The thing is, he's Conrad's man, Conrad's friend, Conrad's compatriot. They've been inseparable since they were boys, fighting side-by-side, binding their wounds together, facing the horrors of prejudice and war -- linked by blood and temperament, sharing experiences that most men, human or demon, could not possibly imagine. Yozak thinks there's no finer man in the world - any world - than Sir Conrad Weller. Sure, he may officially be under the command of Gwendal von Walde, but Conrad's the friend of his heart, his most important person, and always will be. He loves the damn fellow! He'd lay down his life for him, knowing as he did so that Conrad willingly would do the same.
Thus, it's admittedly strange (and Yozak, ever pragmatic, cheerfully admits to strangeness, even beyond the occasional cross-dressing) when he comes down to the fencing yard one morning to find Conrad and Gwendal practicing their swordplay, and an idle wind picks up Gwendal's hair and whirls it into a blue-black cloud as he lunges and parries, feints and attacks, and Yozak stops dead in his tracks and thinks--
Yozak lets out his breath in a measured stream, willing his heart to stop pounding quite so fast. No. Ridiculous. Gwendal is not beautiful, he is severe, severe and unsmiling and harsh and terrifying and oh, dear Shinou, I want you, I want you right now.
A bolt of sensation strikes his loins. Yozak gasps. Mouth agape, he gawks at the two fighters, Conrad, his warm-hearted friend, Gwendal, his cool, grim commander. Brothers so alike and yet so different.
Suddenly the absurdity of it all crashes through him. Yozak collapses onto a tree stump, holding his sides, unable to fend off the gales of laughter that burst forth.
Choking, hiccuping, helpless to control himself, he looks up to find Conrad approaching, the smile on that handsome countenance indicating how much he wants to share in the joke. "You seem in good spirits this morning."
"You're easily distracted, Conrad," Gwendal growls, sheathing his sword. "Apparently we're done. I'm going to the stables." He pauses to glower in Yozak's direction. "I'm glad you're amused, Gurrier. There's a war going on, you know!" And with that he turns on his booted heel, departing with uniform flapping behind him, black hair trailing as if angry itself.
Oh, yes, Gwendal, I really, really want you.
Yozak can't do anything but collapse again into unquenchable laughter.
Conrad squats beside him. "So? Tell me what's so funny."
"Oh, Taichou," Yozak gasps. He clasps his dearest friend by the shoulder and wipes away his own tears of mirth. "It's nothing. Nothing at all." He turns once more to watch Gwendal stride away. "It's just that apparently your old pal Yozak has gone insane."
The headache that had been lurking behind Gwendal's eyes all day pulsed a little more sharply, and he squeezed the bridge of his nose to hold it at bay. Bad enough he had a mountain of paperwork to redo after His Majesty Yuuri had completed it -- badly -- the first time. And annoying enough that Wolfram was currently outside his window bellowing shrilly at the aforementioned Yuuri in a voice that stabbed Gwendal's skull like a dull blade. And just now he'd had to endure Gunter frothing at the mouth about something insignificant -- something to do with bear bees and Anissina and the kitchen staff and Greta's birthday cake, if he understood it correctly, not that he wanted to understand it, and it'd taken all his strength to force Gunter out of his office. To top it all off, it was the hottest day on record for Shin Makoku.
Gwendal slid a finger under his collar. His uniform was soaking and his hair clung wetly to his brow.
And now -- this utter ridiculousness!
Gwendal put down his pen carefully, and placed both hands on the desk, taking a deep breath before finally raising his eyes. Yes. Yozak Gurrier was still there, still sitting on the edge of his desk, still dressed in a maid's uniform. Not a hallucination, then.
Gwendal cleared his throat. "Gurrier," he said in a measured tone, "what exactly do you want?"
"Ah, captain," Yozak said, grinning broadly, and Gwendal was too tired to point out that he wasn't the fellow's captain, he wasn't a captain at all, in fact, he was a lord, and not to be spoken to so familiarly. "Captain, was wonderin' if you'd like to join me for a drink?"
"A drink." Perhaps he was going mad. It was possible, after all, what with the heat and the hysterics from Gunter and the high-pitched noise from Wolfram in the courtyard below. "You want me to have a drink. With you."
"Sure! It's a hot day...thought a nice cold ale might do us both good." Yozak shifted his position, flashing a bare muscular leg from under the frilly dress.
Gwendal's eye twitched. Damn the man -- why was he dressed this way? Gwendal couldn't remember assigning him an undercover operation that would require him to be in skirts. He cleared his throat again. "Why--"
But Yozak interrupted, standing up and leaning over the desk so that his cleavage -- or lack thereof -- loomed directly in Gwendal's sight. "So? Say yes! I'll buy the first round. Nice, cold drink'll set you right."
The uncontrollable fluttering of Gwendal's eyelid was beginning to annoy him. Every time he blinked Gurrier looked slightly different: obviously male and muscular, then oddly female in a largish sort of way, then rough, then almost pretty. The effect disturbed Gwendal's composure; no matter how hard he tried he couldn't quite get a fix on whether the master spy looked manly or feminine. "I, erm--"
"C'mon, captain. Live a little. It's hot in here and that paperwork'll wait."
He wanted to protest; he wanted to throw Gurrier -- whether he was a woman or a wolf in sheep's clothing -- out of the office. But instead Gwendal found himself standing, and then moving forward, and then he was outside the door and Gurrier was shutting it behind them, and the mad fellow had a grin on his face, and when Gwendal peered at him sideways he was really quite handsome...or pretty, depending on the angle, which Gwendal thought should disturb him more than it did.
And maybe it was just heat stroke, or maybe he'd gone mad himself, but after the third ale, Gwendal forgot to remember which.
And somewhat after that, when the heat didn't seem to affect him any more and he'd quite forgotten about Wolfram, Gunter, Anissina and Yuuri -- the whole lot of 'em! and he'd just found out why Gurrier liked wearing that damn dress -- well, by then it didn't really matter at all.
"Isn't it wonderful?" the dreamy-eyed maid cooed, clasping her hands in glee. "The news is all over the castle."
"Hadn't you heard?"
Gunter's long pale hair wafted slowly downward, as limp as his expression. "No...I hadn't," he sniffed. "And why should I? After all, what am I? Nothing! No one! I'm just a rejected, forgotten, overlooked, cast aside, unloved—" His greatcoat puddling about him, he sank to the corridor floor in abject despair, a sob catching in his throat. A clean square of linen materialized in front of him just as the tears began. "Thank you," he snuffled, grabbing the handkerchief from the maid, pressing it to his streaming eyes. "It's just that this takes me quite...quite...by surprise. I mean, Anissina was one thing, but I thought...he, I thought I, that we--aaah, Gwendal!"
"Please, Your Excellency, you mustn't take on so!" The girl patted him awkwardly on the shoulder and regarded him with alarm. "Perhaps it's all for the best, sir."
"For the best? Gwendal and...Yozak?" Gunter blew his nose loudly, but the tears kept streaking down his flushed cheeks.
"Oh, please don't cry! All I meant was, Yozak's a hearty fellow, and Lord von Walde can be a bit of a handful. You know him—"
"Intimately," moaned Gunter.
"Really?" The girl clapped her hands happily. "I knew it! I win the pool! Wait till I tell the others!"
Whatever else she said as she trotted off toward the kitchen was obliterated by Gunter's dramatic sobs.
"I don't believe it!"
"Trust me," Yuuri sighed, "I didn't want to believe it, either. But Murata saw them—"
"—behind the stables," continued Wolfram, hands gesturing wildly. "Lying in the grass and...doing things to each other." Beside him, Yuuri twitched. "What's your problem, Yuuri?"
"He wouldn't," Anissina said again, more firmly this time, folding her arms over her ample chest. "Gwendal wouldn’t!"
"I don't care what he says."
"But he's the Great Sage--"
"Gwendal wouldn't behave like that, not with Yozak, or anyone else."
"What about Gunter?" Wolfram asked. "I'm pretty sure they've—"
"Ehhh? Gunter too?" Yuuri's head whipped around. "What kind of place is this?"
"It's perfectly normal," snapped Wolfram, shooting him a speaking look. "They're both lords. But Yozak's beneath him—"
"That's not what Murata said," Yuuri offered, then turned scarlet and shuddered. "Oh, great. Now I've got that picture in my head."
"It can't be true," Anissina announced decisively, turning back to her experiment, a terrifying device with a suspicious-looking helmet and straps. Yuuri contemplated the position of the straps and shuddered again. "He wouldn't do that to me," Anissina muttered, her brow furrowing in a way oddly reminiscent of Gwendal himself. "He better not have done that to me." She picked up a bottle of sickly green liquid. "Or else."
"Okay, then," Yuuri said, backing away in alarm, grabbing a handful of Wolfram's tunic and dragging him along. "We'll be leaving now."
Anissina stood glaring at the machine until the two boys were halfway down the hall. Then with an angry shout she flung the flask against the wall.
"Yes, my lady," Dorcas confirmed, bowing deeply. "This morning, behind the stables. And, er, then again down by the lake. And once over by the—"
"Oh, dear," said Lady Cherie, her smile fading. "Poor Conrad."
"Did I hear someone call?"
Conrad stepped into the chamber with a nod to Dorcas and bent down to kiss Cherie's cheek, smiling affectionately. "Now, mother, what’s all this about 'poor Conrad?'"
"Oh, my dear, your heart must be broken." She reached up to pat his cheek. "What with your older brother stealing Yozak from you."
Conrad blinked once, twice, a third time – and then laughed aloud. "Yozak…and Gwendal? That's…well, that's the funniest thing I've heard in ages! Where did you get such a story?"
"It's true, Sir Conrad."
"Oh, come now," Conrad laughed, sitting down. "Someone's pulling your leg. Both of your legs."
"Dearest, it's all over the palace. They've been seen by the stables—"
"—and the lake, and once under that big tree above the gardens, and the cook caught them in the ice house – damned chilly place to do those sorts of things, I should think," Dorcas mused. "Apparently they don't seem to care who sees 'em."
"It's love!" Cherie threw herself back into the cushions, an expression of utter delight on her lovely face. "Right now they're in the first flush of passion, so of course they don't care who catches them together. I suppose I should have a word with Gwendal about modesty, though – the maids were quite scandalized by the size of his—"
"Mother!" The amusement had drained from Conrad's face. "I don't believe it. Yozak…after all these years! How could he…with Gwendal, and not–"
"Wait a moment, dear." Cherie sat up sharply, eyes wide open. "You mean you and Yozak…the two of you…you…never?" Conrad shook his head and dropped it into his hands. "But I thought… everyone thought…I mean, the two of you have been so close!"
"We are close, Mother. Just not that close. It's my fault – I never thought his interests lay in that direction."
"Really?" Dorcas interjected. "Even with all the dresses? "
"You're excused, Dorcas," Cherie said pointedly and Dorcas slunk out the door. Cherie moved to sit beside Conrad and flung her arms around him, hugging him tight. "Oh, my poor darling. Unrequited love! How wonderful!"
Conrad ran his fingers through his hair, a study in misery. "Mother. What am I to do?"
"Let's see…Yozak's broken your heart and your older brother has stolen the one you desire. Conrad," Cherie said, turning his face to hers, "there's only one thing you can do."
There's only one thing I can do, Gunter thought. Shall I drown myself or run on my sword?
"Gunter!" Anissina bolted into the corridor where Gunter sat wallowing in despair. "Just the one I wanted to see."
"Anissina?" There was a disturbance to his left and he turned his head. "Conrad?"
Conrad crashed through a door, a very determined look on his face. "Gunter. Anissina. Just the ones I wanted to see."
"Conrad." Anissina looked from one to the other. "So, you've both heard."
Conrad nodded. Gunter merely sniffed into the handkerchief, which had become quite sodden.
"As I see it," Anissina proclaimed, "there's only one thing to do."
Conrad nodded. "I agree."
"Er," said Gunter, confused. "What's that?"
"Well." She pulled Gunter upright and linked one arm in his, sliding her other arm around Conrad's. "I believe it's called 'revenge.'"
"Revenge," Conrad agreed.
"Revenge," Anissina repeated. "Tit for tat! Payback! What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander–"
"Ehh?" Gunter said, still quite perplexed. "Can you be more specific?"
Anissina smiled slyly and then planted her lips firmly against Gunter's, bestowing a scorching kiss. The hair on the back of his neck began to rise – an effect shared by another body part – and just when he thought he'd faint from lack of breath, Anissina pulled away, turning to Conrad and doing the same with him.
"Ahh," Gunter said, comprehending. "Revenge."
"Mm, yes," Conrad added as his lips parted from Anissina's in an audible smack. "I believe in Yuuri's world it's called a ménage a trois."
Somewhat later Gunter poked his head out from a tangle of limbs and clothing and pillows and blinked at Anissina, whose red hair was draped over his naked chest, and Conrad, whose head rested in Anissina's naked lap, and whose hand was still fondling Gunter's loins. All in all, he felt quite content. "So, do you think this revenge thing will fix the, ah, situation?"
"I've no idea," replied Conrad, "but I'm beginning to care less about it."
"Mm." Anissina slid up along Gunter's body, causing him to shiver. "As for me," she whispered into his ear, "I'm definitely feeling less tense."
"It's the strangest thing," Yozak said, moving to straddle Gwendal again. "Did you hear that moaning coming from Lady von Khrelnikov's chambers?"
"Hmph. No doubt Anissina's got some new infernal invention in there. She'll have to get someone else to test it – I'm done with that." He rolled them over so he was on top. "But I'm not done with you."
Yozak grinned sleepily. "Sounds good to me. Funny thing, though–"
"Mm, what is?"
"Could've sworn the moaning sounded like Lord von Kleist."
"Gunter?" Gwendal snorted. "Don't be ridiculous! You might as well say it sounded like my brother Conrad."
It comes from nowhere, a silver streak out of the darkness of the forest. Slashing through the air an inch from Gwendal's cheek, the arrow forces him back, sword sliding from his scabbard, heart thumping wildly, mind screaming the thought, at last.
One arrow becomes two, and then a dozen, and then hundreds, flying into the glade with a sound like a monstrous flock of birds. But birds do not attack with such deadly intent, at least no birds Gwendal knows, and birds' beaks cannot pierce armor as sharpened metal can. The whirring blends with shouts and cries as men are struck down.
With a rallying shout Gwendal clambers onto a boulder and takes the fight to the enemy, his sword slicing through one archer after another. He knocks them down before they can loose another shaft, moving through their lines with determination to reach the swordsmen beyond. He is filled with excitement, but not euphoria, for Gwendal has been a soldier many years and knows battle is neither glorious nor great. Still, battles must be fought, and every battle must be won.
The sound of arrows gives way to the clang of steel, the grunts and groans of fighters and the cries of the injured. Gwendal's troops are strong and skilled, and they, too have made their way through the archers to engage hand-to-hand and sword to sword with the enemy. Success is close; Gwendal feels it, but dares not relax until the enemy submits.
One archer remains before him, not a dozen steps away, a man clad all in black with a scar across his cheek, a face that has seen many battlefields. The man catches sight of Gwendal and his eyes glitter with hatred. He raises his bow, readies an arrow. Gwendal tries to push past two enemy swordsmen so he may strike the archer before he can let fly the arrow, but the soldiers hold his arms fast, forcing him back against a tree. There is nowhere to go but forward, but they’ve left him no opening. Gwendal struggles, but they hold him securely, his body open to the archer, a perfect target.
"Die, Mazoku!" The archer's guttural voice is triumphant. Dark laughter erupts from him as he shoots.
Gwendal braces for the blow but none comes. Instead, there is a blur before his eyes, and then an abrupt intake of breath and a loud thump as something heavy hits the dirt. His eyes follow the sound. The men holding him grunt with surprise and loosen their grip, so he takes the opportunity to toss them aside, because they are nothing to him now.
Yozak lies before him, the bright stain of blood on his tunic, the arrow meant for Gwendal in his breast.
Gwendal goes mad.
The soldier to his left falls, a gash to his stomach, and lies screaming in pain. Gwendal silences him. The soldier to the right gawks at the bloody mess and tries to flee, but Gwendal catches him a blow to the neck. The blow is fatal, but Gwendal drives his sword through the man's heart anyway.
He turns. Reason has fled. Through his madness his eyes seek the archer, whose scarred face is no longer split in a triumphant grin. The man has caught the expression on Gwendal's face, and he backs up a step, and then another, preparing to run, the bow coming up in his shaky hand. Gwendal runs him through before the arrow leaves the quiver.
It's not enough. Gwendal strikes him again and again. The archer screams in fear and pain, until he can no longer utter a sound. And still Gwendal's fury rages on until the corpse lies in pieces on the ground. His bloody hands reach toward the earth, raising it in jagged peaks; his voice cries out in a bellow of fury and despair. Then, and only then, surrounded by blood and destruction, Gwendal drops his sword.
He whirls, the red mist before his eyes clearing.
"Though I'd prefer not to be mourned before I'm dead, if it's all the same to you." Yozak has propped himself up against a rock, the arrow still protruding from his body – his shoulder, not his chest, as it first appeared, but still all too close to his heart. Lines of pain are deep on his face. "Want to give me a hand taking this thing out?"
"Of course, I – " Confused by emotions he cannot define, Lord Gwendal von Walde lowers himself before the only commoner in the kingdom with the power to bring him to his knees. His voice is rough; his hands, bent to the task of removing the arrow, shake a little despite his care. "You – what were you thinking? This was meant for me."
"What? And let you have all the fun?"
"Be serious. Why did you—"
"Who knows? Ouch, careful there."
"Hold still." Gwendal pulls the arrow free at last, wincing himself as Yozak hisses in pain "Sorry." He presses his folded scarf to the wound, holds it in place. "Sorry."
"'S all right," Yozak grunts, panting a little. Gwendal lowers him to the ground, folds his greatcoat to form a pillow beneath Yozak's head. His hand is still pressed to Yozak's chest, and he can feel the beat of Yozak's heart, the blood throbbing there, strong and sure. A wickedly impertinent smile spreads across Yozak's face. "Me throwing myself in front of arrows…you chopping people up in revenge…strange way for two grown men to behave. It's a little crazy, ya know?"
"Quiet," Gwendal growls. "I'm going to call a medic."
"In a minute." Yozak reaches up to touch Gwendal's face, and Gwendal flushes. "Ah. Thought so. You know what it all means, don'tcha?"
"Quiet," Gwendal murmurs again, but makes no move to go.
"I guess it really is love, huh, captain?"
"Shut up, Yozak," Gwendal rasps, but his own heart is pounding as if it would free itself from his body and soar upward. And much as he wants to frown he can't stop the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Shut up, shut up, shut up."
Still Crazy After All These Years
"Those were crazy, crazy times," Greta concluded, closing the book, "but that's how peace finally came to the demon tribe and the humans."
"But Mama…" The little girl at Greta's feet scrunched up her face in confusion."I don't unnerstand. Uncle Gunter told us that Grandpa Yuuri brought peace to all of us."
"Well, Juju-chan, that's true, too. Grandpa Yuuri was the first one who told us we should all live together, humans and Mazoku alike. But just like in the story, it wasn't until your Uncle Gwendal married Uncle Yozak that everyone on both sides realized our two peoples should stop fighting each other and live in peace."
Greta sighed. "You're full of questions today, aren't you, Julia?" She laughed and ruffled her daughter's golden hair. "You know your Uncle Gwendal – he's a very gruff man, isn't he?"
"He sure is," Julia answered. "He frowns a lot. An' he has a really loud voice!"
"He thcareth me," admitted the little boy next to her, though the look in his dark eyes was anything but frightened.
Greta bent down to push the long black bangs out of her son's eyes. "Oh, Sho-chan, sweetheart, don't let Uncle Gwennie frighten you. He's very sweet. He made all those stuffed animals for you, didn't he?"
"I gueth tho." Shori picked up the well-loved stuffed animal beside him and squeezed it tight. "I like thith piggy he made me."
"It's a kitty, but never mind, dear. What I meant was, when people saw how a gruff demon like Lord Gwendal von Walde and a tough half-human commoner like Yozak Gurrier could fall in love and marry – and be so very happy – they started to think maybe they'd been crazy to fight all this time. They began to say to themselves, 'if it's all right for those two to be together, who are so very different, maybe it would be all right for us all to be friends.' And slowly things began to change. Do you understand now?"
"Yes, Mama, I understand," said Julia, nodding. "But Shori's only a baby, so he won't."
"'M not a baby!"
"What's all the noise in there, you little monsters?!"
"It's nothing, Lindsay," Greta called into the hallway. "We were just having story time. Grandpa Yuuri and Grandfather Wolfram brought over a new history storybook, and I was reading it to the children."
Lindsay poked his head into the bedroom. "Does it say anything about the brilliant von Wincott family?"
"I'm certain it does, Lindsay," Greta said, smiling at her husband. "We haven't gotten that far yet. But don't worry – we all know how proud you are of your family history."
"Yeth, Daddy!" shrieked Shori. "Tell uth again about how you made Uncle Thnow-Gunter fight Aunt Anissina!"
"Never mind that." Greta leaned down to kiss her son on the nose. "I think it's time for bed."
"Oh no, Mama!" Julia shook her head vigorously. "I want to hear again about Aunt Anissina's inventions. And how she and Uncle Gunter ended up married to each other!"
"Er, I think that's a story for when you're older," her mother murmured, blushing slightly. "Much, much older."
Her husband rolled his eyes. "I'd like to hear that story, too. I'm not sure I understand that relationship myself."
"Don't you, dear? I think they're perfect together. Gunter got someone to help him over his broken heart and Anissina finally got someone to assist with her inventions on a permanent basis."
"That reminds me," mused Lindsay. "Don't you think Gunter's looking a pale lately?"
"Hmm. Hard to tell."
Greta put down the book and prepared to stand, but her son's tiny hand clutched at her skirts. "What is it, Shori?"
"Um…when is Uncle Big-Shori coming to vithit again? I mith him. He bringth me really good prethenth from Earth."
"He brings everybody presents, silly! You mustn't be greedy, Shori," lectured Julia with all the superiority of an older sister.
"Now, children. Uncle Shori is busy being the Maou of Earth, and besides, you know he and Uncle Conrad are still on their honeymoon."
"Whatth a 'honeymoon,' Mama?"
"It's a happy ending," Greta said, as Lindsay's arms slid about her neck. She turned her face upward for a kiss. "It's when two people find each other, and love each other, and get to live happily ever after."
"Like Uncle Gwendal and Uncle Yozak?"
"Yes, Julia," smiled Greta. "Exactly like Gwendal and Yozak."
Across the kingdom, deep inside the halls of Covenant Castle, two men suddenly sneezed quite loudly.
"Huh. That was weird. Do you feel like you're catching a cold?" The burly red-haired man leaned over to peer at his husband.
"Probably just someone talking about us," huffed Gwendal. "Don't be an old woman, Yozak."
"Ohhhh? But you told me you like it when I dress up like—"
"Just shut up and go to sleep." Gwendal rubbed his nose and punched his pillow. "My old bones are tired."
"'Old' bones? Please. I bet I know one old bone that's not quite ready for sleep." Slowly Yozak pulled back the covers, a lusty smirk on his face. "Aha! Just as I thought."
"Great Shinou," muttered Gwendal, making a face but obeying. "Remind me again why it is I put up with you?"
"Come here, cap'n," Yozak drawled, "and I'll show you."