In Meglinda, the king’s niece saw more than a charming admirer; she saw a guileless soul full of spirit and independence, qualities that struck a resounding chord in her own character.
For Meglinda, the Lady Densa was a veritable fairy godmother. She dressed her in the finest brocades, took her for scenic rides in her spacious carriage, and seated her at her right hand at the banquet table with its endless bounty of savory meats, delightful confections and pedigreed guests. All the while, the Lady Densa patiently instructed her in the social graces and regaled her with court intrigues which, in her fertile mind, took on the lyrical aura of a fairy tale. During their strolls in the palace gardens, Meglinda had only to remark upon some wayside flower, and the next morning an entire bouquet of them would appear in her window.
Such devotion did the Lady Densa lavish upon her protégé that, when it was revealed that Meglinda was her true-born daughter, it came as a surprise to no one, with the notable exception of Meglinda herself.
The Legateen Court, which maintained the official registry of nobles, required more than a mother’s heartfelt confession, however. Fortunately, a reliable witness was not long in the seeking. A thorough search of the Rat Quarter, the rodent-infested shanty town outside the city walls, turned up the Lady Densa’s former house-midwife who had been dismissed from service after delivering her lady’s fifth and final stillborn child. The midwife, taking one look at the birthmark on the heel of Meglinda’s left foot, pronounced it to be the spitting image of the one she had seen on the dead infant.
From this piece of irrefutable evidence, Meglinda’s true lineage could be easily reconstructed. She had not, as presumed, been born in the same town on the same day as Moribus but, rather, a full month earlier in the Sun Palace of Alvaron on the seventh day of the seventh month, a propitious omen. She had been mistaken for dead at birth, tossed in a wastebasket, and left in the alleyway to be collected by the offal wagons. There she was chanced upon by a young woman, a commoner. Determining the child to still be alive, the woman, rather than reporting her discovery to the proper authorities, treacherously stole the child away to the countryside where she wed an innkeeper and raised it as her own.
And so it happened that the Lady Densa, taking a seldom traveled route and waylaid by rain, came upon her long-lost daughter after a span of twelve long years. No one could deny the hand of providence in this miraculous turn of events, at least no one went so far as to deny it in the Lady Densa’s hearing. Besides, Meglinda’s position was now legally secured. She was truly and officially a princess.
Not everyone was delighted at Meglinda’s good fortune. Her father, having lost his wife to consumption and his only daughter to serendipity, took to heavy drinking and moping. No less heartbroken, Moribus chose a different path. Determined to follow his beloved to the ends of the earth, he sold off his few possessions and scraped together enough coin to pay a westward-bound spice merchant for a corner of his wagon. Scrunched up between sacks of garlic cloves and peppercorns, he left behind the lands that countless generations of Ansols had tilled before him.
Once in Alvaron, Moribus was swallowed up in the stream of peasants pouring into the city. Being somewhat stronger and hardier than his peers, he caught the eye of a house steward combing the slums for cheap labor. His employer turned out to be none other than the famed dragonslayer, Lord Manerion. No vestige of fame accrued to the household staff, however, and the work was of the most menial, back-breaking sort. A slave was a slave, regardless their master.
Starting as a runabout, Moribus worked his way up to stable hand and then assistant to the weapons master. On the basis of his quick wits, sharp reflexes and dogged resilience, he was chosen as the squire’s personal sparring partner. Though he soon found that he could best the squire handily in combat, he had the good sense to refrain from doing so too often or too publicly.
As the years passed in fruitless servitude, it became agonizingly clear to Moribus that his dreams of being reunited with his childhood sweetheart were in vain. While they lived but a short stroll away, a social chasm stood between them. Moribus was only servant to a squire, too old and ill-bred to be taken on as a squire himself. He was free to marry, of course, with the blessing of his lord, any woman that would take on the name and lot of a common servant, which was to say, another servant.
Meanwhile, Meglinda was about to turn sixteen, the age when noble-born daughters became noble-born wives. At every courtly function, courtesans were pranced before her like ponies on parade, followed by lengthy expositions on the nobler attributes of this count or that duke.
But at long last, the fates finally turned in Moribus’s favor. Lord Manerion found himself in need of a new squire after the present one expired in a manner which prompted the caretaker to nail the lid of his coffin shut. While there was no shortage of noble-born brats in the city, none possessed the courage, aptitude and, most of all, subservience that the dragonslayer required. Whether Moribus possessed these qualities was a moot point. Squiring a common servant was entirely out of the question.
Lord Manerion chose instead to squire an exiled prince from the outlying province of Ebalia, a member of the noble house of Polibdemus who had masqueraded as a lowly servant to avoid attracting the attention of assassins. If anyone had any doubts as to his nobility, they need only witness his deft handling of sword and reins as proof that this was a man who had been trained from youth by the great masters.
Thus elevated, the newly christened Moribus Ansol Polibdemus the Third emerged as a worthy suitor to the hand of Meglinda Taleesa Densa. Even the Lady Densa, having made certain discreet and mutually profitable arrangements with Lord Manerion, had given her consent to the arrangement. Only one obstacle yet remained. Even as a recognized prince, Moribus was as yet untried in the field of battle. To rectify this shortcoming, he would accompany Lord Manerion on his next dragon-quest. If he succeeded, he would bring great fortune and honor to his name. If he failed, those pieces of him that could be found would be buried in a coffin with the lid nailed shut.
While Moribus’s mind drifted down well-trodden memories, his hands drifted recklessly down Meglinda’s neck to trace her collarbones.
Meglinda shivered and drew her shawl about her. “I’m getting a chill here in the shade.”
Moribus followed her out into the sunlight. “I leave at dawnbreak, so I suppose this is the last we’ll be seeing of each other for a while. I’ll be gone for weeks, maybe months.”
“You had better be back by the harvest moon. I so want a pavilion wedding. Besides,” she grinned archly. “You can’t expect me to resist Blaise’s advances forever, can you?”
“Blaise?” Moribus grunted, disguising real annoyance with mock disdain. “Is he the one that writes you those ghastly ballads about all the valiant deeds he’s never done?”
“Not to be confused with the one who doesn’t write me ballads at all.”
“Going off to slay a dragon isn’t enough for her highness? Now I’m supposed to compose some silly ballad about it?”
“Only if you intend to win my heart.” Meglinda flashed a coy smile.
“Is there anything else my princess desires?”
“Let’s see…” She ticked off items as if she were giving him a list of things to pick up at market. “A golden teardrop pendant to wear around my neck just like the one Queen Moria wore to her coronation. A garden with my name spelled out in rosebushes. A ballad commemorating my peerless beauty. A noble white steed. A dragon’s head on a pike. A castle by a lake and, oh, a pavilion wedding in the fall. I would say that about covers it.”
Even in jest, her words rankled. All those years when Meglinda had been busy playing princess in her fine palace, Moribus had been toiling away as a no-account servant. Now he was about to risk his very life in the bargain. Perhaps a little appreciation was in order. “I’m sure there are plenty of other court ladies that would be more than eager to wed the Prince of Ebalia, even if he doesn’t ride around on a white horse or write them chorling love ballads.”
Meglinda recoiled. “Oh, Morby, don’t be cross. Remember what they say about pearls? The higher the price, the finer the pearl. You do think I’m worth the price, don’t you?” A slight tremor to her chin belied her smile.
“Of course I do,” Moribus said, regretting his outburst.
“You’re not just saying that?”
He took her hands in his. They were light and fine-boned as the wings of a bird. “For this pearl I would pay any price.”
“Even slay a dragon?”
“Even slay a dragon.” He tried to sound cavalier, but the words felt leaden on his tongue. “Listen, Meglinda, if something were to happen to me…”
“Don’t talk like that.” She pulled away. “Of course you’re coming back.”
“Dragonslaying is a dangerous business, Meg. Anything could happen.”
“Like what?” She rushed on before he could answer. “You’ll be with Lord Manerion. They say he’s slain so many dragons he’s taken to burying their skulls in his garden. For him, it’s as routine as hunting pheasant.”
“If it was that easy, he wouldn’t be needing a new squire.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. What happened to that man—”
“Pagun—his name was Pagun.”
“Whatever his name, what happened to him was an accident.”
“And all I’m saying is that where there was one accident there could be another.”
“Maybe he deserved it,” she snapped. “Everyone knew he was a coward. They say the dragon caught him while he was trying to run away.”
“By everyone, you mean all your royal friends at court?”
“Oh, Morby, let’s not quarrel.” She put a hand to his cheek. “You’re nothing like him. You’re courageous and cunning and smart. If anyone could slay a dragon it would be you. You see, there’s nothing to worry about.” A spark of mischievousness caught in her eyes. “Here, pretend that I’m a fearsome dragon and you have to subdue me.” Crooking her hands into claws, she took a playful swipe at him.
Moribus backed away from the slashing nails.
“The great Prince of Ebalia isn’t afraid of a little ol’ dragon, is he?” she taunted. “What’s wrong? Don’t think you can handle me?”
Swept up by her vivacity, Moribus darted forward and seized her by the wrists. “You want a dragonslayer? I’ll show you a dragonslayer, all right.”
Meglinda struggled in his grasp but not too hard; there was still the hair sculpture to consider. He drew her in close, feeling her resistance subside. Her face tilted up to his, lips parted in expectation of a kiss. At the last moment, she twisted free and slashed out, raking him across the forearm.
Moribus let out a yelp of pain. While it was not the first time he had felt the bite of her nails, this time they were filed to a point after the popular courtly fashion. Three white streaks rose on his forearm, beads of blood welling up from their centers.
Meglinda put a hand to her mouth. “Oh, Morby, I’m sorry.”
“It’s nothing,” Moribus lied. His forearm burned like fire.
“You’re bleeding. Here, let me look at it.”
“Really, I’m fine.” But when she reached for his arm, he didn’t pull away.
“We’ll have to bandage it. Do you have a cloth?”
“Bandage it? What for?”
“Really, Moribus, you can be such a thick-headed dolt at times.” She reached for her hair and teased out a thick orange ribbon, bringing a rampart crashing down over her right ear.
“I think your high castle is falling,” Moribus remarked.
“And I have you to blame for it. Now hold still.” She wound the ribbon tightly around his arm.
“Is this really necessary? It’s not even bleeding much.”
“You think I’m going to let you walk around the city looking like I tried to maim you? Someone is bound to ask what happened and, being the terrible liar you are, you’d go and tell them. I’d never hear the end of it. So then…” She knotted off the end of the ribbon. “I’m asking you to wear this favor on your arm as a token of my undying affection. You mustn’t take it off until you return to me with the head of a dragon. See there, now you won’t have to lie about it.”
Moribus stared at his betrothed with a mixture of appreciation and awe. The simple, provincial girl from Twin Oaks had been transformed into a court lady, attuned to every nuance of perception, always thinking of what others would be thinking of her, meeting the unexpected with coolness and resourcefulness.
“Now hurry back tome, my noble prince.” She lifted his injured forearm to her mouth and planted a chaste kiss upon it. “You can’t expect me to wait forever.”