3. Claws of a Dragon

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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.

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