Unlike the priests he led, High Priest Pluell lived in sumptuous splendor, with the richest appointments. While the lower priests’ cells were spare, devoid of all objects and ornamentation, except those few articles necessary to a minimum of comfort—a bed with straw-filled mattress, a stool, a rough table, a wooden bowl, a tallow candle—the high priest’s apartment was hung with heavy tapestries, and carven chairs stood around a great table spread with expensive cloth and laid with fine silver. In golden candle holders burned candles made with perfumed beeswax. His bed was high and curtained, the mattress stuffed with eiderdown.
This, he told himself, was no more than his due—the perquisites of his position, the rewards of his rank.
High Priest Pluell and his visitor had been holding conference for many hours. The high priest stared ahead dully, his eyes red-rimmed from lack of sleep, a deep frown cast over his arrogant features.
Old Nimrood watched him carefully from his seat, with gnarled hands folded beneath his sharp chin. He seemed the picture of a shrewd merchant who has just struck an extremely fortuitous bargain. The faint wisp of a smile curled his thin, bloodless lips.
“Then it is agreed?” asked Nimrood, breaking the silence at last.
Pluell raised his head slowly, a sneer twisting his mouth. “What other choice do I have? Yes! It is agreed. I will do as you say.”
“See that you do and all will be well. You will save the temple; and what is more, you will hold the power of the kingdom. The realm will be yours and the king your servant. Think of it!”
“It is risky. I am not fond of taking chances.”
“Without risk there is no gain, my friend. And as you yourself have said, you have no choice. I tell you, this upstart king means to pull down the High Temple and drive out the priests. With every passing day the King’s Temple grows; when it is done, yours will be destroyed.”
“Still, would he dare? I would inflame the people against him. I would see to that.”
“He dares all things in the name of this god of his. He must be dealt with at once. Too long have you hidden beneath your robes of office. Wait any longer and it will be too late.”
“Yes, yes. So you say.” Pluell looked at his guest sharply. “I do not like this king at all, and I do not fear him. The sanctity and authority of the High Temple must be preserved. When and where do we begin?”
Nimrood smiled expansively. “I will choose the time and the place. Leave all to me. But I will need six of your temple guard—six who know how to obey and to keep secrets concealed.”
“You shall have them. What else?”
“Nothing for now.” Nimrood stood slowly. “Only a place to rest and a morsel to eat. Then I will be on my way.”
“Very well. Tell the priest waiting outside what you require. He will arrange everything for you. I will go and choose the men who are to accompany you.”
Nimrood dipped his head and then went out. The high priest sat for a moment in his chair, still staring blankly into the shadows. Then he drew his robes close around as a chill shivered through him, for the room had grown quite cold.
The afternoon sun shone a hazy gold as it sank below the green, tree-lined hills. The road bent down into low valleys, sinking into cool shadow. On the crest of the hill, the small traveling party stopped.
“Yonder lies Askelon, my lady,” said Wilkins, one of Lady Esme’s traveling companions, “and a fair sight it is.”
Esme filled her deep brown eyes with the glittering scene before her. Askelon Castle, its towers and turrets fired by the golden rays of the setting sun, sparkled like a jewel. The great walls stood strong, impenetrable, glowing red in the fading light.
She shivered, remembering another time when she had sat astride a horse in exactly this spot and gazed upon the castle standing just so in another sunset long ago. Nothing has changed, she thought. Oh, what folly! Everything has changed, me most of all.
“I may have been wrong to leave,” she said finally, speaking softly to herself. “But I have returned. Perhaps I can make a new beginning.”
Without another word Esme gathered the reins and started down the hill into the valley. Sensing food and water and a warm stall to hand, her horse began to trot and then to gallop along the road. The others behind her joined in the race, and soon they were all flying toward Askelon, their jubilant voices ringing through the dells.
They reached the village below the walls and clattered through the streets, hardly slowing at all. Then they were over the drawbridge, through the gatehouse, and jogging to a halt in the ward yard, where squires scampered to take the horses and lead them to the stables.
“Esme! You are here!” There was a shout behind her, and she turned to see Bria emerging from a doorway across the yard. Two little faces peeked out from either side of their mother’s skirts, their eyes shining.
Esme knelt down and held out her arms. “Come here, my darlings!” she called, and was instantly smothered in giggles and kisses. “And how big you have grown!” she said in amazement. “Oh, I have missed you so!” She kissed both girls and hugged them tight. Then she stood and embraced their mother. “Bria, it is wonderful to see you.”
The two women clung for a long moment and then stepped to view each other at arm’s length. “Esme, you are more beautiful than ever. You are! It is . . .” A tear formed in Bria’s eye. “I have missed you so much!”
“And I you. You have no idea how good it feels to be here at last. I have wanted to come many times, but—”
Bria caught up her hands and pulled her away, saying, “Come! There is much to talk about. Leave your things for now; I will have them brought up to your rooms.” She turned to address the others in Esme’s traveling party. “Please, you are our welcome guests. Rest; take your ease from your long journey. If you like, you may dine with us in the banquet hall this evening. Or if you would prefer, food will be sent to your rooms.”
Wilkins bowed low. “Your Highness, my lady has told us so much about you and about this place; we are all eager to see it. We will join you as soon as we have washed the dust of the road from ourselves. I, for one, wish to meet the Dragon King. His name is renowned in the land.” The others nodded their agreement.
“I am sure my husband will welcome the news you bring. I will send the chamberlain directly to lead you to your rooms.”
Esme said, “Chloe, you may remain with me.” A slim, brown-haired young woman dressed in riding clothes like Esme’s stepped shyly forward. She curtsied to the queen, then held out two bundles to her mistress.
“Ah, yes. I almost forgot!” said Esme, taking the packages. “I have brought something for my little friends.”
The princesses squealed in delight. “Presents!” they cried. Esme handed them each a bundle tied in bright silk. “Oh, thank you! Thank you!” Both girls kissed her and then ran off to open their gifts.
“They are treasures, Bria. Treasures.”
“That they are. But come, you must be exhausted. Your rooms are ready and waiting for you.” She led Esme away and smiled at Chloe, who fell silently in behind them. “Both of you can rest a little before dinner.”
The queen led them from the ward yard into the corridor of the inner curtain and into the castle itself. Along the way they talked about the journey and all that the travelers had seen. When finally they reached the queen’s apartments, Bria announced, “You will be staying here, Esme. I want you close. Rest now and refresh yourselves. Water has been prepared for you. I will come back in a little while and bring you to dinner.”
“You are so kind, Bria. Thank you. But now that I am here, fatigue seems to have vanished. I want only to sit with you and have a long talk.”
“Oh, we shall, Esme. We must have many long talks before I am satisfied.” She paused and added on a more somber note, “You have often been in my thoughts.”
“Thank you. And you have often been in mine. Yes, we have much to talk about.”
Quentin and Toli were standing with Wilkins just inside the wide-open doors to the banqueting hall. Others stood a little way off, talking among themselves, awed to be in the presence of the king himself. Wilkins enthusiastically recounted the journey to Askelon and related the news he had heard along the way.
Quentin, happy to entertain guests—for it had been some time since the castle had held foreign visitors—pumped the willing man for information, which was happily supplied.
“When do you return?” Quentin asked. “Surely you will stay for the hunt.”
“I have heard of the King’s Hunt!” exclaimed Wilkins. “In truth, I was hoping to be invited. Many of the villages we passed through on our way here told us of the hunt. Most described it as a most exceptional event.”
“It is more festival than hunt,” explained Toli. “There will be games of skill, minstrels, and a circus. Three days of celebration are given to it. People come from across all Mensandor to take part, or just to watch.”
“What is the occasion of this festival?” asked Wilkins.
“I do not know,” laughed the king. “The reason lies buried in the past. Tradition has it that the hunt was begun in Celbercor’s time. He used it as a means of helping recruit knights into his service. Legend tells that if a man could kill three boars in one day without dismounting or changing horses, he was made a knight before the sun set!”
“The hunt was not held in later years—while Eskevar was away at war. But we revived the custom,” said Toli.
“Yes, it was all Toli’s doing!” said Quentin. “He wanted to display his horses! What better way than a hunt?”
Wilkins nodded knowingly. “These horses of yours, Master—I have heard of them also. Even in faraway Elsendor the Dragon King’s horses are highly regarded.”
Just then there was a motion in the doorway, and Quentin looked up to see Queen Bria and Lady Esme step into the hall. Both were wearing light summer gowns of sendal: Bria’s was rose and Esme’s russet. He smiled broadly and went up to them. “Good evening, my love.” He kissed his wife. “Esme, I am so glad you have come. It is happiness itself to see you.” He pulled her to him in a glad embrace and kissed her cheek. “Welcome. I hope you have come prepared to remain with us a long time.”
“Thank you, Quentin. You are looking as fit as ever. Bria tells me the work on the temple continues apace.” Her eyes darted away from his momentarily.
“Yes,” replied Quentin. “The work goes on. But we can talk of that later. I imagine you would like to greet—” He turned, casting a quick glance behind him. “Where has he disappeared to all of a sudden? He was here but a moment ago.”
“Who, my lord?”
“Toli. He was . . .” He gestured to the spot. Both Toli and Wilkins had gone. “Well, he is still as shy as the deer he grew up with. I am certain he will want to greet you in private, later.”
From the other end of the hall, kitchen servants entered, carrying huge platters of food: venison and pork, roast fowl and game, freshly picked vegetables, and round loaves of brown bread, hot from the oven.
“Let us be seated,” said Bria. Already the benches on either side of the long lower table were being filled. Esme’s traveling company had found friends among the courtiers of the king’s household. A wandering bard had been invited to attend the meal and was now moving among the guests at tables, singing nonsense rhymes and taking requests for stories he would tell after dinner. Laughter followed him as he moved along the tables.
The great room was bright and the spirit cheerful. “See what your coming has done?” cried Quentin, leading them to the high table. “I have not seen such good humor in . . . well, in many a season.”
“You are kind, Quentin. But it is well known that the Dragon King’s table is ever gracious and that merriment abounds.” Esme glanced around her, and her face took on a lighter aspect. “It is just as I remembered it . . . just as I hoped it would be.”
Bria pressed her hand and drew her to a chair. Durwin entered and approached them, making many apologies for being late, and then greeted Lady Esme with a warm hug. As they talked, Quentin looked for Toli, who usually sat beside him, opposite the queen.
He found the Jher, head to head with Wilkins, sitting at the far end of the high table. They were deep in conversation, oblivious to all that was going on around them.
Quentin looked to the lower table; all eyes were on him, waiting for him to begin. He reached out and took a piece of bread, broke it, and put it on his silver trencher, nodding to his guests. At once they began to eat; platters were passed, cups filled, and glad conversation bubbled forth.
While they ate, the bard approached the high table. He bowed to the king and said, “Your Majesty, is there a ballad you wish told? You have but to name it, and Larksong is at your service.”
“Something befitting the lively mood of this summer’s eve,” declared Quentin. “Let brave knights and their bold deeds wait until another time. Tonight I would hear a lighter tale, one to make the heart rejoice.”
“If it is good cheer you wish, Sire, I know just the thing!” He bowed again, saying, “Excuse me now. I must retire to compose the lyric.”
How great an honor to be a king, thought Quentin. Truly a very great honor. Indeed I am blessed.
He looked down upon his guests and shared their amusement and high spirits. Life is good in Mensandor; all is well in the realm. He felt his heart fill with happiness and swell almost to bursting, so deep was his joy.