(Continued from Part X)

The king finally appeared, but not as he had left the feast chamber. His scowl was gone, as were his robes and even his rings. Dressed in a fine but simple suit, King Osten the Second of Tresten casually seated himself at the head of a small table and beckoned his trio of guests, who had risen to their feet at his arrival, to join him.

“Moragan,” he began, turning to her and taking a scarred hand in his, “I first owe you an apology and an explanation. I am afraid that I have used you most shamefully tonight.”

She looked confused as he spoke, or perhaps she was as shocked as Cutter by the visible change in the king’s demeanor. The king continued.

“You see, a king is under different rules of propriety than is a commoner or even a lord. He is a ruler whose word, to remain effective, may not be gainsaid. To ensure compliance with a minimum of fuss, on occasion the king must act to cultivate his reputation for cruelty, threatening brutality even though he may hope to avoid it. As it is written, ‘It is safer to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.’ Though we rely upon each other to some extent, the Red Brethren have no love for me nor do I hold any for them. Therefore I must occasionally rely on fear, if only in limited amounts.

“Your little outburst, which I both expected and counted upon, allowed me to rid my kingdom of one who was especially troublesome. If I know him, he’s halfway to some other realm already, his family and belongings in tow, to weasel his way into the counsel of an unsuspecting sovereign or duke. I have also avoided alienating other warlocks upon whom I depend for magic and counsel, as I might have done had I banished him myself. I was not merciful; in fact, I was well within the letter of the law to force him to fulfill his contract. But because of your mercy, he has no true gripe against me. Though he will not soon forget his beloved daughter’s tears, many will feel that he escaped punishment altogether. It will be difficult for him to cause me grief among the Brethren. Do you understand now why I stand deeply in your debt?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” she started, “I mean no, I mean… what if I had not objected?” She looked at her father, who looked at Dokken, who looked at the king.

“Of course you would object. My brother told me as much. Dokken, you see, has something of a gift of true seeing, which is why I rely on his counsel more than that of our other brothers combined. He can dismiss the visible while appraising in a glance the unseen character of another. His predictions of behavior are uncanny; they make him a very difficult man to surprise. When I first suggested to him the face of the warlock’s daughter as restitution for Bantamon’s fraud, he swore that you would never in a thousand years agree to such injustice. That left me free to propose it for my own political necessities. I am glad that he has once again proven correct, both for the sake of Bantamon’s daughter and for my own.”

The king paused briefly and stared into Moragan’s eyes, as if to see there what his brother had perceived. Then he continued, “To make it up to you, I shall ensure that you leave this castle with your own face restored.”

Shock, happiness, and confusion chased each other around Moragan’s scarred features and she bounced in her seat. “Your Majesty, I mean, I just…” She seemed too giggly to continue. Cutter was speechless. Dokken nodded approvingly toward his elder brother.

“Pish, girl,” the king interrupted. “Skin can be magically mended. Half the women at court tonight sported some magical enhancement, and almost every one of them who is over forty has had a few wrinkles banished via spell. In fact, sometimes I think the Red Brethren raise more coin tidying up the court’s ladies than via any other pursuit.

“But magic has limits. Just as the Brethrens’ magic cannot remove their own crimson stains, it cannot create in others character, perseverance, or a love of justice and mercy. These things come from the heart, and a fair face is of little value without them. If what Dokken tells me of you is true – and from your actions tonight I wholly believe it to be – you have earned this reward many times over. When you leave here to return home, wearing your true face again, you will no longer be ‘The Monster Maiden of Westering Slough.’ You shall merely be ‘Miss Moragan, the pretty young woman who lives near the swamp.’ It does not have the same ring, I confess, but I promise you shall grow to like it in time.”

The king smiled at her and Moragan could no longer contain herself. She jumped into his lap and laid kisses and thanks all over his cheeks and brow. Her father pulled her off as the king pulled himself together. His face showed a bit of embarrassment but it was overshadowed by his obvious joy.

“Now, Cutter,” he began again, still straightening his coat. “I am certain that neither you nor I shall see a single sovereign from the hand of Bantamon. I shall fulfill his part of the original contract, so you will by that means be made whole. Besides, I suspect you are the manner of man who would have little use for a prince’s ransom instead of a beautiful daughter. Am I correct?”

“Quite correct, Your Majesty.” Cutter felt rather relieved. Having money meant you had to guard it, and he was far happier hunting wyrmlings than he thought he might be brooding over a treasure like some paranoid hen. Plus, Moragan, oh beautiful Moragan! She would no longer hide in that darkened workshop day after day. All the gold in the world could not compare to that.

“Finally,” the king began, seeming ready at last to bring their joyful private conclave to an end, “I have a command for you, Moragan, if you will not forbid me to give one in my own royal chamber.” He waited for her to say something. She merely mumbled, “I’m sorry, Your Majesty,” while looking down into her lap. He laughed.

“Very well. You will be leaving tomorrow or the next day for your home. I would ask that you return to this castle before the next Peersmeet and wed my youngest brother.”

A crystal goblet hit the floor, and all turned to look at Dokken. He was empty-handed and open-mouthed; his jaw was moving but no words escaped. The king, grinning now from ear to ear, seemed to think he had finally managed to surprise his brother. He pushed on before Dokken could recover.

“Come now, brother. You have spoken of nothing but this maiden for the past month.” He turned back to the others. “When I said that my brother could see truly, I did not mention his one blind spot: himself. That is why he is thirty and remains unmarried while his four older brothers collect children like arrows in a quiver. His opinion of himself, or at least his expectation for a mate, has always seemed impossibly high. Before he returned from Westering, I feared he would never find a woman to his standards. But since that day I have listened to him yap and yammer for endless hours, ‘Moragan this’ and ‘Moragan that.’ It’s enough to drive one batty. So if you would not mind, Lady Moragan, please take this lovesick witling off my hands.”

She looked at Dokken, then back at the king. “I will gladly do so, Your Majesty.”

“But,” Dokken interjected. His mouth was still moving and finally words escaped from it. “But…”

“Dokken,” said the king, raising a palm before his shocked brother, “I have waived for you the law that forbids a member of the royal house wedding a commoner. The law in this case is an idiot: you are fourteenth in line for the crown and it will never trouble your brow. Besides, it cannot be gainsaid that your betrothed is uncommon.”

“Your Majesty,” Dokken finally replied, pushing back his chair and taking a knee, “not that it makes much difference, but I am thirteenth in line for the throne. Still, I would gladly renounce my claim to obey your will in this matter.”

“I see that you are mistaken once again, little brother. My daughter-in-law has delivered this very day another son, pushing you still further from the throne and its burdens. You are now number fourteen, and no longer unlucky.”

“Indeed,” replied Dokken, looking directly at Moragan. “I am the luckiest man in your kingdom.”

The king waved his hand toward pair of liveried pages who had been doing their best to melt unobtrusively into the room’s ornate decor. They silently disappeared through a pair of double doors, to be replaced a few seconds later by the Red Brother that Cutter had earlier seen with Dokken.  The wizard greeted the king warmly but formally. After receiving whispered instructions, he turned his reddened face toward Moragan.

“If you will come this way, my lady, we shall begin your consultation,” the Red Brother said, extending a heavily-ringed hand toward her. “I have but a few questions to ask before we begin: preference questions, so to speak. The process will not be arduous, I assure you.” He motioned toward Cutter and said, “Your father may accompany us if you wish.”

Moragan acknowledged the Red Brother, then glanced at her father. Her expression seemed to him a cauldron of emotions: excitement bubbled upon the surface, but Cutter could discern more than a little fear swirling in the alloy as well. He stood up to reassure her before they took their leave of Dokken and the King.

Dokken had beaten Cutter to his feet, however, and extended his open arms to Moragan. She was between them in an instant. Moragan hugged Dokken tightly as he pushed her beautiful raven hair back from her face. He kissed her gently where her nose would soon be and ran a calloused hand along the scars that Cutter knew he would never see again.

Then Dokken turned her over to her father, placing her hand in his. The fear was gone from her face: pure joy radiated in its place.  As father and daughter turned to follow the Red Brother out of the chamber, Cutter decided that if he had to wear the ridiculous orange jacket one more time, this time to place Moragan’s hand back into Dokken’s, he could live with that.

(Continued in Part XII)