(Continued from Part VIII)

Cutter had been to the royal estate before – Capital Faire was held on its outer grounds once every season. But he had never entered Bolden Castle, which rested like some proud stone crown atop the very acropolis of the capital city of Bolden. He and Moragan had worn their finest, yet he still felt underdressed and out of place in the swirl of nobles and liveried servants who passed into the castle for Peersmeet.

Dokken met them at a guard station and, after kissing Moragan’s hand and shaking Cutter’s, led the pair to an anteroom, from which bustling castle personnel led them off separately to be dressed properly. Moragan returned wearing a floor-length sapphire dress, lined with fox, that covered her shoulders. A reddish-orange jewel closed the dress beneath her chin. Her raven hair had been trimmed, with braids added to both sides that joined behind her head. Cutter wondered how many servants were necessary to produce such a splendid result so quickly. 

For his part, he had received a surcoat of orange and a matching cloak, provided by a scrawny manservant who dripped with condescension. Cutter hoped that this would be the only time in his life he would be forced to wear such a preposterous costume.

Once the massive double doors of the royal hall opened to allow seating, Dokken explained to his guests what to expect at Peersmeet. It was not merely a dinner where the nobility showed off their clothing and jewels to one another, though he admitted that many nobles treated it as exactly that. It also served as a court of justice, in which royal servants could be rewarded for actions that reflected favorably upon the crown or called to account for high crimes and misdemeanors committed under its auspices.

That is why they were present. There might be questions, and Dokken warned them both to answer truthfully and completely any that might be directed at them. Dokken emphasized that he could offer no assurances that this night would be easy, especially for Moragan. But he did promise that it would be worthwhile if she would persevere.

He then led them to a table set for eight, near the front left of the hall, beside a small door through which servants carried plates of food and mugs of ale. Two noble couples sat at the table, sipping wine and laughing. As Moragan sat in the chair that Dokken held for her, both couples arose and mumbled excuses to seek a table nearer the rear. Dokken whispered something in Moragan’s ear that Cutter did not hear. He then left the pair alone. Cutter asked her what he had said. She told him, “Be brave.”

The royal hall was bisected by a broad aisle that reached from the large double doors at the rear where the guests entered to the dais at the front upon which the head table sat empty. Cutter suspected the king and his sons would take their places there. From the aisle to the hall’s ornately-painted walls, many round tables and a few shaped like half-moons appeared scattered, with just enough room between them for bell-shaped dresses to pass. Small cards denoting the names of the guests rested upon each table.

Cutter noticed that his erstwhile tablemates had left their cards behind. He also noticed Bantamon, the Red Brother who had taken his eggs, being led to a round table as far to the right of the hall as his own table was to the left, yet in the front row as well. Bantamon was accompanied by a beautiful young lady dressed in blue, a blonde who appeared not half his age. As she floated toward her assigned seat, young gentlemen seemed to fall all over themselves to either get into her way or out of it. From what Cutter could tell from a distance, the lady was used to such attention, treating their clumsy flatteries with utter indifference.

Cutter decided to arrange his silverware again, sneaking peeks at what those at the tables nearby were doing with forks of four different sizes and apparent purposes. Dokken slid into a chair next to Moragan as dinner was served. Cutter was amazed at the number of dirty plates and empty goblets he managed to accumulate in a very short time. All of his forks were dirty as well.

The king arose as the last of the dishes were being cleared away. He was tall and slender, dressed in a purple robe lined with ermine. Candlelight seemed to dance from the heavy rings that hid his fingers. Cutter judged that the man was close to his own age, perhaps even a little older. He looked at Dokken, then back at the king. He really did not see any family resemblance; the king was fair where Dokken was ruddy and slender where his brother was thick. Their only similarity seemed in their dress; both wore gowns lined with the ermine of royalty, though Dokken’s was in a deep blue rather than the royal purple.

Standing now behind the head table, the king was explaining the rules of the Peersmeet to yawning nobles. Apparently they were familiar enough with the procedure to pay his words little heed. Cutter was trying hard to follow the legalities when he heard his own named called.

He turned to see Dokken arise, beckoning him and Moragan to stand between their table and that upon which the king had eaten. They faced the high table side by side; the assembled nobility disappeared out of sight behind them. Moragan’s hand slid into his. It was cold and moist.

Then Dokken, who seemed to have become the master of this ceremony, called forward the Red Brother by name. Bantamon looked very surprised, as did the young lady in blue, who turned out to be his own daughter. They arranged themselves some thirty feet to the right of Moragan and Cutter. Dokken stood between the couples yet in front of them, where he could be seen by the nobility.

A second Red Brother had come forward to stand beside Dokken, though Cutter did not know him. This man drew a scroll from within his heavy robe and handed it to Dokken. Dokken broke its wax seal and began to read aloud.

“Bantamon, agent of the king’s court and member in good standing of the Guild of Red Brethren, before this royal and noble Peersmeet you stand charged with the crime of aggravated fraud. It is alleged that on or around the waning moon of the tenth month of the seventeenth year of King Osten the Second of Tresten, you did willfully, and with premeditation and threat of violence, defraud thirteen dragon eggs of this man, Cutter of Westering.”

Here the prince waved toward Cutter. Cutter was not sure what to do, so he merely bowed his head.

Dokken then continued. “As you are an agent of the crown, your business is His Majesty’s business. I now ask you, Bantamon, what price you promised for the delivery of the aforementioned eggs. Please remember that this Peersmeet possesses magical means for determining whether your statements are true or false.”

Bantamon looked nervous but not afraid. His voice betrayed no emotion at all as he explained that for this particular transaction, no money was involved or even considered. Instead he had proposed that, by magical means, he would provide the girl Moragan with a new face, exchanging hers with that of a maiden of his choosing. That was true enough, Cutter thought. He had never even considered finding the eggs for mere money.

“Why did you not make that exchange?” Cutter could hear the shuffling of the nobles behind him and could see most of the head table before him feigning interest, and poorly at that, in the proceedings. The king, however, fixed his gaze on the Red Brother, then on Cutter, then at last on Moragan. Cutter could see the king’s ears reddening. Royal knuckles grew white atop clenched fists.

Rather than admit that he had simply stolen Cutter’s eggs, Bantamon apparently decided to take a verbal rapier to legal hairs.

“The eggs I received from the man Cutter were unfertilized, your grace,” he replied, now looking relaxed and confident, and coolly meeting Dokken’s gaze. “They were therefore worthless to me and wholly unfit for my purposes. As this man provided nothing of value to me, I could not have defrauded him. I paid him for his time, and triple a workman’s wage at that, in coin.”

The Red Brother standing beside to Dokken whispered something in his ear. Dokken nodded. He then asked a final question: “Did you specifically request fertilized eggs?”

Bantamon’s answer was a study in diversion. “There seemed no need, your grace. All recovered dragon eggs are fertilized as a rule, for laying dragons and their mates travel together to the slough and lay and fertilize their eggs simultaneously. That this man passed to me unfertilized eggs – and failed to inform me of their ruined condition – is damning evidence that he was attempting to defraud me.”

Now Cutter grew angry. What a charlatan! He snuck a peek over at Bantamon, who looked very pleased with his answer, and wondered if he could kill the man before being struck down by the palace guards.

He decided against such an attempt: though Cutter was armed and the red-armored man was nowhere to be seen, the thought of leaving Moragan twice-orphaned cooled his fury. Dokken seemed to be finished anyway – he was speaking in some legalese that Cutter did not comprehend in the slightest – so he waited to see what would happen next.

The king then arose, and all the tables behind Cutter seemed to hush at once. “We have reached our verdict,” he said. “Bantamon, we conclude that you did, with foresight and malice, defraud this contractor. Therefore, we call upon you to fulfill your part of the original contact.”

Bantamon looked disappointed but not surprised. How could he be surprised, Cutter thought, when the fraud had been so blatant?

“However,” the king continued, “fully do we comprehend the difficulties inherent in finding a maiden who will voluntarily take part in such a distasteful transaction. Therefore we have appointed your own daughter to assist you in this matter. You shall, by means magical or otherwise, fulfill your solemn agreement by placing her face upon the contractor’s daughter Moragan and by placing Moragan’s face upon her. This is our will. Does the nobility gathered in this hall acclaim?”

A unanimous “Aye!” arose from the tables. Cutter had the distinct impression that such a response was merely perfunctory; he doubted the nobility either knew or cared what had happened in front of them.

He looked at the Red Brother’s daughter. Now that she was fairly close to him, he could see for the very first time how truly beautiful she was, even with tears streaming down her face. Moragan deserved a face like that, though one without tears. The king’s justice was harsh, perhaps, but he was merely enforcing a contract that Bantamon had freely made. In fact, the whole thing had been the Red Brother’s idea. Moragan would be pleased as well, he knew.

The scream came from next to him…

(Continued in Part X)