3. A Practicing Eunuch

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A brown blur streaked across Moribus's path. His slingshot was in his hand before he realized he had reached for it. He needn't have hurried. The squirrel was a haggard, war-beaten thing with a splotchy pelt and only one good eye. It dallied beneath a stunted oak to appraise an acorn.

"All right, general." He gave the slingshot a warning twirl. "I'll give you to the count of three to organize your retreat. One! Two—what, are you half-deaf too? I said get! Shoo!" He sent a stone whizzing past its nose.

That got the squirrel's attention. It scrabbled up the oak but stopped short of the first branch to gaze down upon its abandoned treasure.

"Three!" The stone found its mark with a fleshy thud. The squirrel fell to the ground, its spine broken, but it wasn't dead yet. Doggedly, it dragged itself forward on its front paws toward the precious acorn.

Moribus hobbled over and crushed its skull with the knob of his walking stick. He bound the carcass with twine and hung it on his belt next to the other two squirrels he had knocked down earlier that day. He lingered a moment over the acorn. It was smallish and scuffed, and a worm had bored out a small hole. Yet the one-eyed squirrel had risked its life for it nonetheless.

"Culpa fatale," he said aloud. Fatal flaw, that dangling thread of nature's tapestry that, when tugged upon, caused lives to unravel like slipknots. Moths were drawn to lantern light where their delicate wings were incinerated against the glass. Wolves could be slaughtered by coating a keen blade with blood and affixing it to a short post in a clearing. Once a wolf began to lick, its insatiable hunger would cause it to lacerate itself to death even as it glutted on its own blood.

"Culpa fatale." No living creature was without one. Such flaws weren't difficult to spot in people once you knew what to look for. Outward piety was a sign of inner feculence. Beauty bred vanity, wealth—avarice, ambition—treachery. And then there was power. Nothing inspired such arrogance, duplicity, brutality, and all manner of general unpleasantness than the lust for power. It was only natural then that the greatest concentration of human fallacy could be found at the royal court. Indeed, it was this very quality that had drawn Moribus to the halls of power as surely as the scorching flame draws the diaphanous moth.

Insinuating himself into royal circles had been easy; a rumor here, a bribe there, a liberal amount of blandishment and flummery, and he was soon breathing the rarefied air of the king's audience chamber. Truth be told, he possessed a knack for statecraft. His lofty obfuscations were received as wisdom, his shameless flirtation gave proof to his virility, and his uncanny ability to evade assassination imbued him with a sense of mystery. On the strength of these virtues, he had risen to become the closest advisor and aide to Xoron IV, Torch of Rhojë, King of Alvaria.

Early on, Moribus and the king came to a mutually agreeable arrangement. The king went drinking, hunting, wenching and drinking, returning to his throne room upon occasion to receive his due laud and adulation. Meanwhile, Moribus ran the affairs of the kingdom. The arrangement worked out splendidly, at least until Xoron's considerable ale belly sprung a leak, owing to the insertion of a wild boar's tusk.

The king did not suffer long. Such was the pity, for had he suffered a while longer he might have declared a successor. In this way, the king ensured his funeral would be well-attended. Anyone with a thimbleful of royal blood vied for a prominent place in the procession, including a second cousin from Kabal who brought two hundred of his closest kin to join in the mourning—and join in they did! As the procession neared the ancestral burial grounds, Malchum's men burst from the crowd and set upon the royal family with swords and halberds. Following the melee, the procession retired to the courtyard for a coronation. And so it was that one king's obsequy became another's inaugural banquet.

Moribus saw little cause for alarm at first. With the old king dead and as good as buried, he was fully prepared to offer his services to the new wearer of the crown. What reasonable, self-serving tyrant could fail to see the advantage of retaining such a competent and duly fawning servitor? But here Moribus had made a grievous error in judgment. For Malchum was anything but reasonable.

Malchum of Kabal was supremely qualified to reign as king. Not only was he impervious to flattery, bribes, threats and groveling, but he was completely unsullied by a conscience. Once an idea popped into his head, neither Orduvan himself nor any demonic force could sway him from it. And the idea that popped into his head most often was, Letz tickle eez toez and see if he geegles. By which phrase he meant to string someone up by their ankles and flail the skin off the soles of their feet until they finally expired in a delirium of agony. A good tickling never failed to lighten the king's spirit, and he had special tickling posts erected around the palace to set the proper tone for his evening constitutionals.

Among the king's favorite tickling subjects were his advisers, nobles and wealthy courtiers. When Moribus caught wind that his future services would be rendered from an inverted position, he expended most of his wealth to secure a more agreeable posture in the dungeon. Then Malchum further rankled him by succumbing to poisoned wine at the hand of his own cupbearer, thereby denying him his just revenge.

A distant keening snapped Moribus out of his reverie. He listened closely, but the only sound that reached his ears was the dry rustle of pines.

"Are you going to stand here and sulk all day, or are you going to skin those squirrels?" he said to himself.

He collected wood in a nearby pine grove. Even in spring, there was plenty of deadfall to be had. When a branch had served its purpose, a pine tree simply sloughed it off. Not a bad philosophy to live by, he reflected. Only if he were to abide by the law of the pines, he would have long ago sloughed away to nothing but footprints.

He built a fire near a stream, brought a pot of water to a boil, and filleted ribbons of squirrel flesh into it. To this he added some scrawny radishes and a handful of thumb-sized potatoes, finishing it off with a pinch of salt. Squirrel chowder. On a good day, if the squirrels had a bit of meat on them, it could pass for a decent broth, but most of the time it just tasted like puddle water.

With the soup warming over the fire, he slumped against a log and watched the clouds practice their silent mimicries. At first it was only the usual, banal stuff: fluffy rabbits, sheep and the like. By and by, more fascinating sights began to emerge: a spouting whale, a bear trailing cubs and, lastly, a white stallion leaping over a snowbank. There's your white horse, Meg. Now if we only had a pavilion and a priest, we could have ourselves a proper wedding. He pictured Meglinda in his mind's eye: not the stiff-backed princess but the impetuous peasant girl with her broom-tail hair and dyed homespun the color of wilting daisies.

"Wishes have wings so they can fly away," he recited.

"And arses have holes so they can whistle a merry tune," he fired back.

"You're one curmudgeonly old bastard, you know that? Too bad that she-bear didn't do you in the other night."

"On that account, I have to agree. She would have been doing us both a favor."

Rhojë the Merciful, how long had he been wandering these god-forsaken hills? Three years? Four? Long enough to lose count. Yet he could no more give up the quest than he could give up breathing. It was here in these wind-scoured hills that he had first heard that blood-thrilling call that so perfectly destroyed and imperfectly re-made him. He could almost hear it now, a distant, keening challenge that ricocheted down the ravines and canyons.

"Hearing things are you, old man? Maybe you really are dead. They say in Ord all your dreams come back to taunt you."

But when the sound came again, he leaped spryly to his feet, all aches and discomforts forgotten. He looked to the western skyline with its snow-tipped peaks, but there was nothing to see there. He turned to the east, the direction of forested, pell-mell hills and an edge-of-nowhere town that didn't appear on any map. There it was! The thing he had traveled thousands of miles and fifty long years to find: a living stitch of crimson threading its way through the cotton bunting of a cloud. Stirred by the sight, the words of the forgotten verse came rushing back to him. Tapping off time with his walking root, he danced a crazy jig.

"Oooooh—there was a brazen young monk called Babbit—that saw no point in wearing a habit—'til he set out one day—met a squirrel on the way—and returned a practicing eunuch."

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