This level of comfort was something Trowa was no longer accustomed to. Indeed, even back during the good times, he, as a servant, had never slept in a bed this soft, never awakened in such perfect contentment. The only thing familiar about this arrangement was the presence of Quatre beside him, back-to-back with him, sharing the warmth of his body and the spaciousness of the bed.
Not wanting to wake him, Trowa lay still and silent, concentrating on that contact between them. They’d been sharing a bed for almost three years now, ever since the luxury of separate beds had been stripped from them along with everything else, and this was the closest he ever was to Quatre. He had quickly managed to repress every urge toward further closeness, and now could easily lie here without being overcome by the temptation to turn and run hands over his master’s body and lips over his master’s face and neck. There was rarely a day when he woke up without the thought of it, though, even in surroundings as strange as these.
The surroundings, however, soon came to ascendency. A dim, hazy light filtered through various cracks between curtains, coloring everything a faint, sunrise red, but what time of morning it actually was Trowa could not guess. They had probably slept late, tired as they’d both been from exertion, disappointment, and wonder; he wondered how this would set them back on their journey home. Granted, they weren’t expected at any particular time, but he knew Quatre was anxious to get there, bad news or no bad news.
He found himself exceptionally curious about this place. Everything Quatre had said last night rang true in Trowa’s ears; the rooms and corridors echoed of loneliness and silence, of waiting, of sadness… Quatre had also joked that there were worse places to be trapped forever, but Trowa couldn’t see his master stuck in a place like this. Surely it would sap him of all the happiness he had left and wither him like a plucked flower.
At his side Quatre stirred, and Trowa moved away from him and sat up, leaning on one hand and watching. A little blearily Quatre opened his eyes, looked around slowly. “Trowa?” he mumbled. “Where are we?”
“A mysterious lonely palace in the middle of the forest,” Trowa reminded him.
“Oh.” Quatre sat up as well, pushing the blanket aside, and yawned. “I had the strangest dreams…”
“So did I,” Trowa admitted. Actually he hadn’t remembered until Quatre spoke, but now the images came trickling back — images of faces, of feelings, of festival lights… but they were quickly fading, and he had better things to do than hold onto them.
Quatre sighed, and already Trowa thought there was in it just a touch of the age-old sadness of this place. They needed to get out of here.
“We need to get out of here,” Quatre said. “We’ve been away from home too long already.”
Glad they agreed on this, Trowa nodded. He took a breath to reply, but as he did so caught once again, mingling with the scent of roses that seemed to be everywhere here, the smell of something distinctly edible. “Do you smell that?” he said instead of what he’d been planning on.
And Quatre, instead of answering, swiveled his legs out from under the blanket, pushed through the bed-curtains, and stood up out of Trowa’s sight. “It’s breakfast,” he reported. “I can’t say I’m surprised.”
“No,” Trowa agreed, shifting from the bed as well, over the warm spot left by Quatre’s body and out the curtains.
A door Trowa hadn’t bothered inspecting last night, opposite the one that opened onto the room Quatre had so briefly used, stood open now, and beyond it was another bright, richly-decorated little parlor into which Quatre was pointing. The tantalizing smell of bacon and potatoes clearly wafted thence, and the two men made their way in without delay. Before either one, however, took a seat at the little ebony table identical to the one on which they’d supped last night, they were both drawn to the window.
The curtains were pulled back, and a clean morning light, such as often occurred after a heavy rain, blazed into the room. The window looked east, straight into the sun and out over the luminous grounds that could now (excepting the glare) be made out with ease. Trowa gazed down wordlessly on regular lawns and gardens and the great hedges that divided them, on fountains and a gazebo, on curling lanes and little tiled pavements; he’d never seen anything like it. He’d been once or twice to the grounds of the royal palace in Silbreaker, but it had scarcely been so fine, so exquisitely-designed and perfectly-maintained as this.
“Amazing,” Quatre breathed at his side. “It’s so beautiful.”
And lonelier than ever, from here. Trowa turned away, back toward their breakfast table.
They had bacon and potato slices and fresh fruit, with a lighter wine this time, and again everything was superb. Trowa was not ashamed of eating as much as he could of this spectacular food while he had the chance, before he went back to the poor and strictly-rationed fare of home… and perhaps worse.
“Do you know what I’ve just realized?” Quatre remarked as they were about finished. “We left our bags in that other room last night. And all our clothing.”
“Let’s hope the palace isn’t trying to rob us of our valuable possessions,” replied Trowa dryly.
Quatre smiled. “Well, at least I hope it’ll lead us back there to pick those things up; I wouldn’t like to have to add to the news we’re already bringing that we lost all our belongings along the way.”
“Especially since the saddle-bags don’t belong to us,” Trowa agreed. He sat still for a long moment, contemplating in silence, before he realized that he was staring at the way the morning light through the tall window made Quatre’s hair blaze like platinum. Then he stood abruptly from his chair and turned back toward the bedroom.
There, he found all of the clothes he’d been wearing yesterday, cleaned and pressed, folded neatly on the bed — which had itself been made up and its curtains tied back to let in the light and fresh air. His boots, looking cleaner than he’d ever seen them, stood on the floor beside the bed, and he stared down at them for a long moment.
Presently Quatre joined him. “I think that’s a good sign,” he said thoughtfully. “If the palace wanted to keep us forever, it would probably give us new clothing.”
Just a little cynically Trowa asked, “Have you looked in the wardrobe?”
Trowa shrugged. He’d only glanced briefly in his last night, but everything he’d seen inside had seemed like something he could wear.
“Hmm…” Quatre headed into the next bedroom through the door between, which still stood open. “My things are in here too,” he reported.
Trowa began pulling off his nightshift and drawers. His clothing, he found, had been washed in something that left it relatively soft and smelling faintly, predictably, of roses; and a fraying little hole in the knee of his trousers had also been neatly mended. He stood fingering the spot for a few moments, reflecting on the minute thoughtfulness of whatever power was behind this place. This he appreciated almost more than the excellent meals or even the good night’s rest; he only owned two pairs of trousers in the world, after all.
Soon Quatre, fully clothed in the rough, simple garments, similar to Trowa’s, that were all the family could afford these days, rejoined him in his room and moved to gaze pensively out the window. Trowa finished lacing up his boots and went to stand by him. The sun, having risen further since they’d last looked, was a little less blinding now, and they stared down at the grounds again in undiminished wonder. The hedges, Trowa was noticing, were dotted with myriad colors, as if they were covered improbably with innumerable bright flowers of every conceivable hue.
“Roses,” he said suddenly, realizing.
“I think the gardens are full of them,” Quatre nodded. “That’s where the smell comes from.”
“Let’s go,” said Trowa softly, not liking the touch of loneliness that sounded once again in Quatre’s voice.
Again Quatre nodded, and turned away from the glass.
They were able to see the hall outside the bedrooms quite clearly now. High up on the walls above the level of the bedroom ceilings, windows opened out eastward and spilled the light of morning into the corridor, making the deep red and gold hangings shine and glitter and eliminating the need for candles. A few of the latter were lit, however, on the wall opposite the door they had just exited, and as they moved toward them, new lights sprang up further down, guiding them just as they had last night.
Quatre was gazing around in undisguised wonder and perhaps a little covetousness as they moved again through the halls of the quiet palace. Trowa knew he missed the days when this type of luxury hadn’t been nearly as foreign to him as it was now; he wished there was something he could do to give that back. He watched the soft blue eyes dart here and there, taking in every detail of stone carving, wood paneling, deep carpet, and rich hanging, and wished he could give him all of this.
After descending a flight of stairs, the hallway led onto the railinged landing Quatre had evidently been so curious about last night, and even Trowa could not help but be interested in the room they now entered. The landing stretched like a balcony the full length of a huge entry hall, and split off at the middle into a great double curved staircase leading down to the ground floor and the massive doors that were undoubtedly the main entrance into the palace. The room itself encompassed two stories, and its front face was filled with enormous, floor-to-ceiling windows that currently let in the brilliant light of morning and the view of one of the beautiful fountains they’d seen from above.
The leading lights were suddenly nowhere to be seen, but it didn’t matter since the travelers, compelled by interest, were advancing along the landing to where it lowered to a sort of dais at the head of the grand staircase. Trowa was gazing intently, as he walked alongside Quatre, at the two marble statues that stood on the ground level, each just beyond the elaborate stone banister posts, centered in the outer two thirds of the room.
They were of a man and woman, beautifully carved in intricate, flowing detail full of motion and life, though much larger than life, and they stared at each other across the great room with such hopeless longing in their stone faces that Trowa thought they alone could almost represent the source of all the sadness of this place. They sparkled faintly in the sunlight.
“I think a very lonely faery must live here,” Quatre murmured as they reached the bottom of the curving steps.
Trowa, nodding, was still looking around. He noted that there was a long fireplace, the size of a small room, set into the underside of the stairs they’d just traversed, and he found himself wondering a little absently — besides whether such a thing helped at all to warm this giant hall, with its great expanses of glass and its marble statues, in cold weather — where the smoke went.
“Look,” Quatre said suddenly, seizing Trowa’s shoulder and pointing out through the great open front doors. Trowa, obeying, saw, past the fountain, past the tiled courtyard in which the latter stood, out on the gravel road where it looped around before the palace entry, their horses, saddled and ready for riding, placidly standing. “I guess we’re allowed to leave,” Quatre whispered.
Again Trowa nodded.
As they began making their way toward the animals, Quatre remarked in the same quiet tone as before, “I wish there was some way we could repay whoever is behind all of this for their kindness.”
“We’d originally intended to pay two copper coins to sleep in a woodcutter’s barn,” Trowa said. “We can’t afford much more than that.”
“But I wish there was something we could do.”
Lips pursed, Trowa nodded.
The fountain was of the same marble as the statues in the entry hall, and its high-rising water cascaded back down with a musical sound and sent out a fine mist like the chilly beginning of a soft rainfall to dampen their cheeks as they passed. Set in an abstract pattern that swirled around the fountain and confused the eye if followed, the tiles beneath their feet were red and brown and white. The entire area was partially enclosed by some of the great, thick, omnipresent hedges, which Trowa could more easily see from here were, in fact, swarming with roses in every color of the rainbow.
Their horses looked up and greeted them placidly when they reached the edge of the tiles, and here by mutual consent they stopped and glanced back. And it was then quite some time before they could tear their eyes away.
Sparkling reddish-grey, windows gleaming, the palace rose asymmetrically to a towering head at least six storeys above; and though its front face receded so that some of the higher levels must be considerably smaller than the massive ground floor appeared to be, still the structure was so big that it filled their entire vision. The stonework was touched here and there with elegant carvings, and they could make out balconies high up where they had not ventured when they’d been inside.
The sunlight glittering on the flying water of the fountain in front of them and the many windows of the palace’s face shone white and beautiful, but Trowa couldn’t help thinking that even this — even the bright, warm, untouchable light of the sun — was filled with the same almost unbearable loneliness that saturated everything else. He would not grieve at seeing the last of this place.
Quatre evidently didn’t feel like mounting and riding just yet, for he took the reins and pulled them around so as to guide his horse on foot. Trowa, though he would have preferred a speedier departure, followed his lead. They walked down the gravel road, their steps crunching along with their horses’, and Trowa noticed that even the tiny white stones that made up this ground beneath them seemed to have a sparkle to them, as if they were semi-precious.
The road was flanked by long stretches of lawn broken only by little tiled paths that led beyond into the gardens and courtyards and an orchard of sorts. The thick hedges neatly separated all of these and threw the scent of roses heavily into the air; the outer hedge, though taller and wider than the others, was no different in its decoration, and Trowa marveled, as they came nearer to it, at the variety of color and stages of blossom of the roses: from the tightest bud to the widest, most vibrant flower.
Inside the deep entry arch, as before, the gates stood open, ready for them to pass. And once again, before they could step into the shadows, off the gravel road and into the forest, Quatre paused and turned back.
“I don’t know what to think of this place,” he murmured. “I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’m sure I never will again.” And he swept a slow gaze across the grounds and the now- distant face of the palace.
Although Trowa agreed, he knew also that Quatre had been more touched by the strange place than he had. That was entirely typical, of course… Quatre’s impossibly open heart was always more responsive to everything than anyone else’s; of course the mystery and pathos had affected him more deeply than it had Trowa.
While Quatre took his long last look, Trowa turned toward something that had caught his attention as they approached the arch: one particular rose, just above his head, growing on the hedge-wall near the exit, that seemed — that was — very precisely the same shade of pale blue-grey as Quatre’s eyes.
Releasing his horse and moving toward the hedge, Trowa reached up into the tangle of leaves and branches, and felt the immediate sharp prick of thorns on his fingers. Rethinking, he brought out the nail-knife he kept in his pocket and, unsheathing it, reached up again with more care. It wasn’t without some further pricking and scratching that he cut the rose free from the hedge, but he brought it down with some satisfaction and began stripping the thorns off. When he was finished with this task, he returned to Quatre’s side, where he wordlessly offered the great blue flower to his master.
Quatre’s breath caught as he saw the size and impossible color of the rose. “Thank you,” he said almost inaudibly, taking the gift gently and staring down at it, the reflection of it in his eyes seeming to disappear, so similar were the colors. He didn’t understand the gesture, of course; he never did. But he obviously appreciated it all the same. He bent to smell it, and then, with a smile, threaded the short, thornless stem through his top few buttonholes. “Now I can take something of this place with me,” he added at a murmur.
Trowa nodded. “Let’s go.”
Quatre, agreeing, turned and sought absently for his horse’s reins, which he’d dropped in looking out at the palace that one last time. Trowa did the same, and they headed again toward the arch in the hedge.
But the gates were now closed.
Concern and uneasiness abruptly filling him, Trowa advanced right up to the intricate metal bars, and noted that ‘gates’ was — at least at the moment — not precisely the right term. ‘Wall’ might have been better, as there was no juncture between two swinging doors and no hinges on which they could have swung. There were no gates, just a metal grate blocking the only way they knew to get out of here. They were, as they had half-seriously speculated, trapped.
“Trowa…” Quatre’s call was tight with a sudden anxiousness that didn’t seem to pertain to the gates alone, and Trowa whirled to see what else might have given him cause to fear. As he stepped from the shadowed hedge arch, he could easily make out the unexpected sight that had brought that tone to Quatre’s voice: a dark figure, bounding along like a dog on all fours but bigger than any dog Trowa had ever seen, approaching rapidly down the gravel road from the palace.
They probably should have run, but Trowa, at least, found himself strangely riveted at the sight of the approaching creature. He couldn’t take his eyes from it as they tried to puzzle out what it was and how it could possibly be shaped the way it seemed to be. For one thing, it was huge; for another, it seemed a cruel and unlikely combination of various forms of life that shouldn’t have been able to hold together and yet were moving at an impossibly quick run. And as it neared, it abandoned its four-legged stride and traversed the last few paces upright like a man.
One of the books in the old estate library had been a encyclopaedia of animals, with careful engravings of various creatures from distant parts, many of which Trowa remembered a younger Quatre not believing really existed. And if his memory served him correctly, the head of this creature — this monster, this Beast — which looked like it should overbalance the rest of the body but never quite seemed to, was that of a bison, all fluffy hair and long face and tiny eyes, with two black horns and a great nose.
The body was relatively man-like, though wide and bulky (probably to maintain the weight of the head), sufficiently supple to allow for running on all fours, and covered in the same curling, dark brown hair that lengthened as it reached the juncture of the legs into a sort of natural loincloth. These legs ended with the powerful, scaly talons of a great bird — an eagle, perhaps — but they were black, and the three-toed feet with their sharp-nailed points were huge and deadly-looking.
Like an ape’s, the Beast’s arms hung almost to the ground when it moved uprightly, but the hands at the ends of them looked more like great cat’s paws. Oddly, one of them bore a scratch or wound up near the shoulder; the red blood oozing slowly from it was a bright contrast to the dark brown hair. And behind, waving sinuously back and forth as if to maintain balance (and probably doing so, counteracting the weight of the head), a huge, shining, segmented tail like that of a scorpion curled up and over the Beast’s back, looking as if it might at any moment strike at its prey.
Its prey was Trowa. The Beast was on him before his startled, fascinated eyes could tear away and his interested mind could disengage from the pursuit of examining the creature and turn to deciding what to do about it. It bore him to the ground with superhuman strength, one bird-like talon locking each of his legs in place while a viciously-clawed hand pressed into his neck. The horses, oddly unafraid of the Beast specifically but a bit startled by the sudden vigorous movement in their immediate vicinity, trotted away with whickers of protest.
Trowa, all the breath knocked out of him from being slammed so precipitously to the ground, the blood already beginning to slow in his legs where they were gripped so tightly, feeling the cool smooth slide of the scorpion’s tail across his face and the prick of claws at his neck, could do nothing, could practically think nothing, as he looked up into a small, dark eye and felt hot breath from the Beast’s nostrils on his shoulder.
“Trowa!” Quatre shouted desperately, and threw himself quite recklessly at the Beast pinning his servant to the gravel. The Beast raised a muscular arm and pushed him away — did not slap him away or strike out at him, but evidently pushed with enough force to send Quatre stumbling backward and falling. Then the Beast turned its attention back to Trowa and, to the latter’s great astonishment, spoke in a human voice.
“I welcomed you.” The tone was all the more frightening for its relative calm. “I fed you. I gave you a place to sleep, a place for your horses for the night. I didn’t ask anything of you. Why would you steal one of my roses?”
Trowa could find nothing to say. Astonished to hear such a strange creature speaking intelligibly, surprised at the odd choice of offense the Beast had mentioned, and still a bit stunned from being thrown to the ground, he simply had no words.
Quatre, on the other hand, had regained his feet, and was pounding at the Beast’s shoulder and torso with his fists. “Let him up! Let him go!” he was shouting, but when he heard the Beast’s complaint he changed his tactics. “He gave the rose to me! The rose was for me! Don’t take it out on him!”
Abruptly Trowa found himself free, chest heaving and legs tingling, as the Beast was off him in a single movement smoother than any Trowa would have thought it capable of with those mismatched parts. He struggled to sit up at least some of the way, and saw that the Beast was now advancing on Quatre, tail again raised.
“Do you mean that?” the Beast demanded. “The price of one stolen rose is one human life. Will you pay that for him?”
“Quatre!” Trowa gasped, something in the area of his left breast seeming to tear as he tried to struggle up. But his body was refusing to cooperate at the moment; his chest was weak and his legs were unresponsive.
“Well, I’d really rather not die,” Quatre admitted breathlessly, raising his hands in supplication as he backed slowly away. The fear was evident in his eyes, but he managed to speak relatively smoothly as he added, “But I can’t let you kill him either.”
The Beast paused in its forward progress, its tail snaking forward to run almost caressingly down Quatre’s cheek. “A life can be paid in different ways,” it said, in a softer tone than before, though there was still a growling edge to it like a serrated blade. “I don’t have to kill you if you promise to spend the rest of your life here.”
Trowa knew what was coming, and, though he couldn’t see any way out of it any more than he was sure Quatre would, he couldn’t stand it. “Quatre…” he gasped again. “No…” He would rather have his heart struck through by the creature’s deadly sharp tail than have it broken by this choice on Quatre’s part.
But Quatre had already made it, apparently even without effort. “All right,” he said.
“You’ll stay here forever?” the Beast asked softly.
“If you’ll let Trowa go.”
“Do you swear it?”
“Do you swear to let Trowa go?”
“I’m not going anywhere.” For all they seemed to hear him, Trowa might as well have been in Silbreaker, or on the moon.
“Your friend is free to come and go as he pleases,” said the Beast, “if you will stay here with me forever. I swear to God.”
“Then I swear to stay here for the rest of my life,” replied Quatre calmly.
Trowa let out a pained sigh, let himself fall back limply onto the gravel and stare into the sky. He heard the crunch of the Beast’s footsteps retreating, then its gruff voice as it said, “If you’re ever tired of this place and want to die, tell me. I’ll kill you quickly.”
“I…” Quatre sounded horrified.
“It’s not as unlikely as you think,” replied the Beast, now from several feet away. And in its voice Trowa thought he heard an echo of the sadness he’d sensed so strongly last night and to a lesser extent this morning.
Then Quatre was kneeling at his side, fluttering hands moving desperately across his chest to his neck and head, checking for injuries. “Trowa!” he whispered. “Are you all right?”
Trowa closed his eyes against the sight of Quatre’s worried face. “I think so,” he replied in equally quiet tones. “You?”
“Yes,” Quatre swallowed. “Can you sit up?” And he helped Trowa to do so.
Then the demand broke from Trowa like a tidal wave in from the sea. “What in Hell’s name did you promise that for?” It came out in a quiet hiss, but it had the emphasis of an angry roar. “You can’t stay here! You can’t stay here with that thing, that just threatened to kill us both, for the rest of your life! You have to get back to your father, your sisters, your home… our home!” He was running down; he wasn’t made for emotional outburst. “Quatre, what have you done?”
“I’m sorry,” Quatre said miserably. “I couldn’t let him kill you.”
“And I appreciate that,” replied Trowa, rubbing at his legs where they were probably already bruising from the strength of the Beast’s talons. “But you can’t stay here.”
“I have to.” Quatre’s tone was quiet, but he tried to smile a little as he went on. “I told you I didn’t think this would be too bad a place to be trapped forever.”
“But not with that thing.” Trowa gestured to where the Beast, several paces off, was standing with its back to them. It stood leaning slightly forward, as if its massive head dragged it down, tail still swaying slightly as if for balance.
“I think that’s where all the loneliness comes from,” Quatre whispered. “Did you hear the way his voice sounded when he said, ‘stay here with me forever?'”
Trowa had heard how its voice had sounded. He’d also heard that same voice promise to kill Quatre quickly if this miserable, lonely place got too unbearable. “But that shouldn’t mean you have to give up everything.”
“It’s done, Trowa.” Quatre’s statement was firm. “You heard me promise. It’s all set.”
Trowa bowed his head against the tears that threatened behind his eyes, and had nothing to say in response.
“I need you to ride back to my father and tell him,” Quatre went on.
Trowa’s head snapped up. “I’m not leaving you alone here with that thing.”
“Trowa… that’s very kind of you, but you don’t have to share this punishment with me.”
“Why not? I cut the rose.” When Quatre was obviously about to protest, Trowa went on quickly. “It’s not about sharing a punishment. It’s about not leaving you alone with a monster. The rest of your life, it says… how long will that be, living with those claws and that tail? If it gets so angry about someone cutting one rose, who knows how else you might provoke it into killing you?”
“If that’s the case,” Quatre said, a little unsteadily, “you won’t be able to save me… it’ll be better if you’re not here.”
“I’m not leaving you,” said Trowa flatly.
Quatre untensed just a little. “You’ve been saying that forever,” he murmured with a sad smile. “You wouldn’t leave us four years ago, or three years ago, or two…” He didn’t have to mention any more specifically the events of those times; they were still etched painfully in both their hearts.
“You,” Trowa said intensely. “I wouldn’t leave you. Quatre.” It was about the closest he’d ever come to complete honesty on this point. “And I won’t leave you now.”
Appearing touched and sad, Quatre squeezed his shoulder. “Thank you, Trowa. I don’t know why you have to be so stubborn, but don’t think I don’t appreciate your loyalty.”
“Loyalty…” Trowa echoed in a pointless murmur.
“But I still need you to ride to my father!” Quatre began again. “Somebody has to tell him the news from Silbreaker, and somebody has to tell him that I’m…” For the first time, just the hint of a crack entered his voice, a hint of what the promise he’d made really meant to him. “That I’m not coming home.”
“I told you I’m not leaving you.”
“But the horses are hired…”
Trowa shook his head. It wasn’t that Quatre didn’t have a point; it was just that Trowa could not envision any circumstance under which he would be willing to leave the man he had dedicated his life to alone with a touchy, murderous monster, even just for a few days.
“Then I don’t… I don’t know…” Quatre sounded desperate and perhaps on the point of tears — which was about how Trowa felt as well.
“Excuse me for listening in,” came a growling voice from nearby. How the Beast had approached so close without their noting the shifting of gravel, the startled Trowa could not guess. He put a reflexive, protective hand out as if to shield Quatre, then forced himself to draw it back as worse than useless. The Beast went on. “If these horses need to go back to your home, I can send them.”
Quatre looked up at the creature in wonder, then slowly got to his feet. “Can you?” He spoke hesitantly, obviously not wanting to ask anything of the Beast but needing to know. “They’re hired horses, and my father definitely can’t afford to pay the purchase price if they don’t come back.”
“Your father is poor?” the Beast guessed gruffly.
Quatre, who was helping Trowa to stand, nodded.
Abruptly the Beast turned. “Come with me.” And it began moving off up the road toward the palace at a pace Trowa wouldn’t have expected from its unnatural upright walk.
With a glance at Trowa and a slight shrug, Quatre moved to follow, and Trowa had no choice, therefore, but to do the same.
The Beast waited for them at the doors of the palace, and went immediately inside and up the grand staircase once they’d drawn even. It led them up more stairs and down corridors they hadn’t yet seen, staying always just close enough that they could catch sight of the curve of its tail disappearing around a corner or hear the scratch of its talons on an uncarpeted floor ahead. Finally it stopped in a long, windowless room full of shelves and display tables.
“I don’t need any of this,” it declared, gesturing around. “Choose anything you think would help your family.” It turned a padded, clawed finger toward where, unexpectedly, their saddle-bags lay on the floor, though Trowa could have sworn that they’d been draped over the horses outside just minutes before and nobody had brought them in this time. “Fill your bags. Then call for me.” And without another word, it pushed past them out of the room. Trowa, shuddering in spite of his best attempts not to, felt fur or hair, unexpectedly soft, brush against his face as the Beast moved close beside him.
Quatre was staring around in bafflement; once he’d finished looking after the disappearing Beast, Trowa joined him in this pursuit. For the room was filled from floor to ceiling with ornaments and riches the like of which he’d never seen before: small sculptures in precious materials, figures of delicate porcelain and silver, gold-inlaid boxes overflowing with glittering jewelry, knick-knacks of every shape and description, little of it with any practical use but all of it made from the finest, most valuable materials.
“A couple of bags full of this could set them up for life,” Quatre whispered. “All twelve of them.”
Trowa nodded, but could not at first force himself to move. There was a lot to think about all of a sudden, and, possibly, to discuss; there was a lot to feel. And yet they didn’t dare disobey the Beast’s orders. They could dwell on the situation later — at least he hoped they could — but for now it was probably best to do what they’d come here for. So, his limbs feeling stiff and unwilling, he retrieved the first saddle-bag from the floor and set it on a table near the center of the room next to a snuff box that looked as if it was made out of shell.
“Probably the jewelry would be the most efficient,” he said pensively, opening both sides of the saddle-bag.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t get damaged, though,” Quatre said after a deep breath, “all thrown into these bags together…” He took up the other saddle-bag, following Trowa’s example and setting it on the table near the center, then turned his attention to the shelves on the walls.
Slowly they began picking through the multitude of shining objects, looking for the smallest and most valuable, placing them as carefully as they could inside the bags. From these they’d emptied their travel goods as less space-efficient and a good deal less valuable; the price even a few of the items in this room would bring would suffice to replace every single thing they’d brought with them on this journey.
After a while, Trowa noticed that Quatre was crying. He paused in the act of lifting a tiara off its stand and turned fully toward him with a questioning expression.
Quatre shook his head. “I’m just picturing my sisters unloading all of this. You know they’ll try it all on before they let my father sell it.”
At these words, tears sprang up in Trowa’s eyes as well. He loved Quatre’s sisters, if not nearly as much as he loved Quatre at least as much as should be expected after having lived with them for most of his life. In response he only nodded, however, and turned to put the tiara in the bag.
They found after a good hour of this that, though more jewels and other precious things had passed through their hands than ever before in their lifetimes, there was still a great deal of space left in the bags. It didn’t seem possible, but Trowa was beginning to accept that a lot that happened here shouldn’t have been possible. So they looked at each other, shrugged, and started to comb the room again.
After perhaps another hour, when the bags were still only half-full of the most valuable-looking items they could find, they began seizing objects off the shelves at random and pressing them into the strangely magnified space with less care. Jewelry boxes, figurines, combs and hand mirrors, everything they could lay hands on went in. And finally the bags were full, ready to be closed and carried away. Quatre and Trowa might originally have intended to stuff them to bursting point and force the flaps down, but, knowing how much they’d actually put into them, were content to fill them to just near the tops and close them gently.
The problem arose when they tried to lift them — for the bags, as Trowa realized he should have predicted, given what was in them, barely shifted even when they applied all their strength, and the heavy stitching holding the leather pieces together seemed more likely to split than the bags ever to move. Angrily he pushed at one of them, and heard the slight clink of something shifting inside.
“That Beast is mocking us,” he said, sounding somewhat beastly himself with his low growl.
“Let’s wait and see,” said Quatre soothingly. Then, turning toward the door, he called out somewhat tentatively, “Beast?”
Immediately the Beast entered the room, and Trowa wondered if it had been just outside the door the whole time, listening. But all it said was, “You’re finished?” When Quatre nodded, it moved to the table and picked up both saddle-bags, slinging one over each shoulder as easily as if they had been empty. It had no comment about the weight, or about Trowa’s mockery remark, only headed for the door again. Equally wordlessly, the two men followed.
“Excuse me, sir,” Quatre said as they walked, before the Beast had had time to get too far ahead of them again.
“There’s no need for that,” the Beast growled. “I’m no ‘sir.'” Silently, Trowa agreed.
“I was wondering if I could write a message to my family,” Quatre went on humbly. “These things–” he gestured at the saddle-bags over the Beast’s shoulder– “are wonderful, and I’m very grateful, and they will be too… but I would like to send them a… goodbye.”
The Beast nodded and, apparently, abruptly changed its course. This time it led them to a sort of office where a number of bookshelves surrounded a large, carved ebony desk. The Beast grunted, gesturing slightly, and took up a position outside the door.
“Thank you,” said Quatre, and, quite obviously trying not to stare around the room at details he would have plenty of time to familiarize himself with in years to come, moved toward the desk.
Everything necessary for writing was quickly found, but the actual process of writing was not so quick. Trowa paced behind Quatre as the latter sat, unmoving and pensive, in the carved desk chair. “I don’t know what to say…” he admitted at last.
Trowa had no suggestions. What could you say in a situation like this?
Finally, with a resigned breath, Quatre dipped pen in ink and placed it on the paper. He wrote as if the effort it took to do so was huge, a few brief lines only, and then capped the ink bottle and laid the pen aside. Trowa, looking down over his shoulder, read, My dear family– Trowa and I cannot come home, but we send you all our love, and these gifts. I hope they help you start a better life. Love forever, Quatre.
When the ink was dry, Quatre stood with another deep sigh and moved out of the room. Trowa followed to find him looking up at the Beast and its burdens, which it hadn’t even shifted on its shoulders, let alone put down. Quatre was about to reach up to place the folded note in one of the saddle-bags, when the Beast suddenly extended one of its long arms and snatched the paper from Quatre’s hand.
Quatre jumped back, startled, but the Beast just shook the message open and perused it — probably to be sure it wasn’t a plea for help of the armed variety. Then, without comment, it re-folded the note clumsily with paw-like hands that weren’t meant for such tasks, and stuffed it in one of the bags as Quatre had intended.
The horses had wandered onto a lawn and were placidly chewing on grass when the humans and the Beast returned outside. All of a sudden, seeing them, Quatre broke into a run to catch up with the Beast, which was, as usual, some distance ahead of them. “Wait!” he protested, impetuously reaching up to touch one of the great arms. “You can’t put those on the horses — the weight will kill them!”
The Beast slowed, then stopped, turning toward Quatre and looking down at him with no expression that Trowa could read. Then it said, “It will be all right.”
“I promise.” And it turned and continued onward toward the horses.
As before, the latter seemed oddly unafraid of something so strange and intimidating approaching them. In fact, when the Beast ran a hairy hand with unexpected gentleness down the mane of one, the horse turned its head and nuzzled at the terrifying creature with a soft, approving sound. Perhaps it was some sort of animal connection; Trowa couldn’t say.
The Beast gestured, and both horses and men followed it to the hedge-wall, stopping at the dark arch still barred by the impassible gate that was not a gate. Unexpectedly, the Beast then reached up to the hedge and, with a swift, snapping movement, plucked a rose from among the leaves above its head. Specifically concurrent with this motion, a gash like the one on its arm appeared red and raw on its lower back just above where fur gave way to the hard, shining skin or shell of the tail; seeing this, Trowa caught his breath, and thought he heard Quatre do the same. No wonder, after all, the Beast was so sensitive about its roses! …though that cut, painful as it appeared, did not seem quite the equal of a human life.
Drawing clawed fingers down the rose’s stem over and over until it was free of thorns, the Beast said nothing, nor gave any indication that it had been wounded. Then, again clumsily as its hands were ill-suited to the purpose, it wove the rose into the bridle of the first horse. This had an immediate and very odd effect: the animal’s eyes went wide, and it stiffened, tensing as if to spring forward in a desperate race toward some unknown goal. Nervously it paced until its head was pressed against the metal of the gate and it could go no further; it shook and whickered impatiently, pawing the ground.
A second rose retrieved and a second new wound occasioned, a second stem de-thorned and a second horse inexplicably enervated by the addition to its tack, the Beast now swung the heavy saddle-bags off his shoulders one by one and onto the backs of the straining mounts. Trowa was not terribly surprised when the horses made no objection whatsoever to this new burden, and indeed did not even seem to notice it. Seeing that the Beast had some difficulty with the straps, Trowa felt a servant’s urge to step forward and help, but couldn’t quite bring himself to do so for fear of offending the Beast again; instead, he just continued to watch in silence as the great clawed hands slowly and awkwardly got the saddle-bags properly fastened.
Once that was done, the Beast made another gesture, and the gate split down the middle and swung ponderously open. Like a shot from a crossbow the horses were off, down the forest-encroached road in a straight line, maintaining an unswerving distance from each other across the ground still somewhat soft from yesterday’s rainfall, powerful and swift and determined.
“What was that?” Quatre wondered softly.
“With those roses,” the Beast explained, turning away, “they can run all the way to your home without tiring.”
“And the saddle-bags?” put in Trowa darkly. He could just imagine them growing suddenly, lethally heavy again the moment the horses reached their destination.
“They’ll regain their proper weight once they’re unloaded.” The Beast’s level tone was already fading as it moved with its improbably swift stride up the gravel road toward the palace.
“Wait!” Quatre called, following him at a trot. Trowa, as he always would, followed Quatre. “What do you want us to do?”
“Do as you please,” the Beast answered briefly, not slowing his pace, so that Quatre was forced to continue running to keep up. “Explore if you want.”
“But… where are you going? What are you going to do?”
“It’s better if I’m not with you for now.” The Beast’s tone, though still flat, was also somewhat bitter as it said this. They’d already reached the tiled courtyard at the palace entrance, so great had been their speed in moving up the gravel road; the Beast took two more steps around the fountain, toward the great doors, then paused and looked back. “I’ll join you for supper. Before then — and any time — if you ever want to talk to me, just call.”
Then, in a movement of snakelike quickness, it dropped to all fours and bounded through the doors. They could see it leaping up the stairs with impossible speed, after which it disappeared across the landing, and Quatre and Trowa were left staring after it, somewhat dumbfounded.
The biggest problem with living in such an old building was that, back when it had been built, people hadn’t yet started putting pumps in kitchens where they might logically be wanted. So if Duo felt like a drink late in the evening, but the buckets were empty and nobody was going to bother to fill them until morning, he had to put on some shoes (that or endure his mother’s complaints about his running around barefoot — and his mother always knew) and walk all the way out and across the road. Sometimes it was cold, or he’d step on something sharp, or he’d be startled by a snake he would then spend a fruitless twenty minutes trying to catch. And sometimes a mysterious stranger would melt out of the deeper shadows and greet him with a quiet, “Good evening.”
All right, well, that last one didn’t usually happen.
“Evening,” Duo replied, looking up. The moon was fairly bright, but in its current position it cast the shade of the trees all over this side of the road; Duo could make out very little of the stranger.
“It’s a nice night.”
“Two days after a heavy rain is perfect.” The voice was a man’s, perhaps around Duo’s age, somewhat dark, somewhat monotone, but gentle. It also sounded a little foreign — not as if the man were speaking a second language, but enough to make it obvious that he wasn’t from around here.
“People do say that,” Duo agreed. “The mud’s dried, but the forest still feels fresh, or something like that. But I love rain.”
“You live in that church?”
“That’s right.” Duo didn’t feel the need to volunteer any more information until he found out what the stranger wanted.
“I live southeast of here. Past the square.”
“I see.” Duo felt there was something fundamental missing in this conversation. An introduction of some kind, perhaps. Or a point. Which was actually somewhat amusing. He hauled his newly-filled bucket up and started walking. As he’d hoped, the stranger moved with him, and soon they’d emerged from the tree-shadows into the brighter space of the road. Here, right in the middle of the hard dirt way that sloped up the mountain in one direction and around a bend in the other, Duo stopped, set down his bucket again, and turned.
It was still a little difficult to tell, but Duo thought the stranger was about his age. He had short, messy hair that could have been any dark color, and features that looked unexpectedly precise and well-formed even in the moonlight. There was nothing particularly unusual about him, except that he’d just appeared out of nowhere and struck up a discussion seemingly from the middle with someone that had never seen him before.
“So,” Duo asked at length, hoping for answers or at least further entertainment, “what are you doing up here?”
The stranger shrugged. “I only heard recently there’s another church up here. I wanted to see it.”
“You’re lying,” Duo said bluntly. He didn’t bother to hide his somewhat amused interest, though.
The stranger stiffened, undoubtedly a little startled.
“I’m a church man.” Duo pointed at the building thus referenced. “I can tell.”
“I… well, yes,” the other admitted. “That was mostly a lie.”
“All right, so let’s try again! What are you doing up here?”
“I wanted to meet you.”
That sounded a lot more honest, but also a lot less plausible than the lie had. “Really?” Duo wondered; it was his turn to be a little startled. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” admitted the stranger. “I saw you at the festival two weeks ago, and…” He shrugged again. “I thought we could be friends.”
“You know, I think I know who you are, now that I think about it.” Duo put thoughtful fingers to his chin. “You’re the carpenter’s man, aren’t you? From down at the other end? Aren’t you supposed to be a shut-in who doesn’t have friends?”
“Yes, I am. I mean,” the stranger amended quickly, “I am the carpenter’s assistant.”
“So you’re not a shut-in who doesn’t have friends?”
“I won’t lie, since you’d catch me.”
Duo laughed, and bent to retrieve his bucket again. “All right, carpenter’s assistant who may or may not be a shut-in with no friends. You came up here to meet me because you thought I’d be able to change some of that? That’s really strange.” He was making his way toward the church again, around the side to where the little three-room priest’s quarters opened out the back of the building.
“I know,” murmured the other man, following.
“But Hell,” said Duo — “and don’t tell my mother I said that — I always like making new friends. So why don’t you come in?”
Inside, in the light of the lamp he’d left burning in the room when he’d come looking for a drink, Duo could see the stranger’s face better, and was actually a little surprised at how handsome it was. In his experience, better-looking people usually had more friends, not fewer; he wondered if he should be flattered that this one had sought him out. “My name’s Duo,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“And where do you come from?” Duo gestured for Heero to have a seat on the stool by the hearth, and himself settled back onto another in a corner, stretching out his legs.
“Silverbreaker Cove. There wasn’t much work there for carpenters… or there were too many carpenters for some to find much work. So I came here.”
Duo nodded; that matched what he’d heard. “I’ve never seen the sea,” he commented. “I’ve always wondered what it would be like.”
A little wryly Heero answered, “Probably the reverse of what it was like when I saw a mountain for the first time.”
“So tell me about it.”
“It’s…” Heero sought words for a moment, and continued slowly, “almost any color you can imagine. It depends on the time of day and year and the weather. Sometimes it’s a dozen colors at once. You stare at it for minutes at a time trying to figure out where one stops and another starts. And when the sun shines on it, it’s like a line of jewels on the horizon.”
“Well, that sounds great,” Duo said, impressed.
“It also smells like fish,” said Heero in blunt contradiction. “All the time. Everything there smells like fish. Every street, every person, every room of your house.”
Duo started to laugh, but immediately cut himself short and looked around. His mother would be asleep — or trying to sleep — only a room away, and Duo didn’t want to disturb her. In a softer tone he said, “But you don’t smell like fish.” Actually, he’d already specifically noted that Heero smelled like fresh lumber; it was rather pleasant.
“I hope not,” said Heero gravely. “There’s a pool in the forest not far from where I’m living now. I bathe there as often as I can. It’s satisfying not having to smell like fish anymore.”
Again Duo laughed, struggling to keep it quiet this time. “I like fish, though. We don’t get sea fish much up here, so they’re a treat to me.”
“That is the one thing I miss,” Heero admitted. “Nobody cooks fish properly around here.”
The way he sat there on that stool was really more interesting than it should have been. He looked so restrained, so self-contained, as if he existed in a little atmosphere of his own and any contact anyone else had with him was due to his reaching out rather than letting anyone in. Which made it all the more odd that he had reached out, this evening, to a complete stranger. Duo had a sudden desire to get in there, and immediately, almost without thinking, asked the most personal question he could come up with to reply to the previous statement. “That can’t be all you miss… didn’t you have family?”
Heero shrugged. “Not exactly. My mother died when I was born. My father was a drunk. He sold me into apprenticeship to a carpenter when I was six or seven. I didn’t see much of him after that, so I’ve never really missed him. And my old master died recently, so I wouldn’t have seen him again in any case.”
“That’s so sad!” Duo realized that he’d said this overloudly; curse these thin walls.
Heero just shrugged again.
“I’d be massively upset if my mother died. She’s sleeping in the next room here,” Duo added, in explanation of his softer tone. “She adopted me as a kid, and she’s been nothing but wonderful, even if she does talk about God all the time.”
“What’s wrong with God?” Heero wondered, sounding startled and interested; he’d probably noticed the hood Duo’s mother would insist he wear, and gotten the wrong idea as most people did.
“Well, if you’ve got time to hear about it…”
Duo wasn’t sure how long they spent in his tiny kitchen talking about every random subject that came up, he trying to pry Heero open like one of those ocean things with the shells and Heero just sitting there becoming more and more interesting; he only knew that Heero was an unexpectedly good conversational companion for someone that, according to common report, wasn’t big on talking, never went out drinking despite how often he was invited, and had such an aura of inscrutability about him. And only when the discussion made its way back around, somehow, to Heero’s odd behavior in showing up here and requesting Duo’s friendship before he’d even introduced himself did Heero deem it time to depart.
“I’ll come up here again, if you don’t mind,” he said, and sounded almost shy about it, as he took his leave.
And though Duo still thought this all rather unusual, he wasn’t averse to the idea, so he just shrugged and replied, “Sure. Drop by any time.” Then he stood out on the step watching Heero disappear into the darkness down the road before he retreated inside and finally had his forgotten drink of water.
He frowned a little as he went thence to bed, grappling with a strange feeling that something had changed — despite the fact that everything around him was so unaltered that Heero’s visit might actually have been a dream for all he knew, might never have happened. Or at the very least — he thought it not too unlikely — might have been a momentary aberration of behavior on Heero’s part, and Duo might never see him again. The mystery that was Heero and his appearance here would then never be solved, of course, but maybe it was better that way.
I’m not hugely pleased with the picture for this chapter. It’s OK, but I shouldn’t try to draw things in pieces and then stick them together. Quatre’s my favorite part, and I think what I enjoyed most was designing their outfits. Because I’m a little girl, I guess XD