The pale moon had risen fair in the sky, throwing down a silvery radiance upon all below. Toli stood alone on the bartizan outside the banquet hall, overlooking a portion of the garden. Laughter drifted out of the hall through the open doors, and flickering torchlight splashed the stones and turned them to gold.
The bard Larksong sang his ballads to the high acclaim of all gathered inside. Toli could hear his strong voice lifted up in song, but could not catch the words, which were drowned now and again in waves of laughter. At the end of a song or story, there came clamorous applause and cries for more.
But Toli did not attend to what was taking place inside. He had grown uncomfortable and slipped away quietly to be alone. No one, he thought, had seen him go. He breathed the soft night air and wondered what he would do when he met her once again.
He did not have long to wonder. He heard the sound of a soft, brushing tread, turned, and she was there, standing in the doorway, the light framing her, shining all around her. A sharp pang arrowed through him. He turned away.
Then she was beside him. He smelled her delicate scent, warm and pleasing. Her nearness burned him with a glowing heat.
“Ah,” she sighed, “how peaceful and cool here. The hall, for all its light and laughter, grows stale.” She spoke softly. He did not reply. Then she touched his arm, and he felt a flame leap through him. “Hello, Toli,” she whispered. “I saw you leave the hall.”
He turned toward her. “Esme . . .” He could think of nothing to say. She, with the moonlight in her eyes and shining on her long, dark tresses, was even more lovely than he remembered. And she had come back.
Esme laid her fingertips to his lips. Her touch was cool. “Shh. You do not need to speak. This is awkward for me, too.”
Toli stared at the woman he had loved. Why? He wanted to scream. Why did you leave me? What made you go? And now, after so many years, why have you returned?
But he said nothing, only turned away again. Esme felt the distance between them as a physical presence: a risen wall of bristling emotion that she could not breach. Suddenly, all that she had kept locked away in her heart for so long came rushing forth. Her throat tightened. Her hands quivered. She bent her head, and tears began to fall.
There was a movement beside her. “Toli, I—,” she began, then glanced up. He was gone.
Inside the hall Larksong held his listeners in thrall. He was in high form, bowing to cascades of applause, his broad, good-natured face beaming from beneath his wide, low-crowned hat with its long green plume. He allowed the acclamation to wash over him and then, as it started to die away, held up his hands for silence and began to sing.
In fair Mensandor,
On a summer’s eve,
When all the hills are wearing green,
Give an ear, my lords and ladies,
To the tale I’ll weave—
Of bold Quentin and his queen!
This was greeted with shouts of laughter and ringing cheers, for now the king would be celebrated for their amusement. Larksong bowed low and began, his voice rising in clear tones to tell his tale. It was a song about a king who sought the hand of the most beautiful woman in the realm and found her in the daughter of his enemy.
The song was an old one, of course, known to all who heard it. But Larksong sang it well, inventing new verses that played upon Quentin’s and Bria’s names and the well-known events of their lives. The listeners sat captivated—enraptured from start to finish.
When at last the Quentin of the story won his bride’s hand and made peace with his enemy, a resounding cheer went up throughout the hall.
“Well done!” they cried. “More! More! Sing it again!” Everyone shouted their praise and cried for more, though the evening was growing late. But Larksong took off his hat and made a sweeping bow to all assembled.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you, one and all!” He bowed to the king. “My songs are finished this night. Perhaps I may come again.”
“Yes, come again!” they cried. “Come tomorrow!”
Larksong looked inquiringly at the king. Quentin nodded his approval, and his guests added theirs. And then reluctantly—for it had been a wonderful night—the people began to leave.
Quentin rose. “Oh, my sides are sore for laughing! What a night! What a night.” He peered around. “Now, where has Toli gone? I would speak with him.”
“I think he is occupied at present,” replied Bria. “Come along. Speak with him tomorrow.”
“Who do you think? Come along.” Bria tugged on his arm and led him away. They left the hall, and the servants began dousing the torches, giving the great room over to the night.
No sooner had they reached their chambers than a knock sounded upon the door. “Who can that be?” asked Quentin. He opened the door to see Esme’s companion, Chloe, wringing her hands and tugging at her apron.
“Sire, I—” She stared past him to Bria. “My lady, I do not know what to do.”
Bria stepped forward. “What is it, Chloe? What is wrong?”
“My lady.” She curtsied. “I . . . could you come?”
“What is it?” demanded Quentin.
“My lord,” said Bria, “go and see to the children. Tell them good night. I will look in a little later. Go on, now. I will take care of this.” She eased past Quentin and closed the door behind her.
“Where is she?”
“In her rooms. She returned some time ago and has been weeping ever since. I can do nothing with her. Oh, my lady! I have never seen her this way. Even when my lord—Lord Rathnor—was angry with her, she did not carry on so. I am afraid—”
“Calm yourself, my dear. All will be well. Have no fear.”
When they entered Esme’s apartments, Bria could hear someone sobbing in the chamber beyond. “Stay here, Chloe. I will go to her,” she said softly, and moved to the door. She knocked gently. There was no answer. She opened the door and went in.
Esme lay facedown on the bed, her shoulders heaving, the sobs welling up from deep inside her. Bria sat down beside her on the huge bed. She placed her hand on her friend’s shoulder, feeling instinctually the depths of her misery.
“Esme, I am here. I am with you. Tell me what happened.”
It was a time before Esme could talk. But at last Bria got her to sit up, dry her eyes, and tell her what had taken place.
“Oh, Bria!” She sniffed, her eyes wet from crying. She twisted a damp handkerchief in her hands. “He hates me! Despises me! And I do not blame him. I should not have come hoping to . . . Oh, I should never have come.”
“There, now. Toli does not hate you.” Bria said his name; she had guessed what had happened. “I am certain of it. You know how he is.”
“He ran from me. I went out to him, and he left without a word!” Her lips trembled, and she seemed on the verge of another torrent of tears, but took a deep breath and kept them down. “Oh, Bria, how I must have hurt him. I thought—I thought . . . Oh, I do not know what I thought. I was wrong to come here. I was never born for happiness.”
“Nonsense. Do not talk so!” chided Bria. “You are welcome here; it can never be wrong to come where you are loved and cared for. As for Toli, perhaps it was a mistake to approach him so openly. Obviously, we will need to plan very carefully how best to win him back. But unless I am far wrong, he does not hate you. Never say it! If we could see inside his heart, we would see his love for you has never waned.”
Esme sniffed miserably. Bria put her arms around her and drew her close. “You have suffered much, Esme. And yet in all your pain, you never allowed yourself to cry out.” To Esme’s questioning glance she replied, “Chloe told me. But why? I would rather hear it from you.”
Esme gazed at her hands folded on her knees. “I have made such a ruin of my life, Bria. How can you still call me friend?” She placed her hand on Bria’s. “But you always were so much kinder than I.”
“No, it is true.”
Bria pulled Esme more tightly to her, and both women fell silent. When she turned to her friend once more, she found Esme sound asleep. The queen drew a quilt over her and left the room quietly. At the door she paused and looked back. “There is healing here, Esme. Stay with us and let it begin.”
Quentin was sitting at his great table, frowning over sketches of his temple’s design. The table bore the full weight of a score of drawings, dozens of workmen’s plans, countless lists and inventories of building materials, several clay and stone models of the finished structure, a large plumb bob and line, three mason’s levels, a leather parchment case, and a stone from the site, which acted as a paperweight.
“You are tired, my lord,” said Bria, coming up behind him. She rested her hands on his shoulders and lightly rubbed his neck. “You stare witless at the scratchings before you.”
The king raised his face from the page before him and pressed his fists against his eyes. “You are right, my love. Yes, I am tired. There is much to do—”
“Nothing that will not wait until tomorrow. Come to bed.”
Quentin put his hands flat on the table and pushed the sketches from him as he stood. He gazed at his wife and smiled gently, then asked, “Is all well with our guest?”
“Her travels have worn her down, as may be expected. But I think she suffers still from the memory of a loveless marriage, and that is the pain she bears.”
“He has been dead two years.”
Bria nodded. “Yes, but deep wounds heal slowly. We do not know how cruelly treated she was.”
“She will not talk to you?”
“She speaks of it to no one. But it is plain to see that all is not well. There are many who do not share the joy we know, and Esme is one of those who have traveled a most difficult road.”
“We will hear of it in time, I imagine. When she is ready, she will tell us.” Quentin yawned and stretched, and together the king and queen went in to their bedchamber.
Quentin lay for a long time staring into the blackness of the darkened room, thinking about the events of the day past and those of the day to come. He fell asleep with a vision of the completed temple filling his eyes, and dreamed of the day when he would lead his countrymen into the temple to worship the Most High on its day of consecration.