So young, our furrier is, and so formal,” Queen Alinea said. Her voice, just as the poets intimated, was like laughing water, Quentin thought. “Rise, young furrier,” she commanded pleasantly. Quentin raised his head uncertainly, half afraid to cast his eyes upon his queen. But then he saw her and could look at nothing else.
Queen Alinea stood before a window. The afternoon winter sky formed a brilliant azure backdrop that highlighted the auburn beauty of her hair. Her comely form was wrapped in a simple hooded gown of deep turquoise that fell in gentle gathers to the floor. She wore a belt of braided gold and pearls that accented her slim waist, and round her graceful throat a necklace, delicate and dainty, of the same design. Her radiant hair was swept back, revealing a high and noble forehead adorned with a simple golden circlet. The red-brown tresses curled in dark cascades along her slender neck, framing a face at once so open and frank it disarmed the observer. Her eyes glimmered with a good humor that played at the corners of her lovely mouth, threatening always to dissolve her exquisite features into laughter.
All this Quentin took in as one bereft of his manners, gaping shamelessly, momentarily stricken speechless by this dazzling vision.
“Our young visitor seems to be enchanted by your beauty, Bria,” the queen remarked, and Quentin saw the girl whom he had met that morning sitting next to the queen with an embroidery in her lap. The queen had been instructing her in some finer technique of needlepoint. “Rise, I say,” the queen repeated, stepping down from the dais and coming close to Quentin, who jumped quickly to his feet and bowed as she approached.
“Have you brought something to show me, young sir,” the queen asked amiably, “or would you have me describe my fancies for you that I may be surprised by your master’s art?”
Quentin suddenly remembered with a start that he was not the furrier, or even the furrier’s apprentice; he didn’t even know the furrier’s name. His trembling hand sought the letter that Ronsard had traded his life to bring. The queen detected his tremulous hesitation and asked, “Is something wrong? Why do you tarry so?”
“Your Majesty . . . I am not the furrier’s assistant,” Quentin managed to stammer. And to her look of mild inquiry he added, “But I have brought you something more valuable than you know. It is . . .” He broke off, glancing at the queen’s companion. “I think you may wish to receive it alone.”
The queen smiled at this conspiracy but nevertheless nodded to Bria, who removed herself with a sharp, disapproving look to Quentin.
“Now then,” the queen replied, her hands clasped in front of her, “what is it that begs my private attention?”
“A letter, Your Majesty,” Quentin said and opened his cloak. He took the gold-handled dagger from his belt and sliced a thread that bound the patch concealing the letter to his jerkin.
“That dagger . . . let me see it,” the queen said with sudden interest.
She took it from Quentin’s hand and turned it over, examining the golden handle carefully. “I have seen this knife on occasion,” she declared at length. “I cannot say where.”
Quentin had finished freeing the parchment scrap from its pouch and produced it without hesitation, saying, “He who owns that knife sends this in his stead.” He watched as she took the knife and broke the seal of the letter. She unfolded the crackly parchment and read. Quentin, not knowing what the epistle contained, did not know what to expect. He watched her face for a clue to the letter’s contents, remembering that one man had prized its contents with his life.
To Quentin it seemed that the effect of the message upon its reader was absorbed only slowly, yet it must have been instantaneous. The queen’s face drained of color and she let fall the dagger, which clattered to the floor. Her eyes seemed to grow cold and filled with terror as she thrust the letter away from her. “My king,” she murmured.
Quentin stood, a granite statue, not daring to move lest he intrude in some way upon the queen’s distress. The beautiful monarch’s arms fell limp to her sides as if the strength had gone out of them. Her chin came to rest upon her bosom. Quentin quaked inside to see this gentle woman thrown so cruelly into such distraction. In that instant he vowed that whatever had caused his queen’s calamity, he, Quentin, would set it right. Or if it was too late for that, he would avenge her grief.
He stepped close to her, his own heart rending for her. Instinctively she reached out for his arm and clutched it. Her eyes were scanning the letter once again. She was silent for some moments. Quentin thought to run to the adjoining anteroom and summon aid, but he dared not leave her. So he stood, offering his arm, as at that moment he would have offered his life.
Presently she spoke again, though her voice was much changed from what Quentin had recognized only shortly before.
“Do you know what this letter contains?” she asked. Quentin said nothing. “Then tell me how you came by it, for I fear it is no jest. I know the signature too well. And the poniard upon the floor is proof enough besides.”
“I am Quentin, an acolyte in the High Temple of Ariel. Three days ago a wounded knight came to the temple, asking our help. He said his errand was most important to the realm—a message from the king. He did not fear death, only that it would come too soon and he would not be able to deliver his message to you. He wrote it then; you have it in your hand.”
“Ronsard—brave Ronsard—sent you in his place? A temple acolyte?” The queen looked upon Quentin with wonder that a boy would volunteer for such a mission.
Quentin, however, mistook the queen’s question. “He did not wish me to come, my lady. But there was none else . . .”
“And what of Ronsard?” The queen turned her head away as if to avoid the impact of the answer. “Dead?”
Quentin again remained silent, lacking the heart to tell her.
At this the queen drew herself up, her shoulders straightened, her head lifted. When she turned again to Quentin, she was remarkably composed, revealing her singular inner strength. “He trusted you, and in doing so placed the safety of the king and the future of the kingdom in your hands. I can do no less than trust you too.”
She moved to a large cushioned chair that had been drawn up near the window. The sky beyond, so recently clean and fair, now appeared cold and far away, dimmed, as if a veil had been drawn over it.
Alinea seated herself and motioned for Quentin to follow. When he had perched himself upon the window bench nearby, she said, “Quentin, this letter portends dire events for all who know its secret. Our kingdom is in peril. The king is a prisoner of Nimrood the Necromancer—held by the treachery of his own brother, Prince Jaspin, who would sit upon the throne. More than that the letter does not say, but the consequences can readily be guessed.
“I have been as one blind these years. While I watched abroad the foreign wars, the king’s power at home diminished in his absence, plundered by Jaspin and his hired thieves. I became aware too late—I myself am prisoner in my own castle. My only hope was that the king’s return would strike fear into their craven hearts, and once restored, the king would settle their accounts.
“That will not likely happen now. I fear our cause is lost before we have sounded the alarm.” The queen turned to gaze out of the window, but her eyes saw nothing of the scene before them.
Quentin, feeling at once great pity for the queen and even greater anger at Jaspin, spoke with quiet resolve. “Then we must save the king.” The queen turned her head and smiled sadly.
“A true man you are. Ronsard was right to trust you. But even if I raise a force, the king would forfeit his life. You see, Jaspin would know in an instant. His spies are everywhere; not a leaf drops in Pelgrin Forest that he does not know about.”
“I have friends,” Quentin offered. “It may be that a few can do what many cannot.” How few, Quentin had not stopped to consider— the only people he counted friends in all the world, besides Biorkis, were Theido and the hermit Durwin.
“You would go to save your king? You and your friends alone?” Queen Alinea seemed about to gainsay Quentin’s offer but then hesitated. She looked at Quentin shrewdly, her head held to one side as if appraising him for a suit of clothes. “It sounds like madness, but your words are wise beyond your knowing. Who are these friends of yours?”
At the question Quentin blanched, realizing that his list was a short one, and without a solitary knight’s name on it. But he answered with all the conviction he could muster.
“Only Durwin, the holy hermit of Pelgrin, and one called Theido.” He was embarrassed by his lack of fellowship, but a light came into the queen’s deep green eyes.
She exclaimed, “Lucky is the man who counts noble Theido his friend. Do you know where he can be found?”
The question posed a problem for Quentin. He did not know where Theido was; in fact, he scarcely knew anything beyond the fact that Theido had been captured by men early that very morning—a detail he’d forgotten until just that moment. He did not know how to answer, but as he opened his mouth to admit his ignorance, the queen continued. “It has been some time since anyone has seen Theido. He was one of the king’s best knights and a nobleman too. The death of his father occasioned his return from the wars. But on his homecoming he was falsely branded a traitor by Jaspin and his brigands, and his castle and lands were confiscated. He escaped their trap and has lived the life of an outlaw ever since.”
The queen stood and turned away from the window, gazing down upon Quentin with a sudden warmth. “He also would I trust with my life. I know not of this holy hermit Durwin, but if he is a friend of yours, and of Theido’s, he will not be less my friend.
“But why do you look so? Is something amiss?” the queen asked suddenly, noticing Quentin’s fallen countenance.
“My lady,” Quentin groaned, forcing the words out, “Theido was taken this morning by men who lay in ambush for him. I escaped to come here, but I do not know what has become of Theido, or where they might have taken him.”
The queen’s answer to this seemingly doom-filled pronouncement astonished Quentin and enormously cheered him. “That is a mystery easily solved,” she said, a tone of rancor coloring her reply. “For there is only one person who so oppresses the king’s innocent subjects in broad daylight—deeds for which even the most impudent rogues seek the cover of blackest night. Prince Jaspin has kidnapped our friend. There is no mistake there.” She thought for a moment. “Such arrogance would not shrink from bringing the prize within these very walls.”
The queen swiftly crossed the room and threw open the door to her chamber and called for the chamberlain, who appeared in a trice. They talked in whispers in the doorway across the room, and the chamberlain hurried off again.
“We will soon know the fate of friend Theido. I have sent Oswald to inquire discreetly of the dungeon keeper whether a new prisoner was remanded to his keeping this morning. We shall see if I guess aright.”
They waited for the chamberlain’s return. Quentin fidgeted with nervous frustration. He wanted to run to the dungeon, wherever it might have been, and look for himself, then and there to grant this friend liberty. The queen, for her part, bore the waiting with regal calm. Whatever emotions she felt were of a more determined kind, Quentin thought; they seemed to simmer beneath her placid exterior.
At last the chamberlain, Oswald, returned. He bowed low as he quickly approached the queen, saying, “An outlaw was imprisoned this morning, Your Majesty. The keeper knows nothing else, only that he was instructed by the knight in charge to allow no one to see him and that no record was to be made of the prisoner’s presence.”
“The knight’s identity was known to the dungeon keeper?”
“It was Sir Bran,” Oswald replied. The queen thanked her chamberlain and dismissed him. She turned once more to Quentin and said, “I think we have solved our riddle. But now another arises which will not be answered so easily: how are we to set the captive free?”