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Quentin stood at the high parapet overlooking the tranquil forest. His eyes scanned the gently lifting hills clothed in their greens of early summer, all softened in the golden afternoon light by the gathering mists of evening. At his hand upon the cool stone balustrade a thin parchment roll fluttered in the easy breeze. At his feet lay a leather case from which he had drawn the scroll to read only moments before. The case bore the royal insignia he knew so well: the terrible, twisting red dragon of the Dragon King.
The warmth of the late-afternoon sun splashed full on his face, and yet Quentin felt a chill creeping through him. He sighed a heavy sigh and hung his head, shaking it slowly from side to side. Hearing a rustle behind him and the brushing tread of a soft foot on the stone, he turned to see Toli gliding up.
The tall young man settled himself easily on the edge of the parapet and crossed his arms over his chest. He regarded Quentin with a quizzical brown eye and then looked out over the forest, cocking his head to one side. "Listen," he said, after a moment. "It is the sound of a world at peace."
Quentin listened and heard the faraway chirp of birds as they fluttered among the whirtle berries, the breeze nudging the leaves, voices murmuring in a courtyard somewhere below.
"They told me a rider from Askelon had arrived with a message for you. I thought to come and see if you needed anything."
Quentin looked at his friend and smiled. "You mean curiosity moved you from your beloved stables. Yes, a message from the king." He picked up the parchment and handed it to Toli, who began to read.
Presently Toli's head came up, and his eyes found Quentin's studying him. "This does not say what the trouble is."
"No, but it is not a request for a friendly visit. There is some need behind it, and some urgency. If it were but a small thing, Eskevar would have waited. We're due to travel back to Askelon soon anyway . . ."
"And this recommends we leave right away. Yes, I see. But there is something else?" Toli's sharp eyes appraised Quentin, who stiffened and turned from their piercing gaze.
"What makes you say that?"
Toli laughed softly. "Only that I know my Kenta very well. You would not look so if you did not have a suspicion of what lay behind this innocent summons."
"Innocent?" He fingered the leather case that he had stooped to retrieve. "Perhaps, but you are right, Toli; there is something else. I don't know--it just came over me as I was reading."
Toli watched Quentin closely and waited for him to continue.
"I'm afraid if we go to Askelon now, we will never come back to Dekra again."
"You saw this?"
Quentin only shook his head.
"Well, then it may not be. Your feelings may only be a warning of what may come if we do not go at once."
Quentin smiled again; this time a flicker of relief shone in his eyes. "Yes, perhaps you are right. As usual you have rescued me from myself."
"We can leave tonight. It will be good to sleep on the trail again. We have not done that in a long time, you and I."
"We shall, but not tonight. Have you forgotten that tonight we dine with Yeseph? If I am not mistaken, we have only enough time to prepare ourselves and go to his house. He will be waiting.
"We will leave at dawn instead," said Quentin.
"So be it," said Toli, inclining his head in a slight bow. "I will see to our preparations when we have supped with Yeseph and the elders."
Quentin nodded and took the rolled parchment that Toli offered him, then slid it back into its case as they turned and walked back into Quentin's rooms.
Quentin dressed quickly, donning a fresh mantle and tunic, and pulling on fine leather boots. He met Toli at the door, and the two set off for Yeseph's lodgings.
Yeseph lived in a quarter of the ruined city near the library. As they walked along together, Quentin looked upon the home he had come to love. His eyes, long ago accustomed to the tumbled structures that still met his gaze on every side, seemed not to notice the destruction, but instead saw it all the way it had been in the time of the mighty Ariga.
In his mind he saw stones lifted back into place one upon another; arches reconstructed with their colorful tiles, and beautifully carved doors thrown wide in welcome; courtyards once again abloom with flowering plants; streets echoing laughter and song. He saw it all as he imagined it had been. Quentin always experienced the same magical sensation when he moved about the city. In the ten years he had lived in Dekra, he never lost the rapture it held for him, or the feeling that he belonged there, that Dekra was his home as was none other he would ever find.
"It will be once more," said Toli as they moved along the quiet streets, over stones worn and smooth with time.
"What will be?" asked Quentin absently.
"This city. It will be again what it once was: the way you see it in your head."
"Do you think so?"
"I believe that it will. I want to believe it. Though it seems sometimes that the work goes so slowly. There is so much to be done. We could use more hands."
"But look how much has been accomplished since we came here. And every year our numbers grow. Whist Orren blesses our efforts with his own."
It was true. The work of restoring the ancient city and populating it with people who shared the dream of rebuilding it to its former glory, of studying the ways of the Ariga and their god--that was going on at a fine pace. Much had been done in ten years. The work of a lifetime, however, still remained. And that was what pricked Quentin's impatience.
They met Quentin's stooped old teacher where he stood waiting for them at the gate of his courtyard. His face beamed when he saw the two young men striding up. "Hello! Hello, my friends!" cried Yeseph, running out to meet them. "I have been waiting for you. You are the first to arrive. I was hoping that would be the case. I wanted to talk to you both."
He drew them into the shady courtyard and led them to stone benches under a spreading tree. The yard was spotless and furnished as nicely as any garden could be whose owner loved plants and flowering things.
"Sit down, please. Sit. Omani!" Yeseph clapped his hands when his guests had seated themselves beneath the tree. A slim young girl appeared with a tray of wooden goblets and a stone carafe. She floated forward with an easy grace and laid the tray at Yeseph's elbow where he sat. "You may pour, bright one," he said gently.
The girl poured and served the beverages around. She turned to leave, and Yeseph called after her. "See that the meal is prepared when the others arrive. It will not be long now, I think." She bowed and retreated into the house, smiling all the while.
The Curatak did not have servants. But often young girls or boys would attach themselves to the households of older Curatak leaders or craftsmen to serve and learn at their hand, until they decided what they wished to do with their lives. In that way those who needed the assistance of a servant did not lack, and young people found useful occupation until they could enter the adult world.
Yeseph watched the girl disappear into his darkened doorway a little wistfully. Quentin noticed his look and commented, "She's a very able helper, Yeseph. You are blessed."
"Yes, and I am sorry to lose her."
"Why would you lose her?"
"Why not? She is nearly eighteen. She wishes to be married soon. Next summer perhaps. She and Rulan, a former pupil of mine. He is a good man, very intelligent. It will be a good match. But I will lose a wonderful cook and companion. I feel she is my own daughter."
"Why don't you get married again?" asked Toli.
Yeseph suddenly looked flustered. "Who has been talking to you?"
"No one. I merely wondered."
"Well, it is true nonetheless. That is what I wanted to tell you. I am to be married. I am announcing the banns tonight."
"Congratulations!" shouted Quentin, jumping to his feet. He crossed the distance between himself and his former teacher in one bound and embraced him, kissing both cheeks.
"Who is the lucky bride?"
"It is Karyll, the cloth-maker."
"The widow of Lendoe, who was killed in action at the forge some time ago?"
"Yes, the same. A fine woman. She has been lonely for so long . . ."
Quentin laughed. "You need not explain to us; you have our permission already. I am sure you will both be very happy together."
"Yes, we shall. I am very happy now--sharing this news with my friends. You know I have come to regard you both as my own sons."
"And you have been a father to us more often than we can remember."
"I wanted you to be the first to know."
"Will we see the esteemed lady tonight? I would like to congratulate her as well."
"She will be here--if that is not her voice I hear even now."
The sound of light voices lifted in laughter came to the courtyard from the street beyond. Yeseph dashed to the gate once more and welcomed his bride and her two companions. Blushing and smiling, he led her toward Quentin and Toli, who stood grinning.
"My friends, this is my betrothed, Karyll."
The short, round-faced woman smiled warmly back at them. Her hair was bound demurely at her neck in an ornamented netting, and among the brown Quentin could see streaks of silver. She was dressed in a plain, white, loose-fitting gown with a bright blue shawl over her shoulders. She was a handsome woman.
As Yeseph drew her close to him with his arm, he gave his future wife a look of such endearment that Quentin felt a pang of longing for his own beloved.
"Hello, Karyll, and congratulations. Yeseph has been telling us that you two are to be married. I am very pleased."
"Thank you, Quentin. We are very happy." She turned and gazed into Yeseph's eyes and added, "Yeseph is full of your praises. It pleases me that he has chosen you to hear of our plans first."
"When will the wedding take place?" asked Toli.
"Yeseph and I thought that a midsummer wedding would be nice."
"Yes," agreed the groom. "There is nothing to prevent us from being married at once. We are both of age." He laughed, and Karyll laughed with him. But the laughter faded when neither Quentin nor Toli shared their mirth. Both had become strangely silent; the light of happiness was extinguished in their eyes.
"What is the matter? Does our plan not meet with your approval?"
"Yes, and more than you know. But I fear that we will not be among the happy wedding guests."
"Why not, may I ask?"
"We were going to tell you this evening. We have received a summons from the king, and we must leave for Askelon."
"Yes? But I thought you would stay until midsummer at least."
"No--at once. A rider came today. We must leave at once."
"Then we will wait until your return," offered Yeseph. Karyll nodded her agreement.
Quentin smiled sadly. "No, I could not ask that. I do not know when we may return. Please, do not wait on our account."
Toli attempted to set the mood in a lighter tone. "Kenta means that if he were in your place, Yeseph, he would not let so lovely a creature escape into the arms of another. You must marry as you have planned. We will return to greet the happy couple before they have been wed a fortnight."
Yeseph sought Quentin's eyes. He, as usual, could read more than his friend intended. "Is it trouble, then?"
"I fear that it is." Quentin sighed. "The message did not say it directly, and the courier did not say more. But he left immediately without awaiting an answer."
Yeseph regarded Quentin as he stood before him. From an awkward, impetuous youth had grown a square-shouldered, sensitive man--tall, lean in the way young men are, yet without the careless air they often have. Quentin had a regal bearing, and yet utterly lacked any self-consciousness of it, or the arrogance that often accompanied such a noble spirit.
A pang of longing ached in the old man's heart when he saw his young pupil and protégé wavering, as if on the brink of a great abyss. He wanted to reach out and pull him back, but he knew he could not. Quentin belonged to Dekra, yes, but he also belonged to Askelon, and neither loyalty could be denied.
"You must go, of course." Yeseph offered a strained smile. "When will you leave?"
"Tomorrow at dawn. I think it is best."
"Of course. Of course. Do not delay. Besides, the sooner you are off, the sooner you may return, and perhaps you will bring Bria with you this time."
At the mention of the name, Quentin started. He smiled warmly again. The cold shadow that had fallen upon the happy group moved away, and in the glimmering of a softly falling twilight, they began to talk excitedly once more of all they would do when next they met.
Despite their desire for an early start the next morning, Quentin and Toli were the last to leave Yeseph's house. There had been much singing and eating and talking. The elders had blessed the young men's journey, and all had listened to stories and songs of the lost Ariga, sung by one of the young Curatak musicians. Then all had made their good-byes, but none more ardently than Quentin.
"Look, Kenta," said Toli as they found their way along the dark and empty streets. The moon shone full upon the city, pouring out a liquid silver light upon all it touched.
Quentin followed Toli's gaze upward to the sky. "What do you see?"
"Oh, it is gone now. A star fell; that is all."
"Hmmm." Quentin retreated again into his reverie.
He listened to their footsteps echo along the streets and felt Dekra's quiet peacefulness enfold him. Then, unaccountably, he shivered, as if they had just walked through a hanging pool of cooler air. Toli noticed the quiver of Quentin's shoulders and looked at his friend.
"Did you feel it too?"
Quentin ignored the question, and they continued on a few more paces. "Do you think we will ever return to this place?" he asked finally.
"The night is not a time to dwell on such things."
The two walked silently back to the governor's palace and made their way to their rooms. "It will be good to see Askelon again," said Quentin as they parted. "And all our friends. Good night."
"Good night. I will wake you in the morning."
For a long time Quentin lay on his bed and did not close his eyes. He heard Toli quietly packing their things in the next room, and the Jher's soft footfall as he left to see to the horses before he, too, slept. At last he rolled over on his side and fell at once to sleep as the moon shone brightly through his balcony doors, peering in like a kindly face.