When the Red Rose sailed into Goldeagle port on the wings of the first of the autumn storms, Captain Harold was not pleased to see Lord Mandelson and his two journeymen standing on the docks waiting for him. He did not have much attention to spare for the witchy, however, engaged as he was with ensuring the Rose's safe maneouvring into dock with a damaged tiller and a broken fore mast.
The fierce sou' wester had snapped the top few foot of mast clean away, and the rigging for the fore tops'l had gone with it. The captain was only thankful that his youngest crew member had not gone too; he had been up there tying down the sail only minutes before the storm had hit, and had barely reached the deck before the first gust of wind had struck. Not that the boy had seemed much shaken; he was a quiet and sullen lad these days, not seeming to care whether he lived or died. Very different from the bright and eager boy that the witchy had sold him - at these very docks too!
No sooner had they docked than the thaumaturge boarded, ignoring all attempts from Captain Harald's officers to block his way. Harold watched him come, refusing to meet him halfway, and by the time Mandelson had climbed the ladder to the poop deck his dark eyes were snapping with ill-disguised irritation.
Harold waited as long as he dared before asking his visitor's business, but abruptly tiring of the game - and remembering that it could be unwise to anger those skilled in the arts of magick - he said simply,
"So, milord, why be you here?"
Mandelson's irritation vanished, to be replaced by his usual cold civility. Sweeping an insincere bow, he said in silky tones,
"So pleased you have finally remembered your manners, Captain. But as a fellow Imperial among these outland barbarians, I am minded to let it go... assuming that we can agree good terms."
"Good terms fer what?"
"That should be 'for whom'," Mandelson told him. "That slave boy I sold you some months ago - I do hope that he is still on board?"
Captain Harold snorted. "Him! Yes, he's still 'ere. Miserable little bastard that he be. Good worker though, an' got the makin's of a decent sailor."
"Do not attempt to talk up the price," Mandelson's voice was cold. "I well know that the lout has no talent and no skills for ought beyond trouble making and treachery.
"However, circumstances now require that I bring him back - regrettably - into my household where I can keep him under my eye. I will therefore buy him from you for the price you gave me.
"Please do not attempt to bargain. It will not turn out well for you..."
When Nick was hauled out of the hold and bundled down the gangplank with no explanation beyond a hurried, "Sorry matey, the cap'n's sold yer", he felt little shock or surprise on seeing Mandelson waiting on the quayside... but then, these days he felt little about anything.
When he'd thrown the pouch containing his talisman to his guardian, he'd also thrown away his feelings; his capacity for joy, for delight, for - yes, for love... all had gone, disappeared behind that glass curtain in his memory. The world was a grey, bleak place to him these days, and the only feelings that felt real to him were the darker ones; fear, grief, loneliness... misery...
Somehow Nick had always known that he would see the thaumaturge again, though. That it would be back in Goldeagle, and that Mandelson was still clearly a respected citizen here; yes, that did hurt. Maybe Ashdown had not understood him, and had not opened the pouch. Maybe he was still working on Roseheim docks, nameless and lost...
"He looks healthy enough," Mandelson said, raking Nick from head to foot with that cold, critical gaze.
"You have been too indulgent with him. No matter! You -" he pinned Nick with his gaze, "follow me, and be quick!"
As he spoke the thaumaturge turned on his heel and strode away, and Nick felt that old familiar tugging sensation in his chest, pulling him to follow... so, he was once again bound to Mandelson. The spell of obedience had previously been confining him to the Red Rose, but now he felt nary a tug towards the ship as he walked silently behind his master back to the house on Cowley Street.
Once there he was despatched to the kitchen, where he was greeted with a brisk box about the ears and put to work, though it was clear that no-one on the household staff other than Mandelson and his journeymen recognised him, or cared to ask his name.
And that night, as he curled up in his old place by the hearth, Nick even found himself wondering if lovely, wonderful David, and the Midsummer Ball, and his Fae Godfather, had all been some wonderful, impossible dream...
He cried himself to sleep.
"My prince! David! I have news!"
George burst into the room and David looked up from his reading.
"What is it, George? Anything will be better than this -" with a gesture of disgust, David pushed the closely-written sheet of paper away from him. It slid across the desk and George caught it just before it fell to the floor.
"Another refusal to see what's under their noses from the good Aldermen of Goldeagle?" he enquired, briefly diverted by the sight of the Goldeagle seal, a soaring eagle stamped in yellow wax, affixed to the bottom of the document.
The prince nodded gloomily. "Not only do they refuse to see anything suspicious in the actions of 'one of their most active and worthy Council members'", he quoted by memory from the letter, "But they have also declared Master Ashdown to be an imposter, despite the united evidence of his crew and his crew's relatives! They cannot see what is under their very noses, George; it's as if they've all been put under a spell of, of blindness or something! It's so incredibly frustrating!"
"Well, perhaps they have been put under a full enchantment of some sort, and not merely manipulated," suggested George. "Have you spoken to Bercow?"
"I... now I come to think of it, no," responded David, an arrested expression on his face. "You know, George, I think you might have struck on something there. I was so focussed on the diplomatic route I never considered that Mandelson might have used his powers on more people than Ashdown... and Nick."
The prince's voice dropped on the last, and George, seeing the sadness begin to come over his friend's face, hastened to divert him.
"My prince, I said I had news," he said, deliberately cheerful. "My agent at Goldeagle docks has just sent word. Mandelson was there this morning, to meet an Imperial merchantman called the Red Rose. And when he left, he took a young man with him. A very shabby young man, tall, thin, dark-haired and very tanned. A young man, in fact, who looked very like Master Ashdown's description of the lad who gave him the snuffbox...
"It seems that Mandelson has heard of Master Ashdown's return, and wishes to keep Nick under his eye lest Ashdown find him!"
David was on his feet by the time George had finished speaking, his face alight with mingled hope and fear. Reaching out, he grasped George's arms almost bruisingly tight, shaking him.
"Truly? Oh, is this true, George? My Nick is truly back? How can we, I mean, we have to get him out of Mandelson's grasp, I don't care how, but -"
"Be easy," said George soothingly. "You know we have planned for this. I have already sent to Master Ashdown; I need only your assent to send out the Heralds."
David let go, with an embarrassed laugh. "Yes. My apologies, my friend. You are right; it is time. At last, at last I can let myself hope...
"Make the arrangements. Send out the Court Heralds, and make sure that the chief of them is dispatched to Goldeagle. All the markets, George, not only the main one. We must give them no excuse to pretend ignorance!"
The Court Heralds of Blueforest were a magnificent sight when in their full ceremonial livery, and the one who rode into Goldeagle's Great Market that afternoon was no exception. Riding a pure white horse covered in blue and gold barding, the herald, a tall, slim woman with bright gold hair worn in a thick plait wrapped around her head crown-fashion, was wearing a gold-embroidered blue velvet tabard over blue breeches and black boots polished to a mirror-like shine. At her side was her bugler, similarly clad but with less gold embroidery, and riding a black horse.
Moving in such unison that the two horses were in perfect step with each other, amid a spreading silence as the citizenry saw them pass and turned to watch, the Herald trotted slowly towards the raised dais in the centre of the market place where the old Speaking Staff, known as the Black Rod, towered over the rows of stalls and dickering traders; the place from which announcements, regulations and news both good and bad had been read out, time out of mind.
Reaching the dais, the Herald turned her horse to face outward and nodded to her bugler. The imperative notes rang across the market place, and complete silence fell as the gathered citizens waited to see what Blueforest had to tell them.
"Hear ye, hear ye!" The Herald's voice was full, rich, and trained to carry, and it rang across the wide square to rebound off the surrounding buildings.
"Be it known that on Midsummer's Day our Prince and Heir to the Duchy of Blueforest, the most noble David of the line of Torai, plighted his troth and gave his heart, as was his right and the tradition of his blood, to a young man of Goldeagle.
"Through the use of the most foul of magickal arts, the prince's chosen consort was then reft from him and hidden by use of uncanny sorcery, leaving behind only a ball mask gifted to the young man by his friends among the Fae.
"Prince David declares therefore, that this mask is to be taken to every household in Blueforest and Goldeagle, and every young man and woman of marriageable age is to attempt to put it on.
"The power of the Fae will reveal all!"
The bugler blew the call which indicated the announcement was at an end, and the Herald departed the way she had come - leaving behind her a market a-buzz with excitement and speculation.
"Do you think it worked? Will Mandelson have heard?"
At the back of the crowd two anonymously-dressed citizens were standing. The older of the two snorted in response to the younger one's question. "I don't doubt he's heard, lad. The question is whether the mention of the mask will spook him into running, or whether the arrogant bastard will stick it out.
"My money's on him staying put. He's an Imperial, for a start; he'll never believe that any mere outlander could get the better of him, Fae-friend or no. And he has yet to fulfil his commission, and one thing that Imperial thaumaturges pride themselves on is in never failing to deliver... are you any closer to finding out who your traitor is?"
David shook his head. "Nothing yet. The head of our delegation in Roseheim, Sir Blair of Sedge's Field, is investigating quietly, but the need to avoid scandal means that matters are proceeding at a snail's pace."
He shrugged. "If I am honest, I do not care overly much. Mandelson has tried, and failed; and we are warned. I am more concerned about Nick. This has to work, Paddy. It has to!"
"Well then, let's get to it!" was the robust response, and together the two men turned and left.
The delegation from Blueforest which included David, George, and an Ashdown disguised as David's footman, carrying the mask on a velvet cushion, arrived at the house on Cowley Street that very evening. They had started a few streets away and worked their way towards their target, trying the mask on the young men and women just as the Herald had described (it had fitted none of them, of course). They had little hope of fooling Mandelson by doing this; it was an attempt to reassure the Goldeagle Council that all the prince was interested in was finding his consort-to-be. So far it seemed to be working; there had been no objections from the Aldermen or the Speaker, at any rate.
Sweeping in through the great arched gate which Mandelson had added to the house, the Blueforest delegation pulled up at the foot of the steps with a flourish. Before Ashdown, in his guise of footman, had a chance to knock on the front door it was flung open and Mandelson descended, flanked by his journeymen.
"Gentlemen. And Your Highness," he said, bowing to the exact depth required for royalty, with the precisely correct flourishes and gestures, but somehow still imbuing the whole courtesy with cold contempt. Behind him his journeymen followed suit, but with much less subtlety.
David stepped forward and bowed in his turn, taking pleasure in making it as shallow as he dared and barely nodding in acknowledgement of the journeymen. "Honoured Sir," he said curtly, refusing to give the other the courtesy of a title. "And you are?"
Anger flared in Mandelson's eyes at the insult from someone that he considered an uncivilised outlander barely two steps above barbarian, but he retained his self-control.
"I am Lord Mandelson of Roseheim, Imperial Thaumaturge and Alderman of Goldeagle Council, at your service," he said in frigid tones. "To what do I owe the inestimable honour of a visit from so exalted a personage?"
George stepped forward. "As an Alderman of the Council, you must have heard the announcement from the Blueforest heralds this afternoon. It was cried through all the markets and the main streets as well. We are here to carry out that mission, just as we have done at every house on this road."
Mandelson bowed again. "But of course," he said mildly. "Charles... Alastair. Step forward, if you please, and try on this... Fae mask."
One after the other, the two journeymen perfunctorily tried to don the mask. Naturally it fit neither of them.
"And the rest of your household?" asked George. Shaking his head, Mandelson was clearly about to reply in the negative when George added, "I cannot believe that so great a household as this possesses no servants of marriageable age..."
Mandelson hesitated; then seemed to give in. "Oh, very well. Alastair, call the valets. Let us get this charade over with so I can get back to my work!"
As the young men emerged, one by one, and tried on the mask - reluctantly or eagerly but none with any success - George kept up a continual stream of inane chatter, pretending to encourage one, mocking another, anything to keep Mandelson's attention on the activity taking place in front of him while Ashdown slipped away on a mission of his own.
And then Ashdown was back, and Mandelson was saying, "That is the last of our servants. It seems that you will have to look elsewhere, your Highness."
That was when Ashdown took a hand. Striding forward until he was almost nose to nose with the Imperial, he snapped, "You damned liar! Where are your grooms? Where are your kitchen staff - why have we not seen them?"
And raising his voice, he called them forward from the rear courtyard where he had found all access to the front barred; save for the small side door in the stable block which Ashdown knew of old, and which he had put to good use to call everyone out to try the mask.
When he saw the young men and women emerge, Mandelson began to raise his crystal-headed cane, only to freeze in astonished fury as Ashdown placed his own hand on the crystal. There was a shower of sparks, and with an exclamation of pain Mandelson jerked the staff out of Ashdown's grasp, then stood wringing his hand, a pained expression on his face.
Ashdown held the snuffbox up in front of Mandelson's eyes. "This blocks you," he said softly, the menace clear in his tones. "Would you like to find out what else it can do?"
The thaumaturge glared, but stayed silent as one after the other, his remaining servants tried the mask. Finally, there was just one boy left, a grimy, lanky, black-haired lad who was visibly trembling with excitement, made to stand and watch as the rest of the household went ahead of him. When his turn came David waved him forward, his eyes full of eagerness...
"I knew," David said afterward. "I knew you, Nick, through that seeming, past the spells and the magick. As soon as I met your eyes, I knew..."
The mask slipped on like a dream. As it slid on to and over the boy's face, there was a flicker - then a shiver, of red-and-silver light - and then, suddenly... there was Nick. Tanned by a fiercer sun than ever they had in Goldeagle, weatherbeaten by sea and sun, calloused and scarred and grimy... but still - Nick. His Nick...
With an inarticulate cry, David flung his arms about his love and forgot the world, for he held his own world, warm and willing and joyful, in his arms. David hugged and hugged, and felt that he would never let go... until he turned his head and met Nick's lips with his own, and another joy was added to the many...
... and so they kissed, and kissed, and might be kissing still, were it not that Nick's guardian and David's friend felt that there were still some matters to bring to a satisfactory end.
"So, you Imperial mage-for-hire, what is your explanation for this?" demanded Ashdown. "A merchant's apprentice sent to the kitchens and then illegally sold into slavery. A Master Merchant put under enchantment and his goods and trade reft from him by arcane means. I think that the Merchants' Guild will have something to say about such appalling contraventions of their Articles. Do you really want your compatriots at Court in Roseheim to hear of this?"
"The Guild is in the process of advancing the Emperor an extremely large loan for his latest building project," George chimed in. "I do not think he would wish for anything to jeopardise his good standing with them!"
"Do you think he would wish to hear of his thaumaturge's latest venture, George?"
"Oh, I think so, my prince. Yes indeed. Shall we send a report to our ambassador?"
"Ha! Your message will achieve nothing!" spat Mandelson - pale with shock and anger, but recovering fast. "You outlanders! So very ignorant of the true state of affairs! What, do you think all your people are so unthinkingly loyal to Blueforest?"
If he was hoping for surprise, or shock, he did not get it. Keeping one arm around Nick's shoulders, enjoying the feel of his love close by, while Nick slipped an arm surreptitiously around David's waist, the prince responded in a bored tone,
"Oh, you mean the traitor in our diplomatic team at the Roseheim court, the one who engaged you to embark on this whole mess?"
Mandelson hissed with anger, chagrin writ large on his narrow features, but then Alastair leaned forward and murmured a few words in his ear, and he straightened, gathering his self-possession. "You know there is a traitor... but you do not know who he is. I am willing to bargain. A name for my freedom, and no word to the Guild of what has taken place here."
"You will return Ashdown's goods and property? You will resign from the Town Council and leave Goldeagle, never to return?"
Mandelson gave a jerky, furious nod of assent to each question, and finally David turned to Nick.
"It is you who has been most wronged, my love," he said quietly. "Do you wish to see this snake punished as he deserves?"
Nick looked at Mandelson, seeming all at once somehow diminished, and at the two journeymen who had tormented him for so long, now watching him so anxiously; then turned back to David, who was watching him with eyes of love. No matter what he decided, he knew, David would stand by him; because David loved him. And that seemed the greatest miracle of all.
"So long as they all three leave these lands for ever," Nick said, his eyes brimful of happiness, "I care not where they go or what they do. Let them leave, David. You need not make any bargain for their departure though. I know the name of your traitor... It is Sir Blair of Sedge's Field.
"You should have been more careful of your papers when I was cleaning your rooms," he added to a gaping Mandelson, as George first gasped in shock at the revelation, then, eyes narrowing in thought, began to nod slowly to himself.
"But then, you never believed that I had wit enough to read, did you?"
Nick turned back to David, moving into his arms and closing his eyes. "Now send them away, my love. I don't ever want to see them again... and besides," he lifted his head from David's shoulder, his eyes sparkling with mischief, "Don't we have a wedding to plan?"
So they did. And when that wedding took place, it was the biggest, noisiest, merriest wedding that Blueforest or Goldeagle had seen for many a year. Master Ashdown stood for Nick, and George stood for David. Wizard Bercow proclaimed the rite, and Simon provided Fae musicians for the dance and the wedding feast.
And when they left for a honeymoon at sea on Master Ashdown's newly-rediscovered and re-purchased Liberty Bird, it was in Simon's beloved yellow 'carriage'... much to David's chagrin!
And so they lived Happily Ever After, and the tale of Cindernick ends here; but the tale of Nick the beloved consort of Prince (and later Duke) David of Blueforest, went on for many, many more happy years after that.