Moribus wasn’t sure how he had come to be standing outside the garden gate of the erstwhile dragonslayer’s estate. When he parted ways with Meglinda, he had no particular destination in mind. Indeed, all destinations had ceased to exist for him. He only walked from force of habit; after months of hiking in the mountains, it took less effort than standing still.
The back gate was unlocked, and no one stood guard, so he let himself in. Little had changed since Lord Manerion’s day. If one looked closely amid the tended plots there were pale stones that, if dug up, would reveal themselves as the moldering skulls of oliphaunts or dragon hatchlings, take your pick.
He descended a flight of steps to a door set into the manse’s foundation. The corridor inside was dark and narrow. It had flooded recently and several inches of turbid water still stood on the floor. The servants sloshed around in it without slowing pace. No one asked him his business. Who but another servant would venture into the flooded understory?
The main floor, by contrast, was all stone and light. He left muddy prints on a snow leopard rug and felt a pang of guilt, wondering what innocent servant would receive a beating for his heedlessness. He took off his boots and padded barefoot along cool, marble floors to the great banquet hall. The furniture and heraldry had all been changed, but the great dragon skull still glared down from its position above the hearth. The sight of that skull had once filled Moribus with awe, but now, compared to the magnificent beast he had witnessed in the flesh, it appeared smallish and shrunken as a witch doctor’s talisman.
He followed a banistered stairway up to the top floor where the lords kept their privy chambers. Among the servants, speculation ran rampant over what intrigues and liaisons took place behind those ornately carved doors, but as he regarded the long hall, nothing could have seemed more banal. Each door opened onto a room where the highborn gossiped, schemed, dreamed, fornicated, pissed and farted, the selfsame activities that took place in every farmhouse and humble cottage in Twin Oaks.
A door opened, and a short, chubby man shuffled out, fastidiously patting down the ruffles of his fancy doublet. The new lord of the manor perhaps? He had the look of a puffed-up bluejay. With no time to hide, Moribus moved aside and struck a subservient posture. Still fussing over his doublet, the nobleman moved away down the hall without sparing him a second glance. Lord Manerion’s words came suddenly to mind, People will see what they want to see. The reunion with Meglinda had taught him another bitter truth, people will not see what they do not want to.
Somewhere along the way, Moribus had realized where his instincts were leading him. To high ground. At the back of a storage closet he found a ladder and climbed it to a trap door that opened onto the roof. All manner of windborne debris had been deposited onto its surface: leaves, feathers, beetles, hapless moths and even a dead crow. So this was how Rhojë saw the palatial estate as he gazed down from the heavens: a littered patch of weathered stone. The manor was built to be admired by the little people on the ground.
The view of the city beyond was impressive in both its opulence and decrepitude. The golden dome of the king’s palace glinted in the sun like an overturned punch bowl. The city rippled outward from it, losing something in height and grandeur with every furlong until its shacks and lean-tos crashed against the ancient walls to spill over into the outer slums. Lord Manerion’s estate was just outside the city hub, a walled off oasis unto itself.
Moribus stepped up onto the stone ledge and spread his arms. It wasn’t an especially long fall to the garden path below, but a head-first plunge ought to do the job. Just like diving really. He remembered how it felt to stand on a thick bough and peer down at his reflection in the glassy waters of a spring. He remembered stepping out into nothingness, the flying up to meet himself, and the roaring implosion of his two selves colliding—then the sudden universe of silence.
A gust of wind tugged at a frayed end of the ribbon on his arm. To think that such a worthless rag had been his undoing. He tore it off and hurled it over the ledge where it fluttered to the ground like a molted skin.
Laying eyes on his upper forearm for the first time in two years, Moribus was surprised to find three parallel marks, hairless and smooth as baby flesh. Somehow, the dye from the ribbon had been absorbed by the shallow wounds, effectively tattooing him.
Moribus wasn’t superstitious, but it was hard to deny the symbolism of those three marks. Associations flashed in his mind. He was a man with three names—Moribus Ansol Polibdemus—belonging to three lands—Twin Oaks, Alvaron and the mountain wilderness—who had lived three separate lives—peasant, prince and vagabond—and thrice encountered the sublime—his mother’s voice, the dragon’s magnificence and Meglinda’s love. Each triad had left its indelible marks upon his soul in the same way Meglinda’s stiletto nails had scored his flesh. Yet his flesh had absorbed the changes and emerged new and reborn. Surely his soul could do the same.
With a sudden rush of vertigo, Moribus stepped back from the ledge.