Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Two Halves: Circles + Chapter 4
Pawn's Gambit

"Well, your highness, I must say, you're not the pampered court poodle I expected."

Heero frowned ever so slightly, the only sign of emotion on his stone-cold face. No one had ever even thought of calling him a poodle, or pampered for that matter. He heard Trowa snort softly besides him, a rare show of amusement from the stoic Romany.

"Though I would love to see how good you really are, I'm afraid I can't have you killing any more of my men today." The voice was a parody of wry amusement, with an undercurrent of cold anger beneath it. "So you will drop your sword now and surrender gracefully."

Heero glanced at the six men, dead or incapacitated, that had fallen around himself and Trowa. There were only seven left, two of them injured, plus the scoffer. Neither of he nor Trowa were wounded yet. The math was pretty easy.

"Hn."

"That means, come down here and make us." Trowa translated. His two swords glittered and hissed through the air, as he flicked the blood from them.

The man sitting atop the dappled grey charger leaned forward slightly, his eyes glinting like Trowa's blades. He looked tempted. He was tall, muscular, broad-shouldered, carrying full armor with ease, and a halberd hung loosely from a huge mailed hand. He looked angry. He had not expected the poodle to possess the teeth of a wolf. He'd lost half his men in that first charge, in what should have been an easy ambush.

But he leaned back, frowning. "Unfortunately, I have to decline, your highness. We have a tight schedule to keep. So if you don't mind, put down your sword or-" he lifted his free hand.

Heero and Trowa glanced at the three men who had drawn and aimed crossbows at them. They drew themselves into a defensive crouch.

"It will be interesting to see how many more of your men the poodle can kill before your arrows bring me down." Heero said calmly. Beside him, Trowa tensed, ready to spring.

"You misunderstand me, your highness." The man nodded at his men.

Who all twitched their crossbows to point straight at Trowa.

"It so happens we need you alive. Your servant, however... "

Trowa opened his mouth but whatever he was about to say was cut short by the crunch of Heero's sword dropping into the dry leaves of past autumns that carpeted the alpine forest.

"Drop your weapons, Trowa." He said quietly, and moved in front of his friend to stand between him and the bolts. "If you're smart-," he added, his eyes on the crossbows but talking to the leader of the small pack, "-you will realize that taking me alive and keeping me that way are two different things. I'll only cooperate if Trowa comes with us, unharmed."

Trowa's swords dropped into the forest one by one, reluctant and heavy. One of their attackers darted from his horse, shoved the auburn-haired man to his knees and pressed a dagger to Trowa's throat.

"Boss?" He snarled. His eyes were wild with blood lust, darting from Heero to his leader to the corpses of the other bandits scattered like the debris of a dead season in a circle around them. A thin droplet of blood ran down Trowa's neck. Green eyes were calm and seemed unconcerned.

"Tie them both up. I don't want any more trouble." The leader was biting the thick salt-and-pepper moustache that hung like worn rope above his mouth. He didn't look happy about it either, but Heero's scowl confirmed that without a hostage he would be a lot of trouble indeed.

The man behind Trowa growled and continued to hold the dagger ready as another man approached them and nervously tied Heero's hands behind his back. Then Trowa was shoved to his feet and given the same treatment.

The two men exchanged one glance. That was all that was needed.

They would cooperate, for now. But they knew that help was already on the way.

*

Duo was staring fixedly at the left ear of the master of ceremonies while cleaning his fingernails with his dagger. He found this helped people get to the point a lot faster. It was nice to have a reputation as the crazed sorcerer-king of Lin sometimes. Already the man had stopped pestering him about the order of precedence of guests and the importance of wearing sable robes instead of black leather pants, and was now going through the plans for the rest of the ceremony with commendable speed. In fact he was going a bit red in the face. Maybe Duo should remind him to breathe once in a while. But if he didn't maybe the man would pass out and then Duo would be able to shorten and simplify the ceremony of the first circle even more. Anything to make this less of a circus...

He tried to feel angry with Heero for ditching out today. But the heir of Sanq had been a trooper for an entire week now, and really, he deserved a break. Duo had grown up partly in Lin and could manage the court duties if he had to. Heero had grown up with Jay, whose idea of ceremony was eating with a fork. This was all alien to Heero, and probably very, very boring. Duo hadn't made much of a fuss when his husband had given some really lame excuse and headed out for the woods at daybreak with only the silent Trowa for company. Really, the only annoying thing was that he'd not been able to go with them.

He was bored, and sick and tired of organizing the first ceremony and this was only the start of the whole circles ritual-

Duo perked up as the door crashed open and one of the guards stationed there fell in a dazed heap right next to the master of ceremony who dropped all twelve of his elaborate scrolls in a frantic fountain of paper. Yay, action!

Duo had his dagger and blasts ready, but was stunned at what he saw as the door swung open wider. No fiend from hell or assassin to blast into small lumps of soot. Instead... Duo trotted over to the door, curious to see why the normally gentle Quatre was apparently trying to throttle one of the king's guards.

"Duo!" Quatre had two small red spots at the top of his cheekbones, echoing the burn in his eyes. His face was far from the sweet, gentle youth Duo was vaguely aware of as an apparently indispensable accessory to Trowa.

"Yes?" Duo leaned against the doorjamb expectantly.

"Come with me at once. Bring Chang Wufei and your guard." Quatre snapped. He'd apparently forgotten his elbow pressed against the guard's windpipe. Duo guessed that the guards had tried to bar the throne-room to the young man, who was no-one as far as they were concerned, only to find that he might look harmless but he'd been training with Heero and Trowa for five years and it showed. In the way he handled his two curved shotel and fists, and also, Duo reflected, in the way he tended to bypass arguments and go straight for the jugular when he needed to.

"Sure thing!" Duo nodded enthusiastically, grabbed his cloak from an open-mouthed courtier, gave the trembling master of ceremony a friendly nod and gestured to Quatre, who was staring at him.

"Lead on. Wuffee is on leave - Sally made some pretty nasty threats if I didn't give him a break- but I'm sure I can find a few guys to come with us. The one you're strangling might do for a start."

Quatre's head snapped back towards the guard, then he blinked, gasped and let the man go. The guard staggered and slid down the doorjamb, wheezing a bit.

"Or maybe not. Come on, then, let's go find someone else. Are we going to need horses?" Duo hopped over the legs of the guard and trotted down the corridor, heading outside.

"... Yes... " Quatre was staring at him oddly. If he expected Duo to protest, or ask him where they were going, or why, then he'd misjudged just how bored Duo was at that point. Plus, for the gentle young man to lose his temper like that, it was probably important.

In the courtyard, two dozen Maguanacs were saddling horses.

"Do we need more guards?" Duo asked surprised. "I seem to recall these guys are quite efficient."

"You-... don't you want your own guard to come with us?" Quatre had been visibly prepared to barge in on Duo, argue with him angrily, maybe drag him out bodily whatever opposition he raised, and was reeling slightly as a result of the king's immediate compliance.

"Nah, they just tend to fuss." Duo grabbed one of the spare horses the burly Saoun men were holding and vaulted into the saddle. Wufei would have kittens when he found out about all this, but he was used to that. "Come on, before some other bureaucrat tries to burry me in paper."

"Don't you want to know where we're going?" Quatre finally burst out as he quickly swung into his own saddle.

"It's bound to be more interesting than here." Duo grinned. "And I like surprises."

"You might not like this one. But it's probably for the best, we don't have time to deal with you setting fire to things yet."

Duo stared at Quatre's back as the young man spun the horse around, concentrated for a few seconds, his eyes vague, and spurred his horse towards the South gates of Linheights. That had sounded... a bit ominous. Duo clicked his tongue and his horse trotted, then galloped after Quatre. Maybe he should be asking a few questions after all...

*

Heero judged they were over half a day's ride from Linheights, which wasn't that far at all from a city full of sorcerers. No wonder their captors seemed to be in such a hurry. These men were from Lin and they'd just captured their King's husband. Lin had a no-nonsense approach to crimes of high treason. It involved execution methods that would make a fiend cringe.

They were being led to the central hall of a holt, a fortified group of buildings perched on a rocky outcropping between two crags. Heero's eyes scrutinized every inch of the grey stone buildings around him, looking for a banner, heraldry, any kind of clue to the identity of the person who had captured them. The buildings were devoid of any trace of luxury, and there were no families. The only women he could see were rangy soldiers or camp followers. There were about fifty armed bodies in all, from what he could see, men with shifty eyes leering at him, or sharpening disparate weapons, or drinking sullenly on dirty stoops. This probably wasn't a military outfit or a proper camp, just the hide-out of some bandit lord. They were close to the border of Kespar and the baronies of Sansbury here, he would lay odds this was a raider, living off the occasional pillage on villages in the kingdoms around them. Heero scowled. What possible reason could small-time fry like that have to capture him?

The hall they were lead to was dark, lit only by the firepit and some flickering torches. The stone walls were bare of any decoration. Several wooden tables indicated this was the common room and dining hall. Only two people occupied it at present. A man was seated in a high-backed chair behind a table on a slightly raised dais. He was thin, gaunt, in his late forties, sallow face shrunken and dull. His clothes were typical for a minor sorcerer-warlord, a mixture of light armor and tough leathers, with no scabbard or weapon belt. Heero noted that the clothes appeared several sizes too large for the man, and momentarily wondered if this was in fact the boss of the bandits. The way the leader of his captors acknowledged the man with a stiff nod confirmed it though.

The boss appeared not to notice them. He didn't even lift his eyes from the dishes before him. Half the plates were empty, and there were quite a few of them, Heero noted. The raider lord was eating rapidly and without visible pleasure; meats, bread, cheeses, pastries, it didn't seem to matter. A very thin, indeed malnourished, woman was at his elbow, staring hungrily at him and the food, though she made no move towards either, merely leaned against the high-backed chair as if she required the support. She wore a limp russet dress, also too large for her, which plunged down to show prominent bones rather than cleavage. Her hair was black and as limp as her dress. Her eyes were huge in her sunken face, as she slowly lifted them towards the captives.

"You got him then." The bandit lord suddenly said, his eyes flickering up then back to his food. He stopped eating but his hands clenched and twitched as if he wanted to continue with the overcooked ham he'd been tearing into with his fingers when they'd entered.

"Yes sir, the information was correct; he left early this morning with only his man-at-arms for protection." From the sound of it, their captor had not quite believed that until he'd seen it. Princes were supposed to have a few more layers of defense around them. Heero wished he'd had. "We used scrying to follow them as soon as they left Linheights, and attacked them when they turned to go back. They... proved somewhat difficult to capture. I lost some men." The voice was tight and the big muscles clenched.

Heero wondered briefly where they'd gotten their information from. Who had told them that he was leaving Lingheights today with only Trowa, but had not bothered to tell them that he wasn't a, what was it, a poodle? Or had their spy not known either? That was likely. Very few people, even in Linheights, knew that Duo's former dour captain Yuy and his new husband, Heero, prince of Sanq, were one and the same person.

"What do you want with me?" Heero asked calmly. He doubted the man would give him all that much information, but it was worth a shot.

The leader stared at him blindly. His hands crawled back to the ham again, spiders in taut skin escaping his control. His eyes looked feverish, darting from his prisoner to the laden table. He didn't look entirely sane, but Heero had yet to meet a Lin sorcerer who was, and that, he thought with a small internal grimace, included Duo and himself.

"When can you move him out?" The lord asked his captain, ignoring Heero.

The burly man shrugged. "Nightfall. He was supposed to be gone all day, it will be awhile before he's missed. If we move him out tonight it will be soon enough, and make it less likely we'll be scryed."

"Where are you taking me?" But no one answered him.

"Are you sure Maxwell won't be able to track him here?" The captain said carefully, his head slightly down as if ready to fearfully bear the brunt of a storm. All the men seemed afraid of their Lord, watching him carefully. Once more, quite normal for Lin. "Will they be able to follow us to the rendez-vous?" The bandit lair was a pitiful rampart against an attack by the forces of Lin. The mountainous country had a rather hands-off approach to what its citizens did to eke a living out of the harsh environment. Raiding neighboring countries was considered an acceptable career path, as long as you paid your taxes and didn't get noticed. Making away with the heir of one country and the husband of the king of their own land was definitely going to get them noticed.

"I'm sure." Thin dry lips twitched, then teeth ground into them as if they could no longer wait for food anymore. "His presence here is undetectable, and he's no magic user, he won't have left any tracks. Once we reach our destination, they will make sure that Maxwell won't follow until they're ready for him. Take him away, and make sure he's unharmed. What's the other one doing here?" The lord's eyes blank gaze hovered over Trowa as he spoke through ham and bread his hands had caught and crammed into his mouth as if taking advantage of his distraction.

"Hostage. To keep him quiet."

"Is that necessary?"

"Yes." The captain growled, reluctantly.

"Well pack them out together, and the buyers can decide what to do with him." The lord nodded dismissal and his eyes dropped to his plates again. The woman gave Heero one last lingering look, something flickering in her blank gaze. It looked like surprise. Heero scowled at her and she looked down quickly again.

Then hard hands were pulling him and Trowa away, their questions unanswered. For now.

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