Outside of the kitchen entrance to Aku Palace, two figures crouched in the shadows. One of the figure's stomach rumbled and the other giggled. The rumbler shushed his companion. It wouldn't do for them to get caught now. A month ago, they'd been forced to leave the gypsies who'd taken care of them since they were four years old. On their own for the first time, now they were forced to steal food just to survive.
Duo was glad that no one had heard his stomach. He felt as though he hadn't eaten in a week and the reality wasn't far from that guess. He turned towards his cousin, Hilde, and motioned for her to wait there. With considerable stealth, Duo crept towards the delivery cart that was sitting outside the kitchen entrance. He was hoping there would be some bread and cheese on the cart that he could swipe.
Duo had almost reached his target when he heard a shout behind him. He whirled around and saw a guard motioning to three of his compatriots. '*Damn*,' Duo growled to himself. Before he could escape, he found himself surrounded by the four guards. 'Well, nothing else to do now,' he thought. Quick as a cat, Duo bent down, grabbing the long knives he kept in his boots. Holding the knives along his forearms in a defensive position, he crouched into a fighting posture. Of all the skills the gypsies had taught him, fighting was definitely the one he was the most grateful for.
"What are you going to do with those knives, little boy," one of the guards taunted.
Duo didn't rise to the bait but held his ground with a slight smile on his face. "Why don't you come and see," he retorted.
The guard snarled, falling for Duo's goading comment. He unsheathed his sword as he came at the young man. Duo stepped forward into the charge and used the knife along his left arm to stop the guard's sword. The guard hesitated, surprised at Duo's quick, sure movements. Duo took advantage and, turning the knife along his right arm into an offensive position, swept and the guard's stomach. The knife made a long, shallow gash and the guard leapt back, holding his stomach and wincing in pain.
"*Get that little bastard*!"
The other guards all moved in at the injured guard's enraged cry. Duo held his own, parrying and slashing at the attacking guards. One tried to catch his unawares from behind but a swift, hard back-kick ended the attempt. Duo was thinking he might actually make it out of this when a chilling comment from his far left made him immediately freeze.
"Drop those knives or the girl dies!"
Duo spun towards the sound and saw a fifth guard holding Hilde, a dagger to her throat. Duo bared his teeth and with a low growl, flipped the knife in his right hand so that he held it by the blade, preparing to throw it. Duo knew he had excellent aim and would be able to take out the guard holding Hilde with no problem. And it would have worked had not one of the other four guards conked Duo on the head with the hilt of his sword. Hilde screamed Duo's name as he fell bonelessly to the ground.
The guard holding Hilde laughed. "Now, little girl, we're going to take you and your friend to the dungeon to await your fate. You know what we do to thieves around here, don't you?" He laughed again at Hilde's frightened but defiant expression. "Oh, don't worry, I'm sure your friend will learn to live without his hands." Hilde struggled in the guard's grasp to no avail. The other guard hauled up the unconscious Duo and they were both taken to the dungeon.
The cell was small and dank. The guards carrying Duo threw him carelessly onto the only cot. As they left, four of the guards were still laughing, although one held his stomach in pain. The one who'd captured Hilde, however, looked once more into the cell. Making a decision, he turned and walked away.
Hilde knelt next to the cot and placed her hand on Duo's head. Feeling a bit helpless, she smoothed away the hair that had fallen into his face. "Please wake up," she said, bending down to kiss his forehead. "I don't know what to do."
Hilde nearly let out a cry of joy when Duo stirred. Groggily, he opened his eyes. "Ow," he said, raising a hand to the knot growing on the back of his head. "Did anyone get the number of that carriage?" He sighed as Hilde didn't seem to see the humor in his question. "Okay, pixie, what's going on?"
Hilde felt tears come into her eyes at the sound of her nickname. She blinked back her tears, wanting to be brave for Duo's sake. "They knocked you unconscious. They said that ... that t-they were going to c-cut off your hands for t-trying to steal ..." Hilde's voice broke on a sob.
Duo held his cousin, who was more like a sister, to him. "Don't worry, pixie, I'll figure out a way to get us out of this. Trust me?" Hilde raised her head from his shoulder and nodded, teary eyes looking at him with love and faith. Duo pulled her up onto the cot next to him and held her as she placed her head on his shoulder. 'I'll get us out of this,' he thought. 'I just don't know how the hell I'm going to do it, yet.'
Duke Dermail of Aku, known to an unlucky few as the sorcerer Tuberov, sat in his study enjoying a book on dark magic and a glass of port. He was contemplating which spell was best for making a man's blood boil in his veins when there was a knock on the study door. Letting out a growl of vexation, he ordered the person to enter. The guard who'd captured Hilde entered the room nervously.
"What in the hell do you want? Can't you see I'm *trying* to enjoy a nice relaxing evening," Dermail yelled. "This had *better* be important!"
The guard flinched but held his ground. "Y-your grace, pardon the intrusion, but we just captured two thieves that I thought you should know about. They're in the dungeon now..." The guard stammered to a stop at the duke's bellow.
"*What*? You want me to go down to the dungeon to see to a couple of *thieves*? What are you, an *idiot*?" Dermail took a deep breath and continued more calmly, "I am an important man with important things to do. If they are thieves, just cut off their hands and then feed their severed hands to the dogs."
The guard swallowed at the vivid image, but pressed on. "Your grace, I really think you'll want to see these two." Everyone in Aku was well aware of the duke's proclivity for pretty young girls and boys. "The thieves are young and rather attractive and I thought you might be interested in seeing them."
Dermail stared at the guard for a moment. Finally, he said, "Fine, I'll go. But they'd better be worth it." The guard swallowed again and followed the duke out of the room.
Dermail allowed the guard to lead him to the dungeon. He was halfway down the long stairwell when he caught an impression of a powerful source of magic nearby. He stopped short, amazed at the strength of the power he sensed. 'But where is it coming from and what is it,' he thought. Chanting softly, Dermail cast a tracing spell. Visible only to his eyes, a soft trail of light led down the dungeon stairs. Dermail followed the trail and it led him to a cell door where the guard he'd been following was waiting for him.
"Is this the thieves' cell?" he asked the guard. Dermail narrowed his eyes at the guard's nod. "Curioser and curioser," he mumbled. Wanting to know the type of power he faced, Dermail invoked another spell, one that would identify the magic. His eyes closed in concentration and flew open in shock a moment later.
"It can't be," he whispered. "Not after all of these years." Finally, after years of fruitless searching, his hunt was over. He would at long last have the opportunity to destroy those who had eluded him for so long. With an evil smile, Dermail ordered the guard to open the cell door. Chanting softly, Dermail prepared a spell that would instantly incinerate the two waiting in the cell. However, the moment he entered, all thoughts of his destroy spell left his head and he let out a helpless gasp.
A girl was sitting on the cell's only cot. She was indeed young, no more than 18 years of age, and she was extremely beautiful. Her hair was as black as the darkest midnight and she stared at him with sparkling sapphire eyes. She was clearly frightened and was just as clearly determined to hide her fear. Dermail let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. She alone was more than enough to justify his taking the time to come down to the dungeon. But the boy ... the boy, or young man, as he appeared to be the same age as the girl, who was standing defiantly and protectively by her side was something else altogether.
He was nothing short of magnificent. Fitted black leggings and a close fitting black tunic emphasized a strong, lithe but slender build, suitable for a dancer or a fighter. Fantastically long dark chestnut hair hung down in a braid that came past the boy's waist. Sensual lips pressed tightly together and nostrils, set in a nose almost too delicate for a nearly grown man, flared in defiance.
But it was the boy's angry eyes that captured Dermail's attention. It was if they had been fashioned from the purest amethyst and while they sparked Dermail's lust, they also confirmed his suspicions as to the boy's identity. He'd only known one other person to have had eyes of such a striking color. The boy was definitely a threat to him and all of his plans, but Dermail found himself considering reasons not to kill him.
Suddenly, inspiration struck. Dermail thought of the perfect way to end the threat the boy posed to him while keeping him alive for much more ... pleasurable pursuits. Dermail smiled at the boy.
Duo tensed even further at the look the richly dressed man was giving him. Duo had been the object of lust before and knew it when he saw it. His fear and anger increased as he pondered the likely consequences of the man's obvious interest.
"Well, my boy," Dermail said in a friendly tone, "it looks as though you've gotten yourself and your lovely companion into quite a pickle." Dermail's smile grew as the boy narrow his eyes, suspicious of the duke's apparent bonhomie. "I'm afraid that the punishment for theft in Aku is quite clear." He took note of the way the boy suddenly clenched his hands into protective fists. "However," he continued, "I would hate for you to have to lose those lovely hands. I believe they could be put to ... other uses."
Duo got angrier even as his eyes widened in shock at the man's blatant invitation. Duo was so tense, he felt as though his body would snap as he waited for the man to speak again.
"You know, this guard here was telling me that you are quite an accomplished fighter. I understand that you almost bested four of my men. Very impressive." He paused, enjoying the look of confusion that crossed the young man's expressive face. "Well, to get right to the point, the fact is that I need someone killed, and I believe that you are the right man for the job."
Duo looked at Dermail for a moment, blinking his eyes owlishly. Then, without warning, he burst out into hysterical laughter. Hilde looked at him curiously as he bent over, holding his sides. After his moment of hilarity had passed, Duo straightened and took in the perplexed look on Dermail's face. Wiping his eyes he said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you were kidding. I mean, you must have been joking. There's no way you could *actually* think that I would *kill* someone for you."
Dermail didn't reply. Instead, he walked over to Hilde, grabbed her by the arm, and hauled her to her feet. Duo's smile quickly faded and his teeth clenched at the sight of his cousin being held in the slimy man's grip. "Let her go, you bastard," Duo grated out.
Dermail only smiled. "My dear boy, you are certainly in no position to bargain. You will do this assassination for me," he paused and took hold of Hilde's chin with his free hand. "Or else, I will turn this lovely young lady over to my soldiers as their new plaything. And you know how rough men like that can be on toys. They often break them beyond repair."
Hilde let out a cry as Dermail tightened his grip on her arm. Duo ground his teeth in helpless fury. He sent Hilde what he hoped was a reassuring look. Making a quick decision, he looked back at Dermail. "Alright, you win. I'll do it, only don't hurt her."
"Splendid," Dermail shouted, letting Hilde go. Duo rushed to her side and enclosed her in a tight hug.
"Please, Duo," Hilde whispered. "Don't do it."
"I have to, pixie. It's the only way." Duo looked her in the eyes and gently took hold of her chin. "I told you that I would always take care of you, no matter what."
Hilde opened her mouth to protest again, but relented at the determined look in his eyes. "I'm sorry," she said, burying her head in his chest.
Duo briefly rested his chin on top of her head. Then he lifted his head to look at Dermail. "Who is the target," he asked, voice dripping with contempt.
Dermail smiled in triumph. "Many years ago, the king of Hane caused the death of my only son. Now, the time for my revenge has come." Dermail's smile grew as he said, "The target, my darling boy, is the king's son, the crown prince of Hane."