Demon of Justice + Chapter 15 (cont)
A Prince Among Men

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Trowa opened his eyes as he heard the floor creak quietly in the hall, and was watching the door when Heero looked in. Heero paled slightly and stepped back when he saw Duo sleeping on Trowa's shoulder, hands firmly knotted into the taller pilot's shirt, but Trowa waved 'come in' and lifted a finger to his lips before the Japanese teen could leave.

"I don't think he'll wake up, but keep your voice down," Trowa whispered as Heero reluctantly sidled into the room. "He hasn't been sleeping well, lately."

"I know," Heero muttered. "Once he is properly asleep, though, he can sleep through a lot..."

"Let's not take chances," Trowa said dryly. "I'd get up and let you take my place, but I don't think I could pry him loose." Besides, I promised him I'd stay...

Heero winced. "I doubt he'd want me in your place."

"I don't know about that," Trowa said, glancing down at Duo's sleeping face, blotched and tear-stained from crying. "He was pretty upset after you left."

"Yeah, at me."

Trowa snorted under his breath. "No, at the way he treated you, and at the situation in general. He was going to lash out at someone sooner or later, and you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Admittedly, you did give him a beautiful opening--"

Heero groaned softly, sinking into the chair beside the bed. "I know. I screwed that one up in style. Not even an hour after I promised to ask him things instead of assuming I know best, and I started laying down the law..."

"At least you know what you did wrong, and you're willing to admit it," Trowa pointed out in a whisper. "Now you just have to work on remembering not to do it again."

Heero almost laughed. "Ninmu ryoukai," he said softly, with a wry smirk. "And for God's sake, don't tell Quatre I said that!"

"Ooh. Blackmail material," Trowa grinned. Heero grinned back, a little lopsidedly, and they sat in silence for a while.

"Trowa?"

"Mmmm?"

"Why are you being nice to me?"

"...What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean," Heero muttered, shifting uncomfortably in his chair and avoiding Trowa's eyes. "You're being sympathetic and-- and helpful... I thought you two wanted me to screw up."

There was another long pause as the European teen considered his answer.

"Quatre and I love Duo," he said quietly, "but we're not in love with him. It's a strange combination of the love you can feel for a friend, or a teammate, or a comrade-in-arms, or a family member... mixed with a physical attraction. In Duo's case, sometimes he seems like a bratty little brother," he added dryly, "but he's the sort of bratty little brother you're very fond of, not the sort you want to drown. We love him, and we'd be glad to bring him into our relationship... but it wouldn't be forever. It would be good while it lasted, but eventually, it would end, and Duo needs more than 'for now'." Looking over at Heero, he quirked his mouth in a half-smile. "Duo is in love with you, and you... well, it's hard to be sure sometimes, but there's hope for you yet."

"Thank you," Heero muttered sarcastically, blushing.

"Don't mention it," Trowa replied, equally sarcastically. "Anyway, if you can get and keep your act together, you'll be much better for Duo than we could ever be. So, no, we don't want you to screw up."

"Maybe you don't, but what about Quatre?"

"He may be a gentle pacifist, but there are some things Quatre is very slow to forgive. He's pissed off at you and wants you to suffer a bit, but I highly doubt he'd try to make your chances worse."

Heero seemed to be considering that seriously, so Trowa settled back against the pillows, cradling Duo securely against his side, and half-closed his eyes. "Besides," he murmured, watching Heero from under his lashes, "we want you to be happy as well. Duo isn't the only other pilot we've come to love and consider 'family'..."

* * * * *

Appearing at Uthmar's elbow, Gunnar chuckled softly. "Didn't I say he had style?"

"You did," Uthmar replied, suppressing a relieved grin. And I know which one of those two looks more like a lord!

=*Yes,*= Torframos said dryly, =*even wearing nothing but bloodstained pants and bandages. He certainly acts more like a lord than Yithar does, and I don't think he's putting it on.*=

? Uthmar cast a quick, puzzled glance upwards.

=*There's nothing forced about his manner,*= the god pointed out. =*He's used to acting this way. Whatever sort of aristocracy they have where he comes from, he was born into it.*=

How high? Baron? Duke? Prince?

=*That I can't say... but I want you to have a long talk with that young man, while he's still borrowing Karthan's language skills.*= There was a short pause. =*If I had to guess... prince.*=

Wufei was just standing there, loose hair blowing around his face, watching Yithar as the half-elf lord dithered. Uthmar couldn't pick out any one thing in his stance or expression to account for it; but somehow the demon was managing to give the impression that he was waiting, without particularly high expectations, for his social and mental inferior to finish some ridiculously simple task.

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Yithar swallowed nervously, glancing from the demon, to the huge gold coins he'd poured on the table as negligently as if they were coppers, to the watching villagers, back to the demon. Slowly, almost unwillingly, he reached out towards the coins, then snatched his hand back.

"You... you can't pay!" he blurted abruptly. "You don't live here. You're not a villager. You can't pay for them!" He chewed at his bottom lip, glaring defiantly at the demon. That's enough gold to pay the taxes for years, but... if he pays, I can't turn the villagers out! They'll think they can get away with sneering at me-- curse it all, where's that damned Champion?!

Wufei raised one elegant eyebrow, and looked down his nose.

Gods, he does that better than my cousin Taihar-- Yithar hurriedly squashed an impulse to smile placatingly and say something mildly self-depreciating, his usual response when Taihar looked at him that way. He's a demon, not a noble, and he's not even dressed! Why am I feeling embarrassed?!

"You are quite right," the demon drawled eventually, still in that astonishing perfect accent. "My error. I beg your pardon."

And he's speaking in high mode as well, Yithar thought, torn between relief, regret and offense as he watched Wufei sweep the coins into his hands. Superior-to-inferior... how did he learn that?! I thought he could barely speak a few dozen words-- and how dare he? he added, almost as an afterthought.

"Royce!" Wufei said sharply, turning towards the headman.

"Yes, m'l-- ah, sir?"

"Here." Wufei took Royce's unresisting hand and poured the coins into it. "A gift to the village as a whole, as thanks for the hospitality you have shown me. Spend it as you see fit," he finished dryly, flicking a quick glance towards Yithar, that the half-elf didn't miss.

"Sir... Sir Wufei, this is far too much," Royce said shakily, looking down at the fortune in his hands. "We can't take--"

"Please," the demon said, voice softening slightly. "My people value kindness in a strange land very highly. I don't consider it excessive."

"Then... thank you, sir," Royce whispered, bowing. "I, I'm sure I speak for everyone--" He stumbled through a halting speech of gratitude, then turned to Yithar, eyes suspiciously bright as he sniffed and blinked.

"M'lord Yithar," he said formally. "I think we can pay our taxes now."

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I should say they can! Uthmar thought, hiding a grin behind his beard as he strolled forwards. Those coins are huge, and he's treating them like pebbles. Looks like he's a rich demon prince!

"I'm not taking those!" Yithar sputtered, looking a little desperate. "That's demon money-- it could be cursed, or false gold or-- or anything!"

"I believe I can answer that," the Champion said in his most offensively polite and cheerful voice, stepping up to the small group. "If you'll allow me, Goodman Royce?"

Poking through the coins Royce held out to him, he selected several at random and examined them carefully. Letting a little of Torframos's power leak into his hands, he held one up to the light and rubbed his thumb across the graceful horned animal engraved on one side.

Well? They seem perfectly all right to me. Surprisingly pure gold, too.

=*Surprisingly? I should think so!*= Torframos answered. =*That's nearly the purest gold I've ever seen; it's certainly the purest I've ever seen in the hands of a mortal. Not a trace of magic about it, either. You can tell your squeamish Purple Lord it's all right to take it-- if he can come up with enough change, that is!*=

That will be a problem, won't it? Uthmar suppressed a chuckle as he handed the coins back. "I can testify to the fact that these coins are nothing more or less than very fine gold," he said calmly. "Leaving aside the rarity value, which could increase their value many times over-- I'm not qualified to speak on the subject of what collectors might pay for one of these-- one of these coins should be enough to pay for two quarters rent. Er, taxes." He watched the glitter of avarice in Yithar's eyes for a moment, then added casually, "Of course, if Lord Yithar isn't carrying sufficient funds to give change, we can always cut one in half--"

"NO!" Yithar screeched, horrified. "That would completely destroy the rarity value-- ah-- I'm mean, I'm sure I can-- er--"

"But surely, the rarity value doesn't come into it?" Uthmar inquired mildly. "After all, you were calculating the value of various pieces of jewelry as if they were unworked metal and loose stones, not finished pieces. With that as a precedent, we can say definitively that it is only the metal value of the coin that matters, and cutting it certainly won't affect that." He watched Yithar hyperventilate for a while, then suggested, "Or we could consider the rarity value of the coin. In that case, we would have to postpone payment until that value could be properly assessed, and the required change would be immense... or we could revalue the jewelry as finished pieces, in which case, I think the villagers could pay this quarter's rent-- er, tax-- without resorting to Sir Wufei's extremely valuable gift." He smiled benevolently at Yithar.

"That won't be necessary," Yithar wheezed, hanging on to his composure by his metaphorical fingernails. "It is established Purple Lord custom to, ah, calculate the value of any precious metal item offered as tax as if it were unworked. It, ah, saves argument over the valuation."

And makes you bloodsucking parasites a lot of money, Uthmar thought, still smiling.

"I will be able to provide change in less than a week--"

"That's an extension," the dwarf pointed out. "If you wouldn't grant your tenants an extension, I don't see how you can ask for one yourself."

Royce unobtrusively kicked Uthmar's ankle. "If it's more convenient for m'lord Yithar," he said woodenly, "I'm sure we'd be glad to pay two quarters' in advance. There wouldn't be nearly so much change involved, then."

As Yithar babbled acceptance and almost ran to his baggage to get his money pouch, Royce leaned down to Uthmar and hissed, "Yes, sir, it is very funny, but let's not push our luck for the sake of a little revenge!"

"Oh, all right," Uthmar whispered back. "I don't get to act like Gunnar very often, that's all." Turning to Wufei, he quirked an eyebrow at the slender demon. "It's a good thing you had that gold on you! You haven't emptied your pockets, have you?"

"If you have," Royce said hurriedly, holding the coins out, "please--"

Wufei shook his head, looking after Yithar with a definite satisfied smirk on his face. "No," he said, "I have plenty more. Things are a lot more expensive where I come from." The smirk softened and widened into a genuine smile as he looked at Royce. "I usually use Krugerrands to buy weapons," he said softly. "This is the first time I've felt good about the use I put them to..."

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NOTE: [1] Ahfwan: Arabic for 'don't mention it'.

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