Of Ghosts and Moon Shadows

Part five:

The guards didn't bother to asking before they let Bastian into the room. The first Prince and Lady Beatrice were having a late morning luncheon at a little table by a set of long windows. Bastian caught the prince fondly stroking the back of the lady's pale hand, a smitten look on his face that was a nice change from the exhaustion that was usually written deep into the pores of his skin. Beatrice was looking lovely in a dress of ethereal silver that matched the little flowers and vines winding through the wallpaper that gave the room its name. The door shut behind him with an audible click, and the pair looked up, surprised.

"Captain," The prince greeted pleasantly, curious smile quirking at his lips. "What brings you here?"

"Unpleasant reasons, I'm afraid." Bastian replied, honestly sorry to be having the conversation. He had a certain regard for the first prince, who was always pleasant despite his position and declining health. It seemed like Lady Beatrice was the only reason seemed to smile, which made what Bastian was going to have to do all that much harder.

"I need to speak to Lady Beatrice in regards to the attempts on your brother's life, Highness." Bastian said, mouth in a grim line.

The prince's smile faded instantly, crease forming between his brows. "And why right do you have to do this?"

"Your father gave me permission to question any and all who need be so for the culprit to be caught. That includes, of course, your lady." Bastian replied.

"Are you trying to imply that she is responsible for this?" The prince asked outrage clear on his face. "I can assure you that is nonsense!"

"I'm not implying anything, Highness," Bastian said, voice carefully calm. "I am simply in need of answers."

The prince looked at him wearily, hand gripping Beatrice's. She looked concerned, herself, in a demure way that reminded Bastian the reason he found women unappealing. Not that he disliked her, in fact in the few instances, he had been around her she seemed quite pleasant, but there was no fire in her – no spark. Beatrice didn't even bother to defend herself, she let the prince do it for her. She was like a little glass figurine, meant only to be looked at but never touched. It was why she would make a perfect queen.

"It is a routine questioning, my lord, rest assured that I will be questioning the rest of the household as well." Bastian lied, easily. The Prince sighed and sat back in his chair, looking tired. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with his index finger and his thumb, before meeting Bastian's stare once more. "Alright then, ask your questions. Just be quick about it."

Bastian nodded, before turning to the lady.

"I have heard a rumor that there is a stranger living in your household, is that true?"

Lady Beatrice looked confused for a moment, porcelain brow crumpling slightly. "Yes, it is true." She said, softly. "Lord Godricson owns a large plantation to the south, he is negotiation trade with my father."

"And how long has he been there?" Bastian asked.

"Not long," The girl said, starting to look concerned. "Only two or three weeks, at most."

Bastian quirked an eyebrow. "And how does this man spend his days?"

"I don't know," The girl said, frowning. "I am either in the palace or in my room so I don't know his goings ons, but I do know that he spends a great deal of time in father's office."

"It is a funny thing," Bastian said clasping his arms behind his back. "I grew up in the south and worked on a lot of plantations, but I don't recall ever hearing of a Lord Godricson. It seems odd that I wouldn't have, considering the amount of land this man would have to control to be in business with a lord as powerful as your father."

"What are you implying?" The girl asked, and Bastian was surprised to see a hint of steel in her eyes.

"Is this man Eastern?" Bastian asked, bluntly.

The girl was quiet for a long moment, eyes wide. Her hands started to shake, and she quickly dropped them to her lap. "I… I don't know." She said finally, her honey-colored eyes on the ground. "I… father hates Easterners. He won't even let us read books about them. I wouldn't know what an Easterner was like if I saw one. But Godricson is very strange, not like any lord I've ever met."

"How so?" Bastian asked, eyes narrowing.

"He doesn't say a word," The girl said, fixing him with her wide-eyed stare. "He never says anything, just looks at us with these cold eyes. The servants are so frightened of him that they won't even go into his room to change his sheets." She bit her lip, glancing around the room before looking back at Bastian. " And he has this tattoo – father doesn't know that I saw it but I did. It's on his hand, he usually wears a bandage over it. One day he and father were having an argument in his office and I was walking by when Lord Godricson stormed out. His hand was uncovered and I saw it – it was like it had been burned into the palm of his hand."

"What did it look like?"

"Like a diamond," Lady Beatrice said, tracing the shape in the air with her finger, brow screwed up as she tried to recall the memory. "With a circle in the middle. I think there might have been some kind of lettering etched into it, but I only saw a glimpse of it." She was silent for a long moment, her hand coming up to cover her mouth. "I thought it was odd but… could father really be…?"

"Someone has used Eastern magic against Prince Tristan," Bastian said, moving towards the girl. He bent down to his knee and looked her in the eye. "I have reason to suspect your father is involved, but I don't know why. If I am going to find out, I am going to need help – your help."

"I can't – he's my father." The girl said. Tears welled up in her eyes like tiny diamonds glistening on her lashes.

"If your father is found guilty, he will be hung for treason." Bastian said, as gently as he could. "The fallout from his conviction would be immense – the king would be well within his rights to call off your marriage under suspicion of your involvement." He heard the prince take a breath, but pressed on. "But if you help me, I will see to it that it is known that you are innocent in this."

Lady Beatrice stared at him for a long moment. The tears in her eyes spilled down her cheeks leaving wet patches on her dress. She took a shaking breath and looked at the prince. He looked back at her, his ashen face grave, before nodding once.

"Alright," She said softly. "I will help you."

The prince sighed, "What must we do?"

That evening Bastian found himself in one of the music rooms. Tristan was practicing one of the new dances that were fashionable amongst the ladies of the court. If there was one thing that Bastian had learned in his time in the presence of high society it was that whatever was deemed fashionable by the women would inevitably become fashionable with the men, either by choice or by force. Bastian didn't quite get it, but he had come to accept it as the nature of things.

He watched Tristan dance in silent fascination. The boy was a sight, even though he danced without music or a partner. His hair was tied back in a tight braid that whipped around him as he spun, long sinuous limbs moving as gracefully as he remembered from the day they sparred. He knew what the king must have felt watching Tristan's mother dance, for if Tristan only possessed a percentage of her grace then she must have moved the room to silence. The boy caught his eye as he did a particularly complex move and smiled. Bastian averted his gaze, instead focusing his attention on the piano he leaned upon. It was a beautiful instrument, all inlayed wood and glossy black finish, but he expected nothing less than the finest for the royal household. It was a humbling thought, to imagine all the great musicians who must have played it.

Bastian made his way to the bench and opened up the cover, reveling beautifully ages ivory keys. He touched them with his calloused fingers, feeling pitifully groomed - like a farm boy in the salon of a duchess. He wondered briefly if he would hurt the handsome instrument just by touching it, but he knew that that would be impossible. The piano was obviously well over a century old and had probably been played by countless people, his touch would not harm it in the least.

"Do you play?" Tristan asked, causing Bastian to start a little. The boy had come to lean on the piano while Bastian's mind was elsewhere and he looked down at him with amused eyes, tapered chin resting on the palm of his hand.

Bastian nodded. "My uncle made both Alistair and I learn it, though he took to it better than me. My fingers are far too clumsy."

"Play me something," The boy goaded smiling.

Bastian shook his head. "It's been years since I touched a piano, I'm not sure I remember how."

"Come on," The boy said, frowning in a way that made him look like he were almost pouting. "Just try."

Bastian sighed and sat down on the bench. Dropping his fingers to the keys, he hesitated for a moment as he tried to recall the notes into his head. Once he had a certain grasp on them, he started to play. His performance was shaky at first, but as he moved further and further along the piece he started to fall back into a rhythm that he thought he had forgotten. The piece he played was one he remembered from his childhood. It had fascinated him because it was so mournful, such a deep outflow of emotions that he could scarcely comprehend that someone had attached them to something as insubstantial.

When he reached a point where he no longer knew the notes, he let his hands fall to his lap and glanced up at Tristan. The boy's expression was strange, unreadable, before a smile curled at the edges of his lips. "Your fingers aren't clumsy at all," He said, amused. "You played well, for a soldier." He teased.

Bastian frowned. "I was not always a soldier, you know."

"I know," The prince said, with another little smile. "Come now, did they teach you how to dance in that fancy finishing school of yours?" He said, moving back to the center of the room. When Bastian didn't follow, he beckoned for him to come, eyes firm in his demand. Bastian sighed and did as he was told, coming to stop opposite the prince. The center of the room was bare wood flooring, and the only source of light was the lamp they had brought in with them. It was achingly intimate, and Bastian fought the urge to fidget.

"I can't dance," He said, firmly, mouth set in an unhappy line.

"You can fight, can't you?" The boy asked tipping his chin up a little to meet Bastian's eye. "It's essentially the same thing. It's about anticipating the other's moves. Come here," He said, beckoning Bastian closer. He shuffled foreword, eyes on the ground. When the prince took his hand and put it on his waist, he looked up, startled. Tristan shot him a little grin and took his other hand in his own. Bastian had only a moment or two to marvel at how his hand seemed to engulf the others, before he was pulled into a dance.

At first it was little more than the prince pulling and pushing him around, which might have been comical if Bastian hadn't of been so uncomfortable with the situation. Eventually, though, he started to catch onto the steps and felt confident enough to look up into Tristan's eyes. He was clearly enjoying himself, and Bastian couldn't find it in his heart to be annoyed with him. So he settled for enjoying how good the boy felt in his arms, how well the soft curve of his slender waist fit in his hand.

Eventually their dancing slowed to a stop, leaving them in an odd sort of embrace. The prince let out a soft little sigh and leaned his forehead against Bastian's collarbone. "I'm so tired," He murmured against the fabric of Bastian's jacket. The dark-haired man took his hand off the boy's waist and placed it on the prince's upper arm, thumb rubbing soothing circles over the shirt. "It will pass." Bastian said softly, biting back the urge to burry his face in the boy's hair. "When this is all over, the nightmares will go away."

Tristan shook his head. "I feel like they're inside me, even when I'm awake."

Bastian frowned. "We're going to beat Rowling at his own game. I swear to you that he'll be in the gallows long before I ever see him hurt you again."

"Thank you," Tristan murmured.

The boy clung to him for another long moment, breath warm against his neck. Bastian kept carefully still, like he was balancing on the point of a needle, and if he made any sudden movements he would cause the moment to come crumbling down around them. He offered as much comfort at propriety allowed, and he could feel the line up against his feet. How easy would it be to cross? All he would have to do was cup that face in his hand, pull Tristan up into a kiss that would sear him right to his core.

But he didn't. There were too many reasons to count and the all screamed at him to remember his place. The prince was too young to handle the fall out that a relationship between the two of them would inevitably cause. There was already so much against him, and something like this would only fan the flames of all those who made life difficult for him. Even if Bastian had to suffer in silence, he would, for Tristan's sake.

Bastian pulled away with one last squeeze to the boy's shoulder. "Come now, we should get you to bed, it's late."

Tristan nodded.

All Souls day dawned bright and crisp and melted into a fine evening. The air was a buzz of talking and laughter, excitement and energy sweeping up any around in its tidal wave. The nobility had a habit of throwing a party at every opportunity, probably out of a desperate need to break the monotony of their decidedly blessed lives, so even a somber holiday like All Souls was met with fervor. Amongst the commoners, the holiday was a way for people to honor the dead and make their amends, for it was said that it was the one day that the spirits were allowed to walk the earth once more. While it was traditional for children on this day to wear carved masks to prevent them from having their essence stolen by unhappy spirits, the nobility had decided to turn the holiday into an excuse for a masquerade. Everyone who was anyone would go to the king's ball in their finest costume to dance and gamble as well as indulge in other, more scandalous things.

Except for Lord Rowling, Bastian thought with a frown. Apparently then man hated parties, and instead would be spending All Souls with his wife on a remote island in the south, according to Lady Beatrice. The news put a wrench in his plans, but there wasn't much that could be done about the situation until after the festivities were over. The king had forbidden Bastian from being outside the castle until all the guests came and went, due to the high risk to Tristan. Bastian didn't know why the king didn't just cancel the damn ball if it left his son so vulnerable.

Bastian straightened his god-forsaken mask again, feeling distinctly out of place. He'd dressed simply for the occasion, refusing any and all frivolous costumes that Tristan and the royal tailor had pushed his way. He hadn't wanted to dress up at all – he wasn't there to party, but Tristan aptly pointed out that he would stand out more with a costume than without, so he had grudgingly agreed. The costume that he had settled upon was simple – a plain black mask, dark cloak, boots and trousers. He kept his usual sword at his waist and a dark hat on his head - anyone would overlook him in favor of the more gaudy costumes, which suited him just fine.

Prince Tristan, though, was expected to impress. His costume was a rich blue-purple jacket with black velvet cuffs and lapels. His trousers were the same inky black as the cuffs and his dark boots were shined to a mirror finish. The boy's mask was the same material as his jacket, with pearl and sapphire trimmings, and his hair was left unbound save for a few small braids with silver trinkets woven in that made a delicate noise when he walked. Bastian wasn't exactly sure what his costume was, but as with everything the prince wore, he looked stunning.

Bastian stood at the edge of the room, watching the prince dance with other members of the court. The music coming from the ensemble was upbeat and loud enough that the whole room seemed to be speaking over it. The resulting effect left Bastian feeling a distinct headache forming and he wished, not for the first time that night, that he weren't there. It didn't help him any that he couldn't seem to stop thinking about that night he spent in the music room with the prince. Since then Tristan had become more tactile, often putting his hand on Bastian's arm while they were speaking, or resting his head on his shoulder in a moment of fatigue. It left him frustrated and irritated and a million other emotions that he couldn't express. He had resolved to keep a firm grip on his desires, but the boy was making it extraordinarily hard for him to keep their relationship platonic.

Sometimes he thought that Tristan knew about his feelings, but he crushed the idea almost as soon as it popped into his mind - there was no way that was true, and certainly no way that Bastian was going to let it happen.

The band started playing a slower tune as Bastian felt someone come up beside him. His eyes lingered a moment on Tristan's back as he took the hand of a noblewoman in a deep red dress and flamboyant, bird-encrusted hat. They started their dance, and he turned his eyes upon the stranger. The man wore a white and black striped jacket and brown, quarter-length gloves. His mask was made entirely of tawny hawk feathers, complemented by a crown of white-blond curls. Even in the semi-darkness Bastian could see that the man's eyes were a strikingly azure blue past the mask.

"Why have you spent the whole evening by the wall?" He asked in an attractive, soft voice. "If you do not like the dancing, then you should go to the gabling hall."

Bastian frowned. "I'm not fond of either," He said with a shrug. "But if I am going to spend my evening with one or the other, I would rather see foolish people dancing than idiots loosing their money."

The man laughed. "So which lady roped you into coming, then?"

Bastian shrugged again, absently. "I don't have a lady."

"So then it was your parents?"

Bastian narrowed his eyes. "And why is it you want to know so badly?"

The man's smile slipped from his lips. "I was just curious." He said, looking away.

Bastian sighed. "My Lord is at this party and I am here to make sure that no one sticks a knife in him when he indulges into too much wine." He half-lied, crossing his arms over his chest. Tristan didn't drink – the taste of wine didn't agree with him.

The man snorted, leaning against the wall at their back. "I don't envy you, then." He said, with a laugh. He was silent for a moment, contemplative, before turning his brilliant eyes back on Bastian, devious smile curling on his lips. "Say, want to leave that silly lord of yours to gets what's coming to him and go have some fun?"

Bastian frowned at the no-so-subtle come on and turned his eyes back on the crowd. Tristan was dancing with another lady in a green dress, spinning her around. She was laughing, color high on her cheeks. He shook his head. "I can't abandon my post."

"You sure?" The man asked, full lower lip pouting attractively. Bastian was tempted, to say the least, the last few weeks leaving him at his wits end. Anonymous sex was the best thing to relieve his tension, but he knew he would spent the whole time wishing it were Tristan below him. He knew that afterward he would slip into a moody haze, too disgusted wit himself to even bother being civil.

"Yes," Bastian replied, trying to be gentle about the whole thing.

Instead of being put off the man took him by surprise and closed the gap between them in one lightening fast movement. The blond crushed their mouths together with a strength he hadn't known could come from such a slight frame and Bastian felt the breath leave his lungs. "It is a shame," The man murmured against his lips, hand reaching up to touch Bastian's cheek. His perfect northern accent disintegrating into one that was distinctly Eastern, and Bastian hissed in surprise. "That I have to kill someone as pretty as you, Captain."

Before he had a chance to react he felt the metallic tang of magic on his tongue. Pain exploded just below his right eye, and it sent him to the ground with the intensity of it. There was blood pouring down his face and dripping to the floor, and Bastian tried to put his hand over the wound to stem the bleeding. The pain was so intense that it brought tears streaming down his face, mixing with the blood on the floor. He barely comprehended that someone had come running for him until they were right in front of him, speaking to him in a way that sounded like they were at the end of a long tunnel.

Felix's concerned face swam before his vision. He had enlisted his help to keep an eye on the prince but had instantly regretted it when the younger man showed up in an embarrassingly gaudy gold and crème ensemble. Now all he felt was a crushing sense of relief. "I've been cursed," He slurred. "There's a mage in the palace!"

"We need to get Alistair." Felix said, gripping his shoulder tight.

"No!" Bastian shouted, tipping with a sudden wave of vertigo. "Make sure Tristan is safe!" He felt the ground hit his back as he toppled over. A pale face swam in his vision, before everything faded to black.