Prince David was busy persuading George that it was past time his aide and the lovely Lady Frances announced a date for their wedding when a sudden shaft of loss lanced through him, a feeling so intense it was like physical pain.
The prince staggered back, gasping in shock, and his hand instinctively flashed to his chest. But there was no mark there -
"My prince! Are you all right? What happened?"
George's anxious question brought David out of himself. " I... I don't know, George," he said slowly. "I felt... a loss. As if I had lost something, or someone, I valued -"
George's pale features were suddenly horror-stricken. "My prince... David... Could it be your Nick? I hate to say it, but you are connected, Wizard Bercow has said so, and, well, a loss... "
David shook his head in immediate, instinctive rejection. "No! Nick is still alive, I am sure of it! But... yes. Something, something evil, has happened, or has been done to him. That is what I felt! Ah, Nick... such despair!" David's expressive eyes were filled with grief and pain. "I have to find him, George! I must -
"I must speak to the wizard!"
When Bercow heard the prince's story his round face became grave. "This is ill news, your Highness," he said, waving David across to his scrying globe. "I have not yet been able to find any trace of young Nick. He is certainly not this side of the Ocean, and my merfolk friends have seen no-one of his description on any ship that has departed these lands recently. I was turning my attention to the far South, on the thought that Mandelson might perchance have sold the boy to the Southland slavers. But that is a far distant land indeed, and one from which it will take time to obtain any information.
And now you say Nick has been hurt, or wounded -"
"Not wounded, exactly," David said quietly. "or not physically at any rate. There was such a feeling of, of incredible desperation and loss... and now, nothing. Save only that I know he lives!"
"Have your investigators been able to elicit any response from the Goldeagle Council regarding Mandelson's plots?"
David shook his head, impatient. "No, of course not! Mandelson is one of their number and they refuse to believe that any Alderman could possibly be guilty of hostile designs on a neighbouring territory's heir! They simply won't listen to us, not even to Lord Hague!"
"Hm. It is a pity that Lord Carrington retired - he might have been able to win us a hearing," commented the wizard. David raised an enquiring eyebrow, and Bercow said, "Well, Lord Carrington was our chief diplomat the last time an Imperial-trained sorceror took power in Goldeagle. Do you not recall the affair of Lord Owen and Master Merchant Steel?"
"I vaguely recall something about that from my classes on Histories of Neighbouring Nations," admitted David. "I fear I've forgotten the details, however. Is it truly relevant now?"
"I think there are clear parallels insofar as Mandelson has won a seat on the ruling Council, as did Owen. He may be able to bring arcane influence to bear on his fellow Aldermen, as did Owen. And he is Imperial trained, just as Owen was. But there, I think, the similarities end."
Bercow considered, then added thoughtfully, "You know, my prince, in the Empire the practice of the magickal Arts is considered a profession, or a trade, like any other. It has its own Guild and regulations, and its practitioners are available for hire like any other craftsman.
"Thaumaturges such as Mandelson and Owen are amongst the most powerful, and are skilled most especially in the manipulation, coercion and control of minds... and hearts."
"Ah! You're suggesting that this is why the Goldeagle Aldermen refuse to hear any ill of that, that Imperial... hedge-witch?"
"Indeed," nodded Bercow. "But questions remain. Why has Lord Mandelson taken such pains to establish himself in the town? And why Goldeagle, why not Blueforest, if you were always intended to be his target?
"I do not think that we yet know all, my prince. I am very much afraid that there is more to this. That there is another mover in this play, the one who has hired Lord Mandelson and his journeymen to undertake this task. It is they who is the ultimate driver in all this. Until we discover their identity..."
"I am still in danger," completed David, his voice impatient. "Very well, Wizard; consider me warned. Be sure I will inform Lord Osborne of your thoughts. As for me.. I am afraid I am not overly concerned about some mysterious enemy.
"I just want to find my Nick, and bring him home. Please, John; I beg you, please do all you can!"
When David left Bercow, once again bent over his scrying globe, to work again on contacting his friends among the merfolk for any news, he found George waiting for him. As they walked together towards the stables David told his friend of Bercow's idea that Mandelson was working for someone else, as yet unknown, and George nodded.
"Yes, I had heard that thaumaturges worked for hire. Very expensive and specialist hire, but hire nonetheless. I fear that we can do little about it now, however. We have no spies in Mandelson's household, and until we convince the good burghers of Goldeagle that Mandelson has manipulated them as cleverly as ever Owen did there is little we can do. Our wizards might be able to influence them -"
"- oh, don't be ridiculous, George! Wizard Bercow would never consent to such a thing, and rightly so! It is hardly Goldeagle's fault that they have been caught up in Mandelson's plotting. We are not going to jeopardise Blueforest's friendship with them over some Imperial's scheming!"
Angrily David flung open the door to the courtyard and stormed through, and George hurried after. "Of course not, my prince. I was only explaining why we can only act indirectly until we can persuade the Council of Mandelson's guilt. I have agents, armed with the best talismans Bercow can construct, keeping watch on Mandelson's house.
"I have just had news from Goldeagle's docks which might provide a small clue as to Nick's fate, though.
"I received a report of Mandelson selling a young man to the captain of an Imperial ship docked there about a month ago. That is around the right time, but the young lad concerned was not Nick; the physical description is completely different. However, if Mandelson has disposed of one youngster that way, he might have disposed of others."
David had also heard the reports, and through his disappointment that the unfortunate captive was not Nick, and his sickness that such trades still took place, he nodded.
"A good thought, George," he agreed. "My apologies for snapping at you. It's just that I am so very scared for him! When I think of what has been done to him, what that wizard might still do... I swear, if it would ensure his return... if it would give his life back to him... I would give him up. I would give up all thoughts of marriage, all claim to Nick's love, if by doing so I could ensure his return, and his happiness."
"Well of course," said George firmly. "Your love is true, and his happiness means more to you than your own. That is as it should be. But don't give up. We will find him, David. Only have faith!"
"Easy for you to say," muttered David. "Here I am, heir to one of the most powerful Duchies this side of the Ocean, and all I can do is sit here while wizards and agents do my hunting for me! This is not -"
David was looking up at the cloudless, deep blue expanse of sky above the castle walls, his eyes angry and his whole body strung wire-taut with frustration, when he was interrupted. Far above them a great bird, an eagle perhaps, or one of the rare northern rocs, had been soaring and circling through the summer air. Now, all at once, it gave a hoarse scream, as if calling for attention. Swinging so low over the castle that it seemed barely to miss the walls, it dropped a small object that glinted as it fell and made a chinking metallic sound as it landed, bouncing and rolling to a stop at David's feet.
Bending, David immediately picked it up despite George's attempt to prevent him, and stood turning it over and over in his narrow fingers, watching it sparkle and glint oddly bright in the muted sunlight of the courtyard.
George recognised it immediately as one of the trade tokens used by merchants on the Goldeagle docks in lieu of coin. Made of base metal and bearing the name of the issuing merchant, backed by the emblem of the Merchants' Guild on the reverse, they could be exchanged for an equivalent amount of coin in any overseas port where the Guild had an office. This particular coin bore the name of a merchant George found vaguely familiar, a Goldeagle trader who had been lost at sea several years previously.
The prince was studying the coin with intent concentration, as befitted such an obviously Fae-borne token. Then he looked up, his eyes no longer frustrated or angry but excited and eager, and grinned at his friend.
George felt a flicker of unease. What was going through David's head now?
"My Prince?" he questioned, warily.
David grinned at him. "You won't like this at all, George, but I'm afraid I'm going to pull rank on you and insist," he said.
"I've had much the same training as our agents, and I am just as familiar with Goldeagle harbour and the oceanside docks as they are. I am going to insist that I take part in this watching of Imperial ships!"
To every argument a horrified George came up with, David had a counter. Yes, Goldeagle was Mandelson's home territory; so the thaumaturge would never expect David to go anywhere near it. Yes, undertaking a lowly job like watching the docks was not a task anyone would expect a Torai of the Bloodline to undertake; again, with his Imperial background, Mandelson would never anticipate a prince getting involved with any such lowly activity. As for the task probably being pointless, and achieving nothing of value in their search for Nick or for the unknown behind the plot against the prince -
David shook his head. "No, George. Wizard Bercow has told me to listen to my heart... well, my heart is telling me, through this token, to be at those docks, to wait there, and to watch. Why, or for whom... I do not know. Not for Nick! But I know - I know, George, in here -" the prince pressed one hand to his chest "- that if I go to Goldeagle docks, and wait - I will see something that will help me. Perhaps help all of us, the town of Goldeagle included!"
When David arrived at Goldeagle docks some weeks later the sun was still below the horizon, but already the quays and docksides were a hive of activity. The prince smiled to himself, appreciating the lively scene before him as he ambled his way onto the harbourside from the wide stone-paved road that led to Goldeagle's central market-place. He loved Blueforest, and Torai Town, but he had always enjoyed the noise, colour and excitement of Goldeagle harbour.
It seemed that several ships had arrived in the pre-dawn, and were just now mooring up and preparing to unload their cargo. Everywhere he looked, David could see merchants and teams of dockhands, busily negotiating terms for the unloading of the newly-arrived cargo, followed perhaps by the subsequent reloading of a new cargo. Crewmen were throwing out mooring lines, and gangplanks were being swung out and tied into place on the docksides.
Merchants were standing in front of their warehouses, invoices and cargo manifests to hand, and small traders were hastily opening up their stalls. Only the fish market was quiet - the fishing fleet was not due in for another hour yet, so the strident voices of the fishwives selling the fresh catches from off the boats were not yet to be heard. It made the rest of the scene sound oddly muted, David decided, as he meandered, deliberately casual, towards the post he had selected to watch from today, the end of a stone wall partly obscured by one of the trade stalls.
From that position he had a perfect view of the overseas docks, where the merchantmen from the Empire, the far South, and the Eastern lands all moored. He could see every ship there but thanks to the nearby stall selling fresh fruit and cool drinks, they could not see him. He had several posts scattered around the dockside, but this one was his favourite.
For his self-imposed task the prince had settled on a well-worn but good quality outfit in sober grey and brown, of the kind a minor craftsman or trader might wear. He looked, he hoped, solid, dependable, and instantly forgettable, and he was doing his best to radiate the air of a man at a loose end, content to spend his plentiful free time watching the world go by.
Settling down on his wall, he purchased a tankard of cool fruit juice from the nearby stall and set himself to another day's observation.
There was a new Imperial ship in, he noticed, and a tingle of anticipation ran through him. Maybe this would be the one...? David did not know what he was waiting for, but he had a strong feeling that whatever-it-was would arrive on an Imperial ship. This new ship from Roseheim was one of their smaller trading ships, not one of the great merchantmen that carried most of the Empire's trade. Even as David studied the new arrival the first bits of cargo began to be hauled ashore, crewmen and dockhands mingling as bags, boxes and crates were passed hand to hand to be piled haphazardly on the quay.
An independent trader, then, probably with a captain-owner, carrying goods for different merchants. Hm... David straightened, studying the ship - the Freedom's Banner (why was it so often the smallest ships that had the most vainglorious names?). Often these small independent ships carried passengers as well as cargo... could he be waiting for a someone rather than a something?
On the thought he saw a group of men, led by a tall, broad-shouldered man with a weatherbeaten complexion and flyaway grey-blond hair, appear at the top of the gangplank and begin to disembark, moving with an ease on the swaying, unsteady footing that betrayed their sea-going origins. As soon as their feet touched the stone of the quay the group flung their arms about each other, weeping. Some even fell to their knees to kiss the ground...
These newly-arrived sailors caused something of a sensation. All around David the harbour folk were pointing and gasping, and suddenly two women ran forward, shrieking, "Danny! It's our Danny - after all these years -" and one of the newly-disembarked, a tall red-headed man, ran forward in his turn, tears pouring down his cheeks, to embrace them.
The two women were followed by others, men, women, lanky teenagers, all weeping with joy, all laying claim to one of the group of new arrivals. David saw several youngsters race away into the centre of town to spread the news and knew that before very long the whole of Goldeagle would be a-buzz, celebrating the news of these men's return.
"And who might you be, young man, and why are you watching us so closely?" enquired a gruff voice.
David jumped and turned, to see the tall blond man who seemed to be the leader of the returned Goldeagle sailors standing a few feet away. As David blinked, cursing himself silently for being so distracted that he had failed to notice the man approaching, he saw one bushy eyebrow arch and the broad, weatherbeaten face harden, and unaccountably he felt himself blush. The heir of Blueforest put out of countenance by a nameless Goldeagle sailor! His grandmother would be horrified - but David wasn't. Whoever this man was, he merited David's respect - of that the prince was sure.
"My apologies, honoured sir," David said, with as much self-possession as he could muster. He was preparing to spin a tale about waiting for a relative when he met a steely grey-blue gaze. Clear grey and sharp as needles, those eyes missed little and mistook even less. This was not a time for prevarication.
David took a deep breath. "I... I'm waiting for someone. Or something. I don't know which. Someone - I think the Fae - sent me a .. a message."
Those bristling eyebrows shot up. "You are the one Simon's messenger found? Huh. Couldn't he find a good honest Goldeagle citizen instead of some Blueforest - Torai? I'll never understand the Fae! But there - no doubt he had his reasons.
"Well come along boy, come along, we've no time to waste!"
– And with those words David found himself hurrying along at the side of his new acquaintance while the latter flung a series of short, snappy questions and comments his way which he did his best to answer. Yes, the Duchy of Blueforest was still ruled by the Iron Lady and Goldeagle by the Town Council. Yes, there had been some trouble recently; there had been an attempt to kidnap the heir to the Duchy, an attempt that had used (it was rumoured) Imperial magick -
The stranger stopped abruptly, swinging round so fast that David took an apprehensive step back.
"Imperial magick you say? Do the rumours name the one responsible?"
David gulped, clutching one hand about the talisman Bercow had given him and the other about the Fae token that had been dropped at his feet and sent him to Goldeagle. He trusted the Court Wizard, of course he did, but everything he had read and heard since Nick had saved him had brought him to a realisation of just how powerful thaumaturges were. What if Lord Mandelson heard David mentioning his name, and found him here, a bare few streets away from Mandelson's own house?
David's new acquaintance glared at him for a moment, then his gaze softened and a gleam of humour lit his face. "Worried he might hear you, eh? Very sensible, lad, but if you have that Fae's token about you there's no danger of that!"
"Mandelson!" David blurted. "Honoured sir, it was Lord Mandelson, and his two journeymen," the other man muttered something about knowing them of old even as the prince continued, "The attempt failed because of a lamed horse, but they could have tried again, so easily, if not for the bravery of their kitchen lad, who risked all to give warning!"
"Brave indeed," said his companion seriously. "To stand against such a powerful magician, and his own master... what has happened to the boy?"
David shook his head miserably. "No-one knows," he whispered, and found tears in his eyes as his worry and fear for Nick again overcame him. He turned his head away, fighting for control, and felt a strong, comforting hand on his shoulder.
"You are very concerned for this... kitchen lad," said that rough, warm voice. "Do you know him?"
David sniffed and swallowed. "He is my love," he said fiercely. "I care not that he is but a kitchen boy, and of the Wanderers at that. I know him to be brave and true, bright and kind and loving, and we plighted our troth at Midsummer. And now... he is gone, no-one knows where except that, that Imperial... weasel!"
The hand on his shoulder had tightened almost to bruising when David had mentioned the Wandering Folk. "His name!" the stranger demanded. "What is his name!"
"Nick," said David on a longing sigh, looking away from the other's fierce eyes. "I know no more name than that, but I hoped, I still hope! soon to give him mine..."
There was a wordless exclamation from the other, then some nautical terms which David had never heard before, followed by, "...damn wizard! Taking Nick and turning him into a, a scullery drudge! Such cruelty! That twisted - just because he could, I'll be bound! My joy, my poor lad - a better boy never walked this earth!
"Oh, he'll pay for this the - SIMON! SIMON! SIMON!"
Turning away from a blinking, astonished David, the furious stranger had taken two strides into the centre of the road, shaking his fists at the sky while his words gradually grew louder until he was bellowing with fury. Finally he stood stock still, flung his head back, and shouted that name at the sky, each repeat louder than the one before until David's ears were ringing.
The wide road between the harbour and the main market place was still very quiet, it being only just after dawn; but now a total silence fell. David looked around, feeling the hairs rise on the back of his neck as he saw a man pulling a cart paused in mid-step. Across the road a woman had been dropping the shutters on her shop front; the shutters were frozen in mid-air, the woman's arm caught in mid-motion. And a sparrow taking flight from a scatter of oats was motionless, caught like a fly in amber, a few wingbeats above the ground...
"Er... Honoured sir?"
David was never sure afterwards what he was going to say, but even as the words escaped he was interrupted.
The sun was still low, and the tall houses lining both sides of Market Street cast their long shadows right across the road so David and his companion had been walking in the chill of pre-dawn shade. But all at once it seemed as if the sun had reached its zenith; a very small, very gentle sun, which appeared above their heads in a whirl of golden light and spun down tornado fashion to touch ground in front of the stranger.
The spinning intensified; the whirling shape narrowed and lengthened until it was man-height; and the light glowed briefly brighter and then disappeared, taking the miniature whirlwind with it. Around them, sound came back into the world, and time moved on again. The shop shutters slammed down onto their supports; the man plodded forward with his cart; and the sparrow flew skyward.
Standing where the whirlwind had glowed and spun was a tall, thin man in strangely-cut, pale garments which looked somehow vaguely crumpled. As the new arrival smiled happily at the blond stranger David saw that the ears revealed by the thin fine hair had slight but definite tips... so, this was a Fae then. As if he hadn't guessed already...
"Well met, Paddy!" the Fae was saying cheerfully, but David's new acquaintance was having none of it.
"Don't you take that tone with me, Simon! When I had to go overseas I asked you to keep an eye on my boy, and you promised me - promised me - that you would! And now I find that Nick, my Nick, has been a drudge and a pot boy, doing menial work in the very house he once called home, beaten, taunted, friendless -"
The man called Paddy had choked up by this point, tears of furious reproach running down his weathered cheeks, and the Fae's mobile features changed, radiating sadness and apology.
"Yes, it is true my friend, I failed in my charge, and when I discovered the true state of affairs they were beyond my powers to make right. You know that we Fae are only permitted to interfere in the lives of humans within certain very firmly set boundaries, and one of the strictest laws concerns our dealings with wizards. We cannot interfere with wizards, not in any direct way! Fae powers and the Magickal Arts... do not combine well.
"So when I discovered, on Nick's coming of age, that the poor lad was not only being kept as a pot boy but was under both Control Ward and the Homing Bind, both among the most powerful of Thaumaturgical spells... I could only give him the tools to change his own fate, I could not break that control for him."
"It was you! You gave Nick the ball mask!"
Simon gave David a warm smile. "Yes indeed. It was the desire of his heart, to attend the Midsummer Ball, for once to have a night of happiness and fun in a bleak existence... and to perhaps be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of you from afar. Bless the boy, he never had any thought that his love for you might be returned; he thinks too little of himself for that, but I... yes, I believed that your fates might be intertwined. I am pleased to see that I was correct, Prince."
David saw Paddy's reaction to this revelation of his identity out of the corner of his eye even as he said, blushing, "That ball... meeting Nick... it was the most wonderful night of my life. I am truly grateful, Fae Lord, for your help in causing both of us to meet the one who we are meant to be with... but please, can you not also help us now?"
The Fae was solemn again. "I had no idea that the days had passed by so swiftly!" he said. "Really, things move so fast in the mortal realms, how do you all manage? But when Paddy was given the snuffbox I sensed his presence and knew therefore that something more had gone amiss for Nick.
"I had been searching for you since Midsummer," he added to a Paddy rapidly recovering his composure. "Nick told me you were missing, and that he was in the power of this... Thaumaturge Mandelson."
Fae Simon uttered the name with such distaste that even Paddy gave a short bark of mirthless laughter.
"Mandelson is making powerful enemies," he said. "Good! I think those enemies need to combine forces. Do you not agree, Prince?"
David nodded hastily, still coming to terms with the realisation that this formidable man was Nick's family, and that, if all went well, he would one day be David's father-in-law.
On the whole, he found the prospect moderately terrifying...
"Good!" Paddy was saying. "Then let us go to Castle Torai. I have information for Blueforest and I think you will have information for me. Simon, you can start making up for your neglect of my ward by getting us to Torai as quickly as you can."
Simon brightened. "Of course!" he said eagerly. "My carriage will get you there faster than any mortal steed; I will call her!"
Paddy muttered something under his breath about 'that yellow monstrosity' but nodded, then turned to David.
"Be polite," he said in an undertone. "It will at least be fast..."
At Torai (once he had recovered from the strange dizziness brought on by travel in the outlandish Fae 'carriage') David introduced Paddy and the Fae to Wizard Bercow and to George. Master Merchant Ashdown , for so he formally introduced himself, then told his story. And David understood just why Ashdown had insisted on coming to Castle Torai.
"I had been called away by the news that my biggest ship, the flagship of my trading fleet, had been lost at sea in Imperial waters. I naturally took ship to Roseheim as soon as I could, to see if any of the crew had survived and if so, to bring them home.
"However when I reached the Imperial capital I found both ship and crew in perfect health and most surprised to see me! I therefore began to make plans for my immediate return, for I was suspicious of this spurious message...
"Then an Imperial Court noble called Lord Mandelson contacted me, wishing to purchase the entire cargo of the 'Liberty Bird' and making an initial offer. Naturally we arranged to meet, to conduct negotiations towards a mutually agreeable price, but again I was suspicious. This offer seemed too pat, was coming in too hard on the heels of the false rumour which had brought me to Roseheim in the first place.
"So before visiting Mandelson at his town house, I contacted a few old acquaintances and fellow members of my Guild, asking about him. I heard nothing to truly confirm my suspicions, but there were one or two things which made me... uneasy, to say the least. For a start, why was an Imperial Thaumaturge buying goods in bulk? The 'Bird's cargo had no magickal application, so far as I was aware!
"And then there was the rumour that Mandelson had taken on a commission from someone at Court. And his employer was not another Imperial, as is usual, but was rather from overseas.
"In fact, Lord Mandelson was rumoured to have accepted a commission from a Torai, of the Duchy of Blueforest!"
The exclamation came from George and David together, but Wizard Bercow was not far behind. United in disbelief, the three Torai glared at Ashdown, who simply stared back, then raised one quizzical eyebrow.
"I am not suprised by your scepticism," he said, his voice grave. "But consider; Thaumaturges work for hire. Lord Mandelson has no connection with either Goldeagle or Blueforest, so it follows that it must be his employer who possesses that connection. It is Mandelson who has taken over my estate, but he has not continued in trade and has sold the warehouses and the trading fleet. So he was not interested in becoming a merchant!
"All his efforts since he settled here have been towards winning a social position in Goldeagle which would ensure his inclusion in any guest lists for social events held by the great and the good, such as ... the Torai Court, say?
"I put it to you, gentlemen, that all of Mandelson's efforts have been towards one goal, gaining control of your prince here," Ashdown nodded cursorily towards the silent, intent David, "As he was hired to do!
"I fear you have a traitor in your ranks, gentlemen."
There was a thoughtful silence before David stirred. "All this is most interesting," he observed, "And I am sure that our Eyes and Ears will begin to look into this matter immediately."
He looked over at George, raising his eyebrows, but his friend was already getting to his feet.
"We will indeed look into this straight away," he informed them. "Master Merchant, I thank you. My prince," he looked back at David, his pale face intent, "I hope to have something to report to you and your grandmother very soon.
"My liege... Master Ashdown... Honoured Wizard." Bowing, George left the room, almost running in his desire to begin investigating Ashdown's astonishing news.
The prince turned back to the Goldeagle man sitting calmly at the far end of the table.
"So you have had your surprise, and it has had all the impact you could wish," he said drily. "But what happened to you next?"
Despite himself, a note of anger crept into his voice. "Why did you leave Nick to Mandelson's tender mercies all these years?"
Ashdown flushed. "It was not deliberate, I assure you!" His face bore an expression of mingled guilt and chagrin. "Ever since I found out what that weasel has been inflicting on my boy, I -"
Deliberately he cut himself off and took a deep breath.
"You have a right to know," he said levelly to David, as if they were the only two people in the room. "Very well... I had found nothing to justify my suspicions of Mandelson. After all, what could a plot against Blueforest have to do with me or mine? So I went to meet him as arranged.
"And that is all I remember."
"Ah." For the first time Bercow entered the conversation. "A cantrip of memory loss, or a Control Wand?"
"He used a Control Wand on Nick, according to your Fae friend," David said to Ashdown. The merchant nodded.
"I am aware. I think he used something a little different on me... I woke a few weeks ago, to find myself working on Roseheim docks as a foreman. My gang of dockers were my old crew, and they all recovered their memories at the same time as I... but none of us knew our names or our histories, only that we were from Goldeagle. Our names were restored to us later..."
"Hm," Bercow said. "A Zone of Influence then, or something similar. It will have been cast using a possession of yours as a link; an article of clothing perhaps, or a letter -"
"I did send him a letter confirming the sale of the cargo," Ashdown said, nodding, and Bercow nodded back with a satisfied air. David stirred restlessly.
"This is getting us no nearer to finding Nick!"
Ashdown blinked. "But, but is he not serving as a pot boy at Mandelson's house, the one that was mine, in Goldeagle? Is that not why your wizard is here, to counsel us on the ways in which we can release him, and the rest of the town, from Mandelson's malevolent influence?"
"No!" David almost yelled. "When Nick warned us of the plot against me, Mandelson found out and has sent him away, we don't know where, no-one can find him, Wizard Bercow cannot scry for him - I, I thought you would know where he was, that your Fae -"
Ashdown looked horror-stricken. "But... is he even still alive? Oh, my boy -"
"He lives, I am sure," David hastened to assure him. "We are connected, master merchant. I would know if he was dead, or even if he had been sent elsewhere through some Magickal Gate. That is the gift of my Torai blood. Nick lives, and is in this world."
Ashdown eyed him a moment longer, questioning. David met his gaze, his own as confident as he could make it, and Bercow nodded in immediate agreement. After a moment Ashdown relaxed, though worry and concern were still writ large on his face. "Very well," he said. "I will trust your belief that Nick is alive... but where?"
"Can Simon not find him?"
"We can ask," said Ashdown doubtfully in answer to the prince's question. "While he is still conscience-stricken over not keeping his word to me, at any rate. How long the chastening effect of that will last however -! The Fae can be chancy allies."
The Fae indeed arrived as soon as Ashdown went out into the castle gardens, where a light breeze was blowing, and called him, but when asked where Nick might be his long face fell.
"I'm sorry, Paddy," he said sadly, "I have no idea. He is beyond my sight. Since he gave away my snuffbox I cannot find him."
"Snuffbox?" asked David and Ashdown together. Simon explained; that it negated Mandelson's magic and that it could not be taken from Nick without his consent, and Ashdown gasped.
"The snuffbox? This snuffbox?"
"Well, yes," responded Simon, puzzlement clear in his voice as Paddy held out a beautifully enamelled blue and yellow, tiny wrought gold box. "I thought you knew. Nick must have given it to that unknown sailor who passed it on to you."
"No," said Paddy grimly, staring down at the small bright box in the palm of his hand. "When that young sailor was calling me, by name... when he was fighting to reach me... he knew me, knew me well, and I assumed then that when I got my name back I would know him too... then he threw me the box, and I remembered everything. My name, my crew's names, our history...
"And yet he was still strange to me. That sailor's face... I knew I had never seen him before in my life. And is that not peculiar, when he seemingly knew me so well?"
"You are saying that Mandelson put a seeming on Nick, to change his appearance?" The Fae looked confused - and offended. "Not possible, not while Nick had my talisman!"
"You did say before that wizard's magick and the powers of the Fae did not mix well," David put in, as diplomatically as possible. He was remembering George's report of the strange young man sold to the Imperial ship... "Shall we ask Wizard Bercow?"
When the situation was explained to him the court Wizard looked thoughtful. "It is not impossible, to cast a seeming on one protected by the Fae," he allowed, "But it is extremely difficult. It takes a supremely skilled practitioner of the Art and a great deal of power."
"Well, we know Mandelson is skilled," David pointed out, "And he has those two journeymen of his..."
Reluctantly the wizard nodded. "Yes, that might indeed have been done," he allowed reluctantly, and sighed. "I must apologise, your Highness. I had not considered this possibility at all, and yet it suits what I have learned of Mandelson. At all times he prefers subtlety over brute force, and the indirect and complex over the straightforward or the simple."
"No-one else had thought of it either," David pointed out, but Bercow shook his head, his face wreathed in self-directed anger.
"No, my prince. I am your Court Wizard, I am not only supposed to be skilled in my chosen field, I should also be knowledgeable in all branches of the Art, including those I do not practice! It was for me to consider all the possible paths Mandelson might take, not just the most likely one!
"And so I have wasted time and resources looking for one human with a particular cast of features, instead of casting my net more widely, to look for all those with signs of enchantment about them, or..."
"Enough!" snapped Ashdown. "We waste time in blaming ourselves!"
"I agree," David intervened. "John, can you not then scry for someone who looks the way Ashdown has described? Or even better, to search out all those with signs of enchantment about them, if your merfolk can see those?"
Bercow was nodding eagerly, turning towards his scrying globe even as David spoke.
"Yes, yes, my prince, I will be about it right away, I am sure that this time..."
His voice faded into absorbed silence as he bent over his great globe, and David and Ashdown settled down to wait, as patiently as they could - which was, not at all.
The merfolk's replies returned even more quickly than Bercow anticipated, and the news was both good and bad. The young man sold at Goldeagle docks was indeed the same young man who had given the snuffbox to Ashdown. The one who had called Ashdown by name, and had seemed to know him...
"It was Nick," the merchant said, suddenly looking old and grey. "It was my boy, and I did not know him! And now he is back in Mandelson's power, without even the snuffbox to help him!"
He broke down in tears, and David wept with him, each finding comfort in the presence of another who loved the young man who had sacrificed so much, for his love and for his guardian.