were in disbelief at the great honors given. Their families came to stand around them, embracing, laughing and crying.
Duo brushed a tear from his eye. He was about to return to his place at the table as everyone went back to their seats, when he was asked to remain before the Dukes.
"Squire Maxwell," Treize said, smiling. "Please come forward."
His heart fluttered to hear the Duke refer to him that way. It was so formal, so respectful.
"Yea, sire." Duo went on bended knee.
"Sir Yuy," Treize called.
Duo watched from over his shoulder as Heero came to stand next to him.
"Is this your squire?" the Duke asked.
"Yea, Your Grace." Heero also knelt before the Dukes.
"Squire Maxwell," Duke Milliardo said. "Your role in strategizing an attack against the rogues by inspiring the peasants to join you won the day."
Duo looked up at the platinum haired nobleman towering before him, and suddenly realized he was being honored. He was about to protest when he felt a light touch to his knee. Heero's hand retreated immediately, but had done enough to still Duo.
"You are to be honored in the greatest way," Duke Treize said. "This is most sudden and may seem premature, but in light of the events of recent days it is right to proceed. Sir Yuy, please instruct your squire with the proper words."
Duo's brow furrowed in confusion.
"Repeat these words," Heero said. "And add your own if you like."
Duo nodded, and listened carefully, feeling as though he were in a dream. Why else would Heero be speaking of fealty and the code of chivalry in front of such a grand host?
Duo repeated the words in a steady voice so as to be heard by all, and to let the words sink into his soul. "I, Duo Maxwell, swear an oath of fealty to God, to the King of France, and to my country." His heart hammered in his chest. This honor was so unexpected that he could barely conceive of it, and yet he understood its magnitude. He continued with the greatest sincerity, "I affirm my devotion to the knight's code of chivalry and to uphold the law of the land, and to protect its people." He added the last words, always passionionate for the good of the commoners.
"Bow your head," Duke Treize said.
Duo lowered his head. His hands trembled with nerves and excitement as he heard the slide of Treize's steel blade, unsheathed from its scabbard. He held his breath and felt the tap of the Duke's double-edged sword on his right shoulder, and a tap on his left shoulder.
"It is with great pleasure," Duke Treize said, "that I introduce, Sir Maxwell, Knight of Valence, Knight of France."
Duo looked up to see the Dukes smiling at him. He turned to see approval in Heero's eyes as well.
"Rise, sir knight," Duke Treize said in a commanding tone.
As Duo rose to his feet, the hall erupted in cheers.
Duke Treize clasped his hand to Duo's shoulder. "Your rise to knighthood will be chronicled and marveled at for ages to come."
"This is most unexpected, sire."
"It was always expected, Sir Duo, just not this day. It would have been more in keeping to celebrate your knighthood with a three-day ceremony, but this seemed fitting to your nature."
"Three days?" That sounded exhausting to Duo.
"Perhaps Sir Yuy can explain it to you."
The Dukes went on to honor Lord Winner, Sir Chang, and Sir Yuy for their roles in defeating the rogues. For the noblemen, their reward was not monetary, but instead great praise inscribed in the official record. Lord Winner and Sir Chang's injuries were noted and glorified. Wufei's patient teaching of the newly knighted Sir Maxwell was also praised. Though Quatre had wished to stand before them, his request was refused, and his chair brought in front of the high noblemen.
"Dear cousin," Duke Treize said, kneeling next to Quatre. "You are a gentle soul, and a wise and noble warrior. It grieves me that you were injured in the pursuit of the rogues."
"Cousin, thank you, but many worked toward this day, including you."
Treize knew better than to argue with Quatre, who was a noted diplomat.
Next, Sir Yuy's tireless efforts were expounded for all to hear. Duke Treize informed those gathered of how he led excursions into the countryside, tracking and engaging the rogues on many occasions. He also praised the knight's honor and sense of duty.
"From this day forward," Duke Treize said in conclusion. "Your service to the House of Khushrenada has ended. You have been my most favored knight, but now is your time to tend to your own affairs."
Heero bowed deeply. "You have honored me with your favor, Your Grace." He stood fully with shoulders back, and looked on his liege. "I am yours to command should you need my services again."
Like Duo's knighting ceremony, Heero's end to duty was also very symbolic and touching. He had served Treize for many months at great sacrifice, but not without reward.
Just when the assemblage thought all the rewards had been given, Duke Treize called forth the stablehand, Trowa Barton. Duo noted that Quatre seemed more nervous than Trowa as the lanky servant stood before his master.
The Dukes jointly presented Trowa with a purse of coins "worth a king's ransom," in Treize's words. The secrecy surrounding the amount sent the guests murmuring excitedly.
"I am about to lose one of the finest stablehands I have known," Duke Treize said. "You have a magical way with horses, young man."
Trowa bowed deeply. "Thank you, Your Grace. It has been a great pleasure to serve you."
"Be sure that Lord Winner treats you well."
There was implied intimacy in that remark, but only to those aware of the affair.
With the rewards fully given, the gathering returned to merrymaking with wine and more food, and the continued entertainment of songs from the minstrels.
Trowa knelt beside Quatre's chair and shared softly spoken words, too soft for Duo to discern. It was not long before they excused themselves for the night.
Heero and Duo settled near the hearth, enjoying the fire and conversing with other guests. Duo's happiness was beyond words. He felt as if he were floating on a cloud. The title Sir Maxwell danced in his head. He was now a knight! The world was open to him in a thousand ways. What a delight it would be to explore it at Heero's side!
Heero seemed to sense his elation and grinned at Duo. He also found a myriad of excuses to touch Duo's arm, his hand and his knee.
By midnight, many of the guests had fallen asleep on benches or propped against a wall. Since it was after dark, Duke Milliardo arranged for all his guests to remain at the castle. Additional chambers were prepared, and pallets and blankets were brought into the hall. Many of the commoners chose to remain in the hall, most comfortable in the room where they had spent the evening.
Duo bid his new friends a good night, taking a moment longer to speak with Katherine.
"Do you have plans for the money?"
"First, I will buy my son a plow."
"You have a son?"
"Yea, he is but fifteen and works our small farm nearby, where I grow my lavender. A plow will make many things possible for us."
"Will you return to Lyon with Duke Khushrenada?" she asked.
"One day, perhaps. My plans are to remain at Sir Yuy's side. He is headed home to Strasbourg."
"I have heard tale of a lovely cathedral there."
"I will be sure to visit it." He gave her a hug, and then joined Heero who was waiting in the corridor for him.
"Sir Maxwell," Heero said with a nod.
"Sir Yuy." Duo laughed.
"You should not laugh. Being a knight is a serious duty."
"Heero," Duo said with a sigh. "It is late."
Heero grinned, and Duo realized his lover had been joking.
"Are you pleased?" Heero asked, heading back to their chamber.
"Is it not apparent?"
"It is most apparent."
"Are you pleased?" Duo asked with a worried glance.
"You might have bristled at the formal ceremony, but I would have liked to share that with you."
"You are disappointed?"
"Nay," Heero said, looking at Duo as they walked side-by-side. "The circumstances are such that this was best. Many men are knighted after battle in less dignified surroundings."
"Is that how you were knighted?"
"It was done grandly, but after a battle in which my uncle, Sir Owen, was killed. I have always regretted that he did not witness my knighting."
"I am sorry," Duo said, touching Heero's arm.
Heero was silent the remainder of their walk to the chamber. Duo wanted to know more, but he had grown to respect Heero's quiet moments.
When they entered their bedchamber they were pleased to find the servants had lit a fire in the hearth. Even in summer, castle rooms were often chilly, so the fire gave the room warmth and light.
Duo stood by the bed undressing as Heero poured them a glass of wine. They had drunk their fill at the feast, but it seemed appropriate to share a glass together, alone.
Heero came to stand behind Duo, and kissed each bare shoulder. "Sir knight," he said in a husky whisper.
A delicious shiver ran across Duo's skin. He understood the symbolism of Heero's kiss, a touch to each shoulder like the tap of the Duke's sword in the knighting ceremony.
"You once made it plain that a commoner could not be a knight," Duo said.
Duo turned to face Heero. "Do you still believe it to be true?"
"Yea, with one exception."
Duo tilted his head as a grin slowly formed on his lips. He understood implicity that he was the exception to Heero's steadfast rule. "It is a step in the right direction."
"Duo, do not expect me..."
He placed a finger on Heero's lips. "I expect everything from you."
Duo nodded as his grin grew wider, reflecting his playful mood.
"Like this?" Heero dipped a finger in the red wine and smoothed it across Duo's lips.
"Yea," Duo said, licking the finger with a moan.
Heero set the cup down and pushed Duo onto the bed. He wrapped his strong arms around Duo and kissed him with a lush intensity.
"Let me make love to you," Heero said, slipping his hand between Duo's hose-covered legs.
"Yea..." Duo said, warming quickly.
Heero's tender soft kisses were balanced by a firm touch of hand. He massaged Duo's bulge still snug in his hose until the pace became maddening. He slid his hand beneath the soft wool, grasping Duo's hardness and stroking it.
"Sir knight... Heero..." Duo said, moaning.
"Mmm, sir knight," Heero whispered in Duo's ear. "I am proud of you."
Duo's eyes blinked open. Heero's lips were again pressed to his shoulder, his profile shadowed by the flicker of firelight. "Thank you...Heero."
Heero turned his head slightly and their eyes met. "Shh," he said, and kissed Duo to ensure his silence.
Their paths to knighthood were dissimilar in a thousand ways, but Duo could see in Heero's blue eyes that he was proud of Duo's accomplishment. It was remarkable to see so much in another man's eyes, and in this moment Heero's shone with love, happiness, passion and pride.
Duo succumbed to that passion and to Heero's steady hand, wrapping himself around his lover as Heero took his fill.