For You I Suffer
The unofficial archery tournament continued apace while Lady Noin attempted to grant me some respite from my fears. Soon the field had been narrowed to two, one of the Slaburrians and Lord Zechs, of course, being the finalists. It came down to four shots - two apiece. The first round saw the competitors evenly matched, both archers striking so close to the center of the target that it took someone going over to the painted straw mats to judge that neither had, in fact, managed to hit the bullseye dead on.
Encouraging cheers and taunting jeers from both contingents of onlookers lent the spectacle some measure of suspense. The proceedings were lost on me, however, as my heart and mind battled - the former striving to find hope in Lady Noin's words while the latter crushed that same hope under relentless logic. If there had been even the slightest evidence that what she had told me was the truth, if there was any proof that my master did, indeed, hold me in some regard, I would have clung to it with all the fervor my zealous heart could bring to bear. But I could not forget the cutting slights that Heero had bestowed on me over the last two days, how I had lain next to him wanting so desperately for him to touch me even as I was presented with nothing but his back for companionship. And, likewise, I could not overcome the commanding surety of Lady Une's prediction that his heart would be forever closed to me.
Again I looked back toward where the baron sat with yet another full cup of wine in hand, unforgivably handsome though his dark glower was at such odds with the tranquility of his surroundings. No, there was no comfort to be found from that quarter. Perhaps the affection I had once thought my master felt for me had been overcome by his aunt's insistence of propriety and duty; or perhaps it had never existed at all. But whatever the case might be, I could not longer deny the truth of the matter. My heart wept as reason proclaimed itself the hateful victor.
Though well-meaning, Lady Noin was clearly mistaken in her assumptions. No conclusion could be reached but that Heero's heart was forever closed to me, and my entire being ached with despair. If only I could strip away my own futile passions, I might spare myself this pain. If I dedicated my efforts to perfection for its own sake and spent the remainder of my time in Windshire concentrating on the honor I had been afforded of serving the master of the realm without expecting more than what was due me by the terms of my service, I might survive this unbearable agony. But such rational notions were thoroughly beyond my meager abilities. Though I knew my love would remain forever unrequited, it persisted with furious tenacity, burning bright and hot in my soul and refusing to acknowledge its defeat.
Another outburst from the crowd and the delighted laughter of my companion drew my attention away from the object of my fruitless obsession, and I realized belatedly that the contest had ended. The raucous applause from the Calderash nobles, as well as the well-mannered sourness of the faces of the visiting dignitaries, informed me that Lord Zechs had defeated his opponent. A glance at the targets hinted at no immediate winner, so accurate had been both shots. But no one quibbled with the judge's determination that the trade minister had, indeed, pierced the very heart of the bullseye, a feat at which the other contender had failed by mere degrees. Lady Noin clapped her hands, her pride in her spouse shining upon her lovely face. She abandoned me to meet him as he crossed back over the bridge and another exclamation swelled from the assembly - this time of scandalized amusement - as the blond lord lifted his wife from her feet and planted a triumphant kiss on her willing lips. They clung together for several moments past what might be considered decent and a round of "Huzzahs!" rose to meet their daring.
I wanted to share in the happiness of those I cared for, but no one was paying me any mind and I could not find it within me to make the effort. The crushing misery of my new found conviction robbed me of any capacity to express any sentiment that was contrary to the heartbreak that threatened to rip me apart. I wished for nothing but to crawl away, to hide from the sun for surely only in the safety of darkness could I find a place to lick my wounds. But such was not my lot. The gathering returned to discuss what else could be done to alleviate the idle tedium of the remaining afternoon for the simply bounties of nature could hold no sway over their well-heeled attentions.
My lips managed a smile, though it seemed my face might shatter under the forced gesture. Lady Noin returned with her husband and my trainer in tow. I felt Quatre's cursedly perceptive gaze upon me and redoubled my efforts lest the slight glimmer of concern in his kind eyes deepen any further. He was already worried for me because of what I'd endured at the hands of the Slaburry ambassador. There was no sense in adding to his disquiet.
"Well done, my lord!" Lady Sally smiled brightly as she congratulated the champion. I stiffened with the natural wariness that any prey showed in the presence of its hunter until I realized that Lady Une had not accompanied her friend. Heero's aunt was where Lady Sally had left her, conversing with a matronly-looking noblewoman. She clearly wished to be elsewhere for she barely bothered to conceal her irritation with the tedious topic she was being forced to endure. The instinctive stiffness left my shoulders as I listened to the talk passing over my head.
"Indeed, Zechs, I did not realize you had kept so current with your skills," Quatre gushed. "I remember that, as a youth, you were quite the marksman. The honor of our country is obliged that you have not grown lazy under the weight of your duties."
"A simply matter against a less that expert opponent, I assure you," Zechs laughed, the warmth of the sound revealing the self-mockery in the arrogant speech. Lady Noin poked him in the side at the false modesty, for it had been clear that the delegate he had been facing was no slouch with a bow.
"So what is next, then?" Lady Sally looked about at the milling throng. She noticed some activity from the Slaburry table and noted it to her friends. "Seems like our guests have an interest in testing their blades." Indeed she was correct, for several of the delegates had loosened their swords from their sheaths and were glancing around as though to measure any possible competition. The ever attentive servants also made note of the visitors' tacit intentions and headed to the makeshift arena to insure that all was ready. The last bit of grass was being tamped down and the last stray stone tossed away when a challenge was finally made.
One of the delegates, an older man though still quite within in his prime, broke away from his fellows and headed for a bald, powerfully built Calderash gentleman of similar years. The Calderash noble had been part of the trade negotiations and the wryly amused glance he sent toward the man approaching him made it apparent that they had been awaiting such an opportunity to face each other.
"Ah," Zechs noted, "Lord Oxham and Delegate Dermail. They are old friends, I understand, from the time of the baron's grandfather. Often I had to listen during the negotiations of the times they had tested their swords against each other as youths. I know that Lord Oxham had once been part of the old baron's honor guard and that Dermail won not a few tournaments in his day. It seems we will finally get a demonstration of their supposed prowess."
"Oxham, you old dog!" Dermail boomed in hearty tones. "You promised me a turn once the ink dried on our treaty. I believe that time has come."
"Indeed," Oxham replied in a deep voice over the chuckles of the crowd. He stepped away from his table and carefully unsheathed his sword. Even to my untutored eyes, his comfort with the gesture was apparent. He bowed over his barely visible paunch and presented his blade in a formal manner, the sunlight gleaming off of the keenly whetted edge. The hilt was simple and functional in design but looked to be fashioned of pure silver. "I gladly accept you challenge, sir...."
"If I might beg your indulgence, my lords."
My entire body seemed to seize at the sound of those hatefully urbane vowels. I had managed to survive the past few hours by pretending he was not sitting mere yards away from me, but my feigned ignorance was no longer to be allowed, it appeared. Treize rose slowly from his seat, control obvious in every line of his tall frame. Several of the ladies gasped and employed their feathered fans to stave off appreciative swoons as I struggled to hold on to the food I had foolishly swallowed.
"What is this?" Quatre murmured, the tenor of contempt at odds with the accustomed softness of his voice. At any other time, I might have been grateful at the unspoken show of support, but I was currently attempting to hold back the rushing tide of memory Treize's accursed voice stirred within my mind and I was unable to properly express my thanks. As though drawn by some perverse tether, to my horror I found my reluctant gaze seeking out the ambassador's reviled countenance. The bile rose anew in my throat as I found myself unable to deny the attractiveness of his form or the way my body heated in unspeakable excitement at the sight of him. I tore my gaze away, struggling to hide my distress as I fixed my attention on the unoffending green upon which I kneeled. With a mighty effort, I controlled the heaving of my shoulders as my lungs labored for the breath I could even then feel wanting.
"If you please, Lord Dermail, I would beg the honor of defending our kingdom in a match of swords. After all, it was my own folly that allowed our hosts to garner such good trade terms and I beg to be allowed to redeem myself." His manner was full of humor and the party responded accordingly. But I was not fooled. Treize had made his hatred of my country clear and I knew that he was in deadly earnest.
I glanced up at Lord Oxham, noting the lines in his face that bespoke his advanced years. Though he comfortably carried the confidence of the old soldier he was, next to the younger ambassador, he looked like a lumbering version of his bovine namesake. Treize was magnificent in his carriage, like a rapier - as beautiful in its sharpness as it was deadly. I felt fission of fear for the older nobleman. Were he to face the Slaburry ambassador surely no one could be in doubt of the humiliating outcome. A quite rumble of annoyance from Lord Zechs proved that I was not alone in my concerns. I looked up at him in time to see his hand fall to the hilt of his own sword just as Treize bowed toward his senior country to beg the use of the man's blade.
"I would be honored to use your sword, my lord." Treize's smile bordered on a disrespectful smirk but was just enough on the size of deference so as not to overly offend.
"Well, well then. Ahem," Dermail coughed, his fleshy face coloring slightly before he regained his composure. He was clearly nonplussed at being so skillfully usurped by his younger colleague, but covered his confusion with hearty bluster. "Of course, my boy. Of course. I'm sure my old friend will offer you good sport." The acquiescence was all for show. After all, though younger in years, Treize was his superior in both function and station. Dermail could do nothing but give over to his politely couched demands.
"Very good, my lord." Treize accepted the blade with a nod of thanks and looked toward a visibly uncomfortable Oxham. Zechs was apparently unwilling to see his countryman humiliated for he made definite motions of moving forward, clearly meaning to offer himself in the older man's place. Lady Noin looked at him with a lightly furrowed brow but she held her peace. She might feel the reluctance that any woman would at knowing her lover was soon to be in a fight, but her confidence in her husband's prowess could not be shaken so easily. But before Zechs could announce his intentions, the ambassador stunned everyone by turning his carefully reserved sneer toward none other than my master.
"My lord baron," he called across the garden so that there was no question that he was heard by the man sitting alone back at the main tables. "Surely you would honor me with a friendly clash. What better way to put a final seal on our negotiations. And who knows, perhaps I might win back a concession or two!" His countrymen laughed at his joke and the Calderash nobles matched the sound with uncomfortable offerings of their own.
I was so overcome with shock at Treize's presumption that not even a gasp was able to pass my suddenly frozen lips. I could not believe the gall of the man to challenge my master to something as base as a duel, for I held no illusions as to the ambassador's cruel intent. It appeared that I had not been alone in my unwavering scrutiny of Heero's demeanor during the festivities. The repugnant Slaburrian had also noticed that the baron had neither permitted his cup to remain empty nor allowed any drink to remain within it for longer than a moment. The damnable man knew that my master was drunk and thought to humiliate him in front of everyone.
It was untenable! I could not bear my lord to risk injury, let alone dishonor, at the hands of this odious creature. I was well acquainted with the depths of his depravity and I knew as surely as day would soon give way to night that the ambassador would not be content until blood was drawn. I would sooner give myself over into Treize's power for an eternity than to allow any harm to befall the man I loved. Surely someone else had to notice that Heero was in less than perfect condition and would stop this mockery before it began. I looked around desperately at those standing above me, my frantic gaze landing on my trainer as I tried to silently impart my disquiet. But his attention was all for the unfolding drama, and no one, not even Lord Zechs, moved to disagree as all eyes turned toward their liege.
It was clear that Heero had heard the challenge. His cup paused for a moment on its way to his lips, but resumed its journey after only that slight hesitation. He drained it and gave no answer except to place it on the table and rise to his feet. I could only imagine how much wine he had imbibed and my heart was in my throat as I saw the disaster that loomed. I thought I saw him waiver ever so slightly and was shocked that no one else seemed to notice his condition. I knew with an absolute certainty that if he attempted to take one step he would fall flat on his face. But I had underestimated my master's fortitude, for he abandoned his position and made his way over to us with that stalking walk that had so captured me from the beginning. It was then that I realized that the unsteadiness I had imagined was merely the product of the fretful tears that threatened to spill down my cheeks.
I hurriedly and surreptitiously dashed them away so as not to betray my distressed state and so that I would miss nothing of what was about to occur. To this day, I'm not sure what I expected to happen. I had a vague notion that Treize's treacherous nature would finally be made known to all as he endeavored to run my master through before the latter could arm himself. With crystal clarity, I imagined throwing myself in the path of the deadly thrust, taking the blade through my own chest, and saving my master's life. So convinced was I that some unfathomable tragedy was soon to occur that I could feel my muscles tense as they prepared for action even as I strove to perceive what form the danger might take.
But of course, the drama of my imagination far overreached reality. The ambassador made no move except to turn his head to track Heero's approach. His superior smirk never wavered and his hands merely removed his own sword, handing it off to one of his fellows before replacing it with the borrowed blade. Soon the baron stood before the Slaburrian, his posture betraying no frivolous motion and his bearing proving that he was no less dangerous than his intended opponent. Although Treize outmatched Heero in height, no one present made the mistake of thinking that the younger man was at any noticeable disadvantage.
The deep blue gaze, which had so often served to stir my ardor, was dark and cold such as I had never seen it. Even at his most dismissive, my master had never looked at me as he now regarded the ambassador, as though he were some disgusting slug which had been squished underfoot and now dared to mar the polished soles of the baron's boots. Heero's obvious contempt raised more that one speculative eyebrow amongst the surrounding company, but Treize merely continued to smile, the gesture fair dripping with insincerity. For a moment, I was sure that Heero would rebuff the invitation, though to so treat a visiting dignitary would be the grossest abuse of the rules governing civilized hospitality. But the baron merely reached toward Lord Oxham, his gaze never leaving the ambassador. He held out his hand until the startled man understood what was being asked of him. He quickly unsheathed his sword and placed the hilt in the baron's hand, the blade pointed carefully towards himself. Heero took it and brought his arm down so that he held the naked blade at his side.
"I accept." His tone was even, almost flat, betraying no emotion. Yet it was filled with a quiet menace that sent a chill down my spine followed with shameful quickness by a thrill of lust. This, then, was the man who commanded me - this being who radiated such implacable confidence that none would dare question his right to claim lordship over all he surveyed. In that moment I fell in love with him all over again and felt anew the keen pain of his disregard.
Treize answered with a smiling nod and turned toward the river, throwing out his arm in a flourish of mock deference intended to give Heero the privilege to lead the way. But before he could complete the taunt, my master had already walked away, heading for the creek and the bridge that forded it. The ambassador's smile slipped for a moment as he realized that he had been upstaged. The assembly followed the baron, filing across the bridge in a well-dressed flock. Treize and his countrymen waited to bring up the rear and I surmised that he planned to regain face by making my master await his arrival.
But in truth, I had very little capacity to pay the ambassador much attention. My lack of concern for the one person who engendered both hate and fear within me in such equal measures might give some clue as to the extent of my apprehension. But however anyone might try to judge the severity of my anxiety, none would never come close to the truth. Indeed, those closest to me in affection were insensible of it and some corner of my awareness knew the frozen stiffness of my features to be the cause of their ignorance. Quatre moved to join the crowd heading for the improvised arena, and as he had recovered my chain, perforce I followed as the tether was stretched taut.
My legs wobbled most alarmingly, threatening to dump me back onto the lawn, but I somehow managed to steady myself enough to allow my trainer to lead me toward the bridge. The wooden structure, though hastily fashioned, was well-made and was blessedly smooth and splinter free against my bare feet. Soon we were across, and though at any other time I might have appreciated how different the garden looked from this side of the creek, right then I could see nothing but the crude field and the man who had just reached it.
The group of nobles and dignitaries crowded around the arena, standing about it on all sides as they jockeyed for the best views. As members of the baron's inner circle, Lady Une, Lady Sally, Lord Zechs, Lady Noin, and my trainer were naturally afforded positions right at the front of the crowd along one side of the cleared field. I, too, was given the same courtesy and I found myself exposed as I stood at the edge of the arena. I could feel many sets of gazes upon my naked form - some bored and other intent - but my awareness was fully taxed by the ground stretched before me. These were meant to be friendly games, and the area was nothing more than a bit of cleared ground marked off by flags at the corners to denote the size of the arena. It was up to the crowd to act as the barrier that would prevent the contestants from ranging out of bounds during the match. I had seen such things made by boys in the countryside around my home during my childhood, but I could latch upon no fond memory to ease the frantic beating of my heart.
My gaze flew to where my master stood alone upon the field, testing the balance of his borrowed weapon with sharply controlled slashes. The finely honed blade cut the air, its passage noted with impressively clear swishes of sound. Several members of the crowd murmured in appreciation of the baron's prowess. But I saw what, apparently, no one else could, and I fell to my knees as they gave way beneath me, for, with a powerful thrust of his arm, my master had stumbled ever so slightly.
Treize and his party finally deigned to make their way across the bridge, the Slaburrians arranging themselves at one side of the field as Treize took his place at the center of the arena beside Heero. My master did not acknowledge the nod sent his way by his opponent, but instead concentrated on gaining full knowledge and comfort with his unfamiliar sword's heft and balance.
As though through a fog, I heard Zechs exercise his privilege as the winner of the archery tournament and declared that he would act as referee. Perhaps I should have been comforted that someone I trusted would be watching over the proceedings, insuring that the match would be fair. But that momentary revelation of weakness that only I in my dogged observation had seen remained etched in my mind's eye.
As Heero and Treize faced each other at Zechs's command, I desperately wanted to look away. But I could not. My heartbeat pounded deafeningly in my ears as they presented their swords in a formal en guard, the ambassador's form a study in perfection while my master's response was both crisp and yet unbearably sluggish to my untutored, gawking stare. And so I could only look on, my nails digging into my palms and my heart in my throat as the match began.