Author's Note: I apologize for the delay in getting this posted, for the sheer length of this monstrosity of a chapter, and in advance if any of this is awful. Party scenes are decidedly not my forte.

-x-

Chapter Ten – The Royal Masque

Even in his weary, overworked state, Billy knew that something was amiss the moment he set foot in the archives. He had come here intending to make only a brief stop to check that the apprentices were handling things well in his absence before returning to his quarters and falling into his bed. Instead, he paused, frowning as he tried and failed to put his finger on what the anomaly might be. Nothing seemed obviously out of place, but he could not seem to quell the feeling of wrongness that rose up in his gut. As he stepped cautiously around a group of shelves, his gaze fell on the figure of a young woman, who he recognized immediately in spite of the fact that she was hunched over one of the alcove's worktables and her back was turned to him.

"Katherine!" he exclaimed in surprise, happily returning the hug she rose to give him. "What are you doing here? And why did you not send word in advance of your arrival?"

"We heard a few weeks back that the plague had run its course," she explained. "And then word came of a royal tournament, with you of all people as the arbiter, and I had to come back. I just had to see it for myself, and to see if I could be of any use to you."

"I regret to inform you, but the joust concluded just this morning," Billy told her. He knew she would be disappointed, but he was thankful for small mercies. All that remained of the tournament was the melee, and then he would be free of such onerous responsibilities and able to return to the archives – and peace and quiet. He certainly would not miss having knights constantly pestering him with one problem or another. "Jason took the top prize, of course."

"I'm too late then?" Kat asked, her expression downcast.

"The melee is scheduled for the day after tomorrow," he confirmed, though he hated to disappoint her when she had only just returned.

"Well, I can see that much at least."

Rather impetuously, he added, "There is also a royal masquerade ball tomorrow. Kimberly has ordered the castle doors be thrown open to whoever would attend."

"Really? That sounds exciting. Too bad I'd have nothing to wear... I guess I'll have to sit that one out, too." She pouted. Billy could hardly stand to see her look so disappointed. Her timing had been bad, but the situation couldn't be unsalvageable.

"Maybe not," he mused aloud, thinking of a certain royal tailor's wife who might be convinced to help a young woman shine at her first royal ball, in spite of the lateness of the request. Ordinarily he would have balked at the idea of making such a request, but for one of his oldest friends – and considering his current position of importance, as the official arbiter of Kimberly's tournament – the effort would be the least he could do. "There may be something I can do by way of assistance."

"Really?" she asked, trying too late to mask her surprise. Even he had to admit it was a bold move, at least for one such as him, who was normally more inclined to hide in the depths of the archives than deal with the people living above.

"There's someone I can ask to help," he told her, "but there's a condition."

This time she did not bother to hide her shock. "A condition? Billy..."

"Go to the ball with me?" he asked, hating himself for turning it into a question. Bold, confident men like any of the knights wouldn't have asked, would have just thrown the words out there, the consequences be damned. Billy might have been emboldened by his success as the royal arbiter, but he was not that emboldened... yet.

"Find me something to wear, and I'll be there gladly," Kat told him with a wide grin. She took a seat at the table again and he joined her. "Though I have to admit, I'm surprised to hear you ask. The Billy I left only a few months ago would never have done something like that. I'd have had to plead with you just to get you out of the archives for a few minutes."

He had surprised himself, truth be told. He had not planned to make such an offer; he had rather assumed he would attend the ball with Trini, for convenience's sake, but she had been conspicuously missing since the tournament's conclusion, depriving him of the opportunity to ask. And while he had not consciously intended to ask Katherine instead, he knew he would be just as happy catching up with her as he would spending time with Trini.

Aware that an awkward silence had descended, Billy searched falteringly for something to say.

"What are you doing down here, anyway?" Kat asked. She had broken the silence with her customary ease, but she seemed rather wary as she glanced around the archives. "It's late, and it looks like you've got the apprentices tearing the place apart."

"I do. We are taking an inventory."

"In the middle of a tournament?"

"It is of the utmost importance, Katherine." He was seldom so somber, and the implication of his tone was not lost on Kat. He watched her grow pale, then handed her the topmost book from the pile he had been going through yesterday. "Look at this and tell me what you see."

Her eyes widened the moment she took hold of the book; she opened it and flipped immediately to a spot just past the middle, where several pages had been cut out. "It's missing pages," she commented. She ran a finger slowly along the line of shorn pages, suddenly all business. "Someone's been stealing from the archives?"

He nodded. "Right under my nose. And for quite a while, it would appear."

Kat's expression grew steadily darker. "That's awful! And... why would someone do that? What is to be gained from stealing from the books?"

"That is what I am trying to uncover," Billy explained. He wondered if he should tell her what all the missing sections had in common, or if that would only worry her needlessly, and decided to say nothing for the moment. "I have my suspicions, but a full inventory of what is missing will help determine the motive and perhaps reveal the culprit."

"If there is anything I can do to help, I am at your disposal," Kat pronounced, her tone decisive.

Billy nodded his acceptance of her offer. He suspected that she was just as outraged as he by such blatant disregard for the sanctity and importance of the royal archives; after all, they had learned under the same Master Archivist. The Master who had been so brilliant and wise, and was now gone, another victim of the plague that had taken the King and Queen.

Billy had to wonder, even if it pained him, if the archives might have been safer in Kat's hands during the plague and its aftermath. She was fiercely protective of the books and the knowledge they contained, but she had been visiting her family's home in the country when the plague hit the city. With the city quarantined, save for those on urgent business, she had been trapped outside.

Both students had survived the plague that had taken their Master, but without his experience to guide them, it would seem they were at a bit of a loss. And, Billy knew now, someone had seen that lapse as an opportunity – and rightly so. Well, one way or another, whoever was behind this would be found and brought to justice. And if he required Kat's help to do that, then he decided there was no shame in needing help. After all, that was why the Master had chosen two successors rather than the traditional one.

In the lapse in conversation that followed, this silence far more comfortable than the first, Kat managed to locate his list of what had gone missing. He watched as her eyes scanned the list, waiting for her to make the same connection he had.

But she did not. She grimaced suddenly, rubbing her temple with one hand. Billy thought he heard a faint hiss, not unlike a whispered voice, though it might have been only a quavering exhalation or some oath she wished to keep to herself. He felt nervous, almost frightened, at seeing her in such pain so suddenly and without obvious cause. When it came to digging up information out of even the oldest, most illegible tomes, he had no problems. But dealing with real, live people and all the problems that came with them... that was a different matter entirely, even if they were old friends. "Katherine!"

"I'm fine," she murmured, waving off his concern. "It's just a headache."

"Are you sure? I can send for one of the healers..."

"That's very sweet of you, Billy, but I think a little tea will put me to rights," she admitted, sounding a little sheepish. "I was so excited to see you again that I didn't stop to get anything to eat before I came down here... and then I got a bit distracted by all the activity and totally forgot."

"You should take care of yourself before promising assistance to others," Billy admonished. He tried not to let it show, but he was relieved that her sudden malady might have such a simple cause – and an easy cure.

She smiled at him and set aside the parchment she had been reading, looking more chagrined by the moment. "I'll try to do better."

That answer satisfied him, although he knew she had a habit of pushing herself too hard and forgetting everything else – including the fact that she required things like food and sleep – in the face of her duties. With the Master gone, he would have to watch her more closely to make sure she did not cause herself any harm in her exuberance.

He sent Kat off with orders to eat and get some rest, promising that he would follow her example as soon as he had checked the inventory's progress. But when she was gone he sank back into his chair with a sigh and let his eyes drift closed. So much to oversee, so much to watch for, so much to do. And it seemed like there was never enough time.

With another sigh, this one more resolute than the last, Billy pushed himself to his feet and set off in search of the royal tailor and his wife, who would no doubt still be awake no matter the late hour. He would never make any progress on this list of things to do if he didn't get started.

-x-

From her tower, Rita watched the tournament's progression with a keen eye. She made it a point to know who each of the competitors was, and what his motivation might be and how good his chances were. She had long ago decided which ones she might tolerate (the ones that were malleable and could be easily manipulated or bespelled) and those that she hated (Jason Scott and his ilk, do-gooders all).

But beyond merely watching, she was always looking for opportunities to cause trouble. Not enough to arouse undue suspicion toward her knight, but enough to inconvenience the competition. She gleefully oversaw his sabotage of the other knights' armor and weapons, and observed with less enthusiasm his misbehavior toward the princess. She had to admit, however, that he appeared to have been right about the girl. Thus far Kimberly had responded very favorably toward his advances despite only having known him for a short period of time.

For now, Rita was inclined to let it continue. If Tommy could keep the Princess's attention on him and not on what he was doing, it would be all for the better. And if she happened to fall in love with him along the way, that would only make her more willing to make him King, or at least to hand over whatever he asked for. Including, Rita had no doubt, that magical crown of hers.

The castle was quiet today; at the joust's conclusion this morning, Kimberly had declared a day of rest to precede her masquerade ball. Soon Rita's plan would come to fruition. The final climactic event of the tournament, the melee, would begin at dawn the next day, and then Tommy would deal with the last of his competition once and for all. With Jason Scott out of the way, courtesy of an unfortunate 'accident' during the brawl, there would be no one to challenge Tommy for the Princess's heart or her power.

Rita could picture it already. Her loyal minion on the throne, the magic crown and all of its power in her possession... she might even decide to make herself Queen in Kimberly's stead. It wouldn't hurt to add another title to her already impressive list, she thought.

But first, she had to make sure this ball went off without a hitch, or at least without any hitches that were not of her own devising. She left her scrying pool and went to her bookshelf. Drawing down a large tome, she returned to her original position and began to flip idly through the book. When she finally found what she was looking for, she turned her mind to Tommy.

Are you ready for the ball tomorrow, my Green Knight? she asked coyly, already knowing the answer. He might be mentally prepared, but she would have to provide him with other necessities... like a costume.

"Why bother asking when you already know?"

He was ever astute, her Green Knight, though his attitude could perhaps stand some improvement. Rita smiled. I thought I might help you out.

Aloud, she intoned the words to a spell she had not used in ages. It was hard work to weave a spell over such a great distance, but the end result would be worth it. The one saving grace was the scrying pool. She was able to watch her spell take shape in Tommy's room, even so far away as he was. When she had finished the spell, the image in her mind had become reality, a dark costume perfect for her Green Knight.

Well? What do you think? she demanded, watching through the scrying pool as Tommy went to investigate the new clothes that had appeared on his bed. Nice, huh?

"If you're going for tall dark and scary," Tommy quipped ungratefully.

You'll catch your Princess's eye, Rita assured him. For once he did not argue with her.

-x-

It had seemed to Aisha that the night of the royal masquerade ball would never come. Now that it had, she watched, equal parts eager and amused, as the castle courtyard began to fill with people. Day was beginning to edge toward evening and the seventh bell had only just rung, but she had made sure that she, and Rocky and Adam with her, had arrived plenty early. She wanted to get a good look at the costumes the others were wearing to this party; she had never attended a royal ball before, much less a masquerade, and while it seemed quite frivolous it also looked like a lot of fun.

The usually dull yard was festooned with flowers and outfitted with colorful decorations, filled with the enticing aroma of a variety of foods, and lit up like the middle of the day even as the sun was setting beyond the castle walls. And it only became a more colorful spectacle as the guests arrived. Representatives from every noble family trickled into the yard; she had heard, too, that Kimberly planned to throw open the doors to whoever wished to attend, even down to the lowliest servant.

So far, the only people Aisha had difficulty recognizing through their costumes were people she did not already know. Rocky only laughed when she said as much, adding, "Don't worry, it'll just get more confusing as more people show up. That's kind of the point."

"I'll take that as a challenge," she countered with a toothy grin, earning a shake of the head from Adam.

As the trickle of attendees became a flow and then a throng, even the spacious courtyard began to seem full. Amid the boisterous crowd, Aisha was able to pick out most of the kingdom's knights and the various ladies accompanying them, though she knew the knights better than the ladies thanks to her time spent on the tournament field playing squire to Rocky. There were Jason Scott and Zack Taylor, two of her favorites, and many other knights including some she did not like nearly so well. Seeing that Jason was conspicuously dateless, she made a mental note to catch him for a dance later so she could get to know him better.

And then there were the nobles, gaggles of them. Those she did not know so well as the knights, though Rocky and Adam seemed happy to point them out to her... at least the ones they recognized. With more money at their disposal than the knights, some of whom were only younger sons and did not have much in the way of personal income, the nobles' costumes were of higher quality and made for better disguises. The only thing that was easy to tell was that the wearers were noble and had plenty of money to spend on frivolities.

And thanks to Kimberly's open invitation and judicious scheduling, even the lowliest of servants had been outfitted with a mask and could find time to attend the ball, if only just for a few minutes. Before long the courtyard teemed with people of all ranks. Outside, the sun had set and darkness had fallen in earnest, making the torch flames seem that much brighter, accentuating the lanterns that floated above the yard on their ropes, small flames hovering in glass cases like enormous fireflies against the darkened sky. What had begun as a myriad quiet conversations became a dull roar, fighting for dominance with the musicians that had begun to play.

Rocky had not been exaggerating when he said things would become quite confusing as the night wore on; Aisha thought it all looked like great fun, but she shook her head when Rocky offered to lead her in the first dance of the evening. She wanted to stay on the sidelines for a little while longer, in the hopes of getting a good look at the Princess, whenever she saw fit to arrive.

Although by now it was well past the ball's official beginning, people were still coming in. Of the later arrivals, Aisha recognized only a few. One of them was Billy the archive-keeper, obvious in his official blue, accompanied by a young blonde woman Aisha hadn't seen before. To judge by the way they were both smiling, they must be good friends. Billy was a little stuffy and a lot shy, but in what Aisha felt was a surprisingly cute and endearing way, and it would take someone he trusted to bring him out of that shell. She did not know him well, herself, but she was glad to see him smiling. If he kept that up, certain knights might have to stop complaining that he was an over-educated snob!

She giggled in spite of herself at the thought, earning a concerned look from Adam; Rocky was long since gone onto the dance floor in search of a willing partner. Aisha shrugged helplessly and did not elaborate on the source of her amusement. Adam would just roll his eyes if she did. Not that she could blame him. She wasbeing silly, but she blamed that on the infectious atmosphere of the party.

It was so infectious, in fact, that Aisha was impatient to give up her vigil. It seemed that the only person that could possibly be missing at this point was the Princess herself. Aisha decided that she wouldsee the Princess's outfit this night, whether she waited patiently or spent her night enjoying herself would make no difference. She gave one last glance toward the large doors that led into the castle keep, then seized Adam's hand and dragged him toward the slightly less crowded place where groups were assembling for another dance.

They were halted halfway there when a hush fell over the crowd and all motion seemed to cease. The great doors swung ponderously open, trumpets bugled and from somewhere a herald cried the announcement, and as Aisha strained to see, the Princess emerged.

-x-

Kimberly paced nervously around her borrowed bedchamber, feeling roughly as if her insides were tied in knots. Tonight was the big night, the night of the masquerade ball she had so been looking forward to. But things were not going according to plan. Most of all, she was keenly aware of Trini's absence. They had quarreled yesterday after the tournament; Trini had stormed off to sulk somewhere and had been missing ever since, leaving Kim to deal with the ball preparations alone.

Thinking about it just made her upset all over again. It wasn't that she didn't see where Trini was coming from... she just didn't agree with her reasoning. Trini had done her duty, participating in the individual bouts of the tournament and even the mounted joust, and she had done so remarkably well for an untrained woman. She had not come close to winning (irritatingly, Jason had done that, eking out a victory over Tommy by a mere handful of points) but she had not disgraced herself or been disqualified, either. And all the while she had given Kimberly detailed reports of what she saw and heard, and an analysis of the pros and cons of each of the competitors. None of that was a problem. She had merely objected to Kimberly's request that she also participate in the melee.

Kimberly stopped pacing for a moment. She would never have asked that without good reason, and Trini should know that! She had received disturbing reports - and not just from Trini, but Billy and Zack as well - that things were not right on the tourney field. Someone was sabotaging the knights. And no one knew who it might be, although Zack had tried to point the blame toward Tommy, no doubt in an effort to help Jason out. Kim frowned in exasperation. Trini was the only one in the castle she trusted to be more or less objective, and not to try to disguise the truth in order to further her own agenda. Couldn't she see that Kimberly needed her help?

Ruefully, she supposed that if Trini understood that she really needed help, she would be here helping instead of hiding wherever she was.

Well, she could not let Trini's lack of support stop her. Trini had already given her a great deal of assistance and that would have to be enough for now. All she had to do tonight was live through the ball, and parties had always been one of her favorite ways to pass the time. She couldn't see how anything could go wrong on this one night. She would be surrounded by the knights of the realm and a contingent of guards; the only danger was that things might be dull, but with Tommy around she sincerely hoped that would not be the case.

At any rate, it was too late to worry about that now. This close to the start of the festivities, everything was in the hands of her highly capable servants and all she had to do was get dressed for a fashionably late arrival. Carefully, almost reverently, she drew her night's dress out from the wardrobe. It was a vision in fiery silks and shining beads, all done up in a flame motif to invoke the essence of the firebird, an animal sacred to her family since time immemorial. It was carefully cut and fitted just-so, so that it lent her some of the bird's grace, and the flowing lines mimicked feathers and wings; a shining, jewel-encrusted mask and feathered cloak completed the look. Her tailor had really outdone himself this time. Unfortunately, just getting into the outfit was going to be a task in itself. And she still had to style her hair...

Later than she would have liked, Kimberly finally made her way down to the castle courtyard. She tried to ignore the two guards that followed just behind her, and the growing sense of unease in the pit of her stomach. She knew it was ridiculous, but she couldn't help but feel a little nervous.

A herald announced her. She strode boldly through the huge doors as a respectful hush fell over the gathered celebrants. All eyes turned to her. Keeping her expression as neutral as possible, she gave a quick speech congratulating each of her knights for his participation in the tournament, and encouraging everyone present to enjoy the evening as much as possible. As soon as she was done, she promptly forgot what she had just said, and breathed a surreptitious sigh of relief. Somehow all this seemed easier with the mask covering half of her face. As if there was any chance at all anyone would fail to recognize her.

Off to one side, the musicians saw their cue and struck up a lively tune. Slowly but surely, the party came back to life. As it did, she waded carefully into the throng.

She spent quite a bit of time mingling, exchanging pleasantries and admiring the many costumes. After a while, the smile that she had pasted onto her face earlier became more and more genuine; she might be feeling emotionally raw inside, but she really did enjoy being the center of attention. At least, she enjoyed it when she just got to look pretty and have a good time, rather than making speeches or acting in her official capacity as the kingdom's soon-to-be Queen.

At some point over the past few days she had realized that she was going to be stuck being Queen forever once she got married... And since that was going to happen far sooner than she would like, she might as well enjoy just being the Princess, and bearing the limited responsibilities that went along with that title, while she had the chance. A ball like this was definitely a chance to let off a little steam and have some fun. And since it might be her last chance to do so without the encumbrance of obligations and an unwanted husband, Kimberly was all the more determined to enjoy it.

-x-

Jason had not been paying much attention to who arrived at the ball, or when they got there or what they were wearing. He made a proper obeisance with the others when Kimberly made her grand entrance, but he really did not care much for such functions, although Kimberly adored them and that meant he would probably have to muddle his way through a lot more of them in the future. He could mingle and make small talk and even dance well enough when he put his mind to it, but he would have much preferred the relative simplicity of another round on the tourney field.

Despite his lack of interest in the night's events, he knew immediately when Trini arrived. And that surprised him, both because she had entered from a small side door so as not to detract from Kimberly's entrance, and because she was ordinarily one of the most unobtrusive women he knew. She was usually calm and collected, not one that needed to draw attention to herself – unlike most of the noblewomen. This was apparently not the case tonight, not that he was complaining.

The moment his gaze fell on her, his breath caught in his throat. Zack turned to see, too, and made an appreciative comment that Jason barely heard; he was too busy staring to pay attention. Try as he might, and he was dimly aware that for appearances' sake he should, he could not seem to tear his gaze away from her. Even from his vantage point practically on the opposite end of the courtyard, she was unmistakable: a vision in plain yellow silk that flowed like liquid gold and left surprisingly little to the imagination.

Through the sudden rush of his blood and inability to speak, he almost wished she had warned him about this. Who knew that underneath those modest dresses she wore, Trini had been hiding a body like that? But he could tell from the look on her face that she had not anticipated her relatively simple outfit making much of a splash, which it definitely was, and felt a pang of sympathy. She wasn't used to being the object of so much attention.

He had half a mind to go rescue her, but as she made her way stoically toward where he and Zack were standing he realized she didn't really need saving. At least, not from this crowd. There might be rumors later, but she had made her splash and now she was already practically forgotten. The castle gossips were far more concerned with which knights and noblemen the Princess chose to dance with than what finery a servant girl wore to the ball.

"What did you do, steal Kim's tailor?" Zack joked when Trini drew close enough to hear.

She laughed quietly and shook her head. "Does this look like the work of our royal tailor?" she teased right back.

"Hardly," Jason put in. "If he'd designed it, it'd be covered with jewels."

"Actually, I think it's Kim that insists on that," she admitted.

"Too bad she's the one that sets the fashions," Angela sighed from her place beside Zack. Trini looked a little surprised to see her, although she hid it quickly; Jason smiled in spite of himself, pleased once again by his friend's minor victory. Angela was notoriously temperamental when it came to her suitors, and to Zack in particular. It was highly unusual for her to agree to attend any event with a date.

"I don't know," Zack said philosophically. "The court would be a lot less entertaining if all the noble ladies weren't constantly trying to copy her more... interesting fashion choices."

Angela shot him a sour look for that.

"I mean, the ones that haven't got enough beauty and brains to develop their own looks," he amended easily. Angela looked less than impressed.

Trini stepped in smoothly then, distracting Angela and soothing away her irritation with some comment Jason didn't hear. There was simply too much going on, too many distractions. It was difficult to hear anything over the music and dozens of separate conversations, and it seemed they were standing in the only still point amid a riotous sea of unfamiliar forms wearing colorful masks and even more colorful costumes.

He kept sneaking glances at her as she chatted with Angela. That dress was something else. He had never seen its like before, and wondered if this was the reward Kimberly had given her for all the hard work she had been doing while everyone else enjoyed the tournament. She wore no adornments with the outfit, save for a large ring with a bright yellow stone on the middle finger of her right hand. That ring... he knew he had seen it - or its twin - somewhere before. But where?

He dismissed that thought. The ring was probably just some trinket of Kimberly's; Trini had a habit, which the Princess supported wholeheartedly, of borrowing jewelry for royal functions.

But it still nagged at him. There was something important about that innocuous piece of jewelry, something he should remember, but couldn't.

Maybe he would find a chance to ask her about it later in the evening.

He supposed he could always make an opportunity. After all, this was one of Kimberly's royal balls, and a masquerade at that. It was practically tailor-made for sharing secrets and clandestine conversations.

It would just be a matter of getting Trini alone since, he decided, it wouldn't do to be interrogating her about her jewelry in front of the entire court. That would no doubt be the tricky part, not that he minded a challenge. Considering how captivating she looked in that costume, he couldn't be the only one interested in spending time beside her tonight; that thought made him feel strangely ill at ease.

He decided then that this was no time for silly plots and he should just go for the easiest, most direct route: asking her to dance. On the dance floor, they might be surrounded by people, but the chances of their conversation being overheard would be low. Everyone would be concentrating on the dancing and on their own conversations, not those of the people around them.

The musicians were winding down from a lively tune and as they began their next set, he recognized the song and that settled it. It was going to be now or never... and as far as Jason was concerned, 'never' was never an option.

He kept it well-hidden, but he felt the slightest bit nervous as he stepped up beside Trini to put his plan into motion. She looked so ethereal, as if she might flit away at any moment... He wondered, if he let her go now, if he could catch her again later and decided that yes, he could. But there was nothing stopping him from asking her for a turn now, and making sure that not only did he get the answer he sought, but also that he would be the one to claim her first dance of the evening. There was nothing preventing him from asking her for another dance later in the evening, once he'd done his duty by Kimberly, either.

Decision made and accompanied by a well-timed lull in the conversation, he offered a hand and asked, "Want to dance?"

-x-

It seemed like everyone wanted a turn to dance with Kimberly (except Jason, who seemed perfectly happy gawking at Trini instead; she reminded herself to thank Trini for that). Not that she could blame them, not when she looked this fabulous, but all the dancing was exhausting. And she was starting to think she'd had the tailor make her dress just a little bit too tight through the bodice. But she finally managed to extricate herself from the crowd and escape to a rather secluded corner where she could - hopefully - stop to catch her breath without being swept away again.

She spent a few minutes just standing there, watching the crowd from an outsider's perspective. It was almost relaxing, and after a while her breath came easier. She had just started thinking about finding something to eat when a dark figure loomed beside her.

Her heart skipped a beat and for a moment she failed to recognize the man in the mask. But only for a moment. "Tommy."

She had not been able to pick him out of the crowd, and had been afraid that he had decided not to come, after all. But he was there! And he'd found her! She had to fight the sudden strong urge to fling herself into his arms.

"It's that easy to tell?" he asked, pouting a little.

"I'd know you anywhere," she told him. And it was true, whether he liked it or not. There was just something about him that made him instantly recognizable to her. It was as if some part of her very soul cried out in yearning at the sight of him, as if he were a missing part of her.

"Well for the record, I tried," he sighed. His gaze roamed over her form then, with a deliberate and oddly enticing slowness that made her heart beat ever faster. "And it seems we match."

She had not been paying particular attention to his choice of attire, and blushed a little when she had to look him over carefully to see what he meant. She was usually more observant than this... but he made it so hard for her to focus! Upon closer inspection, she could see that his mask bore the chilling visage of an owl. It might have been frightening if she had not recognized him, but it made Kimberly smile. It was as if they had planned this night together, so that he had come dressed as a dark bird, the perfect complement to her radiant firebird's light.

"We do," she said at last, far too late. She was thoroughly distracted, her responses slow and almost half-witted, her mind busy considering the situation and its possibilities. In this secluded corner of the courtyard, they were utterly alone, or at least as alone as they were going to get at a royal ball. The thought of being alone with Tommy, as always, sent a thrill shivering up and down her spine. For a Princess, solitude was a luxury and a rarity. And now that she found herself unexpectedly alone with the man she cared so deeply for, she wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. But what would be the best way...

"So what are you doing here, off in a dark corner all by yourself?" Tommy went on, seemingly oblivious to her distraction. "This is your party, shouldn't you be enjoying it?"

"I am," she protested.

"Doesn't look like you're enjoying it nearly enough," he commented. Something in his tone made her shiver with anticipation. His hands had found hers and clasped around them, drawing the two of them together; his thumb brushed across the soft, sensitive flesh of her wrist. He smiled faintly. "And your heart's racing. Are you feeling all right?"

She had a feeling he knew only too well that her breathlessness and racing heart were due to his presence. "I've been dancing a lot tonight," she told him, wondering if he would point out the lie. "I needed a break."

"If I asked, would you dance with me, too?" he murmured thoughtfully.

"I would do anything you asked," she confessed. Any one of her advisers would have killed her for making such a proclamation, even though it was true. Upon reflection, however, her advisers would have to beat Trini to the honor if they wanted to kill her for a careless off-hand comment like that. But at the moment, she really did not care what they thought. She wanted...

She wanted a great many things; for him to kiss her, to be held in his arms, to take him by the hand and lead him out onto the dance floor where she could make her choice clear to everyone in the realm... And all those desires flitted right out of her head the moment he tugged her gently closer and pressed his lips to hers.

She was suddenly breathless, lightheaded. Her dress was definitely too tight. But it didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Kissing Tommy was good, so good. And she would have very much liked to go on kissing him for the rest of the night, and perhaps make an early exit from the ball together, but she knew there was no way she could get away with something like that. And even if she did, Trini would kill her for it.

So she knew that this couldn't last... But for now, she refused to think about that.

Her pleasure did not diminish even when he broke from the kiss and pulled away slightly. Their eyes met, and the electric shock that followed was enough for her... for now.

She should have been embarrassed by such openly licentious behavior in what was essentially a public place, or she probably should have at least pretended to be embarrassed, but she could not seem to tear her gaze away from his long enough to worry about it. She could tell from looking at him that he was every bit as affected as she was... and that knowledge only made it all the more intoxicating.

This time she was the one that kissed him, surging forward and up to loop her arms tightly around his neck, leaving him no way to escape. Not that she particularly thought he would want to escape.

She was mildly disappointed when his hands clasped around her wrists, urging her to loosen her grip on him. But, conscious of the fact that he probably enjoyed breathing, she released him. She watched him nervously, breathing heavily and suddenly, irrationally fearful that he had only been toying with her. And then...

Oh, yes, yes, yes. She molded her body against his as he gently unclasped her cloak and pressed a line of wet kisses down her bared neck. She was working on freeing his long hair from the tail he had tied it in when she heard a rustle nearby, followed by a high pitched cackle.

Horrified at being discovered, knowing full well that if word of this got out it would mean trouble, she made to pull away, but Tommy was holding her too tightly. And when he finally did release her it was to put himself between her and whoever it was that had found them. And when she caught sight of just exactly what had intruded on them, she knew why he had clutched her so tight. A large creature, that looked as if it might once have been a strange variety of flower, leered at her. Tommy had forcefully set himself between her and danger, and he was not going to willingly let her stray into its path.

Another monster? And now, of all times? Kimberly groaned. "Why me?"

-x-

Trini stared at Jason for a moment, thinking she must have misheard. "What?"

"I asked if you wanted to dance."

From nearby she could hear Zack snicker quietly in amusement. She ignored him. "I..." She had not really thought about what might happen once she got to the ball; she had been more concerned with showing up at all after her spat with Kimberly earlier. And, knowing how it usually made him want to roll his eyes, she certainly had not expected Jason to ask her to dance. Zack, maybe. But...

Realizing that she was stalling and Jason was still waiting for an answer, she said, "I was looking for Kimberly, actually, but I guess -"

"Come on, it'll be fun," Zack added, his eyes gleaming mischievously. As the strains of music grew louder, Trini realized why he was urging them on like that: this set was a dance for groups of four. If he could get Jason and Trini to accompany them, he would have an excuse to dance with his own date, Angela.

Sighing in resignation, Trini nodded her assent and let Jason take her by the hand. Surely she could at least spare the time for one dance, especially if she was also doing it as a favor to Zack. Still, she felt a great deal of nervousness rising up inside her as Jason led her over to where several other groups of dancers had assembled. Zack and Angela followed behind, taking their places as the dance began in earnest.

It turned out that Trini's trepidation was not misplaced. Only a few steps into the dance, it was already apparent that she was badly out of practice; this was the first official dance since the plague struck, and in the meantime dance practice had been far from her mind. Whatever skill she might once have had at dancing had slipped away.

Luckily, Jason and the others did not seem to notice. Zack and Angela were totally focused on each other, or at least as much as the intricate dance steps allowed, and Jason had never been all that good at dancing - and did not care that much about it – anyway. Somehow the four of them muddled through, and Zack even managed not to laugh when Trini stepped on his feet during the brief parts of the dance that had her dancing with him instead of with Jason.

It seemed as if an eternity - and at the same time only a few moments - had passed when the music finally began to wind to a halt. More or less in time with the final notes, the dancers all struck their final poses before paying their respects to the musicians. Those who would not participate in the next dance filed off the dance floor to be replaced by others in turn. Almost before Trini realized it, Zack and Angela had slipped away, leaving her alone with Jason. At least he hadn't disappeared yet, and he didn't seem particularly inclined to wander off; his hand was a warm, steadying pressure against her lower back. "You okay?"

"I should," she began, then hesitated. Her thoughts seemed scattered to the winds. "I should find Kimberly," she finished resolutely.

"Can't I have you to myself for a little bit?" he asked quietly. "I've missed you."

The request made Trini feel more conflicted than she would have liked to admit. She had missed him lately, too. She would have liked nothing more than to spend the entire ball having fun and entertaining herself with friends and frivolities, but her duty was first and foremost to Kimberly. But, recalling that she had argued with the Princess yesterday and was in no real rush to speak to her, beyond the obligation of handmaiden to lady, she opted to compromise. "One more song."

"I'm not going to get a better offer than that, am I?"

He added a little pout that almost swayed her, but she shook her head, resolute in her decision.

"Then I'll just have to live with that," he said, and as the first slow chords of the next song filtered through the air, he added determinedly, "Or change your mind."

As they took their places for the dance, she realized it would have been exceedingly easy for him to change her mind. If there was one thing Kimberly knew how to do really well, it was plan and execute a stellar party, and the Princess's customary magic was not lacking in this gathering. Trini would have liked very much to forgo her duties to the Princess and spend the evening indulging herself with Jason. But she knew such fantasies were childish. She had her obligations and Jason had his. She would have to send him after Kimberly soon, she knew, or the gossips would never stop talking... but for now she forced herself to be content just to dance one more song with him.

This dance was slower and, with only two people to coordinate instead of four, it was also easier. As they slowly moved across the floor, they spoke quietly of inconsequential, unimportant things, but Trini didn't mind. It was nice to feel almost carefree again. She closed her eyes for a moment and let herself get swept up in the gentle music and soothing motion; she could feel the warmth of Jason's hands through her dress, and wondered if thin silk had been such a good idea.

But she could also feel herself finally beginning to relax, feel the past week's stress start to drain out of her at last. Spending time with Jason before confronting Kimberly had been a good idea, she thought. If she was more relaxed than tense, it could only help in her inevitable confrontation with the Princess. But she was getting ahead of herself. As the music came to its conclusion and the dancers stopped to politely applaud, it became apparent that his request for another dance, just the two of them, had not been so innocent as she had thought.

"The Yellow Knight has a ring just like this," he said tersely. Dumbly, she wondered when he had noticed that. True, she had been unable to get the ring to hide beneath the gloves it conjured for her use on the battlefield, but she had always been careful, or so she thought, to be unobtrusive and not draw too much attention her way. He caught her hand in his and drew it up between them so she had no room to deny it. "You know who he is, don't you?"

She tugged her hand out of his grip and met the question with a guilty silence and an averted gaze.

"I," she began, sending an imploring look his way and hoping against hope that he might see through this latest lie and realize just who was behind that knight's mask. "I know who he is... but I've been sworn to secrecy. I can't tell anyone, not even you."

Rather than making any sort of brilliant deduction based on the obvious lie, he just looked hurt.

She was saved from having to make any sort of additional excuse by a sudden commotion across the courtyard. She knew immediately, without even looking to find the cause, that it would have something to do with Kimberly, and so she was only half a step behind Jason as he raced over to investigate. Somewhere along the way, he acquired a sword; Trini found herself wishing she had her knives handy, but as weapons were not allowed at royal functions such as this, except in the hands of the royal guards, she had left them behind in her room.

She nearly ran into Jason when he came to a sudden stop, but when she caught sight of what had stopped him, she could only stare. She had expected trouble. She had not expected this.

One of the decorative arrangements of flowers had apparently grown to enormous proportions and acquired arms and legs in addition to its flowing tendrils of foliage. Somewhere among the flowers a face must have been hidden. It laughed in a high-pitched voice that made Trini's head ache. Distractedly, she noticed why it was so proud of itself. It had Kimberly wrapped up in a series of long vines, its hand clamped around her arm. The Princess appeared to be unconscious - or sleeping.

Curious, Trini made a point of looking for Tommy Oliver. He always seemed to be close at hand when these things happened, and he was near Kimberly now... but his fine shirt had been torn at one shoulder and a large bruise was purpling across his face, as if he had been struck there. He looked utterly horrified and more than a little angry, like he might be considering trying to fight the thing with his bare hands to ensure Kimberly's safety. Despite the rumors she had heard lately, she had a hard time believing he could have had anything to do with the sudden transformation of an innocent bouquet of flowers into a monster. In that moment it seemed to her that he must just be extremely unlucky.

"Be careful, don't go near it without a weapon!" she warned, as Jason shouted a brash, "Stay out of the way!"

Trini sighed. Jason, this is not the time to be asserting your dominance!

Jason seemed almost surprised when, upon seeing that he had a sword and therefore a better chance at rescuing Kimberly, Tommy backed off. Trini approved. This was not the time to be fighting amongst themselves. This was the time to stand united against the common foe, for the good of all.

Beside her, Jason looked for an opening. She realized suddenly that at some point over the course of her musing, throwing daggers had appeared, tucked into her soft leather boots. It was weird, for sure, but Trini was not about to question the magic that assisted her. Instead she crouched, drawing both the knives and taking aim toward the monster. The first blade clattered harmlessly aside, but the second one scored a hit, the blade sinking a couple of inches into the creature's body.

Jason looked at her askance, probably because he thought she had snuck weapons into the ball under everyone's noses, but told her, "Nice throw."

She nodded, but noted that her attack seemed to have had no effect on the monster whatsoever. Except, perhaps, to make it angrier and draw its attention toward her.

Cackling all the while, the monster suddenly lashed out and wrapped one of its vines around her waist. She tried to get out of the way, but it was faster than she was and she was caught almost before she knew what was happening. It pulled her in so quickly that not even Jason's quick reflexes could save her, and soon it had her in its grip just like Kimberly. She suddenly felt as if all the energy had been drained from her body, and fought against an overwhelming urge to sleep. Vines grew around her and spread, fairly cocooning her just like they had done with the Princess before her.

Trini struggled furiously, determined to break free, but her strength was fading fast. She lost her balance and fell, but somehow managed not to faint. Lightheaded, she wondered if her ring's magic had something to do with her ability to remain conscious under such an onslaught. But she had a feeling that, with or without the ring's protection, if she did not get free soon, this creature would steal the very life from her veins.

-x-

As soon as he saw what new monster had come to terrorize the castle, in what was becoming a rather disturbing routine, Zack made a beeline for his quarters. It was not a short jaunt, and he was winded by the time he got back, but he made the trip in what had to be record time. He returned in time to see that the monster had captured Trini as well as Kimberly, and that Jason was determined to take it down. Zack knew all too well that Jason was stubborn enough to attempt it on his own if he had to.

"Jase, who cuts down trees with a sword?" he asked, half as a joke and half to let Jason know he was ready and willing to help, and gestured toward the axe he had retrieved from his chambers.

Jason shook his head, an indication that this was not the time for jokes. "We have to get the girls free," he said urgently. "It's draining their energy."

Zack glanced to one side, half expecting Tommy to suddenly produce a weapon or magic spell, or some other solution, that would take care of the monster in a suitably heroic fashion, but the knight made no move to do so. Seeing that he and Jason were, for the most part, on their own, he suggested, "Let's see what happens if we cut off those vines that are holding them."

"Good idea. You take Trini. I'll get Kim."

They attacked together, but the monster did not seem to have the slightest problem fighting two opponents at the same time. It made good use of its dozens of vine tendrils, both as weapons and for forming a defensive shield, and they all seemed to work independently of each other. Zack hacked them off with his axe when he got the opportunity, but after only a few successes the monster realized what he was doing and stopped giving him openings.

Well. They weren't getting very far, but he supposed it counted for something that they had it on the defensive now.

"Zack, do you see how it doesn't move?" Jason asked suddenly.

"What are you talking about?"

"It strikes and defends, but it only stands in the one place," Jason explained hurriedly, keeping his gaze focused on the monster in front of him. "I think it can't move very well with two prisoners like that."

Zack had to admit it made sense. Not that either of the girls particularly weighed much, but keeping two women as feisty as Kimberly and Trini immobilized had to take a lot of effort, even for a... flower monster. "You're right. So what's the plan?"

"Move quick, get past its defenses, and try to cut the girls free," Jason said.

The monster cackled with glee. "You think you can get past me?"

Zack braced himself for an attack... and it never came.

Two doused torches sailed through the air from somewhere behind him and hit the monster solidly on the head. Suddenly the thing wasn't laughing anymore. "Nice shot!" someone shouted exuberantly; that would have to be the work of Rocky DeSantos and his two squires.

"Now!" Jason hissed.

The two knights moved quickly, dodging past belatedly flailing tendrils. Zack got in two solid chops with his axe before the monster caught him and tossed him aside, but it was enough to cut Trini free. She stayed where she had fallen, the flower monster's tendrils withering as soon as they were cut off from the main body of the creature. Zack leaped to his feet again, determined to reach her before the monster could get her again, but Billy and his date were already there to assist. Together they were able to pull Trini beyond the monster's reach; thankfully, Zack saw, she was already beginning to stir.

"Kat and I will tend to Trini," Billy promised. Of course, Billy's date – the blonde woman Zack hadn't recognized at first - was Katherine, the other archivist. Zack wondered where she had run off to for the past few months... "Keep your eyes on that monster. There's no telling what it may be capable of."

"Right." He glanced toward Jason, hoping for some sort of direction from the other knight. Unfortunately, he had little choice but to watch as Jason glowered and said something to Tommy, speaking too low for Zack to hear; Tommy, glaring right back, gave a curt nod and took Kimberly's limp form from Jason. While the matter was apparently settled for now, Zack had a feeling he should keep an eye on the two rivals in the future. With tensions running high and the melee tomorrow, this monster might not be the only thing they needed to worry about.

For its part, the monster looked at its dismembered limbs in disbelief, howling, "You'll pay for this!"

It immediately went on the offensive again, momentarily sending the knights - and spectators - scrambling backward. Jason finally put a stop to it by charging straight into the monster's next attack. Zack wasn't sure whether he should join Jason or try to find a weak point in the monster's defenses. They might have managed to free Kimberly and Trini, but it was evident that a decisive victory was going to take some work. And some strategy, which was not always Jason's strong point. And that particular flaw in Jason's character became especially apparent a moment later, when he charged toward the monster again, beyond caring about the danger, determined in his rage to take it down singlehandedly if he could.

Sensing that Jason did not need his help, at least not yet, Zack hung back from the fight. He kept an eye on the monster, watching for any sneaky tactics or obvious weak points, but also scrutinizing Tommy as best as he could. The other knight might not have made a move to intervene so far, but Zack was far from believing him innocent of all involvement in the strange occurrence. After all, Tommy had been, to all appearances, completely alone with Kimberly when the creature showed up. And now he was the only one keeping her safe from harm.

But every time Zack managed to sneak a glance, it seemed that all of Tommy's attention was entirely focused on the still-unconscious Princess. With Jason confronting the monster, Zack had a moment to worry about what might happen if Kimberly never woke up. If this monster had succeeded where the others had failed... he didn't want to think about the possibilities.

He turned his attention back to the fight in time to see the monster give off a puff of glowing red dust. Jason took the worst of it right in the face. The world seemed to balance on a razor's edge for a moment, everything suddenly slowing down and falling silent, before Jason swore and backed off. "Gah, it burns," he hissed. His sword clattered to the ground, and he rubbed ineffectually at his face. Zack could see that his eyes were red and watery, almost inflamed, from some irritation. Pollen, maybe. "Zack, be careful."

"I will," Zack promised. "But somebody's got to whack that weed before it can cause any serious damage. And," he added, hefting his axe again, "I've got just the thing to do it."

"You really think you can take me down with that measly axe?" the monster taunted.

Zack grinned. "I can. And I'll prove it." He just hoped it wasn't too late, that Jason and the girls would be okay. If they weren't... then death would be too good for this overgrown weed.

"Incendiary pollen," he heard Billy confirm from somewhere behind him. "Water should help alleviate the worst of the effects. However, we must evacuate the premises immediately, or everyone could be in very great danger. Sir DeSantos -"

"On it."

Relieved that someone had finally taken charge and would get the innocent bystanders to safety, Zack was able to concentrate better on the monster in front of him - and figuring out how to live up to his own boasting. "Hey, ugly," he said, "End of the road."

"That's what you think," it screeched, laughing all the while.

He wondered how it could possibly find everything so amusing. Unfortunately, he soon found out. It might have been slow and cumbersome before, lashing out only with its vine tendrils while remaining stationary, but it had also been weighed down by two prisoners. Now, without its burden, it was swift and proved to be a skilled warrior, effortlessly dodging most of his attacks. Its leaves were as tough as steel armor, harmlessly deflecting the blade of his axe, and he couldn't seem to find a weakness in its defense or its armor... until he remembered that Trini had managed to land a hit with one of her daggers before it took her down. She must have managed to hit a weak point.

Backing off momentarily to give it a careful inspection, he thought he could see the deep puncture wound in its body where Trini's dagger had been. He could see, now, that her dagger had slipped into a tiny gap between two of its armored leaves. If he aimed for that spot, he might be able to actually do some damage. The trick would be doing it without taking a blast to the face like Jason had. He did not have a shield, so there was no way to avoid getting hit if he got too close... but he could minimize the damage by keeping his face turned away from it.

Figuring it was now or never, Zack charged. As the monster let loose another burst of that flaming red pollen, he spun so that it caught him along the back rather than hitting him in the face.

It did burn, a lot. He could feel it all along his back, especially where the skin was exposed along his neck. But his plan had worked, and he had managed to avoid getting any pollen in his eyes or on his face. Carrying the momentum from his spin into a full turn, he lashed out with the axe again. The extra force seemed to do the trick: the blade hit its mark and sliced nearly halfway through the creature.

A moment later it, and all the pieces of it that had already been cut off, exploded.

Luckily, Rocky and Billy had managed to get the surrounding area clear of people, and Zack was the only one that ended up covered in the sticky residue that rained down after the monster's destruction. Momentarily stunned by its sudden disappearance, he simply stared for a moment at the spot where the creature had been.

And then he was abruptly swept up in a flurry of activity, as the supposedly evacuated attendees of the ball came flooding back in.

"Zack!" It was Angela. Her expression was somewhere between stricken and relieved.

"Hey Angela," he said, doing his best to sound casual. And to pretend that he wasn't covered in what he could only assume were monster guts.

"What were you thinking?" she demanded, her tone suddenly threatening violence. He made a mental note that she did not handle potentially mortal danger well, but that she looked especially good when she was worried about his safety.

"That overgrown flower was sucking the life out of the fairest ladies at the ball," he pointed out, thinking quickly in an attempt to turn the situation to his advantage. "I couldn't just stand by and let it take you and the Princess, could I?"

It was obvious that she had no idea what to say to that; apparently it had not occurred to her that she might have become a target had the monster taken notice of her, or that he had not only been defending the Princess, but her as well. She started to speak half a dozen times, always stopping herself, before finally settling on, "You idiot! You could have been killed!"

What she did next shocked him: she flung her arms around him, heedless of the mess covering him, and squeezed him tight. In front of most of the court, even.

Taken aback by the sudden turn in his fortunes, Zack let his arms come around her when she showed no signs of going anywhere. He had to fight to keep his expression suitably serious, when what he really wanted to do was grin like an idiot and shout for joy. Heroics: totally worth the extra effort.