Chapter 5: Men of Less Honorable Means
by Casey Valhalla
The Talmac council consisted of three men, two women, and the Manguanac captain; and for once, in all the years they had served the Grand Minister of Sabaku, they were all in agreement.
"With all due respect, Minister, we should leave now."
"Sanc is accepting refugees."
"It would be impossible to resist the fleet for long. Their technology is too advanced."
"We have to get the people out of here, now, sir. While we still can. We should have left days ago."
At the head of the small conference table, Quatre Winner held up one hand for silence. His appearance was somewhat rumpled and worn due to the days he had spent holed up in the ballroom, and his wide blue eyes gave him the look of one eternally young, but when he spoke his voice held all the authority of his position.
"I will not run away."
Five pairs of eyes turned wondering gazes at him. Rashid looked nonplused. Before they could begin protesting Quatre continued. "This is my homeland, and I intend to defend it. If I cannot, I shall surrender and accept my fate."
"If you were to die, the clan would be in chaos! The infighting within the nation alone would be its undoing!"
"Then we are in our most desperate time," the Minister said softly, his eyes unfocused, gazing down at the conference table without seeing it. "The fall of this nation would be only the first of many."
The protests of the council died in their throats, their eyes glued to the motionless form of their leader, his expression slack, his palms splayed flat on the tabletop. After an eternity of minutes Rashid stirred. "Master Quatre?"
He came into focus with an almost audible snap, staring directly at his Captain. "The ISG will lay siege to the Talmac in two days time. Make the appropriate preparations. The innocent should not be here when it happens."
"Two days, sir?"
"You wished to act. Now is the time to do so." Quatre rose from his seat and took in the astonished faces of the council. "The Manguanacs will remain here with me. Get everyone else out, and close all inbound routes from the rest of the planet."
"Sir, you should not be left defenseless. Let us call for reinforcements."
The Minister shook his head and turned from the conference, moving towards the door. "I have given my orders. Sabaku will not be liberated by her own people, but by men of less honorable means."
The sun was setting, casting long shadows across the floor of his office. Quatre scratched his fingers through his short hair, rubbing at his aching scalp, then sliding his hand down to rest over his mouth in a gesture of thought.
He was unable to contact Trowa.
~Something is happening there, I can sense it. Something has gone wrong, and I donít know what. He was my only contact on Kaji.~ He sighed and let hjs arms drop limply by his sides, sinking back into the cushions of his chair. ~So tired Ö but I canít waste even a moment of time now. The circle must be completed, especially if Trowa canít get back here in timeÖ~
"Yep, you must be the one. You positively reek of White Magic."
In the span of two breaths Quatre was out of his seat and in a fighting stance, one of his carefully concealed knives in his hand and a spell ready at the back of his throat. There was something in the room, something that had managed to conceal its presence from him. Something powerful.
A shadow among shadows in the near corner shifted, a human form emerging from them, a form with a trailing black coat, difficult to make out in the dim light. It ambled into the broader space of the office, barely acknowledging Quatreís presence. "Nice place youíve got here." That voice again, a low, pleasant tenor. "Good reflexes, by the way. Scared you, did I?"
Quatre followed the creature with his eyes, not moving from his stance. For a creature it was Ė the signature of its very being betrayed the appearance of a human. He strained to determine its intent, but its mind was shielded, the emotions he could usually read so easily were barricaded from him, and instead he merely stumbled on the backwash of Black Magic that made him want to retch.
"Who are you?"
The creature turned on its heel to face him, a languid, elegant movement that betrayed centuries of grace and stealth. A trailing length of chestnut-colored hair bound into a braid matched the turn, whipping through the air, and the creature regarded him from behind dark glasses with a bemused grin. "How rude of me. I invited myself in here and didnít have the decency to introduce myself." It spead its arms wide and offered Quatre a sweeping bow. "Duo Maxwell, at your service. Actually, I already am at your service since Iím one of your employees. How silly of me to forget."
The Minister frowned. "Employee?"
"An operative of the Resistance." When Quatre continued scowling the being thumped its chest with one hand and drawled, "Friend."
"You are not my friend. Drop your facade and show me what you are."
"There are some days I really wish I could do that, Minister Winner." A pale hand reached up to pull the glasses off, and the creature turned glowing purple eyes on him as it cleaned the lenses with the hem of its shirt. "Iím the Eldest Relic, and Iím not here of my own volition. So donít kill the messenger, okay?"
"Eldest RelicÖ" Quatre straightened, and his glare turned dark. "Where is Trowa?"
"Kaji. You sent him there, remember?"
The Minister waved away the irreverent remark with a sweep of the knife in his hand. "No games, demon. If heís on Kaji, why canít I contact him?"
Duo shifted position to stand at attention, hands clasped behind his back. "There was an attack last night. I had already left. Heís alive. Thatís all I know."
"An attack by whom?"
"An unmarked fleet. No indication as to the source, yet."
Quatre raised an eyebrow. "Not the ISG?"
The young blonde deflated and resigned himself to study the demonís posture, hoping to determine the intentions of this unexpected guest. Only when he was satisfied that he could detect no hostility did he allow himself to relax and replace the knife in its hidden sheath. "Why are you here, then?"
Duo smirked and flicked a datareader out of his pocket. "Playing messenger boy. Not my usual trade, but like I said, I donít have much choice in the matter."
A peculiar half-smile crept onto Quatreís face. "Youíre not going to kill me?"
"If I was youíd be dead. Any other questions?"
"Do me a favor and control your magical backwash. It doesnít sit well with my equilibrium."
"Same to you."
Silence fell heavy in the room as the two stared each other down, Quatre noting a smile flickering on and off on the Relicís features. Finally Duo snorted and burst out laughing.
"Look, kid, if Iím gonna work for you, you have to trust me. I coudn't hurt you even if I wanted to, so letís call it even, okay?"
"Kid?" Quatreís eyebrows shot up, even as he felt the flows of Black Magic receding into Duoís presence. He took the cue and reigned in his own power. "Is that how you address all your superiors?"
"Only when they deserve it. Thanks. Can I read this now, or are you going to continue being unreasonably suspicious?"
Quatre sat down and indicated that Duo do the same. "Are all demons as cynical as you?"
"Two thousand years of servitude can do that to a guy." The Relic tossed off his coat before sliding into a chair across from Quatre, a cheeky smile permanently affixed to his face. "Kid."
"Thatís quite enough out of you. Read your message."
Duo grumbled a bit, but punched a few buttons on the datareader and scanned the screen. "Here it is. 'To Quatre Raberba Winner, Grand Minister of Sabaku from Chang Wufei, clan leader and Mandate of the Kaji Syndicate and the assassin Heero Yuy, greetings.' Formal, isnít it?"
Quatre waved a hand to continue.
"'It has recently come to our attention that you have set a spy on us, and would congratulate you on his success.' Though personally I don't believe your slick little elf-boy would have gotten caught unless he wanted to, am I right?" The demon waggled his eyebrows at his host, waiting for an answer.
The blonde allowed himself a guarded smile and a nod. "Trowa is indeed very efficient."
Duo grinned. "Wouldn't have expected any less from a retainer of my prime operative. 'He is currently alive and well, and shall remain so as long as we are capable of keeping him that way. In addition we send our condolences concerning your late father and regards as to your newly elevated status as Grand Minister of your home planet. Furthermore we ascertain that an alliance is in order. It has become apparent in recent weeks that your nation is being targeted by enemy forces and we would grant you our personal assistance when such opportunities become possible.' And blah blah blah." Duo's voice had dropped into a bored monotone, and he waved one hand from side to side in time with the words he was reading.
Quatre observed these antics with mild amusement. *This* was a fell creature? Obviously the texts he remembered from his magic studies as a boy had missed a few of the finer points.
"'Please expect our prompt arrival in three days time, along with that of your operative. In the meantime, Heero Yuy grants you the temporary use of his Relic.' WHAT!!!" Duo leapt to his feet and bore the datareader a mutinous glare. "What the hell is he... 'Duo is a demon in fine form, and his capabilities are practically endless. He will remain at a level eight restriction for the duration of his stay on your planet.' Well, while you're at it why not knock me up all the way to thirteen so I can't do a damned thing?" The demon began pacing back and forth in the space before Quatre's desk, his braid swaying behind him in angry snaps. "That little... 'We are certain you will put him to good use. He is not as dangerous as he would have you think.' Not as -- I can't fucking believe this!" He whirled to face the seated minister, eyes glinting formidably. "Do you think I'm dangerous?"
"No." Quatre snorted back a chuckle. "Finish the letter."
Duo growled but continued. "'There is no need for concern. Please await our arrival. Sincerely, C.W. and H.Y.' That bastard!"
Quatre watched, still reigning in the need to laugh, as Duo huffed and dropped back into his seat, crossing arms over his chest and grumbling. "'Not as dangerous as he would have you think.' Ha! I canít *believe* he did this to me!"
"Three days." The blonde folded his hands on the desk, the very thought sobering him. "They wonít make it in time."
"Eh?" The demon jerked his head around to face his host again.
"We have two days." Quatre said, meeting the purple stare directly. "Are you a tolerable mechanic?"
A ship was landing at the docking station, not incoming from the atmosphere, but from a low course across the northeastern desert. A nondescript silver cruiser, its only markings the word "DeathScythe" scrawled in blocky black cursive on one side. Abdul and Rashid, the current patrol for the station, watched its descent with crooked eyebrows.
"And you said the Minister was expecting it?"
"Who in their right mind would pilot that old of a model? Even assuming it's been modified?"
"It looks like an old Modicum pirate cruiser. Are you sure we should let it land?"
Rashid nodded again.
The ship touched the landing pad and for a moment the only sound was the whirring of thrusters powering down. Then the hatch opened with a whoosh of depressurizing air.
Abdul reached for the gun slung at his side. "Sir? Should we--"
Rashid held up a hand. A small, sleek red-furred cat was stalking down the cargo ramp. As soon as it leapt down to the landing pad the hatch began closing.
"Uhh..." Abdul blinked at his captain.
Rashid shrugged -- again.
The cat stopped a pace in front of the two guards, regarding them speculatively with wide green eyes. Presently it yawned and began grooming itself with a purely cat-like air of indifference.
"All the satellite receivers are down, and the Manguanacs haven't had any luck repairing them. Your first task will be to assist them for the next two days until the ISG fleet arrives."
"You will help me construct a barrier."
"Whoa, hold it just a fu--minute." Duo brought himself and the young Minister to a halt in the corridor they were descending through. "You use White Magic, I use Black, and neither of us can very well change that. How do you propose *we* conjure a shield without making each other too sick to do anything?"
"It will work, Duo, and be all the stronger for it. I can't hold it up by myself, or I won't be able to work on my backup plan."
The demon snorted derisively. "And what, pray tell, might that be?"
"That's what I'm taking you to see." Quatre cast him a mocking glare and smiled disarmingly. "Now have a little faith and behave yourself, or I'll tell your master."
The tease fell somewhat short, for Duo's self-depricating grin vanished and he narrowed his eyes to glowing purple slits. "Heero is not my master."
Quatre instinctively backed up a step, his cordial manner slipping away in the face of what he now reconsidered to be a *very* dangerous being. "I didn't -- I thought..."
The demon blinked, and after a moment retreated with a sigh. "Sorry. You wouldn't know any better. Just -- don't say that again. Please."
Quatre nodded mutely, and returned the apologetic smile that crossed Duo's face. "Well, then, what *do* you call him?"
Duo laughed and spun to continue down the corridor. "That depends entirely on how much trouble I'm in at the time. Let's go. Now that you've brought it up I'm itching to know what this 'backup plan' of yours is."
The blonde fell into stride, allowing himself to enjoy the idle chatter his new companion kept up, despite stumbling across several words Quatre guessed were oaths. For his own part, the Minister was willing to answer any question that happened to crop up. Duo had been everywhere in the lower galaxy at some point, it seemed, but Sabaku was a planet he wasn't completely familiar with.
"Oh, you're fu--kidding me!" The demon's silvery laughter echoed in the confines of a small foyer they were passing through. "Your main export is *sand*?"
"Extremely fine sand, excellent for delicate glasswork. Naturally it brings in a large revenue." Quatre chuckled. "And we certainly have enough to spare, don't we?"
Duo laughed again and trailed his fingers across the wall hangings as they walked. His eyes darted everywhere, even while he was talking, taking note of the most minute detail. The Talmac was a pretty place, nice but not overly elegant, with a homey smell. And *tons* of hiding places.
Quatre stopped them again as they reached the lower hallways, just in front of a large oak door. "Look, Duo," he said softly, his face regaining the serious expression usually reserved for council meetings. "I'm sorry I reacted so badly when you arrived. I've never made the acquaitance of a demon before. Your presence frightened me, and I couldn't read your intentions. I apologize."
The Relic looked at him quzzically for a moment, then a sly grin slid over his face. "Nah, it's my fault for slinking around in the shadows and scaring you shi--senseless." He reached out and tapped Quatre lightly on the nose with one finger. "As for your obvious telepathic skills -- no prying into my brain. No one's allowed in there but Heero. And from the smell seeping through that door I'd say we're here. Now fess up!"
The blonde shrugged noncomitally and opened the door, leading Duo into a large, dim ballroom, high ceilinged and empty save for what appeared to be a bundle of blankets in one corner. Quatre waved a hand above his head, almost an absent gesture. "Light."
The empty chandeleires hanging from the ceiling burst into a warm glow, revealing and elaborate circle painted on the floor...
He shivered, staring down at moon-pale hands splayed against rough stone -- his hands, holding him up as his body shuddered. His body... Fingers clenched, trails of midnight hair slid across his face to pool among the hands and stones. A strangely familiar weight on his shoulders twitched and stretched in response to rediscovered muscles moving under skin so fair it was almost translucent. He was crouched on a floor, naked in a body he felt only partially intimate with, in the center of an intricate circle of lines and symbols etched in black ink and blood--
"Give me your name."
A voice. A command. Instictively his mouth opened, his throat croaking with disuse -- or perhaps from having never been used at all. His mind rebelled against answering the voice, some disconnected memory or awareness told him this was the deepest and oldest of bindings -- image, essence, and name...
"Give me your name."
The urge to obey was overwhelming, the command clogging his senses and washing him in euphoria, the desire to please the voice's owner taking prescedence over all else. HIs mouth opened again and despite the capabilities of his body he spoke.
"D -- Duo. My n--name is Duo."
"Yes. Yes it is."
The voice was pleased, and he flushed with the need to further obey it -- subconsciously he knew he was now bound to the voice eternally, beyond time and death, and screamed with the loss of his own will. But his waking mind knew no remorse, only adoration for his captor.
Another hand, this one thin and sun-darkened, reached for him, captured his chin and tilted his face up to meet a pair of hooded silver eyes framed by a tousle of rich honey-brown hair. "I am Descani," the voice said. "I conjured you. I am your master."
His own voice crackled in his throat. "M -- master..."
The man -- the mage, he realized he knew, for no one else could have called him -- sild the hand up to cup his face, caressing his cheek with a thumb. He leaned into the touch, nuzzling the man's palm. "There is only one master, my Duo. From now until forever."
Darkness poured into his vision, blacking out the face of his creator, the beloved voice he despreately longed to serve. "O -- only ... one..."
The combination of Quatre's voice and the overwhelming stench of White Magic broke the memory and shook him back to reality. "There is only one master..."
The demon's voice was muffled and strained, his eyes still wide and glimmering, his hands balled into fists at his sides. Quatre reached out to tap his cheek lightly with one hand. "Duo? What happened? I felt--"
Duo shook himself and suppresed the need to retch, raising the back of his hand to his mouth. He looked past the blonde boy to the circle etched into the floor. It was white, not black and red, and slightly different. "You -- Quatre, did you make this?"
"Yes. I've been working on it for days, and it's not even half done. But Duo, what happened? You looked like you'd just seen your worst nightmare, and I *felt* it. If I'd known White Magic affected you like that..." Quatre frowned at him and touched his face again in consternation.
The demon shrank away from him. "It's not that. The circle -- I've seen one before, but this isn't corrupted. It's almost perfect."
The Minister's frown deepened, his eyebrows furrowing together. "It has to be perfect if it's to work right." He turned to examine the patterns forming on the ballroom floor. "You've seen one before? Where?"
Duo let out a long breath and spun around to leave the room before the reek of Quatre's magic and the resurfaced memory made him vomit. "It's the first thing I remember."