The evening sky was ablaze with the glittering light of a billion pinpoint flares of tiny stars, each one a jewel resplendent against the royal blue of the heavens.
It had been a long day, thought Jaspin. A long and glorious day. His coronation was everything he could have wished—a brilliant, dazzling display. A spectacle of pomp and power. And now he was king at last. He turned the thought over in his head endlessly as he sauntered along the balcony overlooking the magnificent gardens below the great hall. The night still breathed the warmth of the day and offered the heady perfume of a thousand garlands that festooned the hall and everywhere the eye chanced to stray.
King Jaspin sighed with deep contentment as he strolled, hands folded behind him, humming to himself. His guests, thousands in all, still feasted and danced in the great hall, or strolled, as he did, the balcony or the gardens below in the soft moonlight.
But Jaspin, wishing to be alone for a time, turned away from the high festivity and sought a more private place. He ascended a short flight of steps leading to a low barbican nestled in the wall and overlooking the balcony below. Here, in times of war, a soldier would stand guard, watching over the inner ward.
He had no sooner gained the top step of the platform than he heard a distinct hissing sound and a slight rustle upon the cool stone. Jaspin froze, afraid to move. The hair on the back of his neck pricked up. There, in the silver moonlight, a thick black snake drew its length along the gray stone balustrade. Jaspin could see clearly the sharp, angular head and the glimmering beads of its eyes watching him as it slithered closer.
Then, as Jaspin watched, the snake coiled itself into a heap and disappeared, becoming a thin wisp of writhing vapor. The vapor coalesced into an amorphous mass that hung just before Jaspin’s horrified face. Within the mist Jaspin made out the vague outline of a countenance he knew too well. In a moment there was no doubt.
“Nimrood!” cried Jaspin in a stricken whisper, not wishing to attract the attention of anyone who might happen by.
The face in the mist grew steadily more distinct, and the dread visage of the sorcerer glared out at Jaspin and snapped, “I have no time to exchange pleasantries with you.” The voice was thin and far away.
When did you ever? wondered Jaspin to himself.
“I only come to warn you that the prisoners have escaped.”
“What is that to me?”
“Do not make the mistake of toying with me, King Jackal!” Even in the form of a night mist, the wizard’s eyes flashed lightning. Jaspin could feel the necromancer’s awful power and stiffened in silence.
“That’s better. You and I are partners, my obtuse friend. Never forget that. After all, I share one-half of your throne. Half of all Mensandor is mine—or soon will be. When I take the trouble to warn you, you may be certain that it tokens your concern. Oh yes, it does indeed.”
“The prisoners, you were saying?” Jaspin tried to look appropriately concerned, which was difficult under the circumstances.
“Have you forgotten so soon? Or did you not even guess?” Nimrood’s quick eyes saw the answer to his question. “You fool, I credit you with more intelligence than you deserve. Did you not know that I had within my dungeon that rebel Theido and some of his friends: Queen Alinea and several others; your warder, for one, and a hermit, Durwin by name. Ronsard was to have been among them, although he was presumed drowned.”
Try as he might, Jaspin could not make any connection between these people and any possible threat they might hold for him, though the group certainly seemed most suspicious. He blinked blankly back into Nimrood’s questioning gaze. “I thought they were hiding at Dekra.”
“Bah! I don’t know why I bother with you! They have escaped and are returning here. Guess the rest—if you can. In the meantime, heed my warning to secure your crown. I will hasten to apprehend them. My spies are already abroad seeking their whereabouts. They will not remain free for long.”
“But . . . ,” Jaspin blurted. The vapor that had held the depraved wizard’s image was unraveling and seeping away into the night, vanishing on the breeze.
A cold shudder of fear rattled Jaspin’s frame. He turned and hurried away, casting a furtive glance over both shoulders as he ran, lest anyone witness what had just taken place.
“How stupid I have been!” Jaspin cursed himself as he hurried to his chambers. “I did not need that poisonous sorcerer—I could have managed on my own! Now he involves me in his schemes.”
So they are returning here, he thought. Theido and the queen, and maybe others as well. But who was this Durwin? Were there others he did not know about? Still, what difference did it make? How could they possibly hamper him now? The coronation was over; he was king. Very well, let them come. He would be ready for anything.
All these things Jaspin mulled in his head as he ran along. But arriving at his conclusion, he stopped and turned back to rejoin his own celebration. Secure in the knowledge that nothing could go wrong, he entered again the Great Hall of Askelon and was immediately swarmed by doters and well-wishers.
A steady breeze billowed the sails of Selric’s foremost ship, Windrunner. Quentin stood at the starboard rail and watched the moon slide slowly into the sea.
He breathed deeply the tang of the salt air and listened to the gentle churning of the water as it passed beneath the prow of the warship. Then he heard the murmur of voices coming closer and turned to see Theido and Ronsard with King Selric walking toward him across the deck. He turned back to watch the glistening spray of stars rise and fall with the gentle motion of the ship.
The men came to stand a little way off from where Quentin waited. He could hear them talking quite clearly, though they spoke low and confidentially. He did not much like the tone of their conversation.
Presently, he grew weary of listening. A melancholy mood stole over him, and he sighed and moved away.
“What is the matter, young sir?” a voice sought him from the shadow of the mast.
Quentin turned and peered into the shadow but could distinguish nothing. He moved into the darkness himself and found Kellaris sitting on a carefully coiled pile of rope with his back propped against a keg. “Oh, it’s you,” he said.
“I have been more heartily hailed in my day,” remarked King Selric’s most trusted knight.
“I am sorry,” muttered Quentin, but his apology lacked conviction.
“There is something ailing you; I can tell. Seasick?”
“I was listening to the others just now; I overheard them talking,” admitted Quentin.
“Nothing good comes from listening to another’s conversation uninvited.”
“I couldn’t help it. Anyway, what they said about the king—about Eskevar, I mean—” Quentin broke off. He could not find the words to express himself as he wished.
“They think our hope is in vain, that he may be already past help. Is that it?”
Quentin, sinking down to sit cross-legged on the deck, only nodded. He felt as if someone had taken a spoon and hollowed him out. He did not raise his head when he heard footsteps approaching softly across the deck.
“Is this parley for men only, or may a lady join?” It was Alinea. Kellaris jumped to his feet, and Quentin rose slowly to his.
“Please, sit—both of you. I will not stay if you are busy.”
“Not at all. Please join us, Your Majesty. I would welcome the counsel of a queen in the matter we have been discussing.”
“You are very kind. I will stop awhile, then. Now,” she said, settling herself beside Quentin, her slim arms drawing her knees to her breast, “what is it that requires my counsel?”
“Quentin here fears for his king. That the worst may have too soon befallen him.” Although the knight spoke gently, Quentin jerked his head up and shot a warning glance as if he had given away a deep secret or trespassed upon a sacred trust.
“That is something greatly to be feared. I fear it as well.”
Quentin raised his eyes from the darkness of the shadows to look upon the beautiful Alinea sitting so calmly beside him. Though she had echoed his concern, her voice lacked the resignation that he felt within himself.
“But it is midsummer already. Jaspin has been crowned king . . .” The words failed.
“And still we do not know where Eskevar may be. Is that it?” she asked.
Again Quentin only nodded.
“Take heart, dear friend. The tale is not all told. There is much that may yet be done. If only we could see a little ahead into tomorrow, as Durwin sometimes seems to, we might see a very different prospect from what we now contemplate. Though we cannot see what may be, we have hope. Hope has not abandoned us; nor should we abandon it.”
“My lady speaks well,” agreed Kellaris. “Those are words from a courageous heart.”
Quentin had to agree. Alinea showed remarkable courage, had shown it all along. Suddenly he was glad for the cover of night, for it hid the blush of shame that had risen to his cheeks.
He got slowly to his feet and said, “I thank you for your kind words, my lady.” That was all he could manage before he moved off again, walking slowly away across the deck.
“That boy carries the weight of the world on his young shoulders,” said Kellaris, watching Quentin’s form meld into the darkness.
“Yes, and he complains not for himself,” murmured Alinea. “There beats a noble heart, and proof against any evil.”
That night, as Quentin lay upon his mattress in his shared quarters, he offered up his second prayer.
“Most High God, let your servant see but a little ahead. Or, if not, give me the hope that drives out fear.” Then he drifted off to sleep.