(Continued from Part VII)

“You recognize this mask,” he said. It was not a question, though Moragan nodded in answer anyway. “It is because of this mask that I have come to visit your father today. Some months ago I purchased it from him at Capital Faire. It was just a whim. I’m not much for masquerades and the like. But it was beautiful yet inexpensive, so inexpensive that I doubted the seller’s assurance that it was true dragon hide. I felt drawn to it, so I gave his full price without haggling. Had it been made of polished pigskin it would have been worth every silver he asked for it.”

Dokken had been staring at the mask as he spoke, but he looked up at Moragan, who was looking out the window. “I’m sorry, Moragan,” he said. “Am I keeping you from your work? I do not wish to bore you nor waste your time.”

“No, please go on,” she said. “I was just thinking about the Faire. I have not been before, as you might imagine.” She did not know why she added that last part. Perhaps the mead was muddling her wits and knocking down her guard. She looked at the table and noticed she had not touched her chalice. Dokken simply nodded and continued.

“Some months later I was returning from one of those hated masquerades. I had worn this mask that night.” Dokken picked up the mask, unfolded it then folded it again, holding it in his right hand. His left hand continued to gesture as he spoke.

“But just long enough to make the necessary appearances. I had tucked it into my breast pocket to make my escape. Upon my successful egress, I was hailed by one of the king’s gate guards, fully mailed and with a crossbow in his hand. I did not note at first that its shaft had been pulled back. I approached him and he pointed my attention to something atop the wall, mumbling in such a way that I was not sure what I was to view. As soon as my attention was turned, he raised the crossbow and shot me in the heart. I crumpled to the ground, certain that I was dead. To my surprise, I was bruised but not bleeding. The mask, this mask, had saved my life. It is true dragonskin, for not even ringed steel could have stopped a bolt fired so near.”

He placed the mask on the table and dragged his fingertips across its smooth surface. Moragan could see no mark that might prove the tale true.

“At the last faire, I sought out the mask’s maker, but his booth lay abandoned. By querying other sellers of wares, I learned the name of Cutter of Westering Village. So now I have come to thank him, to apologize for doubting him, and to praise his beautiful handiwork to his face.”

Moragan did not know what to answer. She was inwardly pleased that this gentleman thought her work laudable. Her father always said it was excellent, but he sold it for so little that she could never be sure. She also felt a little flushed in her face, though she suspected it did not show – little showed where there was only melted skin to show it. She decided that honesty was the best policy in this case, even if it might sound pretentious. Besides, her father would reveal the secret upon his return anyway.

“I made the mask,” she said. “I am pleased that you like it and thrilled that it proved so useful to you.” Then changing the subject she quickly added, “Who was the man who wanted to kill you? And for what reason?”

Dokken dispensed with her questions quickly and brought the conversation back to her.  Apparently the attempt on his life was not related to his office but was the result of a short-sighted merchant trying to escape significant gambling debts. He did not fear that such would happen again.

“But what of you, Moragan? You have not gone to the faire; I assume the reason is your wound.” He motioned toward her face. She merely nodded.

“If I might be so bold as to ask, how were you burned, and when?”

He listened intently to her story, nodding or shaking his head as appropriate. The question was followed by others. Do you have any siblings? Where is your mother? How did you learn to make such beautiful leatherwork? Is it hard to work in dragons? His questions, it seemed, were endless, as was his patience for her answers. And he looked into her eyes as she spoke, only looking away to refill a goblet or take a bite of sausage on those few occasions she started to sniffle. Moragan was unused to that.

In what seemed like mere minutes, Moragan revealed to Dokken everything she remembered about her childhood, how she had been burned, and her parents’ death beneath the claws of the dragon, exactly as Cutter had told her the story. She related how Cutter adopted her and taught her his art. She told him about the villagers and how they hated her. She was not bitter about it; it was simply a hedge around her life that she had made peace with, at least most of the time. He even asked about her charm, and she related what she knew of Dokken’s hunt and of how a Red Brother had cheated him out of the eggs. The only thing she kept to herself was the fact that it was Cutter’s dragon at the bottom of it all. She had forgiven him, so that no longer mattered.

By the time Cutter arrived with an empty wicker basket, the sun was falling, the sausage and mead were gone, and Moragan had utterly forgotten to start dinner.

Cutter seemed to take the oversight in stride, deflecting her apologies and introducing himself to the stranger. His next sentence shocked Moragan to her bones. “Dokken, youngest brother to His Majesty the king?” Dokken’s answer shook her even more: “The same.”

The trio moved their conversation to the main house, which held a table large enough for all to share, as well as more mead and the bread and cold meat that passed for dinner. It also contained a bed for their guest, who accepted Cutter’s invitation to remain overnight. Cutter took a larger part in the conversation now, filling in Moragan’s exclusions concerning the origin of the dragon. He told of his own sons’ deaths, narrated the death of Moira and of his cheating at the hands of the Red Brother. He explained that Moragan was a far better tanner than he had ever been – his poor pricing reflected his memories of attempting to sell his own handiwork. Dokken spoke about life at court (he avoided it as much as possible) and how unnecessary he was there, being thirteenth in line for the throne.

“But why are you still unmarried?” Cutter asked him. Then he blushed quickly, apparently recognizing the inelegance of such a question.

“I’m just unlucky, I guess.”

In the morning, Dokken asked for the Red Brother’s name. Cutter did not seem surprised that the prince knew the man, who had introduced himself as “Bantamon.” Tresten was a small kingdom, after all. But he looked very surprised when Dokken invited them to the Peersmeet at Bolden Castle that would take place under the next waxing moon, almost four weeks hence. Moragan was certain it was not a social invitation, either. It was a command.

(Continued in Part IX)