Despite the gnawing ache in his heart and his utter disinterest in official duties, Quentin still possessed the foresight to demand that the nobles attend him in his throne room, rather than in the council room where they were already assembled. In this they would be subtly reminded that he was still king; they would come to him and stand below him while he sat in his royal seat of authority. They would argue from an inferior position.
“So they have come,” remarked Quentin when Theido told him. “Yes, I will see them, but not yet. Let them wait first.”
“Sire, they have been waiting,” replied Theido.
“Let them wait a little longer!” he roared. Then he added in a softer tone, “You know why they have come, Theido?” Quentin studied the knight. “Yes, of course you know—but even you are afraid to say it outright. They have come for my crown. So be it!”
“Sire, you cannot be thinking of giving it to them!”
“I will give them nothing!” muttered Quentin darkly. “If they mean to have my crown, they will have to take it by force.”
That is more like the Quentin I know, thought Theido. “What is your pleasure, Sire?”
“My pleasure?” Quentin spat the words and glared dully at his friend, but then said, “I will attend them, but not in council. Bring them to the throne room instead. If they have backbone enough for this fight, then they will stand on their feet. I will not sit with them and have them denounce me to my face.”
Theido bowed, then left the king’s apartments thinking, It is good to see some fire in him once again. Perhaps he will not fare too badly after all.
When the nobles were ushered into the throne room some time later, they found the Dragon King waiting for them. And though he appeared gaunt, weary, and haggard, his face wore a violent scowl and there was anger in his eyes. He called them by name as they entered one by one. “Lord Kelkin . . . Lord Denellon . . . Lord Edfrith . . . ,” he intoned, pronouncing each name coolly. “Lord Lupollen, ah yes! . . . Lord Gorloic . . . Lord Ameronis, I might have guessed you were behind this.”
The lords glanced at one another uneasily. Surely their information regarding the king’s disposition could not be wrong. But the Dragon King’s demeanor shocked them and made them nervous. What was he up to? Did he really know why they had come?
The noblemen went on one knee before the king’s throne. Quentin allowed them to kneel, then said, “Oh, do not make a pretense of doing your king homage . . . Ah, but it is not the king you honor—it is his crown.” With that he lifted the crown from his head and held the thin gold circlet before him. “Who would be first to snatch it from me? Well? Who among you wants it the most, I wonder?”
Guiltily the assembled lords glanced at one another. Lord Ameronis found his voice first, rose, and said, “My lord, you apparently misapprehend the reason for our audience. We heard the news, and have come—”
“Have come to see for yourselves how best to bury your king, is that it?”
“No, my lord,” replied Ameronis smoothly. “We have come to lend whatever aid we may in your time of need.”
“Liar!” roared Quentin, gripping the armrests of his throne, ready to leap out upon them. “I know you for what you are! In Eskevar’s time you played your hand and failed. You think now to try with me.”
This outburst brought a murmur from the noblemen, who darted stricken looks toward their unacknowledged leader.
Ameronis, however, appeared unruffled. His voice took on the tone of a physician calmly reasoning with a reluctant patient. “You greatly misjudge our motives, my lord. We are concerned for your health.” He looked at his friends for support, and they nodded grimly. “We have heard rumors, Sire . . .”
“Rumors. There are always rumors.”
“The people say that you are ill, that you have fallen under a spell of magic. This concerns us, naturally.”
“Naturally,” replied Quentin sarcastically.
“We thought merely to ride to Askelon as soon as we could to discern the truth of these rumors for ourselves.”
“Stop it!” shouted Quentin, leaping from his throne and starting down the steps. He caught himself halfway down and halted, throwing an accusing finger in Ameronis’s face. “Stop it, I say. I know why you have come! Do you think your king blind and feebleminded? I know why you are here: to see a raving madman and to wrangle among yourselves for his crown!” He pointed his finger at each one in turn; the finger crooked and the hand balled into a fist that he shook defiantly in their faces. When he spoke again, his voice was a whisper. “You shall not wear this crown, my noble friends. Not one of you.” He turned his back and ascended once more to the throne.
The lords backed away a pace as if to withdraw—all but Ameronis, who was more ambitious and more determined than the rest. “Stay!” he said to the others. “We have not yet come to the heart of it.” To Quentin he said, “Word speeds throughout the land that you have lost your sword. I see that you do not wear it.”
“Yes,” spat the Dragon King bitterly. “Now we come to it.”
“Answer me. Where is it?”
“I owe you no answers, Lord Ameronis, and will give none.”
“Do you deny that it is missing?”
“I deny nothing.” The king leveled his piercing glance upon the ambitious nobleman.
“It is true then; you no longer possess the Shining One.” His words were an indictment. “Or prove me wrong and show us the sword.”
The Dragon King, lips drawn into a thin, hard line, said nothing.
“Very well,” said Ameronis to his friends, “you have all seen. He refuses to answer for the sword and will not show it. I say that the rumors are true, that he does not have it! I say that he who finds the sword and holds it is the rightful Dragon King of Mensandor!”
Without waiting for a reply, Ameronis dipped his head curtly and spun on his heel. The others, silent all this time, bowed. Lord Edfrith found his tongue and said, “By your leave, Sire.” The remaining lords started to life, made hasty leave, and marched out. The king was once more alone.
“Yes, leave me, you hounds! Go! Follow your chosen leader and find the sword if you can!” Quentin called after them. The huge door boomed shut behind them, and the sound filled the near-empty throne room like the crack of doom, or the axe falling upon the head of a deposed king.
A young Curatak girl cleared away the dishes from the women’s midday meal while Esme, Bria, and Alinea talked with Morwenna, Elder Jollen’s wife. Over their meal the conversation had touched upon the continuing work of the Curatak at Dekra, and the progress being made in restoring the ruined city once more to glory.
Esme said little, but found the talk fascinating. She listened intently and turned her eyes this way and that over the city from the balcony where they sat. Yes, she could almost imagine what it had been like, for out of the jumble of stones and pillars there rose wonderful buildings under the hands of skilled masons and carpenters who worked from ancient drawings in the great Ariga library.
“You must see the library,” Morwenna was saying. “I am certain you would find it interesting.”
“I would very much like to see it,” replied Esme at once. “All that I have seen of this magnificent city enthralls me.”
“If you would like to go there now, I would be most happy to show you.”
Before Bria could reply Esme said, “Oh, would you? I can think of nothing I would rather do!”
“Yes,” agreed Bria. “I think I would like to see it once again.” She made to rise, but Esme was already on her feet. “You and I must hurry, Morwenna,” laughed Bria, “or Esme will be the one to guide us!”
They started off together, walking along the wide, winding, cobbled streets of Dekra. Grass grew thick and green between the stones, and moss roses of pink and yellow poked up through chinks in the paving. Blue-feathered birds hopped along the tile rooftops or flitted from street to eaves as the ladies passed.
“Is the library as large as men say it is?” asked Esme. They had turned and passed beneath a standing arch that stood before a narrow courtyard. The courtyard was lined with doorways opening onto a common area dotted with neatly pruned trees and small stone benches.
“That you must decide for yourself,” replied Morwenna. “I do not know what men say of the Ariga library, but the Ariga were very fond of books and were great scholars.” She waved her hand to include the whole courtyard. “There are thousands of books here.”
Esme blinked and looked around. “Here? Where? I see no building capable of holding even a hundred books, let alone thousands.”
Morwenna smiled and Bria explained, “You are standing on the library, Esme. It is underground.”
“The entrance is there.” Morwenna pointed across the courtyard to a wide-arched doorway between two slim pillars standing guard before it. They crossed the commons and entered a great circular room of glistening white marble. On the walls were murals of imposing robed figures who watched the visitors with large, dark, serious eyes. “These we believe are some of the more renowned Ariga leaders, or perhaps the curators of the library.”
“Where is the entrance?”
“Beneath that arch,” said Morwenna. “Come.” She led them to where the marble steps descended into the underground chamber and pointed in the darkness. “There it is. Esme, would you like to lead the way?”
Esme peered doubtfully into the darkened stairwell but gamely placed her foot on the first step. Instantly the stairs were lit from either side. “Oh!” she cried in surprise.
“Mine was the same reaction when Quentin showed me,” laughed Bria. “It does seem most magical.”
“Indeed!” called Esme, already springing down the steps to the chamber beyond.
When the queen and Morwenna caught up with Esme, she was standing at the bottom of the stairs, gazing with open mouth at row upon row of towering shelves, each shelf bearing the weight of dozens of scrolls. Young men moved between the shelves with armloads of books, taking scrolls from among the shelves, or replacing them.
“These are our scholars,” explained Morwenna. “We are translating the books. All we have learned about the Most High we owe to our scholars. The teachings of the Ariga are contained in the books.”
“They are priests, then, your scholars?”
“Yes, but not the way you mean, Lady Esme. The Ariga believed, and so do we, that the God Most High dwelt among his people and permeated all of life with his presence. Therefore there was no need for a separate priesthood—each man could be his own priest.”
Esme cocked her head in an attitude of puzzlement. “That must be very confusing.”
“Not at all! Though I will admit that it does require men to take responsibility for learning the ways of the god and living before him accordingly. This is why we have elders, to help us and instruct us and lead our worship of the Most High, Whist Orren.”
The three began to walk along the rows of shelves in the immense underground chamber. Esme had expected a dark and musty dungeon-like place, and was surprised to discover how dry and pleasant the immense library was. As the other two talked, she wandered alone among the books, stopping now and then to finger an interesting scroll or to try to make out the words written on the hanging ribbon that identified each one. The words, though she could not read them, charmed and fascinated her, so gracefully were they written.
She came to a nook lined with more honeycombed shelves containing extremely large scrolls rolled in fine red leather. A low wooden bench sat within the nook; so Esme, feeling herself invited, stepped in and withdrew one of the bound scrolls and settled herself on the bench to unroll it.
She could still hear Bria and Morwenna talking in low tones nearby, so she thought she would take a quick look at the book for curiosity’s sake. It was bound with a leather thong, which she untied; then she carefully drew off the cover to reveal a fine white parchment, yellowed at the edges with age, but undamaged for its years. With trembling fingers, Esme took up the carven wooden knob at the end of the rod and began to unroll the scroll. She held her breath, for there before her eyes were the most beautiful drawings she had ever seen.
The drawings, she guessed, were illustrations taken from the accompanying text, for beneath each was a double column of the wonderful Ariga script. Each illustration had been rendered in delicate colored inks, the colors scarcely faded since the artist had dipped his brush to them long ago. There were exquisite renderings of tiny colored birds and forest creatures, depictions of everyday life in the Dekra streets, a long scene of a river alive with fish of many different kinds, and quaint little boats with fishermen in them, trying to catch the creatures with nets, and many other delightful images.
Esme gazed at the scroll in rapt wonder, feeling as if she were a child once again and had been given a rare and costly gift of a book from a far-off land. As a little girl growing up in her father’s house, she had had many picture books that she loved dearly and pestered her nurses to read to her constantly. At this moment she entered once again into that special time. Her surroundings faded from view, and she became once more the little girl transported to a distant time and place.