Jealousy, Trowa knew quite well, was an inherently unreasonable emotion. It overlooked all logic and leaped straight to anger and pain, and it could only barely be balanced out by a disproportionate weight of rationality. Knowing this, however, fell under that last heading — rationality — and didn’t seem to make nearly as much of a difference as it should on the emotional scales.
Unreasonable as he still thought it was to demand a human life, in whatever form, in exchange for one cut rose, Trowa could not rouse himself to any strong disliking of their host for his own sake. Despite the Beast’s unwillingness to answer a number of questions, despite the occasional stiffness or flash of temper, he was generally polite and solicitous, often quite friendly, and sometimes downright entertaining. The problem was that Trowa knew Quatre felt the same way about him — in addition to pitying him deeply — and Trowa wasn’t entirely sure what the Beast’s return attitude toward his master might be.
It didn’t help to remind himself that the Beast had at first demanded the price of Trowa, not Quatre; for he hadn’t offered Trowa the choice of staying, just of dying — spending a lifetime here had only seemed to become an option once the Beast had looked into Quatre’s face. It didn’t help to cast back over the last few weeks and note that the Beast hadn’t evinced any particular pointedness or partiality in his treatment of Quatre; for Trowa never had either, and he’d been interested in Quatre much longer. It didn’t help to be aware that men taking such interest in other men was, to the best of his knowledge (which encompassed the dockyards and fishing community of Silbreaker), rare and probably unnatural; for the Beast was nothing if not rare and unnatural.
Did the Beast even qualify as a man? He had a man’s voice, a man’s build (as far as Trowa could judge by the shape of his torso, the most human-like section of his body), but he didn’t seem equipped with parts that could lend technical veracity to the appellation. It didn’t matter, though; the Beast obviously had a mind equal to that of a human’s, which surely justified him in desiring companionship exactly as a human would, despite his strange construction… Trowa couldn’t help thinking that, in extracting a lifetime’s habitation from someone that picked a rose off one of his hedges, the Beast was underhandedly seeking a mate.
So Trowa was jealous, despite feeling it beneath him, utterly irrational, and quite possibly dangerous. His observation of Quatre’s interaction with the Beast was becoming increasingly intense, though he never saw anything that would have given him the least moment’s pause if he hadn’t been in the grip of this unfair emotion. Quatre treated the Beast almost as he would a madman — as if he wanted to be friends, but still feared the repercussions of any conversation gone wrong. And the Beast was to them both the same solicitous but mercurial host he had been since the beginning.
Of course, the inhibitions that had always restrained Trowa would not apply to the Beast, should the latter decide that circumstances were in his favor. That a different and probably much greater set of inhibitions might apply was not a considerable source of comfort. Nor was the fact that Trowa was now in a position to spend a much larger amount of time on a daily basis with his master than he ever had previously, even at the estate in the old days.
The weather had become significantly dryer of late, and they’d taken to passing many of their daylight hours in the grounds rather than inside. During some of this time they wandered aimlessly, looking again at the various courtyards and wondering about the sleeping men, but most of it was spent reading.
Despite the prolificacy of other amusements available to them, they both kept gravitating back to books; and no wonder, Trowa thought — they’d both enjoyed reading a great deal at the estate in Silbreaker, and even Trowa, despite his position as a servant, had taken it for granted that this pastime would always be available. They hadn’t realized how starved they’d been for it since the move to Beaulea until having the opportunity restored to them. Eventually, he was certain, their fervor for the library would cool as they settled into a routine that contained reading only in decent proportion to other activities, but at the moment they might be said to be obsessed. And when the weather was pleasant, it was easy to spend halves of days or even the entirety of the sunlit hours outside with stacks of books at their sides.
They preferred the southeastern garden with its overflowing basins of flowers, or even the shady little alcove of trees inside the circle of the gravel road, over the fountain courtyard with its animal statues that seemed to stare unnervingly at them; and often they would eat their lunch in the courtyard of tables, and never re-enter the palace until the shadows around them began to grow with coming dusk. And, given this new habit, perhaps the Beast assumed, one morning, that his guests would not be visiting the library, since they’d taken out a number of books the previous day and probably wouldn’t need more for a while; he still saw them every evening, of course, at supper, but evidently he didn’t want to wait, for he appeared at the door of their parlor while they were eating breakfast.
They were both more than a little startled by the knock, as the Beast had never visited them in their rooms before — and, indeed, had rarely sought them out, rather than waiting for them to call him, if there was something to be said — and, besides, the odd, somewhat muffled yet still rather intense sound of his hairy hand or paw pounding was enough to make anyone jump. After they’d done so, they looked at each other in surprise and some sheepishness for a moment before Quatre turned toward the door. His “Come in” was spoken with impressive levelness, but there was a questioning tone to it that expressed the surprise and curiosity and concern the humans felt at this event.
The Beast seemed preoccupied in the way only an engrossed reader can; the open book in his hand, his pensive manner, and body language that would probably have translated to a thoughtful frown on a human seemed somewhat at odds with his shape and size, though Trowa was coming to expect that sort of contrast. The Beast moved immediately to the table, looming over those seated at it apparently without even realizing the extent to which he did so, and said to Quatre, “I’m sorry to interrupt.” His growling tone was almost brusque, and Trowa had the sudden image of him up for hours waiting with some impatience for the humans to arise so he could come see them; no matter what Trowa had lately been speculating about him, it was a pathetic idea. “I can’t figure out what this line means,” the Beast went on. “I wondered if you might know.”
“Let’s see if I do,” Quatre agreed. He still sounded a little surprised at the Beast’s presence, but nonetheless amenable to the request.
“I might then have replenished my supplies in Sydeover,” the Beast read out, “but, having visited that town a few months prior and fearing, as they say, a bycatch in my lave, avoided it and pressed onward toward North Riterdonne. I know what a bycatch is, but I don’t understand the full phrase. I looked in a few other books, but none of them helped.” He sounded frustrated, and it interested Trowa to find him the type of reader that couldn’t bring himself to continue a book when there was something in it, even something so small, that he didn’t understand.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard it either.” Now there was some apology to Quatre’s tone, and perhaps it was in response to this that the Beast seemed to emerge enough from his literary reverie to recognize, finally, the other emotions there — the barely-concealed surprise and skepticism and touch of worry or intimidation — and perhaps how odd it must seem to his guests that he’d come here to ask something like this.
His tone was suddenly gruff and clipped as he said, “It’s probably not important.”
Before the Beast could turn and leave them, however, as seemed to be the tendency of his movements, Trowa finally broke silence with, “I think it is, though.” After all, it wasn’t as if there was anything wrong with the Beast’s visit or question — just unexpected and unusual. “At least, it tells you something important about the narrator.”
The Beast and Quatre both looked at him, Quatre appearing not at all startled that Trowa knew the answer, but the Beast perhaps a little — or maybe he was just surprised that Trowa was speaking to him directly, which thus far hadn’t often voluntarily happened. But he listened attentively as Trowa went on. “A lave is a net used by a single person, typically only by poorer fishermen. If a fisherman says he has a bycatch in his lave, he means he’s gotten a woman pregnant.”
“I see.” The Beast sounded impressed. “Then you’re right. It is important.” He nodded his great head and gave the volume another pensive look. “It does change my impression of the man,” he murmured, almost to himself, and fell silent.
Silence with the Beast was still consistently awkward. He was just so big… and in this parlor, rather than the huge library or even the still comparatively large dining room in which they were more accustomed to encountering him, he seemed to fill even more space and to menace even more darkly.
It didn’t help, either, that Trowa had become suspicious of him and his intentions. That didn’t increase his fear of the Beast, exactly, but neither did it improve his general attitude toward him or any silence between them. He couldn’t forget that the Beast had addressed himself specifically to Quatre upon entering the room just now; and considering that of course the Beast would do so, when Trowa had given very little indication over the past two weeks of ever wanting to speak to him, made almost no difference.
“Thank you,” said the Beast at last, shaking himself a bit as if out of his thoughts. “I’ll let you get back to your breakfast.” And with another nod that, given the size of his head, seemed like it should cause the entire building to tilt, he turned and left the room.
Quatre was staring at the door; he consistently stared after the Beast when the latter left them — and especially if he left them abruptly — as if he couldn’t begin to decide what to make of their host. Trowa agreed with him there; he just hoped that what Quatre eventually decided wouldn’t be too painful.
“You know, I wasn’t absolutely sure it was him, at first,” Quatre said, “since he’s never come here before. For a second I thought it might be one of those people we keep seeing around.”
This thought hadn’t occurred to Trowa. “That would be strange, though,” he pointed out, “after the way they’ve avoided us.”
Quatre agreed with him, and finally dragged his gaze back to his breakfast plate. His expression turned to a regretful smile. “I’m getting used to him, but he still takes my appetite away. He’s just so… unnatural.”
“I wonder why he is the way he is…” Quatre sounded hopeless, which made sense considering how unlikely it seemed that they would ever find out. The usual pity was present in his tone as well, however. “I wonder if there’s anything we can do to help him.”
Trowa shook his head, and even he wasn’t sure whether he was trying to indicate that he had no idea or that he didn’t like the thought of trying.
“Well, I can’t eat any more.” Quatre laid his serviette on the table and rose. “I’m going to have a bath and get dressed.” As he pushed his chair in, he added with a sigh, seemingly more to himself than to his companion, “I think I might as well start wearing some of the clothing in my wardrobe. Those old things from home can only hold up for so long, and they seem out of place here anyway.”
Silently Trowa nodded, and in doing so was reminded of Quatre’s words a week ago, “You don’t have to be so perfectly agreeable.” But there was no way Trowa could express his disinclination for this decision, since the latter was entirely reasonable and really didn’t have anything to do with him. If Quatre was going to accept the palace’s choice of garment, of course Trowa was also — but the fact remained that he didn’t have to, and therefore had no room to complain.
So when he too went to dress, he looked once again into the big ebony wardrobe, and this time reached in almost blindly before he could change his mind. As he’d expected from his brief prior exploration and his growing knowledge of the palace, the trousers and shirt and tunic he pulled out seemed exceptionally well-made and comfortable; symbol of acquiescence or not, he supposed they could be worse. And as he’d noticed before, they were pleasantly plain and unassuming, and in colors he favored.
The small drawers that ran up the side of the wardrobe contained underclothes and other small items such as stockings and handkerchieves, and another long drawer across the bottom held several pairs of soft shoes and some folded-over boots, all evidently in his size. He was mostly done being unnerved by even somewhat surprising things the palace came up with (aside from the Beast himself, of course), but it was a little strange, for some reason, to think of this place knowing his shoe size. Having decided to go through with this, however, he didn’t hesitate to choose from the options presented.
Cravats had only just begun to come into style during the last few months of relatively affluent life (relative to Beaulea, that is) in Silbreaker; Quatre had worn them, but Trowa, having taken on a great many more tasks than before in his new position as fully a third of the servants the family had retained, had very rarely helped him dress in those days. So, since cravats had never been a servants’ fashion — perhaps they were now, which was why the palace had offered him a selection of them, or perhaps the palace had ideas about Trowa above his station — Trowa had very little concept of how to tie the things. He’d chosen one in dark grey that he thought wouldn’t look bad with his muted green tunic, but after a number of tries in front of the glass at getting it into a proper knot, he was about to give up and do without.
At the sound of a knock on the door from Quatre’s room, he called for his master to enter without looking around. Usually Trowa was ready for the day before Quatre was, since Quatre liked to linger in his bath whereas Trowa took only as much time as was necessary to get clean — but today he’d had to wrestle with a disinclination toward his clothing and then a cravat.
Upon seeing what Trowa was busy with, Quatre immediately laughed at him. “Here, turn around,” he commanded; “let me help you.” Trowa obeyed, actually distinctly frowning in his annoyance at the article, but found his scowl melting away instantly as he caught sight of Quatre approaching him.
Quatre, with his soft, shining hair, trim, compact body, and absolutely perfect face, had always been beautiful. He’d been charming as a child, back when Trowa had admired without knowing precisely why, and he’d grown into a flawlessly handsome man. Every fashion that had ever had a foothold among the Silbreaker nobility had looked excellent on him, laughable as some of it had been on anyone else; and in Beaulea in rough linen and muddy boots with a sunburn and sad, weary eyes, he’d still been unfailingly stunning.
So it wasn’t exactly surprise that Trowa felt now at seeing him again in finery — indeed, seeing him in finery richer, he thought, than anything Quatre had ever worn even during the estate days — but it still took several moments before he could focus on anything but how amazing Quatre looked in his new clothing, and he was lucky Quatre himself had a specific task in mind that turned his eyes away from Trowa’s.
Quatre had chosen a black tunic that was covered with pink and cream embroidery in intricate patterns; this set off his pale skin and the perfect rosiness of his cheeks — he wasn’t sunburned now. A gold pin with a large head beaten into facets like a jewel’s, pushed through his pink cravat, glittered like his hair, and the light caught similarly in the embroidery on his tunic and on the long, flared sleeves of his off-white shirt so that he seemed to sparkle all over. He was belted in black, and the lines of his body were elegantly displayed all the way down his neat sides to his cream-colored trousers and shoes. Some of this was a little difficult to see with Quatre standing there so close with his hands at Trowa’s throat, but Trowa’s hungry eyes managed to take it all in nevertheless.
Suddenly Quatre laughed again. “This is impossible. Turn back around.” He took Trowa’s shoulders as he said this and guided him into obeying. This left Trowa facing the full-length mirror once more, and with only a moment to brace himself as he realized what Quatre was doing before Quatre’s arms snaked around him from behind and Quatre’s chin tilted up to rest on Trowa’s shoulder so he could see what he was doing in the glass. “I can’t do it backwards,” he explained. And, indeed, from this angle, he was soon able to tie Trowa’s cravat and arrange it properly.
It was moments like this that conveyed to Trowa with miserable, heart-sinking conviction that there would never be anything between him and Quatre more than the love of master and servant. Trowa had to fight to keep down a hot flush and a raging of his pulse, whereas Quatre seemed as calm and indifferent as ever. If Trowa thought Quatre in any way capable of concealing the reactions of his warm, open heart, he might have had some hope… but he knew the concealment, like the desire, was all on his side, and would invariably remain so.
“There,” was Quatre’s satisfied pronouncement when he was finished with his task and, disappointingly, withdrawing from his inadvertent embrace.
“Thank you,” said Trowa gravely, pretending to examine his reflection.
“Let’s go down to the southeast garden,” Quatre suggested next, beginning to wander away toward the door to his room, in which they’d taken to leaving their books in the evenings. “I feel like sitting in the sun.”
Trowa, watching him move, said quietly, “All right,” and paused a moment, his eyes still lingering on Quatre in his black and cream and pink, before he followed.
So they spent the first half of the day, as they had so many previous, reading outside. Trowa was deeply and pleasurably involved in a historic account — highly embellished, he had no doubt — of the kings of a distant country he’d only heard of superficially in the past; and he thought Quatre had lately been indulging his love of poetry by finding all of it that he could in the oddly-organized library. His only concern was that Quatre would become sunburned if he spent too long basking in the sun, and he insisted afterwhile that his master move into the shade of the rose-covered trees.
After this they had a fine lunch of cold cubed meat and fresh vegetables in a creamy sauce with butter biscuits and white wine, then went back to their books for a while. Trowa was becoming a little restless, however, and felt that Quatre was too. This stint of so many hours reading each day was drawing to an end, he thought; they must soon find other ways to fill some of their time. And, perhaps because he had the same idea in his own head, he was rather anticipating it when, an hour or two after lunch, Quatre yawned, set down his book, stretched, and suggested, “Let’s go wander around inside for a while. I wouldn’t mind looking at the gallery upstairs.”
Again Trowa acquiesced with, “All right,” at which Quatre shot him a somewhat suspicious look as if just realizing that he’d made the proposal without consulting Trowa’s inclination and wanting to be sure Trowa wasn’t subverting his own will. To reassure him, Trowa added, “I was thinking exactly that.” Quatre’s face was still skeptical as he rose and gathered up his books, but he said nothing.
They didn’t speak again, in fact, until they’d reached the long hall near the top of the palace with its eclectic set of frames and the paintings they enclosed. There, glad to move very leisurely around the room after all the stairs they’d had to climb, they exchanged opinions on the pieces they saw. Neither of them was particularly artistic in this area, but, as the saying went, they knew what they liked, and there was plenty to discuss.
Eventually Quatre seated himself on one of the benches that ran down the center of the long gallery, leaning back on his hands and looking fixedly at the nearest painting. The latter showed a man baiting a bull with a flapping cloth, as was apparently a custom or sport in certain neighboring nations. Trowa thought he knew why Quatre found it of such particular interest as to want to study it at length: the head of the bull looked something like the head of the Beast, though there was little further resemblance, and this gave the painting a very uncomfortable feeling — especially knowing that the bulls were usually eventually killed in such contests.
“I think this is horrible,” Quatre said decisively at last. From the changing expression on his face, Trowa had rather been expecting this. “Who would ever want a picture of someone torturing an animal?”
“It’s very well done,” Trowa offered.
“That makes it worse. The fact that it’s painted well makes it seem to be validating its subject matter.”
“I disagree. I think it highlights the horror.”
Quatre’s mouth quirked slightly, a smile pulling at it in spite of his disapprobation. “I think that’s the first time you’ve disagreed with me in weeks.”
“Possibly,” Trowa agreed.
Quatre laughed faintly, and shifted the subject, proving that his reflections had been running the direction Trowa had thought they must. “Do you think any of these pictures are related at all to… have anything to do with the Beast or his situation?”
Trowa shook his head; he had no way even to guess at such a thing.
“I already find this picture horrible, but if I was built anything like that poor animal, I don’t think I could even stand to look at it. Do you think he ever comes up here?”
Again Trowa shook his head.
“And why would he have something like this in his home anyway? Who chose these paintings? Who painted these paintings?”
“Remember what he said about this being his palace ‘in a manner of speaking,'” Trowa reminded Quatre. “He may not have had anything to do with it.”
“Are they meant to say something specific,” Quatre mused on, “or are they just a collection like you’d find in any rich person’s house? They strike me as a little too random to be a reflection of any one person’s taste… but at the same time, the randomness, to me, says that they probably aren’t intended to send a message, either. So what grounds were they chosen on?”
With this in mind, Trowa was looking around again at the nearest few artistic decorations on the walls. Quatre was right; the selection was indeed quite random, with no apparent connecting theme or similarity of style or subject. The more he looked, in fact, the stranger it seemed; it hadn’t struck him before when he’d been examining each piece individually, but taken as an aggregate they did form quite an odd collection. “It almost looks,” he began slowly, “as if the intention was just ‘to have a gallery,’ and whoever put it together didn’t give it any more thought than that.”
“You’re right!” Quatre had joined him in gazing around at the nearest paintings, and was now nodding with a thoughtful frown. “It’s as if someone just took the first hundred paintings he could get his hands on, without caring at all what they were like, and hung them here in no particular order, just for the sake of having them here. And it fits with the rest of the palace, doesn’t it? Remember you were wondering who was supposed to sleep in all the bedrooms and who was ever likely to dance in the ballroom? Nobody is supposed to, necessarily; it’s just important that there are as many bedrooms as befits such a fine palace, and that there is a ballroom.
“And do you think any children have ever played in that courtyard with the little house and the swings? Or are ever likely to? And the kitchens and servants’ quarters in a palace that’s run by magic… and the books in the library, organized in a way that would never help anyone find anything — they’re just there because a library is supposed to have books, not because anyone’s ever likely to read them, even though somebody does. It’s all here just for the sake of having it here.”
“Why?” Trowa wondered.
“I think…” Quatre paused, then lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug. “I don’t know. It feels like somebody set this place up, and gave a lot of thought to the details, but didn’t really know how real people live.”
If that was the case, Trowa thought, then the Beast was probably even more a prisoner than they were, and his desire for company even more understandable. It also, Trowa thought dismally, made his potential desire for Quatre that much more natural: someone as real and alive and considerate as Quatre must be a beautiful contrast to a place so ill-thought-out, so fake and so dead.
Quatre stood abruptly. “I don’t want to be here anymore,” he declared, and for half an instant Trowa thought he was referring to the palace in its entirety. But then he added, “Let’s go down to the music room,” and his meaning became more clear.
Throwing one last glance at the bullfighter and fielding an unexpected and unpleasant shiver up his spine, Trowa agreed.
They’d visited the music room several times already, and Trowa guessed it would eventually become a daily occurrence. He was only casually skilled at flutes and the like, but Quatre had always been something of a prodigy on a number of different instruments — and, like reading, Trowa thought, hadn’t realized how much he missed the opportunity until having it restored to him after a long drought.
Their discussion in the gallery of paintings had shed some light on the contents of this chamber as well. They’d wondered, the first time they’d looked around here in earnest, at a selection of music that seemed utterly and incomprehensibly mixed when it came to era, style, and level of difficulty, but now Trowa thought this made a bit more sense. Interestingly, the palace would provide them with essentially whatever they wanted — he noted that today there was a distinct increase in the amount of music written for the instruments they’d played the last time they’d been in here — but this seemed to be in specific response to their thoughts and desires; it was a sort of overlay to the thoughts and desires of whoever had set the place up, which hadn’t been nearly so intuitive when it came to actual use of the room and the instruments.
The latter, at least, were always in perfect tune, with each other as well as within their own scales, so it was possible to pick up anything in the room and play it immediately without concern, and pair it with anything else if they so desired — though, as Quatre had remarked the last time they’d been in here, not having to tune their instruments rendered the act of playing them a little surreal, as it had always been such a crucial part of the process back in the real world. Still, it was convenient, when Quatre was in the mood for the spinet and wanted Trowa to attempt to join in on the flute, not only to be able to put a hand out and have the first piece of music within reach just happen to be written for those two instruments, but to have those two instruments sound perfect together without any preparation on their part.
Quatre was always cheered by the act of playing music, and Trowa was always cheered by the sight of Quatre cheered; so, if only for this reason, Trowa was grateful for the presence of this room and its contents. Soon they were deeply engrossed in working through the piece they’d randomly selected, which had turned out to be rather difficult, and good-naturedly debating rhythm and expression; all the morose thoughts they’d brought with them from upstairs had dissipated.
“Do you remember leaving that door open?” Quatre suddenly said, looking past Trowa’s shoulder with a thoughtful frown.
Trowa looked around and saw that one of the doors into the room was, indeed, standing ajar. “I don’t even think that’s the one we came in by.”
Abruptly Quatre stood from the spinet’s bench. “Beast?” he called, sounding just a little suspicious.
Immediately the Beast appeared, large in the doorway the two humans were already regarding. “Yes?”
“Have you been…” Quatre obviously didn’t think it was safe to speak accusatorily, even in a friendly way, and kept his tone level, but he still sounded curious. “How long have you been outside that door?”
The Beast shifted slightly. “I was listening,” he said, answering the spirit if not the letter of the question.
“Well, if you’ll come in, you can hear it properly…” Quatre shot Trowa a look that seemed to ask whether he minded, at which Trowa shrugged slightly.
“I don’t want to bother you,” said the Beast.
“You won’t,” Quatre assured him.
At this the Beast entered the room, seeming somewhat reluctant still, his black talons clicking on the tiled floor. He looked around, and evidently decided that the best place for him was on one of the seats covered in burgundy velvet that lined the wider arc of the curved trapezoid of the chamber, a few steps above the larger area devoted to the instruments. He leaped up onto one of the chairs, as he always did at supper, wavered a little as the deep, soft cushion seemed to throw him off balance, then settled into a crouch and turned his eyes upon them without a word.
Quatre had claimed that the Beast wouldn’t bother them, but this was only true up to a point. Trowa didn’t mind playing for him — though he couldn’t help thinking with a little dismay that Quatre’s talents in this area must make him all the more desirable in the Beast’s eyes — but the very presence of their host, big and clawed and looming as always, was going to make him perform worse, he was certain of it. And he was already less skilled than Quatre. But there was nothing for it but to try anyway.
Actually it didn’t go as badly as he’d expected, since he was looking at the notes most of the time anyway, and the effort necessary for some of the tricky fingering and long, breathless phrases was distracting enough that he’d almost forgotten the Beast was there by the time they were done playing. He remembered immediately, though, in some startlement, at the first sound of the Beast’s heavy, somewhat muffled clapping.
“Very good,” said their host, a little gravely, as if to underline his sincerity with seriousness.
Trowa nodded, and Quatre said, “Thank you,” as he stood again from the bench. “We only just found that song today, though, so we could be better at it.”
“I couldn’t tell,” said the Beast, stepping down off his chair to his full upright height. “I’m not a harsh critic. I never get to listen to music.”
That ‘never’ was so final and forlorn that Trowa’s curiosity was instantly piqued; he was certain Quatre’s was too. But of course they couldn’t ask, because the Beast would be sure just to leave the room. Quatre, however, evidently determined to get some information, chose a different question instead. “What are your favorite instruments?”
It seemed to have been a good decision, as the Beast answered without apparent discomfort. “I enjoy listening to anything.” He turned to glance out one of the windows as he continued; the sun was setting, and the shadow of the mountain against which the palace nestled stretched out across the grounds in a moving blue mass that enveloped and erased the light, readying the landscape for the deepening of night. This seemed to engross the Beast so much that he couldn’t complete his thought. “I’m not built to… play…”
Trowa watched the dusk shadows crawl, ever-darkening, like a spreading flood across the grounds below, and wondered what the Beast found so captivating about the sight. Another day spent as a monster? One more day under whatever curse lay over this place? Or perhaps there was some sort of countdown, and this meant one day fewer to accomplish some goal?
Whatever the case, the Beast eventually shook his huge, shaggy head like a wet dog, and turned back to his guests. “Sorry… what was I saying?”
“You… aren’t built to play instruments?” Quatre speculated cautiously.
“Oh!” The Beast bounded abruptly down the two steps into the lower area where Trowa and Quatre stood, startling them both with his sudden movement. On all fours he went to one of the great floor-to-ceiling curtains that hid all the standing instruments and the shelves on which the smaller ones rested, and pulled it back. “No, I can’t play most things,” he went on, “but I can manage this one; you’ve got to hear it!”
From among the hoard of instruments that stood in tight-packed rows behind the curtains, the Beast lifted one right up and over some of the others; its filigree framework had wheels, but he didn’t seem to want to waste the time to extricate it in a more conventional fashion and roll it out. He set it down again, and Quatre and Trowa moved a little closer to look at it.
Like many of the items here, this instrument was completely unfamiliar to Trowa, and Quatre looked equally puzzled. It consisted of two shiny metal bowls of sorts, side by side, that had been beaten into numerous facets; it was like looking at a huge cut jewel from the inside. The Beast was attempting to free a couple of round-ended wooden mallets (ebony; no surprise there) from where they hung by silver chains from the framework in which the bowls were set, and not having a great deal of luck. He cursed under his breath, though this was barely distinguishable from inarticulate growling.
Trowa reached out and unfastened the chains for him, handing him the mallets. One of these days the Beast was probably going to kill him for doing things like that, but Trowa just couldn’t stand to see someone struggling thus without offering his assistance. Maybe Quatre was right, and he really did have some sort of servant’s behavior ingrained in his blood.
“Thanks,” the Beast growled. He didn’t exactly sound annoyed, but Trowa took a step back anyway. Perhaps in response to that motion, the Beast looked up at them both and said suddenly, as if he’d just thought of it, “By the way, you guys look great in those clothes.”
Trowa thought both humans were equally startled at this unexpected and possibly a little wistful-sounding statement. Eventually Quatre said, “Thank you.”
“All right, now listen to this. I love this thing.” And, rather clumsily, his big hands in fists around the mallets as if he could manage no more delicate style of grip, the Beast began to play the unnamed instrument.
It had a sound rather like a xylophone, but mellower: an easy-going, cheerful tone that was pleasant to listen to despite the fact that the Beast was quite obviously unskilled in its production — mostly, Trowa thought, because of the way he was forced to hold the mallets and a certain rigidity of arm that would not allow for motions more conducive to the proper playing of this instrument. He coaxed some harmonies out of it, but no recognizable melody; nevertheless, the humans were interested and entertained, and gave him a little round of applause when he was finished.
The Beast made one of his ironic bows, then laid the mallets in the twin bowls with two melodic clinks. “I have no idea what this thing is called or where it comes from. Have you ever heard of it?”
The humans shook their heads. “But there might be a book about musical instruments in the library that could tell you,” Quatre suggested.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea; maybe I’ll look sometime.” Given the number of hours a day the Beast apparently spent in the library, that didn’t really seem like much of a ‘maybe.’ “So are you guys going to keep playing?” And the eagerness in his tone as he asked this probably related back to his earlier statement that he never got to hear music.
“I’m hungry,” answered Quatre. “What do you think, Trowa?”
Trowa almost felt bad about depriving the Beast of the entertainment he seemed so anxious for, but in a choice between Quatre’s needs and the Beast’s, there would always be a clear winner. He nodded.
The Beast might have been a little disappointed, but all he said, as he bounded startlingly around them toward one of the doors, was, “I’ll meet you down there, then!”
Quatre’s eyes followed him, as they always did when he left all of a sudden, then looked around the room. “We should play for him again another time,” he murmured. “I wouldn’t mind spending more time in here.”
And Trowa, unable even to be jealous when he’d just been thinking essentially the same thing, nodded again.
This time, as they made their way down the several floors between them and the dining rooms, it was Trowa that caught sight of her first. He actually got a fairly good look before she turned away from them and moved out of his line of sight: a tall, slender woman in a trailing gown — a courtly, sparkling white gown of old-fashioned but very elegant design — with long, somewhat jaggedly-cut brown hair that fell over her bare shoulders. She was standing at the top of a staircase they were approaching, and seemed to cast a very specific, very sad-looking glance at them before deliberately turning to descend.
Quatre spotted her a moment after Trowa did. “Wait!” he cried in frustration, moving swiftly forward as before to try to catch up with her — but, also as before, by the time they reached the head of the stairs, quickly as they’d moved, there was no trace of her below. His sigh was almost angry as he looked intently around, down the stairs, into corners and, illogically, up at the ceiling. He seemed ready to start entering rooms at random looking for the stranger, forgetting about supper and everything else in his irritated curiosity.
Trowa put a hand on his shoulder, resisting the urge to trace with his fingers the shining embroidery on Quatre’s tunic. “Come on,” he said. “The Beast is waiting for us.”
“This is a nice spot,” Duo murmured, looking around at the little open space. It was dotted with bushes and a few trees, but much clearer than the forest behind them, nestled up against a high rocky ridge that was the first real indicator of the dark bulk of the mountains on whose knees they already stood. He couldn’t keep the slight dreaminess from his tone as he spoke, and he knew Heero would ask.
Heero did. “For what?”
Whenever they weren’t busy with other things that required them to remain relatively stationary, they’d taken to wandering at night; they would set off up the mountain away from the church, holding hands, talking about everything and nothing as they moved aimlessly through the forest, and only turn when they guessed they’d spent about half the time Heero could afford to be up here. And Duo couldn’t help indulging in a little daydream here and there…
He shrugged. “Just a nice spot.”
Heero’s arms slid around him. “You know I can always tell when you’re lying,” he said close to Duo’s ear.
“You wish you could, you mean,” Duo grinned.
Heero chuckled softly. “But, really, Duo. You’ve been looking around lately as if you’re specifically trying to find something out here. What is this a nice spot for?”
“You really want to know?” Duo squirmed in Heero’s embrace, turning to face him and drape his own arms over Heero’s shoulders.
“Kiss first. A really good one.”
“I can give you more than that, if you want.”
“It’s a deal. Kiss first, then I’ll tell you, and then, if you still feel like it, we’ll find a nice spot against a tree somewhere.”
Heero paused in the movement that would have brought their lips together, eyebrows skeptically raised. “If I still feel like it?” he wondered. “Is it that much of a mood-killer?”
“You’ll have to kiss me to find out.”
“Fine,” said Heero, and immediately made good on his part of the bargain. Very good, in fact; Heero could, if he wished, completely overwhelm Duo and make him forget the rest of the world with the intensity of his kisses. It was a remarkable talent. “So tell me,” he said when he’d finally, leisurely withdrawn from Duo’s mouth.
“What is this a nice spot for?”
Duo shook himself a little, and pulled somewhat reluctantly from Heero’s embrace to look around once again. As he did so, though, the same mental image he’d had when they’d first entered the clearing appeared before his eyes again, and he smiled. “A little house,” he said. He pointed. “Right there, see? Right up against that rock. There’d be room for a pen for chickens or something… and maybe a workshop over there…”
“Why?” Heero wondered. His tone was at once curious and amused, and perhaps a little cautious.
Duo laid his head on Heero’s shoulder. “I want to live with you,” he said. “I want a house where you can do carpentry and I can do… I don’t know what… and we can be together all day every day, and sleep in the same bed at night, and basically just live happily ever after.”
After this, Heero was silent for so long that eventually Duo pulled entirely away from him in order to look him in the face. Heero stared back; it was difficult to tell in the dark, but it seemed that a deep blush had overtaken his otherwise emotionless features. “So essentially,” he said slowly, at last, “you’re asking me to marry you.”
Duo was suddenly blushing too — a rare circumstance, but, he thought, justified here. “Wow,” he said. “I guess I am. I didn’t really think about it that way, but, yeah.”
Heero sounded a bit hoarse as he replied, “I knew there was a reason I was saving all my money.”
“You were saving it,” Duo replied in some amusement, “because you’re too smart to go out and blow it all at the inn like other guys do.”
“And because you won’t let me buy you presents.”
“Happily ever after would be a better present than anything you’ve seen anyone selling anywhere.”
Pulling Duo to him again, Heero whispered, “I agree.”
His heart burning, “So does that mean you accept?” Duo wondered, equally quiet.
“Yes,” said Heero.
They kissed again, and then held each other, still and silent in the autumn moonlight, for several long moments.
After a while, Duo asked, “So… mood-killer?”
He could hear the smile in Heero’s reply. “Not exactly… but I’d like to talk about this a little more.”
Duo squeezed him, then drew back and took one of his hands. “We should probably start heading back anyway, actually,” he said.
Heero nodded, and together they began walking southward again into the trees. “I can start working half-days. I’ll come up here and build the rest of the day.”
“So you like the spot?” Duo inquired eagerly.
“I think it looks good. I’ll have to see it in daylight to be sure. Then we can check with the reeve to be sure it’s all right to build there.”
“If you built the house yourself, I’d love it even more.” Duo already felt like he was walking on air, and Heero’s serious acquiescence to what an hour ago had been nothing more than an idle imagining made him feel even more wonderful.
“I’ll need Alan’s help with some things,” Heero admitted. “But I think I can manage it.”
“And you think we can survive? You really think we can do this? I still don’t really have any idea what I can do…”
“I’m sure Alan won’t mind if I set up business here on the other end. And as for you…” Heero gave Duo an assessing glance. “You can read and write… why not be a letter-writer?”
The great bubble of excitement that had been building inside Duo throughout this conversation, and threatening to deflate at the worrying thought that he had nothing to contribute to the proposed arrangement, now swelled even larger. He threw his arms around Heero and declared, “You’re a genius!”
“You’re the one who can read and write,” Heero pointed out, laughing a little as he stumbled under Duo’s assault.
“I’ll teach you,” Duo promised, kissing Heero’s cheek. “And then we’ll be the happiest people in the world together in our little house.”
“Don’t hold your breath, though,” Heero warned. “I don’t know how long it’ll take. We’ll have to arrange things first.”
“Just looking forward to it will be enough!”
“For you? My impatient Duo?”
“Your impatient Duo will wait forever for you.”
“It shouldn’t take forever…”
Duo felt Heero’s hand seek his again, and they walked onward in ever-increasing joy, discussing their future happiness and everything that would contribute to it.
*sigh* What even happened in that picture? The dress looks awesome, but the rest……