Moribus paced beneath the great laurel oak, watching people pass by on the cobbled path. It was late autumn. It had rained the day before, turning the leaf-strewn ground sodden and spongy. Overhead, a few bedraggled leaves still clung to their branches while a cold wind tried to rattle them free.
After the austere solitude of the mountains, the ebb and flow of humanity across the plaza made him feel vulnerable and exposed. Underlings scurried about on their incomprehensible errands while the nobility traveled in pairs or threesomes, exchanging gossip. Their gazes passed over him as if he were part of the scenery. A pair of palace guards drifted over to ask him what his business was. Thinking quickly, he made a show of searching for mushrooms in the oak’s shade. Mollified, they moved on.
Moribus remembered the first time Meglinda had come tripping down the cobbled path, looking carefree and radiant in a cornflower blue skirt with yellow starbursts sewn into the hem. She twiddled with a lock of hair, lost in a world of private enchantments. When a mother duck waddled across her path with six ducklings in tow, she stooped to pet them. Expecting a handout, they crowded forward to nibble at her fingers. She apologized and shooed them on their way, but this only sent them pecking around in the grass in search of phantom morsels. While they were distracted, she smoothed down her skirt and quickly continued on her way. Realizing the deception, the ducklings hurried after her, begging in their staccato speech. She had unwittingly become a pied piper of sorts.
“Looks like you’ve got some admirers willing to follow you to the ends of the earth,” Moribus said as she passed the tree where he was standing.
Recognizing him instantly, Meglinda launched herself with abandon into his arms. Any doubts he still harbored about following her to Alvaron were swept away in the joyous flood of tears soaking his shoulder. All the sacrifice had been worth it. She was his once more.
The embrace had come at a high price, however. When the Lady Densa caught wind of it, she confined Meglinda to her quarters for a solid month, the harshest penalty she had ever doled out. Moribus, as a no-account servant, received a switching that left him unable to lie on his back for the better part of a fortnight. But he would have gladly endured far worse. The memory of that embrace had sustained him through the grueling years of servitude that followed. And it was that memory that now gave him the resolve to return to Alvaron after the failed dragon quest and make a desperate plea for his lover’s hand.
The hours passed timelessly as he waited beneath the laurel oak. Every moment brought a host of conflicting emotions. Why didn’t she come, damn her! But it was not Meglinda who was to blame. It was he, Moribus, who had missed his rendezvous with destiny.
One autumn had come and gone, now a second was in its deflowering. Wandering solitary among the mountains, he had been unable to send word back to Meglinda. Besides, what would he have said to her? From his silence she could only have assumed the worst. There would have been tears and denials, but then, with the resilience of the young and hopeful, she would have come to accept the inevitable and found a new object to project her dreams onto. What right had he to appear out of nowhere and throw her life into fresh disarray? Yet here he was, prudence be damned.
Moribus was reminded of a destitute gambler that had hired on one summer as a field hand on his father’s farm. One night at the campfire, he related his tale of woe: how he had once wagered everything, including a fair bride and a rich tract of farmland, on one throw of the dice—and lost. On the farm, he was a hard and sober worker who hoarded away every coppy even if it meant going hungry or shoe-less. When one of the other laborers asked him what he intended to do with his meager stash, the gambler exclaimed, Win my fortune back, of course! Back then, Moribus had not been able to fathom what would drive a man to such reckless compulsion, but now he felt an odd sort of kinship with the doomed gambler. Here he was making his own life wager.
It was almost the dinner hour before the dice of fate finally showed their numbers. When Meglinda appeared, he almost failed to recognize her. She was every bit a noblewoman. Her features were porcelain-perfect with no trace of childlike innocence or quick laughter. Dressed all in white and subtle grays, she wore a knee-length ermine cloak trimmed in fox-fur. A shimmering cascade of ivory satin tumbled below the hem. She wore her hair up in a sculpted bell with a couple braided tendrils dangling like ornamental tassels. But one look at her large, almond eyes removed any trace of uncertainty. He could never forget the eyes of his beloved.
Moribus watched Meglinda approach with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. There were no ducks to provide her with an entourage this time. In fact, it was hard to imagine such a regal lady pausing to converse with common waterfowl. As she rounded the bend, her gaze flicked toward the laurel oak.
Moribus’s face went hot under her scrutiny, waiting for any sign of recognition. At the least invitation—a smile, a gasp, a tremor of joy—he was prepared to rush forward and sweep her up in his arms. But the moment of recognition failed to materialize. Dull curiosity, intermingled with scorn, registered momentarily in her eyes, then her gaze passed on. She came within twenty paces, then ten.
“Meglinda,” he mouthed, but no sound came out.
Then she was moving past him, her skirts rustling in time with her brisk, scissoring strides. He caught the dusky scent of some out of season flower.
“Meglinda!” He fairly shouted this time, his voice sharp and ragged. “Meglinda, it’s me—”
“Stay where you are!” Meglinda whirled to face him, her eyes wide in alarm. “Don’t come any closer or… or…” She glanced nervously about the plaza, which was empty aside for an aged couple sitting on a bench. “Or I’ll call for the guards. They’ll be coming along any moment now.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Moribus said. “I just got a little carried away seeing you again after all this time.”
Meglinda looked him over, her mouth twisting in contempt. “Who are you?”
Moribus was painfully aware of how he must appear to her. His body had gone lean and wiry beneath his threadbare clothes which, having faded to a uniform dun color, little resembled the colorful livery he had set out in two years ago. His hands were rough and calloused, his hair unkempt and lice-ridden. He had shaved the day before, the first time in ages, but already a hard bristle had begun to grow back in. Meglinda, by comparison, was the very paragon of elegance. Her fox-fur cloak had fallen partway open, revealing a silver stomacher worked in a pattern of ornamental daggers, clustered in threes like the leaves of some prickly flower. Never had she appeared so beautiful or so unattainable as she did at that moment.
Moribus was torn between the desire to flee or take her forcefully in his arms. “You’ll have to forgive me, my lady. Beneath this lavish attire, I am every bit the ill-bred rogue I ever was.” He cut a formal bow. “Moribus Ansol Polibdemus the Third at your service.”
Meglinda blanched. “I don’t know where you heard that name, but I suggest you forget it this instant before my mother catches wind of your shenanigans. The Lady Densa has her own ways of dealing with vermin like you. Now,” she straightened to her full imperial height, “just tell me who put you up to this, and I give you my word that no harm will come to you.”
Moribus was taken aback. He had braced himself for recrimination, remorse and, of course, rejection—but her stalwart denial of who he was caught him off guard. “Don’t you recognize me? It’s me, Moribus Ansol. We grew up together back in Twin Oaks.”
“You must be mistaken,” Meglinda said. “I’ve always lived in Alvaron. I was born in the Sun Palace on Saint Olivia’s Day.”
“That’s not true! You were born under a harvest moon in a little town called Twin Oaks. Your father raised you from the time you were a child. Certainly you couldn’t have forgotten that.” Meglinda’s icy demeanor thawed ever so slightly. Encouraged, Moribus pressed on, “You helped your father run the inn—not that you were ever much good at keeping house. You were always shirking your duties and sneaking off to watch the horse gentler or wrestle with the boys. Remember the time your father caught us swimming in the spring when you were supposed to be snapping peas? For several weeks after that, he made you wear jangles on your wrists so he could hear you moving about.”
A cold breeze swept down the plaza. Meglinda shivered, clutching her cloak tightly by its gray ruff. “How much do you want?” she asked in a tone of resignation. “Will a hundred crowns suffice?”
“What are you talking about?” Moribus replied, uncomprehending. “What would I want with a hundred crowns?”
“Two hundred, then,” she countered.
“I told you, I don’t want your—”
“Two hundred and fifty is all I’m willing to offer. But I’ve got four fine colts and a small lake house.” She stiffened. “If you think you’ll get anything more out of me, you are sorely mistaken.”
“This has nothing to do with money. Why would you even—” Sudden comprehension brought him up short. She thought he was attempting to blackmail her with the knowledge of her past. “Oh, Meg—” The familiar address slipped out, hanging awkwardly on the air between them. “Look, Meglinda,” he began again. “I’ve always kept your secrets. I would never dream of telling anyone about your past. That’s not why I came back.”
“Then what did you come here for?” she asked guardedly.
Moribus wet his lips. “I wanted to see if things had… changed between us.”
“Changed? How do you mean changed?”
“If we were still, you know, betrothed.”
Meglinda looked aghast. “I don’t know who in Ord’s name you really are, but if you think I would even consider marrying the likes of you, then—then you’ve got another thing coming. Why, I would rather pay a thousand crowns to never see you again!”
“Now that’s a fine thing to say!” Moribus felt his gall rise. “Because you were ready to tie the knot with me a couple years ago when I was a noble prince galloping off to slay a dragon. We said our goodbyes under this very tree.”
“The man I said goodbye to is dead.”
Moribus spread his arms, inviting her examination. “Do I look dead to you?”
“I saw the body,” she replied grimly.
“I don’t know whose body you think you saw, but it certainly wasn’t mine.”
“It was him.” She lowered her eyes. “They brought it in a crate and sat it in the courtyard. The face was horribly burned, and it was packed with salt, but it was him. I’m sure of it.”
“If the body was so badly burned then how could you tell that it was me?”
A muscle clenched in her jaw. “One of his eye-teeth was chipped—”
“Like this one?” Moribus pulled on his upper lip, exposing the tooth he had cracked as a child against a rock while crossing a slippery streambed.
“He was wearing the same clothes he had on when last I saw him.”
“That’s ridiculous. Why would I wear my finest doublet if I was setting off on a long journey?”
“That’s not all,” she sighed heavily. “They found a lock of my hair on him, woven into a ring. Just like the one I gave to him when we were first betrothed.”
“I lost it,” he admitted. “Or it was stolen, rather. I placed it in a tin I kept under my bed. One day I came back, and it was missing.”
“And I suppose you can explain the parchment as well?”
“It was an unfinished ballad written in his own hand.”
“I could never have written that.”
She eyed him skeptically. “Why not?”
Moribus wrung his hands. Even after everything else that had happened, he still felt ashamed to admit the reason. “Because I can’t write.”
“Maybe you can’t,” Meglinda replied. “But the real Moribus could. Before he left, he used to send me secret notes at the palace. I recognized his handwriting.”
“I had Borca the gardener write them for me,” he explained. “He used to be a scribe in the palace before his master released him. For forgery, rumor had it.”
“What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense. Why would someone want to fake Moribus’s death? Anyway, the only people who knew about all those things—the tooth, the lock of hair, the parchment—was Moribus and myself.”
“You told no one else?”
“Of course not. Well, except for…” Her eyes went wide. “No! She would never do that. The Lady Densa loves me more than life itself. She could never bring herself to make me suffer like that.”
But Moribus knew better. “I’m sure the Lady Densa would do whatever she felt she had to if she thought it was for your own good.”
“Not that. She would not!” She pounded her fists against the air as if driving invisible stakes into the ground. “You’re trying to trick me! This is all just some hair-brained scheme you hatched up in order to ruin us. It’s the Lady Densa you’re after, isn’t it? You’re trying to get back at her by hurting me. Well, it’s not going to work. I’m on to your little scheme now, and I’m not going to give in so… so you can just go crawl back under whatever rock you came out from!”
Moribus bit back his angry reply. There had to be some way of getting her to accept his identity. “What if I could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I really am who I say? Would you believe me then?”
Meglinda’s eyes flashed a challenge. “How do you intend to do that?”
“What if there was some secret that only the two of us shared?”
Moribus did not have to think long. Pulling up the sleeve of his cloak, he extended his right forearm. “See this? When I left to slay the dragon, you bound this favor upon my arm. For luck, you said. Although you really gave it to me because you scratched me with your nails.”
She averted her eyes. “That can’t be.”
He thrust it at her so forcefully he nearly struck her. “Just look at it! You know it is.”
Meglinda looked but was still not ready to believe. “It just looks like an ordinary rag to me.”
“It’s faded. I never took it off. Just like I promised.”
“If you really are Moribus, then tell me this… Why would I have wanted to scratch you?”
“It was an accident. You were pretending to be a dragon.”
“Where did I take the ribbon from?”
“What color was it?”
“What color?” Moribus was growing exasperated. “Rhojë Almighty! Next you’ll want to know how many threads it’s got in it.”
“If you really are him, then you’ll know what color it was,” Meglinda said, just as stubborn as ever. That part of her hadn’t changed a bit.
Moribus examined the faded ribbon. “The color… It was, um…” The word hovered just beyond his reach. He gazed deep into her almond eyes in search of the answer. Conflicting emotions played across them like tangled webs.
Meglinda flinched under the directness of his gaze and lowered her eyes. That was when he saw it, the jewel-encrusted ring around the third finger of her left hand. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? Had she been concealing it as they spoke? Or had he avoided looking there, knowing what he would find? It didn’t matter. The wedding band was a lie, he told himself. Meglinda had belonged to him first. She had always belonged to him. Jealousy lanced through his thoughts. Who was sharing her bed? Was it that ballad-composing dandy, Blaise? Funny how, after two long years, he could still recall the name of that dreadful, poetry-spouting suitor. But what was the name of that color, dammit? It was a food, he remembered that much. Some kind of spice. Time was running out. Already, Meglinda was gathering her cloak about her.
“Cinnamon,” he said at last.
No sooner was the word out of his mouth than he knew he had made a dreadful mistake. “No, wait! It wasn’t that… it was… it was…” But for the life of him, he couldn’t remember it.
Meglinda heaved a long, deep sigh of relief. “I’m sorry,” she said. “As Rhojë is my witness, I do not know you.”
Then there was nothing left to say. Moribus could only watch in silence as she clutched her cloak about her and turned away. When she had taken a few steps, she paused to glance back at him, giving him a final vision of her in profile. Her face was hard and beautiful, a monument that would forever stand in his memory.
“I’ll send my servant tomorrow around this time,” she said in a business-like tone. “I trust that two hundred crowns will be sufficient to ensure that certain pieces of information never leave this tree.”