Festival of the Moon
Kirder surveyed the crowded hall. Quite a crowd had turned out for the music contest this Harvest Festival. The great Moon Lamp above shone with a silvery light upon the upturned faces of the audience. He could do this. He could see his sneering rival, Horstman, heir to the mountain barony. The light from the Moon Lamp glinted off his hair, which was like fine spun platinum. What a perfect face his arch-rival had. The exertions of the evening had clearly told on him. His pale cheeks were flushed a rosy pink. His lean and sinewy frame was swathed in a shining silver robe. Huh. Ever tasteful that Horstman. Well Horstman could taunt him all he liked. Kirder had trained in the harp to impress.
He smiled widely for the audience and began to pluck out the haunting refrain he had learned in the twilit forests to the east. As he plucked the strings of the harp, he forgot his nervousness and allowed the refrain to issue forth. The lilting strains of the melody held the audience enthralled. When they were finished, they rose to their feet and applauded rapturously. Top that, Horstman! Horstman was the only one in the room who was less than thrilled. Indeed, he was scowling. He would have liked to taunt Horstman then. He could have told him not to spoil his perfect face.
The First Minister of the river barony called for silence. "Thank you all for attending the Harvest Festival. This tournament marks the mid-autumn of this island which is early October, not August. It is now that we remember the filial bond to the king…" Kirder tuned this out. The King had never been like a father to him. They had never met. The royal palace was far from this place. "The judges will now confer," said the Minister, the light of the Moon Lamp gleaming off his gold rimmed monocle.
On the floor of the hall, Kirder was besieged by members of the audience. One young lady pushed to the front of the crowd. This girl certainly stood out. She was brightly coloured - she had fiery red hair, wore robes of a vivid aquamarine and her skin was a brilliant green, brighter than the fresh grass in spring. Kirder supposed she was trying out garish green makeup. An eccentric girl it seemed. Well there was nothing wrong with eccentricity. He remembered how his good friend, the actor Jespar had once coated himself in green body paint as part of a supernatural masquerade. Applied thickly, it was like a second skin. He even coated his manhood… Memories of that time were vivid.
"Lady Cassandra Bellatores," said the green girl, holding out her hand. She was beaming and her bright brown eyes shone. It was gratifying that his performance had left such an impression. Giving his most gracious smile he put his arms around her in a quick embrace. She gave a little squeal and hugged him back.
"You were sensational, you really were," she purred, lamp light shining off her green nose and cheeks. Her face paint really was immaculately applied. Her lips were a very dark green, almost black. Such attention to detail in painting herself. What was her intent?
"The pleasure to have your attention was all mine, lady," he said, smiling again.
"Call me Cassie, listen, I really do look like this…" she touched her green cheek, "my skin is livid green because of a magical experiment I tried on myself." Her bright brown eyes showed anxiety. She wanted his reassurance.
"You are beautiful and no spell could change that," he said with perfect sincerity. Having green skin did not diminish her natural good looks. "Whoever speaks discourteously… let them come before me to suffer my scrutiny and the lash of my tongue. I am the one who should be flattered by the attention from a wonderful audience tonight. Musicians crave an audience."
"Horstman doesn't anymore, he's sick as a pig," said a blond girl nearby, "he stormed out the back door. He knows he's lost."
"Really?" Kirder was intrigued. He wouldn't put any low trick past Horstman. He should investigate, but first he had to slip away from his audience. Cassie could help him there. He leaned close to her. "Let's follow him," he whispered.
Cassie slipped her arm in his, her green face wreathed in smiles. The crowd parted for them. It was useful having a noble lady on his arm. They left through the door and set out along the gravel path. The night air was cool and clear. The light of the real moon shone down, bathing the lawns and hedge sculptures in an eerie light. The hedge sculptures looked disturbing. There was one which appeared to be in the form of a trio of wood demons. Kirder led the way further down the path, away from the lights.
"What do you think Horstman may be doing?" whispered Cassie. In the moonlight, her startlingly green face seemed to glow like a weird lantern.
"He doesn't have the backbone to do anything himself. I bet he'll go complaining to his father, the Baron," said Kirder scornfully. "Horstman can always cower behind his Daddy."
Cassie put her arms round him. "There now. I don't have my true parents to guide me anymore either. I feel that I'm too young to be the lady of my house. We cannot change a cruel fate that befalls us, but there are solutions to loneliness."
Oh for the Moon's sake! He had made it sound as though he envied Horstman, even though he didn't. He wasn't after her sympathy. Evidently she knew his story. The aristocracy did little but gossip. Kirder was a poor orphaned boy. The Moon Goddess had charged her favourite, the warrior Ithric, with his upkeep until he came of age. Apparently she considered this a show of great confidence in her champion, although she offered no guidance. Ithric was insistent that Kirder not embarrass him in any way. Not even by being second best in any contest.
"Let us stick to Horstman's rear shall we," he said abruptly.
Her brown eyes widened, their whites contrasting with her colourful face. "Stick to…?"
"I know how to track," he said hastily. She was staring at him as though he'd said something really weird. "I can tell which way he went. I've studied his habits."
"Intriguing," said Cassie, putting a gloved hand over her mouth and staring fixedly into his eyes.
He relinquished her arm and stepped over the sloping lawn to where a circle of sycantha trees stood, their diamond shaped leaves reflecting the moonlight. He pushed aside the gleaming white branches. Beyond the foliage, the lawn sloped more steeply forming a wide basin in which there was a small lake.
And Horstman was there! His platinum hair reflected the moonlight. How it would diminish his pride if his hair were snipped off. Then he would not feel the silken swish of it around his ears.
By the Moon! He was unbuckling the shoulder clasp of his silver robes. He was about to reveal his perfectly sculpted rear, right in plain view. What could he be thinking? Kirder felt his breathing quicken and his manhood stiffen… but then Cassie came barging through the foliage after him and at the sound of rustling leaves, Horstman looked up.
"Who's there? Show yourselves," he called and Cassie gave a little gasp.
Well let Ithric never call him a coward. Kirder would reveal himself.
He pushed aside the foliage and sprinted lightly down the grassy slope. Horstman's silvery grey eyes narrowed and he hastily buckled his robe again. "What are you doing here, Stonehelm?" his voice carried that sneer that made Kirder's blood grow hot.
"I was just taking a pleasant stroll by moonlight," he said airily, "but I would wonder why certain unnamed parties skulk around the lake. Perhaps it is to wash away the bitter taste of defeat?"
"Think you're quite something, don't you?" said Horstman giving an affected yawn and a stretch. The movement was characteristically graceful and Kirder found himself staring. "Give thanks to the Moon."
"I do," said Kirder shrugging.
She forced Ithric to take you in at fortune's alms. You can self-dramatise as a poor orphan who romanced the kingdom." Somehow he manages to make the word 'orphan' sound dirty and contemptible. Those silvery-grey eyes shone with amusement at his expense. One delicate eyebrow was arched in unspoken challenge… Kirder found himself breathing hard.
But no, he mustn't rise like this. Not with Cassie watching.
"You would pick a fight in front of a lady? That shows ill breeding. Does it not, Cassie?" he called up to the screen of sycantha trees.
The leaves rustled and Cassie's bright green face appeared. Horstman froze. Cassie trod carefully down the grassy slope to come and stand between them.
"Lady," said Horstman, inclining his head.
"Well met, noble," said Cassie. "I would have hoped to see a more generous spirit in you. After all, a generous rivalry is most admirable. An ungenerous rivalry is not. A true noble should live by this rule." There was a sly smile playing around her dark green lips.
"No rival is more generous than I," said Kirder. "I pour my heart and soul into my performances."
Cassie patted his arm. "No one could appreciate that more than I."
"That's Stonehelm, always bringing passion," said Horstman, his voice dripping with disdain.
Cassie flicked a strand of her long red hair away from her face. "Passion pays. Let us go back to the Hall. We can see the proof then."
Back in the hall, it came as no surprise that Kirder had won the music contest a second time. He was awarded a second golden harp ornament. Undoubtedly it would just sit in the trophy cabinet for the time being. Cassie beamed as she congratulated him, but the trophy was unimportant. What was important was that across the hall, Horstman snarled and stormed out.
"I do wonder what he could be plotting," said Cassie in an even tone, giving him that searching look again.
Kirder shrugged. "His ill wishing never troubled me."
Cassie chuckled, her brown eyes sparkling. "Listen, the highest ranking nobility know certain secrets of this place. Horstman is not of that rank, but I am. There is a hidden passage. Through it there are certain peepholes whereby one can secretly spy upon the guest rooms as well as hidden routes of entrance and egress. Of course, this may be of no interest to you."
No interest indeed. And yet…
Late that night Kirder stole along the dingy secret passage, the only light coming from the pale glowstone in his hand. Cassie knew exactly where and how he could spy on Horstman. And his sense of direction was honed to perfection. He could easily find the peephole into Horstman's quarters. And here it was. The twenty-first peephole on the left. A tiny crystal lens set into the dark stone wall.
He peered through and gave a gasp. There was a round marble whirlpool bath and standing in it was Horstman. The perfect shape of his buttocks like creamy alabaster. The soft light of the crescent moon lamp shimmered off the perfect contours of his body. Still with his back turned to the peephole he emerged from the whirlpool bath and wrapped a silvery towel around himself. There was a small marble table beside the bath. On it was an orb of crystal that shone with a brilliant white light.
"I will beat that Kirder at something. Let this be my last humiliation," muttered Horstman aloud. His wretched sullen tone was more than Kirder could bear. His last humiliation indeed! Did Horstman suppose he could cheat then? Was he going to try and use magic? Kirder felt the angry glow of his passion heat his blood. He would enter the room through the hidden entrance…
Through yet another peephole in a different passage, Cassie watched in avid anticipation. The entertainment that night was coming to a climax…