1. Castles in the Hair

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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."

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