Bria was awake long before the sun rose above the green mountains around Dekra. She dressed and went quietly out onto the balcony to stand in the liquid dawn, now showing pale gold in the east.
A new day, she thought. What a wonder. Somewhere my child will wake to this day. Most High, be with him. Comfort him, and give him strength to endure. And give my husband strength as well. Thank you. Yes, thank you.
Bria felt with unutterable certainty that her prayer was heard and answered even as she spoke. Here in Dekra, she mused, it was easy to believe that prayers were always answered. Nothing evil ever touched Dekra; it alone remained ever safe from the world’s troubles.
They had stayed long with the elders, praying together. There would be more supplications throughout the day and every day thereafter—as long as they were needed. For that she was grateful, and for the uplifting love she felt from the gentle Curatak.
But it seemed strange to be here in this city, Quentin’s city, without Quentin. Always before they had come together. She smiled as she remembered the way he had dashed here and there, showing her the things he was doing, pointing out all he saw and planned that first time he had brought her to Dekra. They were young and in love and soon to be married. Quentin was newly crowned, and his vision for the realm burned in him with such fierceness he could not stand still for a moment.
They had come often in the early days, and then when the first child was born, they stopped. One child and then another, and then one more . . . it had been a long time since they thought about a trip to the ancient ruined city, even though now it could easily be managed since the children were old enough.
But Quentin had his temple now. He was so intent upon building it—throwing all of himself into it—that he almost forgot about Dekra. He might have forsaken it completely except for Yeseph’s death. What a sad time that had been. If not for Durwin, Bria wondered what Quentin would have done. The funeral of the Curatak elder had been a simple affair, and not all sad, not in the way one usually thinks of funerals. As with Durwin’s burial, there had been a pervading sense of relief, even joy. Here was a servant of the Most High, finally released to stand in the courts of the One, to walk with his Creator and glory in his presence. What could be sad about that?
For Quentin, however, it was a time of confusion—mostly because Yeseph’s death was so unexpected. They found him at his table in the great library he loved so well, head down upon a manuscript as if merely taking a little rest from his work. The day before he had spoken with every one of his closest friends, as if he knew that he would die soon and wanted to say good-bye to each one.
But Quentin was not there. Yeseph died without seeing Quentin again, and it was this, perhaps, that caused Quentin the greatest grief. “I should have been with him,” Quentin repeated again and again. And as often as Bria had pointed out that he had kingly duties and matters of state to attend to in Askelon, and that there was no way he could have known, Quentin often grew sullen and replied that he had never wanted Askelon.
Bria had breathed a great sigh of relief when Quentin resumed work on the new temple, for almost overnight the old fire was back. But, too, he never mentioned Dekra again, at least not in the same way as before.
“Is it really a different place?” The voice behind her started Bria out of her reverie. Esme came up to sit beside her on the parapet.
“I did not hear you! I was daydreaming,” replied Bria absently. She sighed and smiled at her friend.
“Nothing sad, I hope.”
“Sad? Why sad?”
Esme shrugged. “The look on your face seemed sad to me, but surely no one in this place is ever sad.” She turned her deep brown eyes upon the queen. Bria saw the kindled glow in their shaded depths.
“Yes, it is a different place,” said Bria. “They say it is one of the last places of power on the earth, but that, I think, has less to do with it than people believe.”
“Oh?” Esme put her chin in her hand and gazed dreamily out over the glimmering mountainside, the dew beginning to glint in the first rays of morning light. “What, then, is it that accounts for what I feel here? For there is some glamour here that weaves its magic with the soul.”
“That is easy,” said Bria. “It can be told in one word.”
“Then say the word, for I would hear it.”
“Yes, there is a love here that is rarely found on earth. Perhaps in families, certainly between a husband and wife on occasion, but almost never in the world at large. Love governs everything here. Everything. Love and the continually practiced presence of the Most High.”
Esme glanced at her friend questioningly.
“Yeseph explained it once to me. He said that the Most High is indeed ever-present with his creation, with us. But we often lose sight of him—we fall away from him unless we practice his presence. By that he meant we must keep him with us in our thoughts and deeds, lest we forget.
“For it is not the One who forgets us, but we forget him. It is how we are made, a defect perhaps, but one that makes belief necessary. And belief is the Most High’s greatest gift. So even there he has rescued us.”
“Rescued us from ourselves. I see.” Esme watched the daylight rise to the sky and the night shadows withdraw from the tree-thick lowlands like a fine, transparent veil pulled away. “Is it love that transforms even the common things—the sunrise yonder, for one—into such works of beauty? Is it love that makes me feel as if all my life until now was a life lived in a shadow?”
“Oh, yes! Love, and knowledge of the Most High.”
“But I know very little of the Most High. How can it be that I feel as I do?”
“In your heart of hearts you know him. Durwin used to say that all men were born with the knowledge of the Most High in their hearts. The trick is to spend more time remembering, and less time forgetting what we already know.”
“From now on,” said Esme resolutely, “I will spend all my time remembering.”
Quentin rode to the ruins of his temple as soon as it was light enough to see. The sky was dark; low gray clouds formed a hard shell over the earth, keeping out the sun’s light. A misty drizzle fell from the clouds and dampened all it touched.
Though Quentin already knew what he would find when he reached the site, he was still stunned when he viewed the finality of the destruction.
Not one stone was left standing upon another. The walls had been pushed inward on top of one another—whole sections of quarried rock, all toppled, crumbled, and broken by the force of stone crushing stone. The wooden scaffolding and wall supports were splintered kindling. Here and there a jagged beam poked out of the debris, snapped like a twig trodden underfoot. The gray-white rubble lay in a great heaped mound like a huge grave, the grave of the Most High. Or a grave for a king.
Quentin waded into the ruins, stepping over fallen rock, climbing onto the mound. Scattered in amongst the wreckage he saw tools—a 988 stonecutter’s axe, a mason’s trowel, a level; the tools were undamaged. Surely there was a lesson in that, but what it could be escaped him.
When he reached the center of the mound, he stood and surveyed the damage. It was complete, save for a single column as tall as a man that had marked an outside corner of the temple. Quentin picked his way to this lone surviving remnant of his dream, looked at it sadly, placed his hands on it, and felt the cool, smooth surface.
How was it still standing? How had it been saved? Most likely it had merely been overlooked in the fever of destruction.
Quentin leaned against the column, pushing his full weight into it, straining against it until the column groaned, tilted, and toppled into the pile. The stones broke apart and rolled with a dull thudding to their rest.
It is done, thought Quentin. The ruin is complete. With that he turned away and walked to the place where he had left his horse and climbed at once into the saddle without looking back. As he galloped down the hill, it started to rain—a slow, miserable rain, as if the gods ridiculed him by pouring false sympathy over the wreck of his once-glorious vision.
As the slanting bank of sunlight began its crawl across the floor of their cell, Toli got up and began pacing. Prince Gerin still slept peacefully, as if he were in his own safe bed in his father’s castle. Toli watched the boy and smiled, thinking how wonderful to be a child and to have only a child’s limited tolerance for trouble. Was it that their tolerance was so limited, or that their endurance was greater? he wondered. Either way children simply would not allow trouble to dominate them for any length of time. They shrugged it off like an unwanted cloak on a hot summer’s day. When was it that they learned to wear that stifling cloak?
Upon waking, a plan had occurred to Toli. He thought about it now, thrashing it out in his head, examining it from every possible angle until he was certain about it. When at last he had settled himself with it, he went to the heavy oaken door of their cell and pounded the flat of his hand against it. He waited and pounded again.
In a moment he heard someone hastening to the cell. “What is it? Be quiet,” said the voice on the other side.
“I demand to see the high priest!”
“No! Be quiet—I have my orders.”
“I demand to see the high priest! As a prisoner within his walls, it is my right!” Toli began pounding on the door once more.
“Be quiet, do you hear? You will get us both into trouble. Shut up!” The man’s tone was frightened.
“I demand to see—,” Toli began, but stopped when he heard the bolt sliding away.
The door creaked on its iron hinges and opened a crack, into which a temple guard thrust his head. His sleep-swollen face glared angrily at the captive. “Shut up! Do you want to wake the whole temple and get me into trouble?”
With the quickness of a cat, Toli sprang forth and shut the door, pinching the guard’s head between the door and the jamb post. “Ach!” said the guard as the door squeezed his neck.
“Now you shut up and listen!” instructed Toli firmly. “If you value your worthless head, you will do as I say. I want to see the high priest at once. Arrange it. Do you hear me?”
“Ugh . . . what if I refuse?” the man gasped.
Toli pressed the door more tightly against his neck; he heard the guard’s hands scrabbling for a hold on the other side. “Then,” he answered, “I will be waiting for you when you come with the food next time. And the next time I will crush your throat with this door.”
“Gack!” the man croaked. “Let me go—I will do it!”
“Good. You had better, or next time . . .” He let the threat trail off.
The guard made a face, and Toli slowly eased the pressure, backing away from the door. The man wasted no time in pulling his head free, slamming the door, and ramming the bolt home.
Toli heard the man’s bare feet slapping the stone as he hurried away, and felt he had won his way. Yes, the guard was a coward and would do what he was told. Of that he was certain. But the high priest? He would not be so easily persuaded. The man was as oily as the sacred stone the priests so diligently anointed. He would have to be dealt with in a different way entirely: not with threats but with promises. And Toli knew what he would promise.