2. Mousetrap

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Moribus and Meglinda entered the world in the same dusky hour under the same harvest moon, two years apart, in a provincial town called Twin Oaks that straddled a lonely stretch of the Lower Buring Road. By the time Moribus had seen fourteen summers and Meglinda twelve, their love was already sending out tender shoots. Barring some extraordinary intervention, in time it would have surely flowered and borne fruit. But even in such a rustic and ordinary place as Twin Oaks, the extraordinary did occasionally come to pass.

It all began late on a summer's day with the arrival of a royal caravan. That event in itself was exceedingly rare. Royalty seldom traveled the Lower Buring Road, the way being wooded and hilly with few castles to provide a worthy reception. Occupying the caravan's principal carriage was one Lady Densa, the king's niece once removed, a woman of great prominence and a particularly dour disposition. It was also uncommon for a thunderstorm to occur so late in summer. With a well-honed sense of impending danger, the Lady Densa quickly recognized the threat posed by the inky black clouds fast rolling in from the west and set the caravan into a full trot. Her carriage rattled to a halt in front of the inn owned by Meglinda's father just as the first fat raindrops pelted in the dusty lane.

With a profusion of bows, stammers and apologies, Meglinda's father showed the Lady Densa to the Emperor's Room, the large room on the second floor reserved for well-to-do merchants. Sizing up the accommodations, the Lady Densa's upper lip curled in disgust. "I suppose this is the very best you have to offer?"

Meglinda's father bobbed up and down as if his spine were made of springs.

"Very well, it will have to do. Oh, innkeep—"

"Y-yes, your Em-eminence?"

"I shan't want to be bothered by the locals. Fromler here will see to all my needs." She motioned to a short, bald man with a smooth-skinned face. "He'll require the run of the kitchen. I assume that won't be a problem. Good." And before the innkeeper could manage another word, she disappeared inside the room.

Meglinda, meanwhile, had missed the arrival of the caravan entirely. She had sneaked away to watch the horse gentler break in a new stallion when she got caught by the storm and took shelter in his barn. When she finally arrived back at the inn, her father, knowing his daughter's inquisitive nature only too well, intercepted her at the door and bound her by the strictest of oaths to remain out of sight of their honored guest. After careful consideration, Meglinda decided to keep her promise, which was to say that she would be very careful not to be seen.

Meglinda waited until the fall of night to carry out her mission. The fury of the storm had passed, but rain still pattered on the roof to the grumble of distant thunder. She tiptoed up the stairs in her stockings, avoiding the creaky parts. Crouching on the top steps, she used a shard of mirror to make an inspection of the hallway. She hadn't expected to find it empty (servants often slept outside their master's chamber), but when she saw what awaited her outside the Emperor's Room, her spirits sank. Guards. Two of them no less. Huge, hulking men with thick arms folded over their chests like crossbars over a gate. One guard might be diverted, but two? There was nothing to do but wait and hope for an opportunity.

A few minutes later one of the guards announced that he was feeling the call of nature and lumbered off toward the staircase at the far end of the hall.

"Watch you don't make water on a grave," the second guard called after him. "It's bad luck. These people bury 'em wherever there's dirt."

"Don't worry yourself, Joras. I'll be careful I don't piss on any dead people." He placed emphasis on the word dead.

Meanwhile, Meglinda was heeding her own call of nature. Throwing caution to the wind, she burst over the top of the stairs and made a mad dash down the hall. The door next to the Emperor's Room stood slightly ajar. She darted inside just as the remaining guard was turning back around. Had she been quick and quiet enough to avoid detection? Heavy footsteps clomped in her direction. Perhaps some slight sound or brush of wind had given her away. A shadow fell across the opening. Helpless as a cornered mouse, Meglinda crouched behind the door with a hand over her mouth to muffle her heavy breathing. Several heartbeats passed before the guard shrugged and clomped back to his post. She let out a long, noiseless sigh. That was close.

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