A day riding bareback had nearly been the death of Moribus. The skin on his inner thighs was flayed raw, oozing a honey-like pus that glued it to his breeches. His spine was kinked, his fingers clawed, and his pelvis bowed as a horseshoe. Worst of all, the continual jouncing had severely bruised his unmentionables.
Coming across the small group of free-ranging horses had at first seemed like divine providence, but now he was inclined to think it was the work of the devil. Docile and well fed, they must belong to someone in town. They had probably bolted loose during the fracas with the dragon. It wasn’t theft to take one, he reasoned. He was, after all, on official town business. He settled on a spry chestnut filly a hand shorter than its peers, making it easier to mount. Dismounting, however, was proving to be a different matter.
After much kicking and cursing, he managed to coax the filly within reach of a branch. But when the filly spotted a grasshopper and bounded after it, Moribus lost his grip and tumbled to the ground like a bag of loose bones, which was mostly what he was. With a heartfelt groan, he took stock of his injuries. Nothing broken or ruptured. He would live, for now.
Meanwhile, the filly had caught up to the grasshopper. It chomped into it with gusto only to spit it back out in surprised distaste.
“That’s right, you chorling piece of codswallop. How you like the taste of grasshoppers, eh?” He fit a stone into the slingshot and let fly. Smack! on the rump. The filly shot off across the hillside and out of sight. Feeling vindicated, Moribus propped himself against a trunk and wearily gazed up at the looming mountains, still many miles distant. “What now, old man?”
His prospects for finding the girl alive were grim at best. On a swift horse, the journey could be accomplished in a matter of days. By swift walking stick, a few weeks. By hobble, he dared not speculate. It would take several days just to get back into prime hobbling condition. In the meantime, he could count himself lucky if he managed to stave off starvation and avoid grievous injury.
Moribus Ansol Polibdemus the Third had never been one to challenge deity over the glaring injustices of life, like why wicked men were allowed to die mercifully in their sleep while good men were forced to grow old and decrepit before their very eyes. Yet he couldn’t help wondering: in a town teeming with people worthy of a dragon’s dearest affections, why had Rhojë allowed such a gentle, innocent soul to be taken?
“She’s already dead,” he forced himself to admit. Better to crush the seed of hope now than have to uproot the entire tree by the roots later. With trembling fingers, he rolled up his right sleeve to trace the three orange scars that raked his forearm. The skin there was smooth to the touch and barely affected by the ravages and blemishes of age.
After fifty long years, the scars were still as fresh as the day they were made.
* * * * *
Moribus would never forget what Meglinda looked like the day he left her standing under the great laurel oak, her skin creamy in the shadows, her almond eyes flecked with copper, but most of all her hair, that gravity-defying tower of coils, swoops and careless-seeming straggles held in place by a profusion of orange ribbons. Indeed, there were enough ribbons—skinny ones, thick ones, lacy and gauzy ones—to fill an entire boudoir. He wondered if her neck hurt; the thing must have weighed a ton.
“It’s called the yacari style,” Meglinda explained. “It’s all the rage at court. Yacari means high castle in Endish. Amina said I look like something out of a fairy tale.” She tilted her head so a winding lock fell demurely across one cheek. “Do you like it?”
“The color is quite striking,” Moribus evaded.
“It’s called persimmon.”
“I thought persimmon was a fruit.”
“Oh, Morby,” Meglinda said in mild exasperation. “Don’t be such a wart. It’s the same color as the fruit, that’s why.”
“But how did you get it to, uh… ” He made a vertical sweeping motion with his hands.
“There are little pins in it,” she snapped, losing patience. “Now are you just going to stand there like a clod and ask stupid questions, or are you going to tell me what you really think of it?”
There was no denying that her coiffure possessed a certain flair, artistry even. It put one in mind of soaring castles, leaping fountains and vine-embroidered trellises, all pleasant things for sure—so long as they weren’t perched atop someone’s head. “It looks nice,” he said at last.
“Nice, is it?” Meglinda frowned. “I spend all morning having Amina torture me in the cruelest way imaginable, and all you have to say is it looks nice?”
“No, really, it looks…” Splendid. Spectacular. Monumental. The words log-jammed on his tongue. Just then, a sudden gust of wind shook out a flurry of grainy pollen from the laurel tree.
“Ugh!” Meglinda’s hands hovered an inch from her hair. She dared not pick it out for fear of upsetting the delicate architecture. “Don’t just stand there! Help me get it off!”
Moribus glanced around nervously. It was approaching the dinner hour, and the plaza was full of strollers and hangers-on. “We shouldn’t stand too close, my lady. Someone might see us.”
“And what if they do? You’re a prince now. It’s high time you started acting like one.”
A prince. Such a simple thing, that title, a couple lines entered into a legal registry. Yet in all of Alvaria no magic was more potent. On the weight of that title, Moribus had exchanged his patched roughspun, heavily brined in piss and sweat, for a freshly laundered doublet redolent with incense. Days of toil were replaced with afternoons of indolence, nights of discomfort with evenings of extravagance. But even a magic title could not undo a lifetime of peasant habits, and Moribus still caught himself slipping into his old, deferential ways.
“Allow me, my lady.” He cut a short bow as if entreating her to dance.
“Get on with it, then. And stop genuflecting or people will take you for my lackey.”
Moribus drew close, drinking in her scent. She smelled of whiting powder and sandalwood with a hint of cedar. Picking the henna-colored lint out of her hair, he was acutely aware of the rise and fall of her slender shoulders beneath the peach-colored shawl, which was open at the neck, exposing the swells of her breasts in their gold-satin cradles.
“Moribus!” Meglinda gasped, scandalized, yet sounding pleased at the same time. She drew the ends of her shawl together.
Blood rushed to Moribus’s face. He forced himself to concentrate on de-linting her hair.
“Oh, now look. You’re getting it all over.”
“Sorry, it crumbles.”
“Of course it does—when you crush it,” she chided. “Have you picked out a horse yet?”
“I’ll be taking Pagun’s old mount,” Moribus said.
“What kind is it?”
“A Bulgar or a Rhodani, I think. It’s so well broken you don’t even need reins. You just lean in the direction you want to go.”
“Never mind about that. What color is it? White, I hope.”
“Sort of dark brown, almost sable.”
“Well, that just won’t do. Does Lord Manerion have any white horses?”
“Only white ponies. They’re about the size of mules. He keeps them for the children to ride.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Morby.” Meglinda fixed him with a reproachful eye. “A white mule, really. Now could you just see a white mule at our wedding?”
“Wedding?” Moribus failed to make the connection. “Why would there be horses at our wedding?”
Meglinda rolled her eyes. “Because it’s romantic, Morby, that’s why. Remember Duke Arin’s wedding? Now wasn’t that just the most romantic thing you ever saw?”
Moribus had not actually seen the duke’s wedding—nor had Meglinda for that matter—but the event had been so widely recounted it was almost legend. There were two competing versions of the tale. One version had it that Duke Arin, laying eyes on the Lady Sealia for the first time from his tower window, was so smitten that he saddled up his prize horse, a white Mataggordon nearly as renown as the duke himself, gathered up an entourage along the way, and caught up to her in the Plaza of Lions where he wed her on the spot. The second version took a more pragmatic view. In this telling, the Lady Sealia, who was rumored to be severely pigeon-toed, had desired a horseback wedding to avoid the embarrassment of waddling up to the alter, an idea which Duke Arin, ever vain of his prize horse, had found much to his liking.
There could be little doubt as to which version Meglinda subscribed to. She had always romanticized horses, white horses in particular. But years spent plowing his father’s farm had given Moribus a different perspective. Pulling behind Ol’ Stepper had been like standing downwind from a fresh manure pile.
But Meglinda’s mind was made up. For Moribus’s part, he didn’t care whether he rode a white horse or a rented mule to the altar, so long as they didn’t take part in the consummation.
More pollen settled in Meglinda’s hair, giving him an excuse to stay close. He could feel her moist breath on his neck—or was that just the wind? After so many years of dreaming futile dreams, it hardly seemed possible that soon—so very soon now—that pearly skin would be his for the caressing, those rosebud lips his for the kissing.