13. The Monster's Ball

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Moribus found the knight sitting with his back against a wall, buffing the dragon shield with a cloth. For all his aversion to menial labor, he worked with practiced efficiency, his right hand moving in brisk side-to-side motions while his left smoothly rotated the shield beneath it.

"I have one more question," Moribus said.

"Afraid I'm all out of answers today," Lord Manerion said without breaking stroke.

"The High Council was right about you, wasn't it?" He pressed ahead anyway. "Those papers weren't forged. And that whore. She really was your wet nurse. Pagun knew. That's why you had to kill him. You're not really a knight at all, are you?"

The knight fixed him with a baleful stare. "Aren't you a clever boy. Figured this out all on your lonesome, did you? Bravo!" He brought his hands together in slow, powerful claps that echoed thunderously in the stone enclosure. "Now fix me my damn tea before I carve you up into bits!"

Moribus didn't budge. "Who are you really?"

"I am who I say I am," growled Lord Manerion. "And I say I'm a knight."

"What do others say you are?"

"Take a good look at this shield, boy. See this golden dragon here? That's no myth. They really do exist. That dragon skull you saw on my wall was killed by my own hand. The others I had to sell, but I kept that one, my first. When all your jolly boys in their twinkling suits of armor are dead and gone, they'll still be singing about me and the hundreds of dragons I've slain. If anyone has earned the title of knight, I have. I'm more than a fornicating knight. I'm a dragonslayer!"

"Are you a kin slayer too? That fire that killed your family, it wasn't an accident, was it?"

"What difference does it make?"

"If I'm going to help you, I have to know."

"You help me? You've got that backwards. Without me, you'd be wading neck-deep in muck, and your lady friend would already have some lordling's baton rammed between her legs."

"I have to know," Moribus repeated, surprising himself with his own recklessness.

"And if I don't tell you, what will you do? Threaten me with your little pebble-slinger?" He laughed.

"I'll leave," Moribus threatened. "Then you'll have to go to Alvaron and collect your own chorling bounty."

"The only way you're leaving here is in pieces, boy."

"Maybe that's so. But you need my help as much as I need yours."

Knight and squire locked eyes in a test of wills. Lord Manerion's eyes were dark and lifeless as coals, but in the end, it was he who lowered his gaze first.

"All right, boy," the knight said in a low voice. "I see how it is. You've got a burning itch for the truth. But here's a warning you would do well to heed. The truth is like a boil. Scratching it only causes it to split open and spread pestilence."

"I'll take my chances."

"Don't say I didn't warn you." The knight's somber reflection stared out at him from the shield's polished surface. "The truth, as you call it, is that I was born a bastard servant in the Manerion household. My mother, burn her soul, was one of the serving maids. The poxy whore died giving me birth. It was the best thing she ever did. If only my father had been so obliging. No one told me who he was, but I figured it out soon enough. None other than the esteemed master himself. Half the bastards in the household were his though none would ever bear his name. While his trueborn sons slept on goose-down pillows and pissed in porcelain chamber pots, I was forced to fetch their wine, clean their boot-soles, and mop up their vomit." Spittle sprayed onto his shield, and he wiped it away. "But one day, when they were all gathered in the great hall and drowning in their cups, I set matters aright."

"You set fire to the manor?"

"For that I have to thank one of my drunken half-brothers. With the lords of the family all gathered together at feast, who should walk in but Margor, the master's third son, soused as a fish with some common whore at his hip. As he's entering the grand hall, he bumps into a brazier stand and spills hot coals onto one of the bear rugs the master was so proud of. All hells broke loose then. Father and son got into a big row while everyone egged them on. No one thought to stomp out the flames. Some sparks caught on a tapestry, and the fire climbed up the walls to the ceiling timbers. The main entrance looked like the gates of Ord itself. The only other way out of the hall was the narrow servants' door where I happened to be standing." Lord Manerion's reflection broke into a savage grin. "I barred the door and listened to them howl as they burned. Letting them die was the easiest thing I ever did."

Moribus beat back a wave of nausea. "After the fire, how did you convince people that you were a true Manerion?"

"Ah, now that was the hard part. One of the master's sons was about the same age, and we looked a lot alike. We were both of us giants for all that he was slow and stupid. So I made like I was him, said I slipped away during the banquet for a bit of frolic with a maid when the fire started. The servants all vouched for me. It was their idea, in fact. They knew they were partly to blame. No one had tried to stop me, after all. Still, it wasn't enough. The manor was reduced to ashes. The master had squandered most of the family wealth, and the fire had claimed the rest. The Manerion name was out of favor with the court. Something had to be done to restore it to its former prestige, something spectacular. Sound familiar?"

"So you slew a dragon?"

"Everyone adores a hero." His fingers traced the golden outline of the dragon with something close to tenderness. "What about you, boy? Still think I'm a monster?"

Moribus's silence was answer enough.

The knight set asidehis shield and rose to his feet. Moribus backed away, fearing reprisal, butLord Manerion just turned around and rolled the thick woolen undergarment up tohis shoulders, exposing the full length of his back. Every inch of skin wascovered in a network of white and pink scars, twining over each other likeserpents. "Ten stripes for dropping a vase. Twenty-two for leaving footprintson the floor, one for each footprint. Three stripes for forgetting to put alump of sugar in the master's tea. Two hundred and thirteen in all. I rememberevery one. You tell me, who's the real monster?"

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