You did not think that I would let you leave me behind?” Esme’s eyes glittered in the candlelight. Outside, the sky lightened in the east to a dull gray, becoming pearlescent pink near the horizon where the sun would rise.
Bria smiled, the light softening her features. “In truth, Esme, I did not think you would care to come with me. It is a long journey to Dekra, and an uncertain errand at that. It is something I feel I must do.”
“And you must do it alone?”
“No, my mother will go with me.”
“And I will go with you, too. Chloe has already packed a few things for me, and you see”—she indicated her riding clothes—“I am ready to go.”
Bria laughed and hugged her friend. “Then you shall come along, by all means. Forgive me. I should have invited you. I merely thought that . . . Well, we will go together, and I will welcome the company.”
Esme smiled too. “It will make me feel useful to you. And I must admit that I have always wondered about this mysterious city of Dekra. There are many strange stories about it—is it really enchanted?”
“Yes, but not the way you mean. Its enchantment grows from the love of its citizens. It is, as you shall see, a most remarkable place.”
“You have been there many times?” Esme fell to the task of helping Bria ready herself for the journey.
“Not many, but a few times. Quentin and I would go there occasionally before the children were born. The last time was for Yeseph’s funeral, a few years ago. Quentin talked about our going back there to stay, but after Yeseph died he never spoke of it again. He is king, and the king must remain on his throne in Askelon.” She shrugged, and Esme finished tying the points at her sleeves. “Now then, let us go and wake the girls.”
The little princesses were awake and chattering like squirrels when the two women entered the bedroom. Chloe was there, along with their own nurse, packing their clothes into carved chests for the journey. When they saw their mother, they jumped up and flitted across the floor to embrace her.
“Mother, oh, Mother! Is it true? Can we really go with you?” they begged. “We will be good, and we will be quiet. We promise it. Oh, please?”
Bria smiled and kissed them both, then knelt down to speak to them. “Yes, my darlings. You are coming with me. But I want you to remember that this is a long journey, and you will get very tired. You must do as I say, for we will travel quickly.”
“Are we to ride horses too?” asked Brianna.
“Yes, horses?” echoed Elena.
“You will ride in a coach with Grandmother. She will need someone to keep her company on the way.”
“Is Daddy going, too?”
“No.” Bria sighed. “The king is searching for Gerin and will not come with us. Hurry now, and finish dressing—this stone floor is cold on your feet! We will wait for you in the yard. Chloe will bring you out when you are ready. Now run along.”
Both girls scampered away to finish dressing. The two women crept back into the silent corridors of Askelon Castle and made their way down to the hall, where a simple breakfast had been laid for them. There Alinea was waiting, her trim form clothed in summer green—an embroidered tunic over trousers and tall riding boots. An image flashed into Bria’s mind of her mother standing just so, telling her good-bye. For a moment she imagined this had all happened before just this way.
“Good morning, Mother.” The queen paused, then asked, “Have I ever seen you wear these clothes before?” She examined them carefully.
“Yes,” Alinea laughed, “I believe you have. But I am amazed that you would remember.”
Then it came to her. “How could I ever forget? You were going off to rescue Father—dressed like that. You had to sneak out of your own castle.”
“I thought I would just try them on and . . . well, they fit, so here I am. Do you approve?”
“How could I disapprove?” Bria hugged her mother, and then they all sat down to eat before leaving. They spoke little, each occupied with her own thoughts of the impending journey. When they finished eating, they hurried out into the ward yard, where the horses and coach were already waiting for them; the coachman was tying the last bundle of provisions to the frame behind the coach.
“Wilkins!” said Bria when she recognized the man.
“My lady,” he bowed, “when Lady Esme told me of your wish to go to Dekra, I thought it best to travel with you.”
“If you would rather have another . . . ,” added Esme.
“No, it is a fine idea. I commend it and thank you both.”
“I am at your service.”Wilkins bowed again and touched the hilt of his sword. Bria was once again reminded that theirs was not a pleasure outing.
From across the yard the warder, a man with short gray hair and gray eyes, whose sinews seemed made of whipcord, approached. “My lady, I am against this enterprise.” He spoke directly, not wasting any words.
Bria smiled. “I know, Hagin, but there is no worry.”
“No worry? Your own son kidnapped, and you say no worry?” The man gave her a look of frank disapproval. “The king will have my hide stretched and nailed on yonder drawbridge if I let you go.”
“We will come to no harm,” insisted Bria. “We travel with an escort of knights, and the king’s roads are safe enough.”
“Then I shall go too,” he announced.
“No, I would rather have you here to await the king’s return.”
The warder grumbled but held his tongue and said no more.
Bria and Esme were helped into the saddle, Alinea into the coach, and the horses were led out through the yard toward the gatehouse, where two knights, mounted and ready, were waiting. There they paused, and Chloe and the princesses came running out to scramble into the coach. A few of the castle servants had gathered to wish the travelers a speedy and safe journey; the little girls waved and threw kisses to all until they entered the dark tunnel of the gatehouse and were cut off from sight.
Hagin the warder, nephew of Trenn, stood rooted to the spot until they had disappeared, then shook his head and stumped off.
Askelon lay but two leagues away. With a little speed the tinker would arrive at midday, find himself a meal, and begin making his rounds. There were certain customers he visited every time he came to town. Milcher at the Gray Goose Inn, for example; he always needed a new pot, or a pan repaired, and always included supper too. Yes, he was one of the best customers, and there were others: the butcher’s wife, the chandler’s sister, the baker, and the weaver.
In fact, all the merchants needed his services one time or another. Even the king’s kitchen staff occasionally bought his wares.
“A wee bit further, Old Tip,” Pym told his dog, “and we’uns’ll stop a little in Askelon. What say ye there? Eh? A nice grizzle bone fer ye, Tipper. A hot pasty fer me—ah, innkeeper’s wife makes the best meat pies in all Mensandor. There’s a fact, Tip. The best. Makes me mouth water to think on’t.”
Tip took all this in with a benign, thoughtful expression and wagged her tail with appropriate enthusiasm, and they ambled down the road, clinking and clattering as they went. As they came within sight of Askelon Castle, they heard the sound of hooves drumming along the road behind them. Pym turned around, stepped to the side of the road, and waited for the rider to pass. In an instant the white charger and its regal rider swept past them.
Pym raised his hand in greeting, and the intent rider dipped his head in acknowledgment as he rode on by. The tinker followed the horseman into the distance with his eyes and continued on his way.
“Comin’ a day, Tip, an’ we’uns’ll ride too! A wagon an’ a sharping stone an’ treadle-foot—that’s fer we!” He nodded slyly to his dog. “We’uns’ve found our fortune!”
He gazed after the rider disappearing into the distance. “But ye know, I think that ’un was the king that passed by jest now. I couldn’t say fer a certain, but might’ve been. Looked a king t’me. Would ye not say, Tipper? Eh? Quite right, quite right. Looked a king. Maybe ’twas the king.”
Pym glanced at his black dog. “The gods be with him, poor king. Terrible thing. Terrible. His son snatched off like that. A terrible thing— deed most foul, that. Didn’t I say it, Tip? A deed most foul.” The tinker raised his voice to a shout and called after the rider, now just a speck in the road far away, “The gods be with ye, Sire!”
He squinted up an eye toward the sun, gauging the time of day. The morning shone fair and bright, the sky high and wide and blue. Across the green fields farmers worked their land, coaxing grain out of the soil. Occasionally the tinker would wave to one, who would answer his greeting likewise.
Ahead the town drew slowly closer, and the sun rose higher. “Tipper, we’uns’d best stir our bones or be too late to get our meal. Come along, now.”
He put his head down, hoisted the straps of his baggage, and picked up his pace; they clanged and rattled down the road to Askelon. “You cannot be serious,” said the high priest. He stared at the old man as if unable to comprehend the words just spoken.
“I assure you I am.” The cold eyes glared; the tongue poked snakelike between the thin scars of lips.
“But why? Why risk discovery now? It is not wise.”
“Not wise? You dare to presume wisdom beyond Nimrood’s?” There was poison in the voice, and echoes of cracking thunder.
High Priest Pluell paled and threw up his hands. “Oh, no! It is not that.” He hurried to explain. “It is just that I thought—that is . . . we are safe here. We have time now to think this through, plan our course of action. We must move very carefully, you would agree.”
“I have decided,” said Nimrood flatly. “There is nothing more to discuss. I will tell you what to do; I will make all the decisions from now on.
“You have nothing to fear if you do your part and see to it that your stupid priests do theirs. Leave all else to me.” The old wizard glared at the priest with malevolent glee. “You want to humble that usurper king, do you not? Ah, yes. I can see it on your face. You want him and his God Most High brought low before all Mensandor. Then you will be acknowledged and the power of the High Temple increased.”
The high priest could not resist a smile at the prospect.
“Well, then, do nothing—do you hear? Wait for me. I will return shortly, and we can begin.”
Pluell watched the old man—fearing him, loathing him. But his desire to flaunt his power over the throne crushed any resistance he might offer to Nimrood. Yes, to humble the proud king, to reassert the claims of the temple over the affairs of the realm—that was worth the price of putting up with the troublesome old long-beard Nimrood. It was worth the risk.
“Very well,” said the high priest. “It shall be as you say.”
Nimrood nodded and winked and smiled his gruesome smile. “That is good, my pet. Do as I say and all will be well. Now I go.”
The high priest sat in his handsome chair and listened to the tap of Nimrood’s footsteps receding into the temple. When it is done, I will cast the old vulture out, he thought. I have but to contend with him a little longer.