The scream came from next to him: “I forbid it!” Cutter jumped as Moragan’s voice jolted him out of his thoughts. As he turned toward her, she stepped from his side and faced the king alone. “I utterly forbid it!”
The nobles made a collective intake of breath. Apparently they had never seen a breach of etiquette so bold, or perhaps they had not yet seen Moragan’s face in clear view. Whatever the reason, it did not seem to distract her nor soothe her anger. Even through her scars her rage was plain.
“What kind of court is this? And what mockery of justice, that would visit such punishment on an innocent young girl?”
The crowd, as one, seemed to turn toward Bantamon’s daughter. They turned back to her as she spoke again.
“Look at my face,” she said, pointing at the scars where her nose no longer dwelt. She turned her head so the king and then his nobles could see where her eye did not shut properly, where her ear would have held back her beautiful hair without braids had life been kinder to her.
“Because of this face I have died a thousand times, riven through the heart by a thousand swords. Every time a village child runs away from me to the safety of her mother’s arms, every time a lad throws a stone from behind a tree and laughs, every time giggling girls in whispers-meant-to-be-overheard say, ‘There goes the Monster Maiden of Westering Slough,’ as if I am some undead creature arisen from mucks of that bog, I die. I did nothing to earn this doom. It was my father’s doing, though he did it not from malice. I have forgiven him a thousand times, yet my doom it remains.
“When the Red Brother came to our house – curse that day – and promised that he would find someone who would take my face from me, some woman who would exchange her beauty for my hideousness, I did not believe him. No one would choose this face, I thought. No one would willingly bear this burden. But I was wrong.
“There is one standing in this hall that would choose this face: I choose it. For though Bantamon’s daughter is as beautiful a girl as I have ever seen, and though I would give all I owned to look like her and to have you all curtsey and pander to me as you do to her, I will not let that result come about through injustice. I will not punish an innocent with a face like mine, that you should treat her as you treat me, that she would cry as I cry, that she would wish to have died wreathed in flame rather than to live smothered by the contempt of all who see her. I would rather remain scorned of all people than to take part in such a travesty.”
Moragan took a breath as though about to continue. Then she looked up at the king, who had studied her every gesture and absorbed her every word. When he shared a knowing glance and nod with Dokken, she seemed to lose her train of thought and her indignation visibly drained from her. She suddenly looked very tired.
“I’m sorry,” she said toward the king, half angry woman still, but now half frightened girl as well. “I just … I’m sorry.”
She took a step backward and dropped her hands to her side. Cutter put his arm around her and kissed her brow. He had never been so proud of her, nor so ashamed of himself. The hall sat utterly silent.
“I see,” answered the king solemnly though loudly, conspicuously trying to gather back upon himself the court’s attention. Annoyance sat openly upon his face.
“Since one of our esteemed guests seems to harbor an objection to the king’s justice, let us try to find justice another way.”
“What is,” the king asked the Red Brother directly, “the monetary value of a dragon’s egg?”
“There is no market for such things, Your Highness,” Bantamon answered, though not before taking a moment to gather his composure. He seemed as shocked by Moragan’s outburst as was Cutter. “They are incredibly rare and therefore their price is wholly negotiable…”
The king held his hand up; he was apparently in no mood for more evasions. Turning to the Red Brother who still flanked Dokken, the King repeated his question.
“Fifty sovereigns,” came the first straight answer Cutter had heard the entire evening.
“Very well,” the king replied. He turned to the assembled lords and ladies, who seemed to be paying full attention now.
“In restitution for his crime Bantamon shall pay to this crown double the stated price, an hundred gold sovereigns, for each of the thirteen dragon eggs he has defrauded from our subject. We shall then fulfill his contract by paying to the contractor, Cutter of Westering, the aforementioned price. That is, of course, unless someone loudly and vociferously objects to this agreement.” He scowled at Moragan, who merely stared at her shoes and shook her head.
“Hearing no objections,” he continued, pointing a ringed index finger toward Bantamon and then toward the far double doors, “You are dismissed from this Peersmeet and from our employ. Begone! Let us not see your face again before you hold the gold of restitution in your palm!”
Bantamon scurried up the aisle toward the door, his shaven head hidden beneath his crimson hood. He seemed to be muttering to himself, though his words could not be heard above the renewed noises of bored nobility. His daughter followed in his wake. She held her bare head high. Relief was written across her face for all to see.
“The Peersmeet is ended,” continued the king, to the hearty approval of his nobles.
“Please enjoy this evening and its divers entertainments. Unfortunately, I must retire to my quarters with,” he stopped and looked about. “My brother Dokken,” he said, pointing at the prince, “and his guests, with whom I must have a few words concerning the importance of proper court etiquette. Good evening.” He turned and departed in a flash of purple and gold.
With a claim that he really didn’t know what to expect, Dokken led Cutter and Moragan to a sitting room adjacent to the King’s quarters. Upon their arrival, several liveried footmen appeared with refreshments. Another pair scurried off to notify the king that his guests had arrived. Though Dokken had assured them that they had nothing to fear, Cutter worried anyway.
(Continued in Part XI)