The Great Hall of Dundrasil Castle was always a sight to behold, with its towering columns in gold and bronze and stone floors polished to a shine, but never was it in finer form than when the King and Queen opened the doors and invited everyone inside for one of their masquerade balls.
Tonight, garland shimmered between the pillars and bright lanterns cast the stones in a flickering, atmospheric light as Dundrasil’s denizens - rich and poor alike - twirled and laughed and mingled among each other in joyful camaraderie, all moving to the upbeat tempo of the music.
It was, by all accounts, a glorious evening, and such an occasion that everyone had looked forward to - all, that is, but one.
The Prince of Dundrasil stayed in his throne and watched. He did not lounge or slouch, indolent in his privilege, but instead sat with his spine pressed straight to the back of the chair, eyes avoiding contact, hoping rather ardently to not be seen at all as he slowly merged with his throne and, if luck was with him, melted out the other side.
It was a foolish hope for a member of the royal family to not be seen, perhaps, but it was always Rowan’s wish to avoid attention, in whatever manner he could achieve.
He usually felt out of sorts stationed in his golden throne, but never more than when he was dressed so lavishly in draping silks of purple with a handcrafted mask to match, topped off with the heavy cape embroidered with Dundrasil’s sigil. It was cumbersome in a manner different than that of his armor, a weight he would have welcomed. He was not anywhere near battle-ready while wearing this particular uniform, and truth be told, the prince felt far more comfortable in old trousers mucking about in the stables, or in his hooded plain clothes, sneaking extra food and toys into the hands of peasants and children alike.
If there were those who glanced his way and whispered behind their hands, he didn’t notice, and there weren’t many besides. Above all things, the Prince of Dundrasil was unfailingly kind, and so his shyness and other peculiarities were often forgiven.
Rowan startled under the weight of a hand clapping onto his shoulder and reached up to catch his circlet from falling as he turned towards a boisterous voice at his left. “Go on lad, get yer feet under ye. Turn a quick dance or two with a pretty lass and I’m certain yer father will let ye go back to yer books. Aye, the Princess at least will deign to be seen with ye, I’m sure.”
Rowan offered his grandfather a quick smile. “Jade’s arrived, then?”
“Just saw her hanging on Sir Hendrik’s arm. Dragging him kicking and screaming out onto the floor, no doubt.”
“Well,” Rowan hedged, “I’m sure I couldn’t win Jade’s hand from Sir Hendrik, if he intended to keep hers.”
Rab let out a loud laugh. “Oh ho! Get out there, lad. Sir Hendrik hates the spotlight almost as much as ye do yerself. Give the girl a dance partner less likely to trample her toes, what do ye say?”
With an inward sigh and the silent acknowledgment that he was always going to be forced into the crowd at some point in the evening, Rowan rose to his feet and pasted on his best courtly smile.
He wandered through the dancers, accepting hands as they reached for him and spinning anonymous girls in ballgowns of riotous color, all smiling behind their masks. Several tried to keep him, but Rowan never danced with any one person for longer than one song. He was not one to offer promises he could not keep.
When he happened upon the girl he sought, however, his smile became a little truer.
“There you are,” said Jade, resplendent in a dress of white and violet. When she dipped her chin and smiled up at him, her tiara didn’t slip. She wore royalty with far more grace than he did.
Rowan glanced between her and her captive partner. Sir Hendrik, forever noble in his black dress armor, looked as though he was experiencing a particular cruel sort of torture. His eyes touched on the princess, then down at his own feet, then away, then back to Jade. It was as if he wanted nothing more than to stare at her for the rest of the night, but would also eagerly accept a fatal blow to the head for his wanting any such thing.
“I’ve been sent to relieve you,” Rowan told the knight. Hendrik, spared, let out a breath and brought a fist to his heart in a courtly bow as he released Jade’s hand and stepped back.
“Your Highness,” he said, both in greeting and gratitude.
“Leaving so soon, Hendrik?” Jade asked, mischief in her eyes. Her butterfly mask sparkled in the low lamplight.
“I believe I have neglected my duties enough for one evening, Princess. I shall leave you in the Prince’s capable hands.” Hendrik told her, casting one last look her away before cutting a path through the crowd.
The corner of Rowan’s mouth twitched. “Three dances in a row. That’s a new record, isn’t it?” he asked, stepping in close and letting his hand come to rest at the small of her back. The band struck up a new number, jaunty and infectious.
Jade grinned and laid a hand on his shoulder before turning them in a circle. Rowan, always content to follow her lead, moved easily with her. “I simply tell him that Lord Byron is behind us, just where he can’t see, surely waiting his turn to swoop in and steal me away. Hendrik despises him, you know.”
“Complete lies, then,” Rowan said, delighted. “I...remember something about someone near the fish pond.”
Jade laughed. “That memory of yours. Well, it’s not as if I needed Hendrik’s help, as Byron somehow managed to find himself in the fish pond by the time he arrived. But he hasn’t forgotten.”
“I’ll say. That many dances is practically a proposal.”
Jade sighed. “Oh, it’ll take much more than that. He’s remarkably stubborn.”
“Keep up the good work. If anyone can get through to him, it’d be you.”
“Perhaps. Now, tell me,” she started, looking up to meet his eyes with a challenge in her own. “Is there no one here who’s managed to catch your eye?”
Rowan shrugged and spun her in a tight twirl before reeling her back in. “I’m beginning to think no one ever will.”
Jade’s expression softened. She touched her gloved fingers to his cheek, right beneath the curve of his mask. “I don’t believe that,” she said quietly. “Maybe you just haven’t met the right person yet.”
“You know as well as I do that my parents invite every eligible lady in Erdrea to these parties,” Rowan said, abruptly exhausted with all of it. “I’ll be seventeen soon. It’s only a matter of time before they make me choose.”
“Irwin and Eleanor married for love,” Jade reminded him, her voice firm. “I don’t believe for a moment they’d force you into a marriage you don’t want.”
“Force, no,” Rowan conceded, “but sooner or later the right offer will come along. If it’s good for Dundrasil, I won’t be able to say no.”
Jade offered a wordless smile. They both knew too well what it was to be born into a responsibility that sat heavily on young shoulders. “Try not to worry about that tonight. You’ve got time.”
Time, Rowan thought, allowing himself an indulgent second of bitterness. It was something he was always losing, hour by hour, minute by minute. What a hollow comfort it was to be constantly watching his time slip away.
When the song came to an end, Rowan raised Jade’s hand to his lips and kissed the air above her fingers. “See you tomorrow, then?”
Jade winked. “I’ll be the one by the horses. Try to have some fun.”
Rowan released her, in the reluctant way that one would step away from their shield and walk into the line of fire. He was on his way back to his seat, plotting his escape when a young woman in an enormous pink gown stepped into his path. He plastered on a joyless smile and took her hands.
It was going to be a long night.
Nearly everyone in Dundrasil and the surrounding villages were tucked up inside the castle that night. People in their best dress were packed in like sardines, clamoring for the non-existent favor of the royals who lived there. One might think it’d be a poor time to pull off a heist, but to Erik’s thinking, one would be wrong.
Most of the soldiers were in the Great Hall, eyes on the throne and the distinguished asses that warmed them. There were a few scattered guards that roamed the halls to keep guests from wandering where they shouldn’t, but a few was a number Erik could handle. There was something rumored to be within the castle that he wanted, and he had a talent for fetching such things when he put his mind to it.
He’d spent the week leading up to the party casing the grounds and watching the rotations. In one of the many side gardens, there was a trellis, just tall enough to provide an adequate lift into a tree, from which he could probably reach a balcony. He was about ninety percent sure, at any rate, and the other ten percent was low enough that he felt confident he could walk away from this venture solidly in one piece.
He’d run headlong into worse odds and walked out okay, which was all the assurance he really needed.
The trellis bowed a bit under his weight and the tree branches he had to climb were thinner than he’d like, but the jump to the balcony was less perilous than he’d assumed. It all evened out in the end.
Erik scampered across the balcony and crawled in an open window before dropping down into a dark, empty bedroom. A glance around at the fine linens that made up the bed and the gleaming swords on the wall told him it likely belonged to Dundrasil’s beloved Prince, a boy he couldn’t walk two steps through the market without hearing about. In Erik’s experience, royalty rarely cared a whit for those below their station, and so stories about a prince regularly bringing food and supplies to even the poorest of citizens raised his skepticism. If it also piqued his curiosity, Erik shoved it aside. He had a job to do, and someone waiting for him back home.
He crossed the room on silent feet and put an ear to the door before easing it open. He’d have to waltz through the Great Hall to reach the Treasury and make it back out again, but he’d come prepared enough. He straightened the cravat at his throat and searched the deep pockets of his dress coat before pulling out the mask he’d brought for the occasion. Once his face was covered, he double-checked the knife, tucked away inside his coat, and stepped out into the hall. With a private, self-satisfied smirk, he followed the sounds of revelry and slipped into a throng of party-goers, as invisible among them as he’d been all his life.
“Could I trouble you for another dance, Your Highness?”
The girl in his arms was objectively lovely, Rowan was sure. She had a confident smile and hair the color of straw. Her features were straight and nice, he thought, but try as he might, he felt nothing. Nothing as her hand toyed with the clasps of his cape at his collar, and nothing as they danced, her body pressed against his in a way that was just shy of proper. Any other prince would dance with her as many times as she’d allow before tugging her away to go for a walk in the gardens, to try to woo her by moonlight.
Rowan knew he ought to want those things, but he also knew with a grim certainty that no amount of dances would change his mind.
“I, erm. Terribly sorry, my lady, but I do think I see my mother beckoning - perhaps another time?”
She poked out her lower lip but didn’t fight him as he released her hand and stepped back, putting some much-needed space between them. “I’ll hold you to that,” she said, her voice soft and smooth. “Until next time, Prince Rowan.”
Rowan nodded, feeling vaguely threatened before escaping into the crowd as quickly as manners would allow. In truth, he had no idea where in the hall his mother could be. She might even have made her own excuses and retired for the evening, as he’d come by his shyness and fondness for solitude honestly. The thought made him envious. Maybe he’d made enough of an appearance for the night. Perhaps, if he found his father, he’d let him -
Someone bumped into him, jarring him from his thoughts.
“Oh, shit. Sorry-”
“I wasn’t looking where I was going,” Rowan admitted instantly, turning to face the person the voice belonged to. “I’m-” he broke off.
Before him stood a boy, caught half in motion. Even now he turned to leave, but Rowan’s steadying hand on his elbow held him still. He was dressed differently than most everyone else, in a long coat of black and red. A silver-blue mask covered half of his face. As close as they were, Rowan could see his startled eyes beneath were only a few shades darker than his mask, as pure a blue as sunlight on the water.
When the boy blinked at him, one graceful eyebrow arching upward, Rowan realized he was staring.
“Sorry,” he continued, clearing his throat and releasing him. “I’m sorry, it’s - it’s my fault.”
“You’re the Prince,” the stranger said, the words sounding more like an accusation than an observation. “Aren’t you?”
“Well, yes,” Rowan admitted, feeling a bit as though he ought to defend himself, and not being certain as to why. “Have we met?”
He was sure they hadn’t. Rowan would have remembered him like he’d remember a hurricane.
“No,” the boy replied, his eyes darting around the room and landing anywhere but Rowan. “We haven’t.” He made another effort to step away. “Listen, I’ve gotta-”
“Would you like to dance?” Rowan stumbled over the words in his haste to get them out. Anything, he thought, to keep him where he was.
He blinked, his eyes narrowing behind his mask.
Rowan instantly felt foolish. “I, uh. If you like. You don’t have to if you don’t - I only thought-”
The boy tilted his head to one side, considering. “Sure,” he said slowly, as though testing the affirmation on his tongue. “Sure, let’s dance.”
Rowan let out a breath and offered a shy smile before stepping in close. He wasn’t altogether sure what to do with his feet, suddenly afflicted by a clumsiness he wasn’t used to. The masked stranger mirrored him, hesitating only a moment before placing a hand carefully on Rowan’s shoulder.
Rowan’s heart skipped in his chest. The hand that touched the sash around his partner’s waist was trembling. They turned in a slow, careful circle. Rowan wasn’t sure who was leading, and found he didn’t care. “You can call me Rowan, if you like,” he said, his voice low.
The corner of the boy’s mouth twitched upward.
“Are you going to tell me yours?” Rowan asked, reluctantly lifting his eyes from the slightest curve of his smile.
“The name’s Erik,” he replied. Immediately, his eyebrows knitted together over his mask.
“Erik,” Rowan echoed. “It’s nice to meet you.”
That hint of a grin was back as quickly as it’d vanished. “Yeah?”
Rowan felt his own smile unfurl to match. He brought his free hand up to touch the hand resting on his shoulder. Erik’s gloves left his fingers bare, and Rowan’s fingertips brushed his.
The contact felt charged in a way only holding magic in his cupped palms had made him feel before. It was a crackling spark that set his heartbeat stuttering and his breaths coming faster, that made him want to stay in this moment as long as his slipping time would permit.
“Yeah,” Rowan agreed, his eyes roaming Erik’s face. He found himself fascinated by every detail - the artistic slope of Erik’s nose, the dangling ring from his earlobe, the bright hue of his hair. He stood out as the most brilliant splash of color in a painting of the sky.
“Do you, uh, live around here?” Rowan asked.
The smirk was back. Rowan had the distinct impression that Erik might be laughing at him, and found it didn’t bother him at all. “I’ve been around, from time to time.”
Erik’s fingers ran an absent line over Rowan’s collar. His thumb brushed bare skin. While they swayed in time with the music, Rowan realized with all the abruptness of a blow to the head that he felt something, something, quite possibly everything.
When the song changed, Rowan slipped his fingers into the sash at Erik’s waist and held on, a silent question.
Erik’s hand stayed against his collar, and the thumb skimming Rowan’s errant pulse was an answer.
Rowan let out a shaky breath and took a step back, guiding Erik’s steps along with him. The music slowed to something smooth and stately, and with the gentle press of a hand, Rowan drew him in closer. Erik’s chest bumped against his.
Rowan wondered if Erik would let himself be lured into the gardens. Then again, he hadn’t the faintest idea of how one went about wooing someone by moonlight. Perhaps he liked flowers.
He swiped a sweaty palm over Erik’s sash and hoped he’d think nothing of it.
“So,” Erik began, his eyes skating over the crowd before coming back to Rowan’s. “What does a prince do for fun?”
Rowan swallowed. “Read? Train?” he offered. “Ride horses?”
“I heard a bit, down in the markets?” Erik said. “They say the Prince of Dundrasil likes to sneak around in a hood and hand out snacks.”
It sounded like a challenge coming from his mouth. Rowan’s cheeks flushed. He ducked his chin to his chest in an attempt to hide it. “Well,” he started. “That too, yeah.”
Rowan blinked. “We’ve got plenty,” he said, bewildered. “And they don’t.”
Erik’s finger caught under his chin, lifting his gaze back up to his own. There was a seriousness in his eyes that Rowan hadn’t yet seen there. Rowan stared back, silent for one long, breathless moment while Erik studied him. Rowan wished he knew what he was searching for.
“You know,” Erik said finally, his voice pitched lower than before. “I’ve never seen the rest of the castle.”
Rowan blinked once, twice. “I- I could show you around.”
Erik flashed a smile, pure trouble. “Sounds good to me.”
Rowan released him only to hold out a hand. When Erik’s fingers slid into the gaps between his own, it felt like something finally clicking into place.
Wandering the shadowed halls of Dundrasil Castle hand in hand with its prince had not been part of his plan, but somehow Erik found himself doing it anyway. But with a pocket full of stolen gold and a magical ring said to cure any ill, he’d managed to back himself into a rather tight spot.
It was, unquestionably, a disaster.
He didn’t care.
Rowan had tugged his own mask off and tucked it away in some hidden fold of his finery. His cheeks were tinged pink and the stretch of his smile had yet to fade. Something about it made Erik want to do everything in his power to keep it there.
He’d battle at the front lines for that smile. He’d slay a dragon, or likely die trying.
In some corner of his mind, a voice wondered loudly and violently just what the hell had happened to him. He’d never been one to go so soft so quickly. The pirate inside of him screamed to press his advantage, to get out while he could. The lonely boy wanted to chase this connection. He wanted to know the prince with the shy smiles and a kind heart.
“You could take yours off, if you like,” Rowan suggested, gesturing with a tilt of his head to Erik’s mask.
Erik tugged on his hand, unable to stop his smirk. “I could,” he said, “but I’m wanted in all the nearby kingdoms.”
Rowan laughed, quick and bright, sure he was joking. Erik let him believe it. “So, where’s your favorite spot to-” he paused. When he heard the clanging of armor rounding the corner, Erik took off running, pulling Rowan along with him.
Maybe he could get away with stealing him, too.
Rowan ducked into an alcove, his hand gripping Erik’s tightly. When he spoke again, it was a breathless whisper. “Let’s go in here,” he suggested, leading Erik into the very same chamber he’d used to break in. “No one will catch us.”
As though sneaking away from the party was the only illicit activity of the evening. Ruefully, Erik almost wished it was. With one last glance over his shoulder, he followed Rowan inside.
Rowan waved a hand, and at his gesture, all the candles in the room ignited.
Erik’s eyebrows shot up. In all his careful eavesdropping, he hadn’t heard a word about the prince having magic. “Neat trick.”
Rowan blushed again. His hair fell forward to hide his face, and Erik had to fight the urge to tuck it back and out of the way. “So, uh. I don’t usually…” he gestured senselessly with his hands. “Do this.”
Erik lost to a smile as an odd warmth spread through his chest. For most of his life, he’d had to rely on shadows, to stay quiet and be forgotten as quickly as he’d been noticed. Now he felt seen, but it wasn’t as threatening as he’d imagined. Ever since Rowan’s eyes had caught his, he’d stopped being invisible.
It was intoxicating, to have someone see and keep seeing with eyes always hungry for another look.
“What is it we’re doing?” Erik asked, unable to resist the urge to tease him, to draw out the color in his cheeks and the crinkles at the corner of his smiling eyes.
“I-” Rowan blinked. “Well, you seem to know about me. I want to know about you.”
Erik went still as the wall slammed back into place, as the curtain fell closed. This was where it ended, he realized, a broken sort of bitterness welling up in his veins. He didn’t belong here.
Rowan wanted to know him, but he surely wouldn’t care for what he learned. Royalty didn’t - couldn’t - run wild with the likes of thieves.
Erik opened his mouth, then closed it. A knock at the door echoed through the room.
“Rowan?” A woman’s muffled voice asked, sounding urgent. “Are you in there?”
“A girl?” Erik asked, forcing his mouth to smirk, to mock.
“A friend,” Rowan told him, but the emphasis only hurt more. Rowan wanted him to know.
Erik wanted, too. He wanted a lot of things, but the sense of possibility trickling through his fingers was perhaps one of the things he wanted most.
“Just a moment, Jade-” Rowan called out, loud enough to be heard through the door.
Jade knocked again. “Well, hurry. They think someone’s robbed the treasury, the guards are locking down the castle!”
Rowan blinked, then frowned. A beat passed, then another. Their eyes met and held, bled dry of color in the candlelight.
Slowly, Erik lifted a finger to his lips.
Rowan’s brows furrowed. He swallowed before turning towards the door. Erik held his breath. “I- I’ll just be a minute,” Rowan said again.
Erik crossed to the window and had both feet on the sill by the time Rowan spun back around. They stared at each other through the gloom. “Thanks for the dance,” Erik whispered.
“Wait,” Rowan begged, boots slapping over the stones as he followed. “I -” he looked out the window, something tight in his expression as he chewed on his lower lip. Finally, he sighed. “If you cut through the lower garden and reach the trees, you can pass behind the stables in the dark. No one will see you.”
Erik closed his eyes for a brief moment before pulling one of his pilfered coin purses out of his pocket and dropping it into Rowan’s hand. “I’ve got to keep the rest,” he said quietly, “to help someone.”
“Who?” Rowan whispered.
He was running out of time, he knew, but he wanted to leave Rowan with something that was his. He wanted Rowan to know him, if only for a fleeting second. “My kid sister,” he murmured.
Rowan considered him before looking down at the sack in his hands, his eyelashes brushing the apples of his cheeks. After a second, he handed it back, pressing it to Erik’s palm. “Take it.”
Slowly, Erik took it back, his eyes on Rowan’s. He hesitated, then leaned in, gripped Rowan’s collar, and pulled him in close.
The brush of his mouth over Rowan’s was featherlight, the slightest of pressures that none-the-less lit something inside of him, a faraway corner that’d been dark for some time. Rowan gasped, a soft sound that Erik tucked away somewhere safe, to call upon the memory when he needed something warm. Rowan’s hand came up to touch his cheek, to trace the edge of his mask as Erik kissed him again. A barely contained wildness stirred under his skin. He could be caught at any moment, and he wasn’t sure he’d care at all.
Rowan’s fingertips hovered at his mask, as though he thought of pulling it away. They slid down his cheek instead, caressing the line of Erik’s jaw before falling away completely. When Erik pulled away, Rowan touched the same fingers to his bottom lip, wonder and anguish at warring odds in his expression.
Erik needed to go, but he wanted so desperately to stay.
Rowan let out an unsteady breath. “You know where to find me,” he whispered.
Erik touched his fingers to his brow in a salute and dropped from the window.
He made it to the tree line as nothing but a shadow, hidden in the dark. When he lost to the urge to look back, Rowan was where he’d left him, crouched on the sill as if, for just a moment, he’d thought of following.
With that last fantasy burned in his mind, Erik melted into the trees. He shook his head and realized he hadn’t quite made it out in one piece, after all.