When David returned to camp with his fellow huntsmen, tired but satisfied from a successful hunt which had snagged two of the three stags that had been selected as quarry, he found the camp buzzing like an upturned anthill. As soon as he cleared the trees a squad of Palace guards ran towards him, their officer Sir Michael of Fabricant Meadows at their head, shouting something about 'Imperial wizards' and 'Lord Osborne'.
David's hands tightened on Alex's reins, causing the big hunter to snort and toss his head, sidestepping away from the loud humans running at him. Absently his rider calmed him, his attention fixed on what the guards were trying to say.
"What about George?" he demanded sharply, "Has anything happened to Lord Osborne, is he safe -"
"Oh yes, your Highness," Sir Michael hastened to reassure him, "Your ADC is perfectly all right, indeed he is more concerned for your safety! Might I ask, sir, that you go straight to your tent to see him? He will explain the situation."
David nodded curtly and dismounted, giving Alexandros's reins to the officer and asking that his steed be safely delivered to one of the Royal grooms, then hastened through the busy camp, dodging hurrying soldiers and Palace guards and panic-stricken courtiers alike.
What was going on? he wondered. Everywhere he heard the cry of "The Prince! The Prince is in danger!" Or kidnapped, or ambushed, or even - from one particularly hysterical old courtier who had disapproved of David for years - murdered! This was shouted while Lord Bone was looking straight at the (allegedly) dead prince, but David felt no inclination to calm the old boy's fears. Best to get to George, and find out just what was going on!
When David reached his tent he swept back the flap to see Osborne leaning over a map, deep in discussion with officers from both the army and the Palace guard. The group included the highest ranked officers present in the camp, David noticed, even as he was demanding,
"Can anyone please tell me what is happening? What is the reason for all this -" he waved a hand at the panicked comings and goings outside the tent, "And why are you all treating my tent as a - as a map room!"
George looked up from the map spread across the small table where David was more accustomed to take his meals than plan military operations, and his pale face lit up.
"My prince! Thank all the powers you're safe!"
"Of course I'm safe," snapped David in irritation, "Why wouldn't I be? It was a perfectly ordinary hunt - we weren't even going after boar!"
George nodded dismissal at the officers, and with respectful bows to their prince the men and women trooped out of the tent, leaving George and David alone.
"Now," said David firmly, throwing himself down in his most comfortable camp chair and waving George to its companion, "What is all this about?"
George plunged into a description of the day's happenings and David sat and listened in increasing astonishment - until George reached the appearance of the Imperial journeyman, and what he'd had to say about the young intruder.
"Wanderer?" he demanded sharply. "George, did he really say that this... servant of theirs was of the Wandering Folk?" And then, when George nodded,
"What did this pot boy look like? What was his accent - did he sound like one of the Travellers?"
"That was the strange thing about it. He didn't sound like a servant or a Wanderer. He sounded both educated and articulate. Not that he was permitted to say much, but his voice was, yes, was educated. If I'd heard him without seeing him I'd have thought him a wealthy merchant's son or perhaps from one of the Craftsman Guilds."
"His name? George, did you get his name?" David was leaning forward now, strained attention obvious in every sinew of his body, and George gasped.
"Ah, no! My prince, do you think that - that -"
"That this is my Nick? ... Oh George, I don't know whether to hope that it is or it isn't. If it is - to have been so close, and yet to miss him! And if it isn't - what false hope to give me, and at such a time!..."
Breaking off, David buried his face in his hands.
"Tell me more," came his muffled voice. "Tell me everything you saw, everything you thought and felt. You're good at seeing things, George; now,"
David dropped his hands and George was shocked to see the welling tears in his friend's dark blue eyes, "Make me see too."
"So it was Nick," David said, desolate, a little later. "And I wasn't here!"
Getting to his feet he moved aimlessly about the tent, eyes unseeing. "Oh, if only I'd stayed in camp today! If I'd been here when he - oh, George, I've, I've lost him again!"
David's face twisted with pain, tears filling his eyes, and his voice wavered and broke, harsh sobs forcing themselves out before, with a gasp of effort, he wrestled himself back under control. A prince of the Torai was expected to show self-discipline at all times, and even though George was his closest friend David knew he should not give way in such a manner.
But George was showing no sign of disappointment at his friend's lack of self control. His eyes full of sympathy, he got up and put a comforting hand on David's shoulder.
"Courage, my prince," he said. "We have found him once, we can do so again. After all, we know so much more about him now!"
David nodded reluctantly. "I know. And yet... to belong to an Imperial, and one of such power! I... my fear for him is so much the greater now. Before I wished only to find him. Now, I pray that I find him alive and in good health, and not under the spell of this, this thaumaturge....
"Thaumaturge! Of course, I should recognise that term! It signifies an enchanter of sorts!
"George, see to the packing up of my tent and belongings, will you? I must return to the castle and speak to our court wizard. Surely Bercow will be able to help me - he must!"
Suddenly alight with energy and determination, David strode out of the tent, calling for his horse, and George watched him go with an affectionate smile. Trust David; from despair to determination in one fell swoop. Action, for the prince, had always been the best cure for sadness or grief...
Pulling back the tent flap, George called for the household servants. Time to get all packed and the camp cleared away and made good. All in all it had been a most eventful day, but it was time to go home. Where he fully intended to call on wizards, soldiers, - aye, right down to the merest private and the weakest hedge witch - if that was what it took to get to the bottom of this plot against the Torai Prince!
"Imperial thaumaturgy is indeed a most powerful branch of the Art."
Bercow turned from the table on which he had been grinding some purple-blue petals to colourful powder. He studied the impatient young man standing at the door to his chambers, his own eyes full of concern - and a certain amount of chagrin.
"I am not surprised that this... Journeyman Alistair... could Freeze time so efficiently and at such short notice. Clearly he has been well taught by his master - Mandelson, you say? What concerns me is that I received no hint, either of that cantrip or of the larger preparations that Mandelson must have set in place to aid him in his plans for you!"
"George said that you had detected someone testing the wards," said David, slowly entering the room and looking warily around at the large circular chamber that was the wizard's workspace at the Palace.
The room was full of light from three great arched windows, all of which held a smooth, clear substance more transparent than any glass. The wooden floor was inlaid with an elaborate design based on a five-pointed star within a circle. Tall shelves, shaped to the curve of the room and crammed with colourful books and racks of scrolls, lined the walls between windows and door; a large crystal scrying globe on a gold and silver stand glowed and flickered silver and blue in front of the north window, and there were wide cabinets of wood, richly carved into shapes of trees and woodland animals, tucked in below the east and west windowsills. The cabinet tops were crowded with oddly shaped objects of wood, bone, horn and crystal, and with instruments both alchemickal and musickal.
The large table in the centre of the room held alembics and other instruments of crystal, silver and bronze, and on a base of slate sat a small charcoal burner. A small stone bowl sat above the glowing charcoal, the pale green liquid within meditatively bubbling with small glopping sounds and giving off a refreshing scent of honey, apples and mint.
"The Lady Samantha spent too long swimming yesterday," the wizard said, seeing David sniffing appreciatively at the brazier as he passed it. "I am preparing a tincture to clear her head and ease her breathing."
"Is that not apothecary's work?" queried the prince, briefly diverted from his purpose in visiting the Court Wizard. Bercow smiled - the sudden, flashing white grin which made him look years younger and more akin to a mischievous sprite than a mature and powerful sorceror.
"The composition of the tincture may be, but the charms I am adding as it forms are most definitely part of the sorceror's art - and it is those which will return the lady to her charming self within a few hours. I am very good at what I do, your Highness."
Bercow's eyes twinkled briefly with merriment before sobering once more.
"Now - I did indeed sense someone testing the wards at the camp, or rather, one of my apprentices did so and informed me of the fact rather later than I would wish. By the time I scried for myself the testing had ceased, so I was unable to determine from whence it had come or who was responsible... though there was certainly a flavour of Imperial sorcery about it. An indication only, nothing definite!"
David nodded. "I am not so concerned about that," he said quickly, "I have no doubt that those whose business is the protection of Blueforest will be fully investigating the matter. My concern is for the young man who tried to warn us of Lord Mandelson's plans."
David took a deep breath. "You know that I announced that I had found my future consort after the Midsummer Ball, but that I... would have to search for him, as he'd left before the Ball finished."
"Yes indeed," said Bercow, his voice encouraging. "In fact I believe I saw you dancing with him. The tall young man in white, with the Fae-made mask? Where the Fae are concerned nothing is ever simple. There are always quests to complete, or questions to answer, or some magickal treasure to discover!"
David tried to smile, but it was a pale effort."Yes, that was Nick." he said. "He is not of the Fae, he was a child of the Wandering Folk, though he is now of Goldeagle."
Bercow nodded, showing no reaction to the news of Nick's ancestry, and David relaxed a little. Despite his fierce protestations to Nick he knew that there was much prejudice against the Wanderers. He was relieved that the Court Wizard seemed to share none of it.
Then the enchanter suddenly straightened, his eyes sharpening.
"Ah!" he exclaimed. "The boy who tried to warn you! He is your consort-to-be!"
"Yes! That boy was Nick, I am certain of it! " cried David, "And now... oh, John, I am so scared for him. He serves in the household of an Imperial thaumaturge - a powerful Imperial thaumaturge, as you yourself have confirmed, and now they will know he tried to warn me! What will they do to him, to, to my love?"
"You are right to be concerned," responded the wizard, making soothing gestures with both hands, "But not terrified. Do not despair! You have plighted your troth with this lad, have you not?"
"I - yes, yes I have. That very night, we exchanged... our hearts." Dave flushed and looked away, but Bercow only nodded, a satisfied air about him.
"That is excellent news. So search your heart. It is one of the powers of your Torai blood, highness; if your love dies, or is killed, you will know, immediately, no matter how far away you are when it happens. Listen to your heart, not your fears!
"Is your Nick still in this world?"
David hesitated, searching inwards, bringing up a mental picture of Nick as he had been that night at the ball; standing slim and tall and fearless before him, those blue eyes meeting his and carrying Nick's heart with them...
"Yes," he said eventually, feeling a great wave of relief and straightening up as the weight of worry fell from his shoulders. "Yes, he is still alive... but why? And for how long?"
"Indeed. Imperial thaumaturges are not renowned for their kindness. Powerful practitioners as they are, they are efficient rather than compassionate.... they do not forgive and they do not forget. But no sorceror, of whatever branch of the Art, will make enemies of the Fae unnecessarily. And your Nick is... well, if not of the Fae himself -"
"I am sure he is not," interjected David, listening with strained attention.
"Well then - he must have friends among them, and powerful ones at that. That mask he was wearing at the ball is a magnificent piece of Fae work, with enchantments to turn away hostility, banish fear, encourage joy and delight... all intertwined. Wonderfully done. Nick's friend is no small or unimportant Fae. They may even be one of the Great Lords, though such rarely take much interest in humanity... my point is, Mandelson will not want to attract the hostile attention of such a one by hurting Nick, or removing him from the world by death or translocation. Such an action would instantly bring the wrath of the Fae down on his head and on all his household. No, he will have attempted to get Nick out of the way. Most probably by sending him as far away as possible."
"What if he's turned Nick into a, a frog or... an animal of some sort?"
Bercow muttered something under his breath. "I swear the Court Bards have given you some very strange ideas about Magick! Shape-changing spells are difficult to cast, require some very specific circumstances and cannot be imposed for long without harm to both caster and recipient. Also, there is no change in size or weight. So if Mandelson turned Nick into a frog, not only would Nick have to want to become a frog, but he would be a very large frog indeed. Man-sized, in fact. So not much use as concealment! No, no,"
Bercow shook his head. "Mandelson will get Nick out of Goldeagle and as far away from Torai as he can. Pass his articles to a wandering merchant; sign him on to a trading ship heading overseas; perhaps even sell him in the Imperial slave markets. Easy enough to do, and nothing in that to bring the wrath of the Fae down on his head."
David's face was a picture of conflicting emotions. "Nick's alive! But.... sold overseas? As a - slave? That's, that's dreadful! How can the Imperials... but alive! But where?...
"John, how will I ever find him? He could be anywhere!"
The wizard held up one hand and the prince fell silent. It was a grave breach of court etiquette for anyone, even the Chief Wizard, to interrupt in such a way, but David was not inclined to object. Not to an enchanter of Bercow's reputation, and one, moreover, whom he knew to be entirely loyal to Blueforest.
"You are forgetting, your Highness, you have the mask that your love was wearing at the Ball. I will conduct a Seeing with that as the Focus."
"What if he is overseas? Can your scrying cross such a body of water?"
Bercow gave a short bark of laughter. "Your Nick is not the only one with friends and influence among the Fae! I will call in a few favours from the merfolk to enable my Seeing to pass through their lands.
"Now - the mask, if you please?"
Nick leaned over the parapet of the crow's nest, one arm wrapped firmly round the mast against the dizzying plunging and rolling of the ship, cupped his other hand at his mouth and repeated his shout, directed at the small white expanse of the deck far below him.
Captain Harold glanced up at the crow's nest, then raised his battered tricorne, revealing the knotted red headscarf he wore to protect his hairless pate from the fierce sun that ruled at these latitudes, and waved it in acknowledgement. A word to his first mate, Jack Straw, had the tough old sailor bellowing orders, and the deck filled with deckhands scurrying to take in sail as the steersman turned the wheel. The great merchanter swung smoothly into a ponderous turn, the white flash of spray splashing up over the sides as the prow turned towards the purple hills Nick could just see hovering just above the blue-silvered horizon on the very edge of his sight.
Nick straightened, setting his back against the mast which speared through the crow's nest to end in a spiderweb of ratlines and shrouds some way above the tiny barrel-shaped lookout, and watched the land creep ever closer. Eyes crinkling involuntarily against the exuberant breeze whipping his shaggy hair about his head, he gazed across the deep blue-and-turquoise shaded sea, watching the wave tops gleam silver in the sun as they rose and fell in the lazy swell of the deep water below the keel, shifting his balance automatically with the movement of the ship, and enjoying the feel of the sun and the salt breeze against his skin.
How would it be, Nick wondered, to have his own ship? To be master of his destiny and go where he willed, David at his side? Travelling and trading, exploring the world and encountering wonders together... learning new tongues, meeting new people and seeing all the beauty and strangeness around them by day, and retiring to their cabin in the evening, to lie in each other's arms by night, close and safe and in their own private world....
... fierce longing for David shook him, a need so sharp that he choked back a cry, slapping a hand to his heart, half-expecting to feel a physical spear piercing his chest. But there was nothing, of course. Only that sudden, desperate need, that yearning which would strike him at unexpected moments, leaving him gasping and shaking with the strength of it... Ah, David! To be with you again! To feel your strong arms around me, and see the love in your beautiful eyes, and know that look is for me alone...! He would find his way home again - somehow. He would!...
Then a tousled head appeared through the hole in the floor of the crow's nest and a gap-toothed grin was turned his way.
"Cap'n wants ya!" the new arrival shouted over the flapping of the sails, clambering up as Nick moved back to give him room.
Nick nodded and, rather than climbing back down the same way, grabbed a ratline, set one knee on the parapet of the crow's nest, and hopped over. Moving nimbly from shroud to spar to rigging, bare feet grasping at the wood and twisted rope almost as efficiently as his hands, he slid and swung his way from sail to shroud to nets, finally landing on the main deck with an easy bend of the knees before trotting aft to see what Master Mariner Harold, captain of the Imperial merchantman the Red Rose , could want of his newest crew member.
All around him the crew of the Rose were hard at work, but nevertheless there were nods and the odd friendly word as Nick passed; words which Nick returned in kind. Had it only been days? Nick wondered. Scarce more than a month at most, yet he found this life far preferable to the one he had led as Mandelson's scullery boy. Not at all what his old master had wanted... of course the thaumaturge had been unaware that Nick not only spoke fluent Imperial, but had befriended several members of this very ship's crew over the years.
To be sure he had never met the captain, the canny Master Mariner Harold, once of the Imperial navy, or First Mate Jack Straw, as brown and tough as an old tree root, but there were plenty of others among the crew for whom he had run errands or with whom he had exchanged jokes and gossip during the ship's regular visits to Goldeagle. They might not recognise the changed appearance that Mandelson's illusion spell gave him, but Nick knew them, and had been able to rapidly establish friendly relations because of that knowledge.
So Mandelson had 'apprenticed' him... Selling him, in effect. Slavery might be illegal outside the Imperial lands but no Imperial merchant had ever let that stop him (or her). There were many ways round the proscription for those in the know; 'apprenticing' the one you wanted to sell, in exchange for a one-off 'Guild bounty' paid by the so-called apprentice's new master, was one of the most common, and this was the method Mandelson had adopted with Nick.
The Imperial thaumaturge had informed Captain Harold that Nick needed a firm hand and strict discipline, and that he was never to be permitted to leave the ship. And the captain had listened, and agreed, and taken Nick into his crew, but there his compliance with Mandelson's... 'advice' had ceased. Shipboard discipline was indeed harsh, as it was on most Imperial ships, but it was fair, and Nick's knowledge of the language and his background in trade was helping to smooth his way in his new world.
Somewhat to his own surprise, Nick found himself enjoying this new life. The sea, with all its moods and colours, awe-inspiring, constantly changing and always beautiful; the ship, moving and flexing around him like a living thing, carrying within it the warm, enclosed little world of shipboard life that was such a contrast to the sense of freedom and space to be found on deck or up in the rigging... The sun, the bright intricate beauty of the stars, the wide expanse of the cloud-swept sky, the challenge of a sudden summer squall, the joy and swing of being at full sail in a following wind... If it wasn't for David, he had sometimes found himself thinking these past weeks, he could actually have been happy as a sailor... but no. There was David, and there was his guardian. Now he knew there was a strong chance that Ashdown was alive he had to find him or determine his fate - and then there was the ache and the yearning filling his heart, that would not be eased until he had found his way back to his love. He would not - could not - desert either one!
"You wanted t'see me, captain?" Nick's Imperial carried the rough accents of the sailors from whom he had learned the tongue, and Captain Harold's reply was in the same vein.
"Aye, lad. We make port in Roseheim in a bare few hours. You're to stay aboard - hear? Th' slave catchers'll have you quick as an eel in a trap, an' I'm not wanting to lose you to the bawdy houses. I paid good coin for you, and you've a way to go yet to make it worth my while! Now - get below!"
Harold's expression made it clear he was not to be dissuaded, and, hiding his disappointment Nick nodded and made for the narrow ladder leading down to the cargo hold, where he was accosted by the cargo-master and set to moving the smaller goods into positions where they could be most easily unloaded. It was hard, sweaty work in the semi-darkness of the hold, and Nick was barely conscious of the change in the ship's pitching and rolling which meant they had entered the calmer waters of the enclosed harbour of Roseheim, the city which had given its name both to the Empire and the ruling family of that empire alike.
Nick hefted the last bale, dragging it over to the hatch, then straightened, panting. He was dragging his forearm across his sweating forehead and wishing he had some cool water - or indeed any water, it didn't have to be that cool - when a stinging blow across his shoulders sent him staggering forward. Instinctively he flinched away, memories of the journeymen's bullying flashing into his head, and a harsh voice snapped,
"No lazin', slavey! You get that cargo ashore or you'll feel my rope, you slug!"
It was Bosun Prescott, a great roaring bully of a man who had been hounding Nick since he had been 'apprenticed'. Nick hurried to obey without attempting a response; he knew that the bosun wouldn't listen and that Nick would be beaten into silence before he got out more than a few words. If the Captain saw Nick unloading cargo he would know well enough who had ordered their newest crew member ashore, and if he made sure he was prompt in returning to the ship afterwards, he had a good chance of avoiding punishment!
As he staggered laboriously up and down the gangplank, across the quay and into the designated warehouse, bags and bales slung over his shoulders or with ungainly boxes in his arms, Nick eagerly snatched brief glimpses of the docks in this, his first foreign landfall. Much was familiar; the fishwives selling the morning's catch, their strident voices rising above the clamour around them; the merchants arguing settlement prices and fair values with the ship captains; the dockhands hauling cargo to and from the great warehouses looming at the back of the quays; and everywhere, the urchins running and shouting underfoot, weaving through the crowds with a fine disregard for their footing on the fish-slimy docks. All that was familiar enough from Goldeagle, but as Nick continued on his laden journeys he began to see the differences too.
Some of those work gangs sweating and hauling cargo were ragged and scrawny, working with one nervous eye on a whip-carrying overseer. Slaves then, or convicts, rather than free men working for a wage. Not all the children slipping through the crowds were playing or at some childish mischief; some were begging, and others were picking pockets.
And everywhere there were squads of soldiers, their bright red coats and the polished steel of the officers' helmets standing out against the weathered stone and wood of the buildings and the functional, workaday clothes of the merchants and the sailor folk.
Why so many soldiers? wondered Nick, as he started down the Rose's gangplank with his final load, a large sack of some exotic white grain from far away to the East. Surely keeping an eye on those young pickpockets and other mischief-makers was a task for the local constables...? If they even had constables here. Perhaps the Empire considered such things the preserve of the Army...
Nick had heard that life in the Imperial lands was far more regulated and controlled than was the norm in Goldeagle or its neighbours. The citizens of the Empire seemed content to have it so, however, and Nick gave a mental shrug and dismissed it from his thoughts as one of those strangenesses which made other lands and other peoples so fascinating.
Entering the warehouse where the Rose's cargo was to be stored, he added his sack to the pile already there with a grateful sigh, straightening to his full lanky height and stretching his cramped muscles. The warehouse supervisor gave him a brisk nod, cutting a notch in her tally stick, and Nick turned eagerly away to get back to the Red Rosebefore Captain Harold decided he had been ashore too long and sent men to haul him back willy-nilly.
The warehouse used by the Rose was situated just behind Roseheim's largest and richest group of quays. Nick's merchant training told him that this meant that the owner of the Red Rose, whoever that might be, would be one of the city's richest and most influential citizens, and that meant that whoever it was would be a member of the Imperial Court. He wondered yet again if that owner might be Lord Mandelson... and again dismissed the speculation as meaningless. What was the point in thinking about Mandelson, and Goldeagle... and David? All such thoughts only emphasised his helplessness, his longing and his need to be with David, or - or see him, just once more...
Miserably, fighting his awareness of just how far away David seemed now, and how distant his homelands and that wonderful, enchanting ball seemed, not only in distance but in time, Nick stepped out of the echoing dimness of the warehouse into the bright sunlight, noise and bustle of the harbourside. He blinked, adjusting to the glare and glancing about to get his bearings and to check the quickest route back to the ship -
Nick's mouth went dry, the blood pounding in his ears as he stared; incredulous, hopeful, terrified of being wrong.
That man... that tall, sturdy blond figure, standing with a group as shabbily-dressed as he, chin jutting and shaggy eyebrows beetling in a fashion so familiar to Nick that he thought he might weep...
"Master Ashdown... P - Paddy...?"
The words were barely whispered, past Nick's incredulous, slowly-growing wonder; then, as the shaggy blond head turned, fierce eyes raking the bustling crowd, then came recognition.
"PADDY! My, my Lord - Sir - "
Forgetting all else, shouting with pure, overwhelming delight, Nick ran forward, threading his way past busy merchants and dockworkers alike as he closed the space between... then he slowed, a sliver of doubt creeping through his astonished joy.
His guardian had not reacted - at all - to that shouted name. Perhaps he had not heard? Nick called again, using the voice and tone he had learned when acting as lookout; tones harsh and direct enough to be heard through wind and wave would surely reach any sailor's ears, especially one standing only a few yards distant, but again his guardian (and it was indeed his guardian, Master Merchant Ashdown, Nick was convinced of it now) showed no reaction beyond the swift, blank glance of one reacting to a stranger's shout that had no meaning for him.
Nick knew his face would not be recognised, still under Mandelson's illusion spell as he was, but - but surely Ashdown would react to his own name, even if it came from the lips of a total stranger! Unless... Nick's steps slowed still further... unless Master Ashdown was still under enchantment after all... unless he still did not know himself, or his name... unless he was still, like Nick, subject to a thaumaturge's evil arts...
Then Nick would have to convince him! Determined again, sure of what he had to do, Nick broke into a run, intent on reaching Ashdown's side before his one-time guardian finished his conversation - or rather (judging by Ashdown's expression) his argument.
Moving as quickly as he could manage on the crowded quayside Nick shifted, turned and twisted, moving past and through conversations and negotiations without a thought and getting closer to the group of men (he recognised them now, they were all members of the Liberty Bird's old crew) that had their captain at their centre.
Nick was only one or two yards away now, but it seemed as if the dispute was coming to an end, and not in Ashdown's favour, judging by his guardian's frustrated expression. The Imperial, a ship's captain, judging by her dress, was shaking her head and stepping away, and Ashdown did not seem inclined to follow.
No - mustn't lose him, can't bear to lose him again!
"Sir!" Nick shouted, as he saw Ashdown turn away, shoulders set with anger, and begin to shepherd his companions away. "Honoured sir, I must speak with you, I, I have information -"
Other than a brief glance, Ashdown had not seemed inclined to pay any attention to the shabby foreign sailor which, Nick knew, was all he appeared to be. At the word 'information', however, he turned back, eyes suddenly bright with interest as Nick finally reached the group of Goldeagle crewmen.
Sliding past two merchant women engaged in fierce dickering over some mislaid cargo, Nick put out one shaky hand. 'Master... Master Merchant Ashdown - my lord - P - Paddy," he stammered, eyes bright with joy and damp with tears, "I have been searching so long - I, I -"
Then, even as his guardian stepped towards him, questions tumbling from Ashdown's lips and a hand reaching towards Nick's; as his own hands reached out, almost of their own accord; strong hands grabbed at Nick's shoulders with bruising force, pulling him back to shouts of, "Here he is, the little bastard!"
"NO!" screamed Nick, struggling free, only to be grasped again with even greater force. "No, I can't, please, just let me -"
Even as he fought, and even as Master Ashdown stepped forward, calling on his captors to "Be easy, let the poor lad speak!", First Officer Jack Straw's voice shouted from a few feet away,
"What, didja think the cap'n was a fool because 'e treated yer fair, slavey? You're not doin' a runner from th' Red Rose, not while Cap'n Harold owns yer!"
"NO!" screamed Nick again, as he was dragged away, kicking, biting, fighting every way he knew to get free, to reach his guardian and tell him; to let Ashdown know who he was, that he was a merchant from Goldeagle, that he had been, perhaps still was, under enchantment, he and his men alike...
... the idea came all at once, fully-formed, and Nick acted as quickly. Tearing one hand free he pulled savagely at the leather pouch hanging at his neck which held his few treasures; some coins, one or two tiny mementoes of his past... and the snuffbox. The snuffbox, which shielded him from the full misery of Mandelson's magick, which had given him the freedom to fight for his love and had returned his memories...
The thong about his neck snapped; Nick, now fighting only to keep one arm and hand free, was dragged a few steps further back; and then, shouting, "Sir! Catch!" he threw the pouch.
Somehow, even as he was being dragged up the gangplank of the Red Rose, he watched the small brown bag loop through the air. It flew, fell... and Ashdown put out one hand and snagged it with ease, holding it up with an enquiring air.
"Look within!" Nick cried, as he was bundled on board. "I swear, my lord, it will help! I -" - and then he was below, and could see no more.
And his world was once again bleak and empty, and love and memory were mere words...
But... Ashdown had the snuffbox.