What for you, my good fellow?” Milcher rubbed his pudgy hands on his sopping apron and grinned good-naturedly at the stranger. “Are you new to Askelon?”
The sandy-haired man, dressed in the clothes of a common laborer —leather jerkin over a brown tunic and baggy brown trousers—leaned against the bar. “A jar of your dark, if you please, sir,” he replied. “Are you the inn master?”
“Aye,” said Milcher. “I am the keeper. But my wife is the master.” He gave the man a great wink. “Dark it is, and the best in all Mensandor, some say. I myself prefer it.”
The innkeeper turned away for a moment to fill the jar, and the man took advantage of the lapse to study the interior of the inn. The Gray Goose was full tonight. There was a hubbub of conversation, which was normal, but this overlaid a churning current of excitement. An atmosphere of expectancy thickened in the place as dense as the smoke from the pipes of the patrons, which curled toward the low-beamed ceiling. Ale jars clinked, and men drank and talked in strained, nervous voices.
Ronsard had felt it the moment he walked in—this tingly, anxious suspense. It was as if they were all gathered there waiting for something to happen, knowing that something would happen, wanting it to happen.
Secure now in his disguise as a peasant, there was little chance of discovery; he was not a frequenter of inns and did not live in Askelon any longer, so it was unlikely he would meet anyone he knew. Ronsard turned back to Milcher, who was laying the pewter jar on the board. “Strange mood, tonight, eh?”
“Aye—for the last two nights.” Milcher nodded slyly.
“Have you been out of the country, man? The kidnapping! The king’s sword lost!” Milcher rolled his eyes and leaned close. “There is wickedness about, my friend. Folks do well to look to themselves, if you know what I mean.”
“I heard about the kidnapping,” said Ronsard, sipping from his jar, “but what is this about the king’s sword? I know nothing of that.”
“Oh!” cried Milcher. He leaned close again with the air of a man discharging a secret it burned him to keep. “The king’s sword is gone. No one knows where. It is said the king will fall. Without the sword he cannot stand.”
“You cannot mean the Shining One—”
“One and the same! Yes, that’s the one. What other sword would it be?” He turned to the other man working at the bar. “Otho! Come here.”
Otho lumbered up and fixed Ronsard with a look of benign appraisal. “Yes?”
“Otho, tell this fellow about the king’s enchanted sword.”
Otho was not tired of relating his knowledge, though he had done little else since he heard it. With enthusiasm he embroidered on the scant details he possessed, embellishing them to lend his tale extra color.
“Aye, I see what you mean.” Ronsard nodded solemnly when Otho had finished. “This could be bad. Very bad indeed. I am glad I am not the king.”
“His fish is flayed, as they say. I do not think he will be king for long. There is much talk against him now.”
“I have not heard such talk.”
“It is just beginning. There was a man in here last night, a white-bearded fellow from the north, out of Obrey. He said that people there are afraid of the Dragon King’s new god—this Most High of his. They are arming to protect their temples.”
“Protect their temples? From what?”
“From the king! The Dragon King has sent men to pull down the temples.” Otho nodded knowingly, his round face glowing with pleasure at having such a dull-witted and uninformed listener.
“Aye, I have been hearing the same,” put in Milcher.
“Who is this man—this one who is saying these things?”
“He was in here last night. Told us all about it. If you wait a bit he may be back. I think he said he would come back tonight if he was still in Askelon.” Milcher swept his eyes over the crowds lining the benches and hunched over the tables of his establishment. “I do not see him now, but he may come later.”
Ronsard took up his jar and said, “I will wait, in that case. I want to hear what he has to say. Point him out to me when he comes.”
They had come upon the ruined city in the setting sun. The red stone of Dekra glimmered like ruby in the crimson twilight, its delicate spires and finger-thin towers rising toward the deep blue heavens. The city seemed to have magically appeared, dropped out of the sky into the wilderness, a thing of charmed creation.
“This is Dekra,” said Esme. “I have never seen anything like it. It is so . . . so different.”
“It is a strange beauty,” replied Bria. “Very unlike the cities we build. The Ariga used many building methods unknown to us.”
“There has been much accomplished here since last I set eyes upon it,” said Alinea. “That was long ago. But Quentin has told me that the work goes on apace. Yes, much has been done.”
They rode to the gates of Dekra, now closed against the night. But upon reaching the huge tiled gates, a boy appeared, popping his head through the smaller gate-door cut in one side of the much greater panel. He disappeared again, quick as a blink, and they heard his voice calling on the other side. “Visitors! Open the gates! Visitors!”
They waited, and in a little while heard the creak of the gates opening. The stoop-shouldered man who met them smiled and ushered them through the gates, saying, “I am sorry to have shut you out. We did not expect visitors this night, or I would have left them open for you. Come in, come in. Welcome to Dekra!”
The travelers all dismounted, glad to be free of the saddle. The man closed the gates once more and then hurried to them. “Have you ridden far, good people?”
“From Askelon,” replied Alinea.
“All is well in Askelon, I hope. It is a far ride; you must be very tired.” He peered at them with kindly eyes, glad to see these visitors who would bring some news of the rest of the kingdom. “I have sent the boy to bring an elder. I am sure he will want to receive you properly.”
At that moment there were voices; they looked up to see the young boy followed by a man in a long mantle coming swiftly toward them. Behind him were several others who had dropped what they were doing in order to come and make the visitors welcome.
“Ah, Alinea! Bria! How good to see you again! Oh, this is a joyous surprise! Look,” he called to those around him, “the queen has come! And Alinea!”
Alinea looked at the man, trying to remember him. Bria stepped up just then. “Mother, you certainly remember Elder Jollen.”
“Oh, yes, I remember him well. It has been a long time. I am much surprised you remember me!”
“Not as long as all that—to look at you, you have not changed a bit. You are still as lovely as ever you were.” The elder bowed to the ladies graciously. “And, Bria, if not for your mother standing here beside you, I would declare you were her. So much alike you are. Flowers of the same bud. Speaking of flowers . . .” He winked at the princesses, who giggled.
“You do flatter us, sir.”
“No flattery, my queen. It is the truth.” His eyes turned to Esme, standing nearby. “And you must be the lovely Esme, of whom so many good things have been spoken.”
“I am honored, sir, and much impressed, for surely we have never met.”
“No, but it is not difficult to guess your identity. I remember an occasion or two when Bria told me about her friend. I knew when I saw you that you must be she. Welcome!” He turned his eyes to Wilkins and the knights. “Welcome, good friends all.” Elder Jollen paused, regarded his guests carefully, and added, “May you find in Dekra that which you seek.”
There was silence for a moment; then he clapped his hands and said, “Now then, the Governor’s Palace is ready for you. My wife instructs me that you are to dine with us this night. But take your time; refresh yourselves from your trip. Some of the young people will go along to help you settle your belongings.”
“Thank you, Jollen,” said Bria. “But I feel already revived just having set foot in Dekra. We will join you soon.”
“Excellent! Go along now. I will invite the other elders to join us after the meal and we will talk—with your permission?”
“Yes, please do. I would have suggested it. I think it will be best.”
“It is good to be here again,” remarked Alinea. “I had forgotten how it lifts the heart, and how much I have missed it without knowing what it was I longed for.”
“Then I am glad you have come. Perhaps you may stay a long while, my lady.” Jollen beamed happily at his weary guests. “Yes,” he said again, “I am glad you have come.”
The visitors were immediately swept up and away by the happy inhabitants of Dekra, and led to the old Governor’s Palace in the heart of the restored section of the city in a procession that wound through the narrow paved streets of the ancient ruin. All along the way, Curatak stopped to watch them pass, greeting them enthusiastically or joining in the throng.
Esme gazed in wonder at all she saw; everything appeared so foreign and so strange. The walls of buildings all aglow in the setting sun shone with colored tiles—mosaics of the life of the vanished Ariga. Great arches and long colonnades of graceful spiral columns—all carved from the same gleaming red stone—gave the appearance of a majestic, exalted race. The simple sweeping lines of their architecture spoke to her of lofty purpose and a nobility of heart and mind.
The effect was singular. So simple and yet so right. Yes, that was the word. There was a rightness about things here, she decided. A wholeness. A wholeness of what? She did not know yet. It was only upon seeing and experiencing Dekra that one noticed the aching lack in the rest of the world.
All around her the Curatak chattered like happy children, glad to see them, to receive visitors. She felt their eagerness splash over her like spring rain, reviving her, warming her. She felt the great lump of buried ice she had carried so long in her heart begin to thaw and melt.
Oh, she thought to herself, what a wonderful, fantastic place. I am glad I came. By the time they reached the Governor’s Palace, she was thinking, Truly this is the city of gods. I never want to leave.