Even the most downtrodden servant was entitled, under the laws of Goldeagle, to a little time off, and not even Lord Mandelson quite dared to break that tradition. Every six days, therefore, while Lord Mandelson and his apprentices were out, first at the River Blessing ceremony and then breaking bread with their fellows in the great feast which always followed the Speaker's peroration, Nick was permitted a half-day's free time to do with as he wished. As long as he was back in time to clean the kitchen, set the fire in the hearth and light the great range in the early hours of the morning, no-one cared where the household drudge went or what he did with his precious few hours of freedom.
In that treasured free time Nick would roam far. He had grown up wandering the woods and hills outside the town and had many favourite places discovered in those long-ago happy times. Sometimes he would go down to the harbour to watch the great merchant ships and galleys loading and unloading, enjoying the sounds of the many languages spoken by the crewmen. A strange ship might be in, from some land new to Nick, and those would be a special treat. Nick would drink in the sound of the language and study the appearance and manner of the traders, making guesses about the land and the society from whence they had come and marvelling at the exotic goods they had brought with them.
At other times Nick recognised the speech of visiting ships as belonging to one of the many trading tongues which his guardian had insisted he learn. Then he might even attempt a few words with the friendliest-looking crewmen from those ships, attempting to refresh his knowledge, and the sailors thus addressed would often respond, taking pleasure in this stranger's attempts to speak to them in their own language. Oft-times, taking the boy for a beggar, they would proffer a few coins, or a heel of bread and lump of cheese or salt beef - a bounty which Nick would politely refuse unless he could do some small service in return.
As time passed his words became less stumbling and gave rise to less laughter and more easy gossip, until Nick felt that he could almost - almost - count one or two of the more frequent visitors as... friends? Certainly not unfriends, and perhaps more than acquaintances, easing, if only by a very little, Nick's aching loneliness. One or two of the small traders at the dockside also learned to recognise the leggy, ragged youth who hung about the quays, and employed him on small tasks - running messages, or translating for foreign sailors who wished to bargain over some trinket or keepsake. Any coin earned thus would be rapidly spent on food to eke out the sparse rations that were otherwise all that came Nick's way, and the jabber of foreign tongues and rapid-fire bargaining filled another kind of hunger, for excitement and knowledge and adventure. And then Nick would wander home through the busy, crowded alleyways and streets, past the bazaars and the markets, with a full stomach and a head full of strangeness and colour and dreams of far away.
In the summer, however, Nick's most favourite place of all was a secluded pond deep in the forest outside the town. The long daylight hours meant that he had time to get there and back, and the deep pool, fed by a clear stream which chuckled its way over many-coloured stones to both feed and drain the wide, sky-reflecting expanse, was perfect for swimming in, for bathing, or for simply sitting by and dreaming.
Others visited the pool, which was close to the border with - if not actually in - Blueforest territory, but Nick rarely saw them, and gradually fell into the habit of thinking of the pool as his alone.
So it came as a shock when, on a sunny summer's day some years after his life changed so catastrophically, Nick found 'his' pool occupied.
He was threading his way through the trees and bushes that bordered the stretch of clear water when he heard splashing, and then a shout of laughter and the merry sound of two male voices joking and teasing.
Moving with even more care, Nick ducked into the cover of the bushes and then carefully parted the leafy branches to see who had invaded his refuge.
On the far side of the pond two richly-harnessed horses were tethered, grazing peacefully on the rich grass of the small meadow that bordered the stretch of water there, while kneeling on the very bank of the pond a man clothed in the extravagant style of the Blueforest Court - all tight lacing and intricately-threaded embroidery, colourful silk stockings and elaborately-worked cuffs - was engaged in laying out a generous array of meats and pastries on a dazzling white cloth. While sliding smoothly through the water, powerful limbs cutting the surface with skill and muscled ease...
Nick's mouth went dry and he flushed hot from head to toe as the swimmer stood up with a vigorous shake of his head, sending droplets flying in a silver spray before he waded ashore, sweeping the water from his lightly-tanned torso with impatient sweeps of his hands. From his hiding place Nick had a perfect view of the stranger's compact, muscled body, smooth skin, and long, powerful legs, and as he watched the water drip from the smooth dark hair to run so intriguingly down the other's spine he found himself swallowing hard and then biting down hard on his lip to stop himself groaning out loud. He wanted to - to touch, to run his hands across that beautiful skin, to feel the other's body against his -
- Then a bird took flight from the trees behind Nick and the stranger turned to look in his direction as he carelessly rubbed himself dry, and Nick, safe in his concealment, bit back a gasp as he saw the other man's face for the first time. Such wonderful eyes - such a dark shade of blue, and so large and expressive that they dominated the handsome, good-humoured countenance...
Ohh, he's so beautiful! Who is he -
Then the man on the bank spoke, and Nick's newly awakened heart plummeted into despair.
"Come and eat, my Prince, and I hope you have a hearty appetite today!"
The man pulling on old and well-worn hunting garments made some bantering reply to 'George' but Nick did not hear it, lost in misery as he was. This must be the young heir to the Duchy of Blueforest, the adopted grandson of the Iron Lady who had ruled the rich fiefdom with steely efficiency, brooking no opposition, for as long as Nick could remember. The prince had but recently returned from his years of schooling abroad, Nick recalled now, and there had been much talk in Lord Mandelson's study of the Duchess's search for a suitable consort for her grandson, and the number of rich balls and revels that this campaign was likely to engender.
Not only a handsome prince, of a social sphere so far above Nick's that he might as well be from the stars, but one looking for a woman to partner him...
Still, he and his friend George looked very easy together, didn't they?
Don't be foolish, Nick! Nick castigated himself, watching Prince David fling himself down on the grass next to the black-haired, pale but handsome George and make a hearty meal, laughing and joking with his friend all the while. Every change in expression, every laugh and easy gesture sent another shaft of yearning to pierce him through. Even if he was, or - or is - one for men rather than women, he's not for you. Not for Cindernick the Wanderers' brat...
...but oh! He's so beautiful!
While Nick watched, and yearned, Prince David and his aide-de-camp Lord Osborne relaxed on the soft grass, chatting idly and eating heartily of the generous picnic lunch which George had persuaded out of the palace cooks that morning. Eventually even the prince's appetite was satisfied and he lay back with a sigh of repletion to stare up at the limitless blue above him, one hand carelessly rubbing up and down George's thigh much in the manner of a man with a favourite hunting dog - as George roundly informed him.
Grinning, David rolled over and stared up at his friend, crinkling his eyes against the sun.
"You should be flattered," he said sententiously, "I don't think of just anyone as my favourite hunting dog, you know - ow! Peace, George! Peace! Not after that meal, I pray you - "
Mollified at the prince's piteous howls, George ceased his vigorous tickling and lay down next to his friend. After a few seconds' silence, David said reflectively, "I suppose I will have to stop doing this when I'm married."
"Why? I can't see you picking a consort who doesn't enjoy riding and outdoor pursuits as much as you do. Where would be the point in that? The one you marry should be your partner in all things, not just in governing the duchy."
"I know," sighed the prince. "The trouble is... Oh, hang it, George, I can't see myself with any of the women Grandmother has found for me! They're intelligent enough, and beautiful, I suppose, and most of them possess at least something approaching a sense of humour, but -"
"- They're none of them The One."
"No," agreed David, grateful for his friend's understanding. "They're none of them The One." Then his mood lightened, and he grinned, refusing to remain downhearted for long. "The only good thing that's come out of this whole ridiculous pageant is that at least you've found your One! When are you and the Lady Frances going to stop dancing around each other and do the decent thing?"
George blushed hotly, much to David's delight, and stammered something incomprehensible. Then David's smile disappeared as a few words emerged from the stuttering.
“I, er... I can't, I mean... until you're betrothed - that is, Her Grace said -”
All the easy humour vanished from David's face and steely eyes bored into George's. “All right, George, what has my grandmother to do with you and Lady Frances?”
George looked away.
“I wasn't going to tell you, there's far too much being demanded of you as it is.” He took a deep breath.
“Lady Frances was a ward of the Court - her mother was one of Her Grace's ladies-in-waiting - and that means that even though she's now of age she must still have Her Grace's permission to marry. Her Grace has informed me that as your... aide, I cannot in conscience marry until you are also committed to, to...” George's mouth twisted, “'that happy state', as she put it.”
He looked up at his friend's face, wincing at the gathering fury so clearly visible. “Please, David, don't be angry!” George begged. “She's your grandmother, of course she wants you settled and, and happy -”
“Oh, yes, she wants me happy - happily dancing to her tune! Grandmother always knows what's best, for everybody!”
Furious, David had flung himself to his feet and was marching up and down, his hands vigorously chopping at the air as his mounting frustrations finally found relief in speech.
“Well, what if I don't agree? What if I want to decide where my life's going, what if I want to choose my life partner for myself? What if I don't want some pert, pretty princess or arrogant noble's brat, what if I want someone different - a, a merchant's daughter or a farmer's -”
George had caught him up but it wasn't the hand on his sleeve which stopped the prince in mid-tirade. It was George's interruption. That single word, dropped into his flood of speech like a stone into a flowing stream. And just like that stone it broke the current, smashing the whole shape of his thoughts, breaking it apart and reforming it into something very different...
Suddenly all David's anger was gone, swallowed up by the easing of a tension he hadn't even known he was feeling. He exhaled a long sigh of relief.
“So you know.”
His friend's dark eyes were full of understanding. “My prince, I've known you since I was breeched. We shared the same nursery, the same nannies, and the same arms tutors, and when you were appointed heir I was honoured to be named as your aide. I think I've always known. Probably before you did. Did you really have no inkling until university?”
"I'd wondered," David admitted. "When I found myself watching the stable lads rather than ogling the maids, and dreaming about some of the younger knights... But it didn't seem all that important compared to keeping up with all that was expected of me once I was nominated and accepted as Heir. There was so much to learn, to fulfil Grandmother's expectations! Diplomacy and Imperial court etiquette from Lord Carrington... arithmetickal arts, history and geography from Chancellor Lamont... trying to master that damnable double-sword style that Lord Heseltine is so fond of... learning to hunt, and shoot, and dance, and converse, and - and - well, but you know all that, George. I didn't really have much time to think about personal matters until I attended Oxenforde, where there was at least a little time and space to give to my own concerns - and I had to fight hard even for that! It was only because Grandmother studied there that the Central Council of Officiates let me go at all!"
"I know," said George soothingly, "Of course I know, my Prince. They have always asked so much of you, and you have always worked hard to accomplish everything that was asked. Personally I give daily thanks that I am of rather less exalted stock, and extremely unlikely ever to be considered for nomination. I am truly grateful that there are so many direct descendants of the Blood Royal that the CCO felt no need to cast its nets beyond the main Torai Bloodline when selecting an Heir - unlike in Her Grace's day!”
"When did you first suspect, then?" David questioned, his anger fading as curiosity took its place. Many people underestimated Osborne, seeing only the puppy-soft features and limpid dark eyes, but David was not one of them. David knew that along with his complete loyalty to David, his friend was possessed of a quick brain and a keen insight into the hearts of others.
George laughed. "I think your attack of calf-love for Sir Blair of Sedge's Field was something of a giveaway. I still vividly recall the way you followed our then Court Champion around like a lovesick puppy! Of course, it's almost obligatory for new-made squires to fall in love with their knights, but in your case it was a little more than that.”
David smiled reminiscently. “It was as violent as it was short-lived,” he agreed. “But - Lord, George! What did I ever see in him! A man so puffed up in his own consequence...”
“Competence,” retorted his friend. “You've always admired competence, and Sir Blair truly was almost as good as he believed himself to be. Otherwise your grandmother would never have appointed him Ambassador to the Imperial Court. But, my prince -” George was abruptly serious, “If you desire men, why have you not informed Her Grace? I am sure she would be delighted at the sudden increase in the number of potential partners!
“Besides,” he added mischievously, “It will make determining the guest list for the Midsummer Festival so much easier! Her Grace can simply invite everyone of marriageable age!”
David groaned, covering his eyes with one neat, long-fingered hand. “I know! Lord, George, don't remind me! That's why I've been delaying telling her! I have visions of Grandmother lining them all up, girls on the left, boys on the right, and expecting me to march down between them and pick someone out like a farmer at market buying a prize animal! Damn and blast it, why can't I find my own consort?”
The prince's language was deteriorating, always a sign that he was losing his composure, and George set himself to soothe.
“I'm sure she won't be quite that, um... insistent,” he said gently. “Your grandmother only wants you settled and happy, my prince. Don't forget she met her own future consort at a Midsummer Festival! It's only natural that she hopes you will do the same. I'm sure she won't expect you to pick someone out there and then - just find someone, perhaps more than one, whom you find interesting and, well, congenial. After all, that was what she did - although they met at the Festival, he was but a lowly Guildmaster, and of the Thatcher's Guild at that, and Her Grace had no thought of marrying him then and there! That came later...
“I am sure therefore that all she will be hoping for is that you find a few young people who you will want to get to know a little better. No more than that! Surely that's not such an ordeal? You love to meet new people, and you love balls and parties and picnics. Why not simply allow yourself to enjoy the events, dance and fence and ride and hunt - all the things you love to do - and see what happens? Her Grace would never force you to take a consort you find unpleasant, whether that consort be male or female. ”
David was nodding. “I know,” he sighed. “I know...”
Seeing his friend's concerned frown, he made himself smile in reassurance. “It's all right, George. Really. You're absolutely correct - as usual!" he added mischievously. George shook his head in mock reproof, and David grinned at him before continuing seriously,
"I must try to forget Grandmother's plans for me, or at least put them to the back of my mind. If I can do that, I am sure that I will enjoy this Midsummer Festival almost as much as I've enjoyed all the others I've attended - especially if I let Grandmother know that she's been looking in the wrong place for prospective partners for me all this time!
“Come along -” suddenly alight with energy, the prince made for the remains of their picnic, “Let's get all this packed away and go home. I have to request an audience with my grandmother before they finalise the guest list for the Festival!”
Still hidden behind the bushes at the edge of the pond, Nick watched the two men ride away in the direction of the Castle and town of Torai, Blueforest's ducal seat, then he cautiously emerged from cover. When he realised that he was still looking longingly after them - or more precisely, after the prince - he shook his head irritably at himself and hastened round the pond to the small stretch of grassy meadow where the two nobles had picnicked.
Once there he found himself kneeling where the prince had lain, brushing one hand hesitantly across the flattened grass.
It was here. Just... here. He was lying right there -
Suddenly waking to what he was doing, Nick shot to his feet, castigating himself for his pathetic behaviour. Swooning over a handsome face like some romantic, lovesick poet! Fool! Idiot! The prince didn't even know he existed!
Impatiently stripping off his ragged shirt and breeches, Nick ran three steps forward and threw himself into the clear water in a long, shallow dive which took him away from the shallows. Coming to the surface he began to swim the length of the pond and back, arms cutting the water with brisk efficiency. Head down, feet threshing, Nick tried to push everything from his brain, concentrating only on swimming himself into exhaustion, too tired to think, or dream, or want.
When he pulled himself up and out of the pond, however, breathing hard, muscles trembling with overuse, he realised to his chagrin that it had all been to no avail. David was still at the forefront of his thoughts; that pull, that desperate longing, was still there. But it was useless, wasn't it? As he had already told himself, the prince did not know he existed, and even if he did - if he should attend one of Lord Mandelson's parties, say, or encounter Nick when he was out hunting - what would Nick be to him? Some anonymous peasant boy or beggar, a halfwitted kitchen drudge, that was all. No-one that the prince could have any desire to meet, or have as a friend... or lover. No. The best thing for Nick to do would be to forget the prince, as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. Dismiss him from his thoughts - forget him, before this ridiculous, pathetic yearning made his already difficult life impossibly hard...
But even as he thought these eminently sensible, common-sense thoughts, Nick knew that he could not do it. That the moment he'd seen Prince David his heart had flown out of his chest and lodged - will he, nill he - with that of the prince. David, though he knew it not, now possessed the heart, loyalty and love of a young Goldeagle scullery boy, and would hold them for the rest of Nick's life.
When a Wanderer lad or lass gave their heart, it was for ever. That was the blessing, and the curse, of Nick's blood.