"Boy! Skivvy! Dammit, where is that lazy, useless lump! CinderNick! Where - well, finally!"
Nick ran into Alastair's room, to be greeted with a vigorous box on the ear and a furious tirade, the gist of which was that when Alastair required his services, pathetic as they were, he required them now, that minute, "- not when you feel like it, ashface! Understand?"
Head ringing from Alastair's blow, Nick recovered his balance, muttering his acknowledgment without attempting to explain that he had been helping to wrestle Charles into his magnificent new ball outfit. The pale blue watered satin jacket and breeches, cut and sewn to the very latest Blueforest Court fashion, was so precisely tailored that it had taken the combined efforts of Nick and Burnham, the journeymen's valet, to get the jacket on over Charles' broad shoulders. Over that had gone the billowing folds of Charles' blue-and-gold embroidered domino, while his mask, made to cover only the upper half of his face, was all gold with pale blue trim. Privately Nick considered the gold embroidery and ornamentation overdone, but it did suit Charles' florid good looks.
Alastair gestured impatiently at the new jacket of forest green satin, thick with silver embroidery, which completed his own ball dress. He was already wearing the thin, tight-fitting satin knee breeches of a matching forest green, and silk stockings of a delicate cream to match the shade of his shirt, also of silk, which had falls of intricate lace at the neck and wrists.
Nick helped to wrestle him into the jacket - not quite as hard a task as it had been with Charles - and stood back, breathing hard from the exertion. Alastair shook out the lace at his wrists and arranged the frothy fall at his neck, then turned to consider his reflection in the long mirror, with its uncannily perfect reflection, which Lord Mandelson had added to the room when Alastair had taken possession. The tall journeyman turned and twisted, examining his appearance with a coldly appraising eye, and Nick sighed a little in admiration at the fine clothes, and the brave appearance Alastair made in them.
"Adequate, I suppose," Alastair murmured, collecting the loosely-cut fall of watered green silk that made up his domino and checking that his silver festival mask was with it. Then his glance shifted to catch Nick's in the mirror before the other could look away, and a gleam of malice entered his eyes. "So, you like my clothes, do you, Ashface? Do you think you'd make a handsome display in them? You - the scullery boy?"
He gave a brief, harsh bark of laughter as Nick flushed and looked away. "What a sight that would be - muck and ashes and cinders all over this fine outfit, and a stammering fool inside it! It would be the joke of the evening - perhaps we should find you some clothes - and bring you along to provide the entertainment!"
Throwing his head back, he laughed even harder as Nick, stammering his denial of any desire to wear such finery - a denial which sounded unconvincing even to his own ears - began to back out of the room, his face burning.
"What is this unseemly noise? Campbell, are you ready -" Lord Mandelson's smooth tones took on a cutting edge as he appeared in his usual silent manner at the door, resplendent in deep crimson trimmed with gold and with his domino already flung about his shoulders.
“Ah, the scullery boy. I might have known.” His voice assumed a long-suffering note. “Really, boy, one would think that one of your lowly status would appreciate the privilege of seeing your masters dress for such an important social occasion. But no... perhaps it was too much to hope for in one of such tainted blood and churlish disposition. Be off with you, back to the scullery where you belong! I have no doubt that Goodman Balls has many tasks to set you before he and the others of the household attend the Servants' Ball! Such a generous gesture from Her Grace, but then, those of Blueforest have always been most aware of their obligations to their inferiors. Such a generous House...”
There was a thread of sarcasm running beneath Mandelson's words at all times, but it seemed stronger all of a sudden, and despite his hurt at his master's words - and his self-directed anger at letting them affect him - Nick was sure he caught an exchange of glances between the lord and his journeyman. A swift, glinting glance which held knowledge, excitement... satisfaction? Anticipation? Something of all those, Nick decided as he retreated hastily to the kitchen, wondering what it all signified.
His ponderings did not last long, however, for in the kitchen the cook was awaiting him - none too patiently. And for one of Balls's intemperate disposition, that meant an immediate clout about the head for Nick, strong enough to knock him sprawling, and a furious tirade on the scullery boy's many faults of character before detailing the many tasks Nick was to finish while Balls was escorting his consort, the housekeeper Madam Cooper, to the Servants' Ball. Since Bryant the butler, Madam Cooper, and even Valet Burnham had already given Nick their own lists of tasks they required him to complete before their return on the morrow, Nick knew he would get little sleep that night.
Perhaps it was as well, though, he reflected resignedly as he began on his tasks, sore and aching from the chef's chastisement. With so much to do, surely he would have little time to think of the grand festivities? Of the fine food and magnificent clothes, the wonderful music and dancing and games, and everyone having so much fun...
… and Prince David. What would he be doing over the next few weeks, Nick wondered, as he scrubbed and polished and cleaned. Would he show off his horsemanship in the tourneys? Or take part in the light-hearted sporting competitions that were such a feature of the Midsummer celebrations? Or perhaps he would spend his time dancing with some young man who would strike his fancy, or take his turn at the archery butts, or...
… it wasn't until the black-and-white tiles of the entrance hall blurred before his eyes and he felt a warm drop of liquid run down his cheek to fall on the bony, calloused hands engaged in polishing those tiles to a mirror-like gloss that Nick realised he was crying. Quietly, hopelessly, the tears fell, and Nick sat back on his heels and scrubbed fiercely at his cheeks, trying to stop the unsteady whimpers that were trying to escape from the tight hollowness in his chest. What good were tears, after all?
But - Oh, he would so have loved to go! To see David, if only from a distance - to wear fine clothes, and dance, and talk, and play... to be, once again, if only for a night... someone. To be Nick, merchant's ward and apprentice, not Cindernick the halfwit pot boy and Wanderer brat...
Smearing the back of his hand across his eyes, Nick hoisted his cleaning gear back to the scullery. He dashed some cold water on his aching face and burning eyes and with a leaden heart turned to view the vegetables that the cook had ordered him to peel, chop and prepare for the following day's meals.
“Ah, no...” he whispered in dismay. There were so many of them!
Nick stared at the mounds of roots, the piles of green-leafed vegetables and the baskets of fruit and bit his lip. He would never be able to prepare all this, and if he didn't - Nick's shoulders twitched, as if he could already feel the cook's heavy stick laying about them. Or maybe Balls would ask Butler Bryant to give him a proper beating, with that evil knotted rope of his, or, or even, if he was really unlucky, get Chief Groom Brown to take a horsewhip to him...
Nick set his jaw. So he might not be able to complete all the tasks laid out for him - it made no difference. He'd do as much as he could, as much as anyone could. At least, then, he'd know that he'd done his best. It would make no difference to his masters, but - it would mean something to him!
Grimly he filled the largest pot with fresh cold water, took it across to the biggest pile of vegetables, and folding down onto his heels, began peeling and slicing in earnest. He was almost glad, somewhere in the nethermost reaches of his thoughts, that he would be working his hardest tonight of all nights. There would be little chance to let his mind go wandering northwards, to the magnificent castle, to all the wonderful festivities going on there... and to Prince David.
“Dear me, have I come to the wrong house? Awfully sorry, must have taken a wrong turn at -”
Blinking, Nick lifted his head at the light tenor voice and stared at the slim man in the strangely cut, light coloured suit, standing in the centre of the kitchen and staring around with arched eyebrows and a confused expression on his long face.
“Well, this is a problem! I could have sworn I remembered the way...” the stranger chattered on as Nick came to his feet and tried to find his voice.
“May I... may I help you, sir? Whose household are you seeking?”
The stranger's eyebrows rose at Nick's carefully-courteous enquiry, and the man's confused, slightly harried expression melted into a quick smile. “Why, my friend Ashdown's, of course! It's his ward's coming-of-age this Midsummer, you know, and I promised Paddy faithfully that I'd drop by and... Dear me, what's the matter, my boy?”
For Nick had found to his horror that hearing his guardian's name so unexpectedly had struck straight to his heart, and his eyes had filled with tears that were threatening to spill over right under this stranger's gaze – biting down hard on his treacherously-quivering lip, Nick looked hastily down at the floor and took a couple of deep, would-be controlling breaths.
“I'm sorry, sir,” he said eventually, fighting to keep his voice steady, “This is – or was – Master Ashdown's residence, but – but Master Ashdown is,” fiercely Nick swallowed against the dreadful lump in his throat, “Master Ashdown is... dead. This house now belongs to – to... his cousin and heir.”
Some deep, unnamed instinct prevented Nick saying Lord Mandelson's name aloud. Wizards could hear their name spoken from many miles away and listen in to what was said about them, or so it was said; Nick had no desire to test that assertion for himself.
The stranger's face was pale and shocked. “Paddy... dead? Surely I'm not so late as that? I know you mortals are short-lived, but -” sighing, he shook his head, then fixed Nick with a sharp gaze, contradicting the vague meanderings of his speech as Nick attempted to explain.
“Lost at sea? Master Merchant Ashdown, who has friends among the merpeople and has sailed all the world's oceans in his time? Goodness me! No, no, the idea is preposterous. Preposterous!”
Vigorously the stranger shook his head, displacing his thin, fine hair to reveal slim ears that possessed a slight but definite point at their tips, and Nick's shoulders straightened a little. Why, this was a Fae! His guardian had had one of the Twilight Folk for a friend! A Fae would be a far better judge of his guardian's fate than any town gossip – and a Fae, moreover, would be largely immune even to a wizard of Lord Mandelson's powers.
“You mark my words, young human, your Master Ashdown will return – probably when you least expect him. That's his way,” the Fae was chattering on, and Nick nodded slowly, the small, tentative hope that he had held to for so long no longer quite so small or so tentative. His guardian might yet return! He could – he would – still hope, he vowed silently.
“In the meantime,” the Fae was continuing, in that odd, discursive way of his, “Can you tell me where I might find Master Ashdown's young ward? I promised Paddy, you know, that I'd drop by. Out at play, is he? I've noticed that young humans seem to enjoy that sort of thing.”
Nick hung his head, his face burning, and muttered a reply that was inaudible even to his own ears.
“What was that?” queried the stranger sharply, his gaze suddenly sharp and acutely intelligent.
“I – I am Master Ashdown's ward. At, at least – I was... Now I'm the, the pot boy.” Nick stared at his bare, grimy feet. It sounded ridiculous, he thought dismally. Why should this Fae, who by his own admission did not have much knowledge or understanding of humans, believe a nameless, ragged servant boy?
“They... said Master Ash – Master Ashdown indulged me, gave me inflated ideas above my,” Nick swallowed, “Above my... station. That I wasn't worth the time and effort of training as a merchant's apprentice, as I was bound to fail... that I wasn't worth anything, and was lucky to be – to be kept on as a servant, and should be thankful for it.
“Because I am of the Wandering Folk.”
“Well that is uncommonly dense, even for humans!” was the brisk retort, and one long-fingered hand pushed Nick's stubborn chin up until he was forced to meet a pair of kind brown eyes.
“Master Ashdown thought a great deal of you, my boy. He loved you dearly, of course – that hardly needs mentioning – but he also believed in you. 'Mark my words,' he used to say, 'My ward will go far. I long for the day when I see him spread his wings! He'll fly high, that lad!'”
Nick choked, his eyes spilling over as the pain he had carried for so long broke loose, and feeling the Fae's arms close about him, he buried his head in his godfather's shoulder and wept. Harsh, difficult sobs that had long been held under rigid control finally tore themselves free in great gasps, the tight knots of grief and loneliness and fear dissolving in the warmth of being held close and the comforting tones of a warm voice murmuring gentle reassurance in his ear. And most of all, in the knowledge that here, finally, he had – oh, miracle of miracles! - he had a friend.
Finally it passed, as all such storms do, and Nick lifted his head, blinking eyes red and sore with weeping, but feeling light and free and strangely tranquil. His godfather arched one eyebrow at him, quirking a smile, and Nick found himself returning it – a wavering, wobbly, unpracticed affair, but still a smile.
The Fae nodded in satisfaction. “Better! Good!”
Lifting one hand, he brushed it lightly across Nick's face, the long fingers trailing tiny golden motes of light behind them, and where they passed the aftereffects of Nick's tears... disappeared. Soreness cured and swollen eyes eased, Nick lifted once-more bright eyes to his godfather's smiling countenance and said simply, “Thank you.”
The Fae waved a careless hand. “Think nothing of it, young man, nothing at all! Glad to be of help! Now -” he stepped back and looked around the great, stone-flagged kitchen, “What caused the great outcry which called me here?”
Nick blinked in confusion. “A... cry? I don't think -”
“Oh, not out loud!” The Fae hastened to assure him. “No voiced call would have reached me! But there was such a cry of despair and need from your heart! It was that which fetched me, you see,” he rambled on, “I was busy about a most complicated affair in the Twilit Lands – really, the mess those Dryads will get into given half a chance, the Greenleaf queen was at her wit's end – and had no thought of visiting here. No idea that the time had passed so quickly! It's astonishing how quickly events come to pass in the mortal realms...”
Then he fixed Nick with his sharp but kindly gaze. “However. I am here now, and you are my great friend Ashdown's ward, to whom I owe my best efforts, so let us be about it! High time – past time – that I begin to fulfil my duties as your godfather, my lad. You have long been alone and heartsore, that much is clear, but tonight some extra grief or desire has overtaken you, is that not so?
“What is the desire of your heart, Nick?”
Caught up in the rambling torrent of words, Nick could only stammer at the sudden question. The desire of his heart -! Oh, he could not - dared not – say! Look at him! Scrawny, dirty drudge that he was, how dared he think of the Prince, so far out of Nick's world that he might as well be out among the stars...
“Oh, I see.”
The Fae's voice, all at once, was very gentle.
“Your heart has been awakened. Humans!” he shook his head. “Such pain and confusion over such a simple matter! But then, human loves, human passions... they possess a power that we Fae have never understood. Certainly they bear little resemblance to the bed games of my own folk!
“So who is he, this human who calls to your heart with such power?”
The question was direct, and Nick responded as simply.
“Prince David of Blueforest.”
There was no outburst of scorn or mockery, as Nick half-expected – indeed, the only visible reaction was a slow nod.
“And this... Prince David; does he return your desire?”
“He does not know me at all!” blurted Nick miserably. “And I – truly, I do not wish that he did, or that he should return my feelings. He is his own man, and should find his own heart... he is far beyond me, I know that. I do not desire the impossible! But... oh, just to see him, perhaps talk to him, or – or do him some service....
"And now the Midsummer Festival has begun, and my guardian and his journeymen are there, all the young people of the town are invited -”
“- but not you?”
Nick hesitated. “The invitation that came to Goldeagle included all the young people of an age to be looking to marry,” he said carefully. “There was no mention of, of rank, or wealth. Only of age. But – oh, it is foolishness! The Midsummer Festival is three weeks of hunts and soirees and contests, of fairs and dancing and tourneys...Tonight's great masked ball is the first festival event, and it is being held in the Castle Torai ballroom! It will be so wonderful, everyone in their finest clothes, the best musicians playing and everyone trying to dance their best, to catch the Prince's attention...” Nick sighed longingly.
“I saw the clothes that my master had ordered for himself and his journeymen,” he added after a moment. They were... magnificent. Alistair's suit! And, and Charles'! How could I, how could anyone, look finer?”
He gave a small, resigned shrug, then attempted a smile. “I – it will be fine. Really.” he said, trying to convince himself as much as the Fae. “I know, it was... only a dream. To see the Prince just once more. But -” he tried to smile again, “I really do have more than enough to do here before they all return in the morning! See, all the vegetables and fruit that need preparing -”
Nick had turned as he spoke, to wave his hand at the piled food awaiting his attention. Now he stopped speaking, his mouth hanging open in stunned amazement. Arrayed in precise, neat stacks lay all the vegetables and the fruit which Nick had expected to spend the night working on. Peeled, chopped, sliced, diced, soaking in water, laid on freshly-scrubbed table tops... everything was ready for the cook and his helpers. Even the piles of wood and coal and kindling had been replenished, and the jar of tapers for lighting the cookfires had been filled to capacity!
“Well, you can hardly go to the ball if you have all that to attend to, can you?” came the Fae's voice, a smile clearly audible in his voice. Nick began to stammer his thanks, only to be waved into silence.
“No no no. I told you that I am your godfather, young man. It is time - past time - that I began to act like it! Now...”
The Fae tapped his long chin thoughtfully. “The hour is late, but not impossibly so. You will have to travel swiftly to reach – aha!” he smiled in sudden triumph, “My own conveyance will transport you, in the blink of an eye! It is of the Twilit Lands, and cares nothing for simple human notions of distance, or time!”
“You – you mean it's not too late? I can still go, truly? Oh, thank you! Thank you, godfather, so much -”
Nick's face was alight with joy – then his eyes dimmed. “Um... I don't want to seem ungrateful... but – what am I to wear? I - I only have these...” He gestured at his ragged, grimy shirt and breeches, and catching a glimpse of his calloused and work-stained hands, flushed bright red and hurriedly hid them behind his back.
“Perhaps I had best stay here after all,” he said quietly, staring at the floor. “No outfit, no matter how fine, can transform a... a pot boy into someone fit to attend the Torai Court.”
There was a snort of derision from his godfather. “Boy, you are in the presence of a Fae, of the tribe of Air! Transformation lies at the very heart of our power, and I am among the great ones of my clan. Now -”
Rubbing at his jaw, seemingly deep in thought, the Fae circled an increasingly-nervous Nick. He lifted the boy's stubborn chin, moving his face from side to side; a tape measure was produced from somewhere and stretched across Nick's shoulders, then his arms, his chest, his legs, and even round the boy's neck, the Fae muttering to himself all the while.
Finally the Fae stood back and raised his arms, gesturing theatrically. “Be still now,” he said in a firm tone. “This will take concentration!”
With a shout of command in a language that rang with arcane power, the Fae swept his arms down and forward like the wings of a great bird. Two great sheets of glowing golden light leapt from his outstretched hands, wrapping round Nick in a glow of sunshine which held all the scents of a summer meadow. Closing his eyes, Nick breathed deep, sighing with delight as he remembered the day, and the place, where he had first seen the Prince...
There was a shout of “So mote it be!” and a sharp clap! of hands. The light and the scents vanished, and Nick slowly opened his eyes.
“Did – did it work?”
His godfather was smiling. “See for yourself!”
Suddenly there was a long, shimmering oval in front of Nick, providing him with a perfect head-to-toe reflection. His jaw dropped.
“Is – is that me?”
The youth in the mirror was... handsome! More handsome than Alastair, even! Unconsciously Nick felt himself straighten, tilting his chin and shaking out the delicate falls of lace at his wrists, and watching the boy in the mirror do the same. He was all in white – white satin breeches, a fine lawn shirt with delicate lace, frothy as sea-foam, at wrists and neck, and an intricately embroidered waistcoat. The jacket – fitted so finely to his shoulders that Nick could see every move and shift of his muscles under the fine cloth – was, like the waistcoat, trimmed and finished with an exquisite filigree of embroidery in the purest gold. His stockings too were extravagantly patterned in gold, as were the heeled, pure white court shoes, which were fitted with diamond glass in the heels. Gravely Nick lifted one long foot and turned it from side to side, watching the light flash and glitter in the stones. Then he looked back at his reflection. His own eyes, looking very blue against his tanned skin, gazed back at him, from a face at once cleaner, thinner, and somehow older than the one he occasionally saw reflected in water or in Alastair's mirror. While his wildly scruffy mane of sun-bleached chestnut hair had been tamed and powdered and gathered into a neat tail at the nape of his neck, where it was tied with a golden ribbon.
“I... don't look very much like a pot boy now, do I.”
“No,” agreed his godfather, the satisfaction in his voice matching Nick's. “You don't. Will that do, do you think?”
“Oh yes,” said Nick solemnly. “I think it will.” Then his bubbling delight broke free and he flung his arms around his godfather. “Will it do! It's wonderful! Thank you, godfather, thank you so much! This is – I can't-”
Unexpectedly, he found himself lost for words as the Fae, smiling, gently disentangled himself and patted him a little awkwardly on one shoulder.
“There, there. I'm pleased you like it... and now I really think you should be going! Come, I'll introduce you to your transport. This way!”
Outside in the courtyard a most peculiar... carriage?... met Nick's wondering eyes. It was square, low to the ground – its roof did not even reach Nick's head! - clearly made of some kind of metal, and as yellow as a daffodil. It stood four-square on strange, squat, round black wheels, and although Nick could see two doors on the side facing him, and large windows all around the odd, stubby thing giving him a clear view of the inside and the comfortable looking seats at the rear, there was no sign of a driver in the front seat, or indeed of horses to pull it.
“She needs no horses,” his godfather informed him, patting the roof affectionately. “Nor does she require a driver, really, though she lets me pretend. This is my – carriage, I suppose you would call her.”
Leaning towards the front, the Fae conducted a swift, one-sided conversation in a language that Nick did not recognise, then took Nick's hand and placed it on the roof, telling him to pat it gently. Nick complied, and was sure he felt the inhumanly flat, smooth metal warm and then flex under his touch like the skin of a horse.
“There! I have introduced you, and she knows you are a friend of mine. You need only tell her where you wish to go and she will take you there, in the blink of an eye, as I said before. Remember she has no concept of time – it is for you to tell her at what hour you wish to arrive, and when you wish to leave simply clap your hands together three times and she will appear.”
“Oh!” Nick exclaimed, suddenly remembering. “Godfather – this is a masked ball! I will need -”
“- a mask and domino? Of course,” said the other, calmly handing them over although Nick was sure he had not had them earlier. The domino was a simple diamond of cream satin, but the mask was a beautifully-crafted festival half-mask of some rigid white material, trimmed with feathers and decorated with gold filigree, and fitted exactly to the contours of Nick's head. “The unmasking is at midnight – you must leave before then, or you will be discovered. Ah! That reminds me.”
Diving into one capacious pocket, the Fae brought out a small gold snuffbox with a blue-enamelled lid, passed one hand over it, muttering something under his breath, and held it out. Puzzled, Nick took it, then nearly dropped it as the enamel of the lid flared with light as soon as his fingers closed around it. Somehow he kept hold, and after that initial flare the light settled to a steady glow, transforming the rather dark enamel work of a golden Phoenix leaping skyward into a thing of rich jewel tones and glowing pastels. At the same time, the dull melancholy at the back of his head, the constriction in his chest and the chains on his memory - all those bars on his soul which Lord Mandelson's crystal-headed cane had set within him – faded almost to nothingness.
“Good,” said his godfather as Nick blinked and attempted to say something past the relief singing through him, but failed. “It's taken. They really can be dreadfully temperamental... but there! That will prevent your master noticing your presence at the ball tonight – for as long as you keep it with you. We can't have him interrupting and sending you home, can we! Just remember, my boy,” the Fae was suddenly serious,
“That snuffbox will only hide you for as long as you have it with you. Don't offer it to anyone else and don't put it down somewhere and forget it, because if you do that wizard will spot you in an instant! I can sense his presence here even now, though of course as long as I'm here he won't be able to scry anything out of the ordinary. So don't lose it, whatever you do!
“Now – off you go! And remember – the unmasking is at midnight!”
The Great Ballroom of Castle Torai was a-dazzle with thousands of massed candles, the light spells of Torai's Court wizard and his apprentices combining to augment the gentle glow until the huge, high-ceilinged chamber seemed bathed in the warm sunlight of midsummer's day.
Chief Wizard Bercow had just completed one of his favourite small works - the sun of a warm spring day mixed with the delicate scent of violets - with the particular mental twist which meant it would remain attuned to the romantic court lady who had requested it. With the slightly theatrical gesture and intoned 'So mote it be!' that was characteristic of his work, he turned to observe the main ballroom.
Prince David, resplendent in sapphire blue and silver with touches of filigree gold, was approaching. His expression, under the delicate silver mask which barely covered his eyes, was - to those who knew him well - a mixture of hunted and harassed which had Bercow fighting to control his features. The prince was not enjoying himself, the Wizard knew, but he wasn't entirely sympathetic. David's life had been full of privilege and a certain amount of indulgence for a sunny-natured and generous boy, and although no-one would ever consider him to be spoiled or arrogant, he was nevertheless perhaps - in Bercow's view - a little too accustomed to the world going the way he wished. Finding a consort was part of the Heir's duties, and really, the Duchess was making it as easy as possible for the young man...
Bercow smiled brilliantly at the prince as he approached, and David's face eased into a slightly more relaxed grin.
"Help me please, John, I need rescuing for a little!" The prince made a slight movement of his head behind him, discreetly indicating a tall man standing a few yards away, richly garbed in forest green and silver. "Talk to me, and make it look important and secret and 'Do Not Disturb'!"
"Why, your Highness, whatever is the matter! Are you being hunted?"
Bercow's lips were quirking and David, seeing the suppressed grin, answered it with one of his own before saying more seriously, "Well, yes... but I expected that. There's just something about that one... he makes me feel uneasy. A little too calculating, a little too..." David's voice trailed off into silence as Bercow's eyes sharpened, seeing the genuine discomfort behind the Court polish. Then the prince shrugged. "Ah, it's probably nothing! Just someone desperate to marry up in the world, I suppose!"
Bercow's eyes crinkled, "But my prince," he said, tongue firmly in his cheek, "This is a masked ball, how could anyone know which one - out of all these handsome folk - is Prince David?"
Seeng the suppressed merriment in the sorceror's eyes, David gave him a stern look. "Everyone knows who I am, as you know perfectly well. There are no secrets at Court, and all the guests from beyond the court will have made it their business to discover my identity as quickly as possible. Who wants to waste their time romancing the wrong man?"
Bercow raised his eyebrows at the sudden thread of bitter cynicism in the Prince's tones, and David, seeing his reaction, flushed a little and tried to laugh it off. "I'm sorry. I just get a little tired of being the target for all the match-making mamas and papas. I can't help feeling like... some merchant's prize item, on display in the market-place!"
"Not everyone is chasing after you, you know," Bercow pointed out, a little sternly. "There are plenty of youngsters here who have no interest in you at all! Like young Osborne, for instance. He and the Lady Frances are perfectly happy in one another's company. There are many other young couples like that, and others who are here purely to enjoy themselves and have no desire for romance!"
David's fair skin flushed red as he heard the reprimand in the sorceror's tones. "I know," he sighed. "I apologise for my comments, Wizard. It's just that the last three men I danced with were very determined to, um... get to know the Prince. And already knew a disturbing amount about my likes and dislikes and interests and hobbies! They must have gone to a great deal of effort to discover all that about me, and I find that level of - attention - somewhat intimidating."
"The gentleman in green and silver - is he one of these 'hunters'?"
"Oh yes," said David. "And before him there was an uncultured brute in pale blue and gold - lots of gold, positively dripping with it in fact - and before him there was an older man, very polite, softly spoken - and really very unpleasant. I had the feeling he was studying me as if I was under a magnifying glass on a table somewhere! There was nothing romantic about that encounter at all."
David wriggled his shoulders in discomfort at the memory.
"That does sound odd," agreed the sorceror. "What was he wearing - this older man?"
"Claret and old gold. Beautiful clothes of the best Imperial workmanship - to show all our provincial tailors how old-fashioned and behind the times they are, no doubt," David added, a little sharply, and Bercow snorted.
"You really did take a dislike to the gentleman, didn't you? Hm, it seems you've been unlucky in your recent encounters. Perhaps if we took a stroll together out to the smaller ante-room where the less confident guests tend to congregate...? It would be a shame if you missed out on meeting your future consort tonight because he felt too shy to enter the main ballroom and you never went looking beyond the obvious!"
"Now that is an excellent idea!" said David heartily, and he accompanied Bercow's short, stalwart figure in its easy drift towards the great double doors at the nearest end of the crowded ballroom, nodding and smiling to the throng surrounding them as he went.
The ante-room was not only smaller - it was considerably less crowded, save for the long table at one side groaning with every variety of delicacy for the delectation of the guests. The prince felt hungry as soon as he saw the delicious-looking spread, and with a word of grateful farewell to Wizard Bercow, he lengthened his stride and made determinedly for the party meats.
Collecting a clean plate from one of the attendants - with a brief smile and enquiry as to the well-being of the woman's young son - David began to put together a quick meal, realising with part of his mind that no-one was taking the slightest bit of notice of him and that therefore, in this room at least, he was genuinely incognito and feeling much more relaxed as a result.
David was never sure, afterwards, quite how it had happened. He had reached for the utensil to serve himself some slices of fresh-roasted venison... Hadn't he? There had been a burst of merry voices and he had glanced their way - for a moment, just for a moment... and his hand, instead of clasping the smooth coolness of the cutlery, had wrapped itself around the warmth of another's. Another man's hand. There had been a soft gasp, and he had looked around to meet lively, sparkling blue eyes, wide with surprise behind their ball mask... Eyes that looked both young and kind, though they were currently fixed on his in fearful apology.
"I - I'm so sorry, your Highness, I -oh."
Below the mask David saw an embarrassed flush creeping over the tanned, youthful features. "We're not supposed to know who you are - I really am sorry, I, I -"
Stammering and red with mortification by now, the young stranger abruptly let go of the serving tongs and tried to back away from the table, only to be brought to an abrupt stop. David had not released his hand...
Enchanted, intrigued - David wasn't quite sure what he was feeling. He tightened his grasp a little, pulling this new person towards him as that strange warm tingling where their hands met grew stronger.
"Don't go!" He found himself saying hurriedly, absently letting his empty plate drop to the table while his words tumbled over themselves in his desire to get them out. "Please, I - please don't go yet! I mean - yes, I'm the prince, and I'd really like to, to..."
He trailed into silence and reluctantly let go of the other's hand, gazing a little helplessly at this young, lightly-built stranger in the beautiful - Fae-made - ball clothes.
"Ah, here you are, unknown sir! Might I have the pleasure of the next dance?"
David knew that voice. Suppressing a groan he turned to face the tall gentleman in forest green and silver whom he had thought he'd escaped.
"Well, I..." he began, then inspiration struck. "My regrets, sir, but I have promised the next dance to this gentleman -" hastily he grabbed at the slim stranger's hand and was encouraged at the welcoming squeeze he received, "- and I fear we must hurry or we shall miss the start of the next set!"
David flashed a pleading glance at his companion, who was clearly quick-witted for all his shyness, because he responded promptly, "Indeed, sir, I hear the music starting - we must go!"
The tall man was opening his mouth to respond - not entirely politely, if the angry flush visible below his mask was any guide - but David's young companion had set off towards the Great Ballroom even as he'd answered, tugging David along with him. Sending a falsely-apologetic smile back over his shoulder, David happily lengthened his stride until he was walking next to his new companion, their hands still linked.
"Is - is he following?" came the apprehensive murmur from David's left.
"No, no. It's fine." David said, after a quick unobtrusive check to their rear. "Do you know who that man is?"
"I.... yes. He came with two others. They are all from the Imperial Court, though they now reside in Goldeagle."
Intrigued by the tinge of fear in the other's voice, David drew breath to request more details - then they reached the ballroom and at the sight of the swirling, colourful couples out on the mirrored floor he forgot everything except his sudden fierce wish to lose himself in that great, happy crowd, to clasp his companion in his arms, feel that slim hard body against his own and just... dance.
With an exuberant laugh of sheer joy, David tugged on the strong hand wrapped around his own, slid his other hand round his companion's narrow waist and spun them both out onto the floor.
Music. Light and colour, laughter and dance. The scents of expensive perfumes and delicate flowers swirling through the summer air, the sound of laughter and merry conversation, of happy couples and groups of friends, and over all the glow of candlelight and the shimmer of magic, mixing all the colour and light and merriment into a golden confection of joy...
David had never been so happy. He wanted to laugh, to sing, to caper about like a mad thing and shout out loud with sheer delight. He wanted to curl into a shadowed corner and whisper secrets, to feel his companion's body against his own, to lose himself in the warmth of those gentle blue eyes...
"Are - are you well, unknown sir?"
Roused from his dreaming near-trance as they moved and stepped and swung about other dancing couples, David smiled in reassurance - a smile so broad that it was very nearly a grin. "I am well. I am very well, truly! I was thanking the fates for my good fortune in meeting ... you."
His dance partner flushed bright pink under his tan. "Why, I th - thank you, unknown s-"
"My name is David," the prince interrupted gently. "I am sure that everyone here knows my identity, as indeed do you, so let us not continue with a foolish pretence of ignorance! Please, call me by my name. What may I call you, though, my delightful unknown?"
His partner flushed again, and ducked his head in brief acknowledgement. "You do me honour, my prince... David. My name..." There was a quick look around at the nearby dancers, so swift that David barely caught it, and then a lowering of that light, husky voice which sent tingles down David's spine every time he heard it. "My name - is Nick."
"Nick," repeated David quietly. The music came to a close, completing the dance, and under cover of the spontaneous applause which followed David grasped Nick's hand and indicated the great glass doors lining one side of the ballroom, flung open to catch the evening breeze.
"Shall we go out into the gardens? It will be less crowded, and our court wizards have arranged for plenty of lights. We're not likely to fall into any of the ponds or fountains! - unless we wish to, of course."
David's comment drew a laugh, as he'd hoped - a sudden, husky choke of merriment which set David giggling in his turn.
The pair descended the steps from the broad terrace in front of the ballroom, to stroll hand in hand along curving paths of jewel-coloured stones and scented herbs. They wandered under trees of scented blossom, past fountains lit with magical, multi-coloured lights and beds of night-scented flowers, through moonlit vistas of perfectly-manicured loveliness.
David saw little of the gardens he had known all his life. All his attention was on Nick - wonderful Nick, walking by his side, now talking, now falling silent, his hand warm about David's own.
As they were passing a shadowed nook in a hedge-lined pathway, David glanced up and down the path, then stepped sideways, bringing Nick with him, and with a soft, enquiring murmur, put one hand under Nick's chin, turning the other's face towards his own, and leaned in.
Nick responded eagerly, with a soft, happy murmur of his own. His mouth opened willingly under David's, one hand coming up to bury itself in the Prince's hair and the other sliding around David's waist to pull him even closer, even as David's arms wrapped themselves fiercely about Nick's slimness until he could feel Nick's body, warm against his from neck to waist...
... And lower. Both men became aware of the other's growing excitement at the same time, and reluctantly, breathing hard, their hearts thundering in their chests, the two eased apart. Then they simply stood for a while, each lost in the other's eyes.
Eventually they turned to continue down the pathway, content to walk in silence, arms about each other's waists, until they found an ornamental garden bench placed to look out across a wide lily pond to the golden lights of the palace. Here they sat down, and David's head dropped to Nick's shoulder - Nick, the prince realised, was a little taller than himself, which made his shoulder the perfect height for David to rest his head... he snuggled a little closer, rubbing his head contentedly against the other's shoulder, then lifted his head to snatch a quick kiss which Nick willingly returned.
They kissed and cuddled for a little, then David said reflectively, "It's galling to have to admit it, but Grandmother was right after all. I shall have to put up with a great deal of 'I told you so!' at midnight. What with Grandmother, and George, and my parents -"
He gave a huge, overplayed sigh. "The things I do for love!"
"M-midnight? Why midnight?"
David was feeling too contented to hear the sudden, harsh edge of tension in Nick's voice.
"Why, at the unmasking of course! I've found my love -" David paused briefly to give Nick a squeeze, "- and now you must be formally presented to the Duchess as my prospective consort. That's why - Nick, what's the matter?"
For Nick had straightened up, pulling away from him. Now he turned to face the confused prince. "David. my - my prince..." He hesitated, clearly searching for words, and David's heart plummeted into his boots.
"Is, is it not love, then, for you?" he said in a small voice. "Is it all just... moonlight, and music?"
"No, no! Don't ever think that! But - David, I am of the Wandering Folk. Your grandmother, your people - they would never accept one of my blood as your consort! I'm sorry, I should have thought, should have warned you...but it was so wonderful, being with you, and - and..."
Nick looked away, biting his lip, and David, with a muttered exclamation, grabbed him and held him close.
"Nick - oh, Nick, my love, who has been telling you tales? So you are of the Wandering Folk; it matters not! My grandmother will not care two hoots, and neither will any of the Court or the people, believe me! They will be too relieved that I have found a consort to care one whit about his birth!"
Nick stared at the prince, desperately hoping that he spoke truly. With a muttered exclamation David wrenched off his mask so that Nick could see his entire face and repeated more quietly, but with a driving sincerity that would not be denied,
"I swear to you, my one and only love, that no-one - no-one - will care what your birth is, or whether you are the son of a, a beggar or a baron! All that will matter to them is that I have finally chosen the one I wish to spend my life with. My grandmother's consort was but a journeyman thatcher when they first met, you know."
Nick hesitated, then, slowly, his hands moved to his head. The beautiful white and silver mask was removed to reveal a boyish, open-featured face from which Nick's blue eyes gazed at David with more than a touch of wariness.
David stared back, drinking in the handsome features and gentle eyes. “You are so beautiful,” he breathed, one hand coming up to caress Nick's cheek. Nick turned his head to press against David's touch, his eyes fluttering shut only to fly open again at the prince's soft words.
“Ah, no – no,” he muttered, his face burning, “It is you that is the beautiful one, my prince. You are so wonderful, what can you see in, in someone like me -”
Hushing him, David gently laid one narrow, aristocratic hand across Nick's lips, smiling lovingly at the other's spluttered objections.
“We are each seeing the other with the eyes of love,” he said softly. “And that is as it should be...” and coming to his feet, he drew Nick in for a kiss.
A little later, when they had once again drawn apart with ruffled hair and kiss-swollen mouths, both men flushed and bright-eyed and breathing hard, David said regretfully, with a glance upwards to where the midsummer moon hung huge and warmly silver in the star-strewn sky, “We really must return to the ballroom, my love. It is close on midnight.”
Nick bit his lip, then nodded reluctantly and was just about to re-don his mask when his eyes widened and he gasped, face suddenly sheet-white as he flinched away.
He was looking in the direction of the path from the palace down which he and the prince had strolled earlier, hand in hand, and David swung around to see what had given his love such a shock, his hand slipping from Nick's.
Just emerging from the scented depths of the perfumed walk, chatting desultorily between themselves, were three men. In the moonlight David recognised the figures immediately as the men from Goldeagle whose company he had found so unpleasant back before he had met his Nick. Back when his world had been so different, a bare few hours ago...
Muttering a few short words under his breath, David reached out behind him for Nick's hand, intending to retreat hastily around the pond to return to the ballroom another way. He did not think the men had spotted he and his companion yet – they had made no move in his direction, and he and Nick were in the heavy gloom under the trees, away from the light of the moon and the coloured lights adorning the fountains and the pond – but he really did not want to meet the trio again, and he was sure that Nick also had his own good reasons for avoiding them.
But no warm, strong hand slipped into his, and when he looked around, retreating further into the shadows as he did so, Nick... was gone.
With growing urgency, the prince cast about, keeping one eye on the men standing a few yards away, clustered in a small group and talking quietly amongst themselves while David, increasingly frantic, stealthily quartered the shade under the trees. He did not dare call out, he could only move quietly, hands outstretched, trying to guess which way Nick had gone and fighting his growing conviction that Nick had not merely hidden himself in the shadows. He had gone. Slipped away, fled.... from those men? Surely that was it. He had run – not from David, but from those three men! It was they who had frightened his love away, David was sure of it...
… and how would David ever find him again?
The prince took one more step, and stumbled slightly as his foot struck an object lying unseen on the ground at his feet. Bending, he picked it up, identifying it as soon as he touched it.
Nick's ball mask. The beautiful, Fae-made half-mask that had fitted so perfectly to Nick's features that surely it had been crafted especially for him...
Slowly, gently, David placed it over his own face, breathing deep of the faint scent of hair powder and Nick which still clung to its gentle curves. He could not settle it into position on his own head at all, and with a soft sigh and a murmur of Nick's name, he lowered it again and held it close.
“Come to me again if you can, love,” he whispered to the air. “But if you cannot... it matters not whether it is enchantment or human villainy that has made you flee, and might prevent your return. I will find you again. I swear it.
“I will find you!”
Lifting the mask, he kissed it reverentially to seal his promise, then held it up in front of his eyes, a sudden idea sparking. It had fit Nick as if it had been made especially for him. Of course it had. It was Fae-made, it would fit itself to no-one else.
If Nick was unable to return, why then David would seek him out. And this mask would help him. No matter where Nick was, hidden somewhere, or concealed under enchanted guise, or even perhaps held captive - Court Wizard Bercow could use the mask to trace him. And once found, this same mask could be used to prove his identity!
David's grip on the mask tightened, clutching it to himself with even greater determination as a flame of bright hope – that fierce, sharp-edged hope which is close to despair – burst into desperate life.
David would never let that glow fail, he vowed to himself. No matter how long it took, he would keep that flame alive in his heart, and he would never, ever, cease his searching.