When Quentin returned to his apartments, he found Oswald the Younger waiting for him in the antechamber. One glance at his servant’s deathly pallor told him that some dire event had overtaken them which he now must hear.
“Well, what is it?” the king demanded. Theido entered behind him at that moment, and Oswald, relieved not to have to deal with this foul-humored monarch alone, breathed more easily. He shot a worried glance at the gaunt knight, who returned it with a nod as if to say, Proceed.
“I am waiting,” said Quentin. “Out with it!” He then saw the flat, folded packet the chamberlain carried and snatched it out of his hand.
“It came only a moment ago,” said Oswald, fear making his voice hollow. “A messenger, Sire.”
“Whose messenger?” Quentin raised the packet and studied the seal. “The high priest?”
“He did not say, Sire. I thought it from one of the noblemen, but . . . he was already gone when I saw the seal.”
Embossed in green wax at the fold of the message was the cipher Quentin knew well: the bowl with tongues of fire above, the symbol of the High Temple employed by the high priest.
The king broke the seal and tore into the packet, unwrapping it to find a lock of hair, a bit of blue cloth, and a note. Theido stepped close, and Quentin, staring at the objects he held in his hand, thrust the note at him. “Here, read it!”
Theido took the note and opened it. With an effort he held his voice steady as he began to read:
Your son is well for the present. What happens to him now remains for you to decide.
We are holding him captive within the High Temple, and are prepared to release both the prince and the Lord High Minister Toli upon receiving your sword, Zhaligkeer, called the Shining One. You are required to surrender the sword in person to the High Temple at midday on the last day of this month, or the prince and the high minister will be killed in that same hour.
“Is that all?” asked Quentin, his tone hard and flat.
“There is no signature,” replied Theido.
“The messenger is gone, you say?”
“Yes, Sire, gone before I could stop him.” Oswald looked helplessly at Theido, who watched the king closely, fearing what he might do. “I sent one of the gatemen after him, I . . .”
“He must be found—put more men on his trail.” Quentin turned, and his eyes held a distant look. “Leave me now. Both of you.”
“I would stay, Sire,” replied Theido. “Allow me to help—”
“No! Go and find that snake of a messenger if you would help. Leave me!”
Without another word Theido and Oswald left the antechamber, shutting the door quietly behind them. “What are we going to do?” whispered Oswald fearfully.
“Do as he says,” replied Theido absently. He was already deep in thought at the unexpected appearance of the ransom note. “Find the messenger. He cannot have gone far. I will send some men to you at once.”
“What are you going to do, my lord?”
Theido glanced up quickly. “Do not worry after me! Get moving! Hurry!”
Oswald opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and closed his mouth again with a snap. Theido called after him as he dashed away, “Oswald! Tell no one what was in the note. Do you hear? Repeat to no one what you heard in the king’s presence.” Oswald nodded and scurried away as fast as his feet would take him.
“Now, to work,” said Theido to himself, taking the folded message once more from his hand where he had hidden it. “Ronsard must see this.”
“The viper’s brood!” exclaimed Ronsard as he quickly scanned the ransom letter once again. “The cold-blooded arrogance! We should pull down that serpent’s nest upon their wicked heads!”
“And upon the heads of Toli and the prince as well?” replied Theido. “No, they have doubtless considered that in their plan, my friend. They know that as long as the king’s own son is tucked out of sight within their walls, the king can do nothing against them.”
“Then what can be done?” asked Ronsard, raising hopeless eyes from the crumpled message in his fist.
“Find the sword,” said Theido.
“Aye, find the sword. The whole kingdom will soon be searching for the Shining One—if not already!”
“We must pray, brave sir, that we are the first to find it—and soon. You saw the date? Only five days from now.”
“Little enough time to scour the whole kingdom—we’d have a better chance of finding a pearl in a pigsty!”
“Then we waste time talking. Assemble the men at once—every household in Askelon, and the villages beyond, must be searched.”
“If we do that, the whole world will know the king has lost his sword.”
“He will lose his son and servant if we do not. The world will know soon enough anyway, my friend. Lord Ameronis will see to that!”
Ronsard nodded sadly. “We must pray that there are still those loyal to the Dragon King. We can count on the common folk to help, I think.”
Theido turned to leave and replied, “The common folk destroyed the King’s Temple not two nights ago, remember. We may have a difficult time convincing them to help him now. But we will do what we can.”
Esme still sat with the scroll in her lap, her eyes drinking in the marvel of the colored drawings of the Ariga book. As she studied the tiny intricacies of each picture, she began to grow sleepy. Though Bria and Morwenna still talked somewhere nearby, from her nook Esme could not see them, and their voices began to drone like the buzzing of pollen-laden bees on a lazy summer day.
She yawned, suddenly overcome by the need to sleep, as if a thick, woolen blanket had been drawn over her. She yawned again, laid the scroll on the floor at her feet, and then stretched herself on the bench, her cheek resting on her arm. Her eyes closed, and she was instantly asleep.
To Esme it seemed as if she had entered another world as soon as her eyes closed upon this one, for she found herself standing atop a high plateau in a dark and featureless land. She turned and saw men laboring nearby, bearing heavy burdens on their backs, passing by her to the very edge of the plateau. She followed at a distance and soon came to a great pyre; the men carried bundles of firewood that they dumped onto the mound and then took their places in a ring around it.
Next to the pyre stood a man with a torch in his hand. When all had thrown their wood upon the stack, the torchman thrust his torch into the tinder; but though the flames from the torch licked out and leaped among the ricks, the fuel did not ignite. The torchman withdrew his flame in frustration and called out, “More wood!” The laborers disappeared in search of more firewood, leaving Esme alone with the torchman.
“What are you doing, sir?” Esme asked.
“I am building a beacon fire,” answered the torchman, “that the people of the valley may see it, for they travel in darkness with no signal to guide them.”
“Why did you not light the signal, then?”
“I have tried, but the fuel is old and damp, and will not catch,” the torchman told her sadly. “I have called for more wood, but it is sure to be too wet as well.”
Esme was overcome with the utter futility of the enterprise and turned away. At once the landscape shifted. The dark land faded, and she found herself on a cliff near the sea where the waves rolled endlessly, tearing themselves against the rocks and washing onto the shore with a sigh. She looked and saw a tower rising up and workmen on scaffolds laying stone, building the tower higher.
She moved closer and watched as the masons raised row upon row of stonework while the quarrymen piled fresh materials beneath them on the ground. Then, without warning, a portion of the wall leaned out precariously and split away from the tower wall. The men on the scaffolding screamed in terror as the stone rained down.
The whole tower quivered, and portions began crumbling away; the workmen leaped from the scaffold and ran to get clear of the falling rock as the walls collapsed with a thunderous crash and stone plunged into the sea.
When the catastrophe was over, Esme approached the ruin and spoke to one of the workmen. “Why did the tower fall?” she asked.
He shook his head and pointed with his finger. “See, the foundation is old and soft; it crumbles away when we build on it.”
“If the old foundation will not hold, why do you not build a new foundation?” It seemed obvious to Esme, though she knew little about such matters.
But the workman threw up his hands and wailed, “We have no master to show us how to lay a new foundation!”
“Where is your master mason?” Esme glanced around and saw no one who seemed prepared to assume leadership of the workmen. The man did not answer, only shrugged and shook his head. So Esme told him, “I will find a master mason who will show you how to build aright, and I will bring him to you—” Esme stopped speaking, for the workman and the tower had vanished like smoke on the wind, and she stood now not on a cliff by the sea, but in a busy marketplace where farmers sold their produce and merchants their wares.
The market bustled with buyers and sellers, and she heard around her the babble of voices haggling over prices and the quality of goods bought and sold. She passed by the butcher’s stall and saw him cutting up a carcass, slicing meat from a large bone. With a wink to her, the butcher, dressed in a long dark robe, took the bone and tossed it out of the stall, where instantly it was pounced upon by hungry dogs who came running from every corner of the marketplace.
The dogs fell upon the bone and began fighting over it, first one dog snapping at it, then another. One dog would succeed in snatching it up in his jaws, only to have it taken away by another, larger dog.
A crowd gathered to watch the fight as savage snarls and growls filled the air. “Stop it!” shouted Esme. “Please, somebody stop it!”
But the onlookers did not heed her, and the dogs fought ever more fiercely. She buried her face in her hands and turned away, but the terrible sounds grew louder and when she looked again, she saw not a long, clean length of bone on the ground, but a square of cloth in the jaws of the dogs. Each had a corner of the cloth and was pulling on it, worrying it in his teeth in a furious effort to free the cloth from the other dogs. And on the cloth Esme saw a device: a red writhing dragon.
“Stop it!” she cried. “Stop!”