“Now then, my dear,” Lady Mara said without preamble as soon as his Grace left the drawing room that evening, “tell me.”
Daerus smiled faintly. “And what would you have me tell, Mama?”
“Teasing boy! Very well, then, tell me first of how you fared at the Emperor’s palace.”
He shrugged uncomfortably. He had anticipated the question but had not yet formulated an answer to it. “I did well enough, I suppose,” he muttered, the light dying in his eyes.
“Three years was surely long enough for you to have thoroughly charmed Kaerkas the Beast,” her Grace said, eyeing her son thoughtfully. “I can only suppose that, for reasons of your own, you do not wish to discuss it?”
In truth, Daerus would very much have liked to discuss it and, in particular, he would have liked to tell his mother of the woman who had won his heart there. Indeed, he had planned to tell Mama of Kera as soon as the opportunity presented itself but, again, he had envisioned doing so under very different circumstances. As matter were, he found it difficult to know either where to begin or even what he could say. “In truth, ma’am, it matters not how much I may have charmed Kaerkas of Ormaer,” he pointed out instead. “Since he is no longer emperor, his opinion of me is a matter of little moment.”
“A point,” she conceded. Faintly she frowned, beginning to look anxious again. “One hopes that his House will accept their removal from the throne in good part.”
“As their Emperor was hopelessly mad, and his heir dead, they certainly could not persuade the other Grand Dukes that he should have been left on the throne!” said Daerus, startled.
“No, of course not, dearest,” his mother agreed, “but there is Lord Thraeter. By law, he would have been the next in line for the throne. Do you not think he will protest the elevation of Aerandos in his stead?”
“I rather doubt it,” he replied, desirous as always of relieving her fears. “If he does object, let him take the matter up with the Gods who appointed Lord Saeros emperor. With the sanction of such as They, I do not think our new Emperor need worry too much about open rebellion.”
But even as he spoke, Daerus wondered about that. It was not that he doubted his opinion but he did think it a bit curious that the notion of open rebellion against the Imperial Throne should be such an unthinkable thing. He remembered Emperor Kaerkas’ reign, punctuated by the unpredictable brutalities for which his Imperial House had become famed, and he wondered why the people of Ormaeranda seemed perfectly content to simply bow to his oppressive decrees.
Kaerkas had not been a good ruler. His mismanagement of the Empire throughout the late Interval was testament to that. To be sure, he had spent at least some part of that time under the thumb of Lord Septha (Daerus somehow could not bring himself to use the epithets normally used to describe Septha, in spite of all that had happened). And even before the Interval, when his brutality had not yet been flavored with madness, the several Grand Dukes were able to shield their people from his whims for the most part.
Nor was Kaerkas the first or only bad ruler the Empire had ever known. What did the people do when there was a bad ruler in the palace, one who was cruel or even evil? What would such an emperor have to do in order to provoke the Grand Dukes of the Great Houses to conspire to remove him? It seemed such a shocking thing to even think about that Daerus suspected that it simply had never been contemplated.
And yet, why should it not be conceivable that the people should have some way to remove an emperor who could not do the job he had been bred to do? They were not vested with any extraordinary rights to their thrones; they ruled at the sufferance of the Great Houses. Yet, the Great Houses seemed very forbearing. He wondered why that should be.
“You have grown very thoughtful, my dear,” his mother’s voice brought him back to an awareness of his surroundings. “I hope I have not put an idea into your head that is more probable than you gave me to believe.”
“N-o,” Daerus replied slowly, still gathering his thoughts. “In fact, I was just wondering why no one ever seems to protest, no matter what the Emperor does. Does that not seem odd to you?”
He read concern in Lady Mara’s glance. “Oh, Daerus, no! Indeed, I would think it much odder if the throne changed hands every time an emperor ascended the throne who was not perhaps always wise or kind. Only think of all the upheavals that sort of thing would cause!”
Daerus, lost in the questions in his mind, did not notice that she seemed to be growing anxious again as she watched him. “Yes, but would not a bit of upheaval be better than enduring the evils of a cruel tyrant?” he asked, more of himself than of her.
“Daerus!” exclaimed his mother in such shocked accents that she finally reclaimed his attention. “Chaos is never better than the blessings of Order! Whatever can you be thinking?!”
Resisting the impulse to remind her that he had just told her what he had been thinking, he said, “Well, they are only thoughts, ma’am, and questions. You know that I have ever been inclined to be curious.”
“Yes, but I have never heard your curiosity lead you so close to blaspheming in my drawing room,” she said with as much severity as she could muster.
Am I then forbidden to think my own thoughts? he wondered in sudden irritation. Or is it merely that you would wish me not to say what I really think in your drawing room?
But he only bowed to her and said, “I beg your pardon, ma’am.” And he turned back to face the fireplace before he could see the sorrow that entered her eyes and seemed to make her wilt where she sat.
An uncomfortable silence ensued. Daerus was disgusted with himself, not only because he had distressed his parent but because he could not bring himself to be sorry for it. He had grown weary of the people who loved him but could not abide either his searing grief or his questing mind. No, he thought, let them learn to live with me as I am. I expect they will soon grow used to me.
Finally, Lady Mara asked rather timidly, “Will you tell me of the Gaerud?”
Without turning to face her, and unaware of the pain in his voice, he replied, “What did you wish to know? The Phoenix was restored and Septha was banished to the House of Chaos.”
Again, there was silence. Daerus stood before the fire and struggled to contain the memories aroused by his mother’s unremarkable question, while Lady Mara waited for him to say more. But he did not. He could not.
“Very well, then, Lord Daerus,” she said with formal dignity when he did not speak. “Perhaps Phoebus will be more forthcoming.”
Silently raging in his desire to lash out like the wounded animal he felt he was, Daerus finally turned to face her. He could not know what she saw in his face that caused her to gasp in shock. At that moment, he was beyond caring. “Very likely he will,” he said quietly. “If you will forgive me, ma’am, I believe I will retire.”
She nodded and he made good his escape, and hoped with all his heart that he would be spared any more such inquisitions about his sojourn at the Emperor’s palace.
Lady Mara had not moved since he had turned to face her. Still as a statue, she had kept her expression under rigid control as she had watched him. Now, left alone in the drawing room, she could not still the tears that finally spilled from her eyes and streamed silently down her cheeks as she wondered what in name of Chaos had happened to her son?
* * *
‘Come, Daerus,’ the voice of Caelon of Aerandos was saying in his mind, ‘join with me.’
Daerus, trapped inside the inner core of his being, felt himself responding instinctively to the warmth radiating from the presence of that mind touch. He was so cold. He had been cold for such a long time.
But then, suddenly, Kera was there. ‘No! No, my beloved, do not. It is a trick, they will destroy you.’
Daerus did not really believe that, of course. But no sooner had she spoken in his mind than his thoughts were flooded with a hundred memories of his Kera, as she was used to be, before Septha had put His hand on her soul. ‘Kera!’ he cried out desperately in his heart, pushing away the touch that he knew would free him.
‘Daerus, who do you think is the author of the predicament in which you find yourself?’ Caelon had asked him impatiently.
But the question was unjust. It was not Kera, but Septha, who had chained him with this foul mental blackness. ‘But I love her!’ he had replied, unable to explain more fully.
‘You would have me believe that you are willing to sacrifice the world for that?’
‘Yes! I love her! I cannot bear to leave her behind!’
‘Do you?’ Caelon had pressed. ‘Do you really love her?’
And then the fellow had let the axe fall. ‘How do you know?’
Daerus found that he had no answer for that question and Caelon, no doubt sensing his advantage, mercilessly continued his barrage. ‘You have never seen her, for you have spent this whole time with your mind obscured by this murky black slime. Before you declare yourself ready to throw the world away for her sake, you owe it to the rest of us to at least look upon her with an unobscured vision. If, when you have seen her as she really is, you find yourself still enamored of her, you will still have the option to choose allegiance with dread Septha.’
Daerus had been completely befuddled by those words and there was no argument he could offer to refute their reasonableness. He had loved her before he had been imprisoned by Septha. Was there any reason he should fear that he would no longer care for her, once he was free.
‘Daerus, no!’ Kera’s voice wailed in his mind. ‘Do not leave me!’
Again, he was tempted. Empowered by Septha, he had managed to achieve a mental rapport with Kera that had only made him fall further under her spell, as powerful, in its way, as his bond with his twin. He did not want to give that up. But perhaps, he told himself, once Septha was banished, they need not lose their mental bond. Clearly, Kera of Ormaer had some Talent and he had been fully trained by Phoebus. He would be able to regain their mental touch when this business was done.
So, his decision was already made when Caelon spoke that fateful command. ‘Come, Daerus, surrender to the light.’
Daerus reach out somewhat tentatively, unsure of himself now dealing with this man whom he had recently murdered. But Caelon knew no such hesitation. Suddenly, the heir to Aerandos was pouring the light he carried into Daerus in a mental joining that was almost orgasmic in its ecstatic renewal of his diminished will. Daerus felt himself growing stronger, growing warmer, enlarging with Caelon and of himself. And then, very suddenly, the light Caelon had carried roared forth, burning away the fog that had shrouded his sight and giving him back to himself.
As quickly as that, he was free. Across the throne room, his eyes met those of his liberator.
‘Very well, then,’ Caelon said to him silently. ‘Turn and look at her as she really is. Is this the face of your beloved?’
The Emperor was bellowing at him to make his choice, but Daerus ignored him to turn and face Kera. But it was not Kera who stood there. Instead, the woman standing beside him was a monster, a scaled and fanged beast who radiated a cold darkness that made his flesh creep. He could not have stayed his dismayed recoil from the creature his Kera had become, as he stared at her in revulsion.
‘Come, Daerus,’ the beast said to him with Kera’s voice, insistently and cajolingly, ‘the moment of choice has arrived.’
‘Yes, it would not do to keep Septha waiting,’ Caelon had agreed.
But there was one other thing Daerus had first to attend to, no matter now ill-mannered it might appear to the waiting Septha. For the first time since she had slain the Imperial Prince Maermat, Daerus sought the eyes of his twin. ‘Dia?’
He had been almost afraid to reach out and touch her mind, for she had every reason by then to have hated him. But she responded to his familiar touch with nothing he could discern other than a profound relief. ‘Daerus! Merciful Phoenix, you are free!’
‘Dia, I am so sorry …’ he faltered to a stop.
‘And why are you sorry, silly boy?’ she had chided him gently. ‘We are the instruments of Prophesy, you and I. I do not blame you for that. And I have been rewarded, in ways you could not imagine, I have no wish for more than that.’
‘Aye, I can see that Caelon, at least, has his uses,’ Daerus offered blandly, hiding his fierce longing for their old bantering exchanges.
And he had his reward, too. ‘Brat!’ she said without rancor, provoking a relieved smile from him.
“Choose!” raged the Emperor once more.
“Very well sire,” he had replied without hesitation, straightening his spine and stepping into his role as the heir to Shae. “I am sorry if you believe it to be disloyal or disrespectful, but I will stand with my sister and Shae will stand with the Phoenix.”
For a few moments, no one moved or spoke. Then, the image of Septha that had stood immobile behind the throne throughout the scene just played out in the throne room, began to wail in mindless fury.
Of course, Septha had not been willing to accept his Choice. Daerus rather wondered why anyone had imagined He would. Instead, Septha had visited his wrath upon the new risen Phoenix, just arrived through a Time Window, and Daerus was certain he would have fallen instantly had not his sister and her mate unhesitatingly lent Him their aid. Both Phoebus and Phoeday had joined in that silent struggle, as had Giseth, High Priestess of Istha, and the Lady Tamia of Aerandos. And even Daerus had joined his will with all theirs, although he among them seemed least hopeful of victory.
In the end, the new Phoenix had been restored when Dia had understood that her son’s only hope was to die by her mental hand. Daerus felt her make that decision, felt the pain it cost her, and only then did he lend her his unstinting aid. When the new Phoenix was reborn from the ashes of this death, His full power restored, He had been able to easily banish His adversary. That was when Daerus would finally learn what his Choice had cost him.
“I will be avenged, petty godling. I will punish you and your chosen for my downfall this day,” Septha had promised, vengefully furious.
“Yes, that is what you always say. Perhaps, during some Age or another, you will be able to carry out those threats. At least, it will give you something to consider during this Time,” the Phoenix had replied, unconcerned. “And now, begone. Return to your throne in the House of Chaos and take with you the ones who served you here.”
For a few moments after that command had been spoken, Daerus had felt certain that he, too, would be banished to the House of Chaos. He even felt again that terrible swirling darkness closing on him, and he tensed himself in preparation. But then, suddenly, that feeling left him, passed like the rush of air that follows in the wake of a swinging sword. He had been spared.
But at the same time, he knew that Kera had not. Even as the monster Septha had turned her into was wailing “NOOOOOOO!” into the stunned silence of the Imperial throne room, he heard the Kera he remembered, screaming in terror in his mind, “Daeruuuuussssssss!”
Abruptly, Daerus sat up and glared wildly around his darkened bedchamber, panting and drenched with sweat as he always was in the wake of that nightmare. Shuddering, he stumbled from his bed and made his unsteady way to the wash stand. The water in the pitcher was cold but that suited him perfectly. He splashed some of it into the basin and rinsed the sweat from his face.
It had been some time since he had dreamed that nightmare. Indeed, he had thought the bad dreams were behind him, one reason he had felt certain he could leave the palace and return to his home to complete the process of healing. Had he been wrong?
Still disoriented, Daerus wandered to the window and opened one of the leaves. It was still night, although the moon had not set and it washed the fields beyond the Manor House with a chaste silver radiance. It was a beautiful scene and it soothed him to look out upon it, soothed him with the sense that he really was at home and away from the palace with all its dreadful memories.
Then he smiled ruefully. Not all the memories are dreadful, he told himself. Just the ones I remember the best.
As he watched out the window, Daerus consciously stilled himself, sinking into that silent, peaceful inner core that he had come to know so well during his sojourn in Ormaerand. His heartbeat finally slowed to a normal pace and his breathing evened, as he threw off the last remnants of the dream. Calmed, his mind blank, he simply stood there with his unseeing eyes fixed on the moon-drenched landscape.
Unbidden, a different memory swam into his mind. ‘Twas in the waning days of the Last Age, although Lord Daerus had not known that then. He had been at court for only a few months when he had found himself smitten with the Imperial Princess Kera and, after spending some days emboldening himself with a recitation of all the honors of Shae, he had made so bold as to invite her to stroll about the palace gardens after midmeal. He had been immensely gratified when she accepted his invitation without hesitation.
That, of course, had been followed by an instant of abject terror.
But her Highness did not seem to notice — or perhaps she did, and that might explain the impish grin in her velvety brown eyes. Wordlessly, he had offered her his arm and, when she took it, led her out of doors.
He had felt ridiculously shy of her, as awkward as a schoolboy, and could not think of a single thing to say in the way of introducing polite but entertaining conversation. Briefly, he thought of his sister and wished she were closer at hand. He felt certain that she would have helpfully offered any number of absurd comments through their mind link that would have made him want to laugh and set him at ease. There were few indeed who realized how uncomfortable Lord Daerus frequently was in company. The constant contact with his sister often allowed him to appear much easier than in truth he was. Here at court, he was on his own.
But he need not have worried. “You are very quiet, Lord Daerus,” his companion said demurely after walking with him for a few moments along the path.
“I am trying to hit upon an unexceptional topic of conversation, your Highness,” he said, trying manfully to hide his nervousness with boldness.
“And why should you imagine that to be so very difficult that it has struck you dumb?” she demanded.
“To own the truth, I am at quite a disadvantage, ma’am,” he said meekly. “I am in such shock at the notion that I am strolling about the shrubbery with the Imperial Princess that every other though has flown right out of my head.” When she smiled at that, he decided, a little recklessly, to continue. “I suppose I could ape the ways of the courtiers and whisper an ode to your left eyebrow, but you seem to me to be much too sensible a maid to appreciate that sort of thing. And I am not much for gossip, even if I had learnt all the names of your guests off by heart, which I fear I have not.”
“Gossip and gallantry … can it be that you imagine that is all that interests me?” her question challenged him.
She sounded so belligerent that he stopped and turned to face her in some surprise. “You will forgive me, your Highness, but you are sounding remarkably like a young lady who is spoiling for a fight.”
“Did I ever mention that I have a sister, ma’am?” he asked her, feigning innocence.
Amusement and suspicion warred for possession of her lovely features for a few moments. “I do not believe you ever did, sir,” she replied with a smile twitching her lips.
“In self-defense, I have had to learn the signs, your Highness.” And he bowed to her.
A throaty alto chuckle escaped her. That was one of the many things about her that he admired. Princess Kera did not giggle and, instead of the shrill squawk favored by many of the ladies at court, her voice was rich and quiet and thrilling. “I beg your pardon, my Lord,” she said in some amusement. “I did not mean to frighten you.”
“Indeed, there is no need to trouble yourself about it further, your Highness.”
“So you say, but this brings us back to the start of the conversation, does it not? Were I my brother, I doubt you would have so much trouble lighting on a topic of conversation that you felt would interest him,” she said somewhat accusingly.
“Do you really think so?” he asked, again feigning innocence before assuming a considering look. “Indeed, I have not found it needful to think of anything to say to Prince Maermat. He seems inclined to question me quite closely on my neighbors to the east whenever the opportunity presents itself … “
“Well, of course, he would be interested to know how Ormaer fares!” she interjected in needless defense of her absent sibling.
“… and when he is not doing that, he questions me equally closely about my sister. It seems that her fame has preceded her,” and he had paused to consider, his thoughts warming his eyes with merriment. “I wonder what she will have to say about that?”
“Lord Daerus!” said her Highness, trying to regain control of the conversation.
“Do not try to change the subject!”
Growing every moment more easy, he lifted a brow at that admonition. “I hesitate to contradict you, Princess, but I do not see that I did any such thing. And in any event, even if what you said were true, you surely cannot expect me to converse with you as I would with your brother.”
“And why not, sir?”
“Well, what a clod you would think me!” he replied instantly. “Really, your Highness, you should perhaps spend more time in your brother’s company so that you may better understand how young men talk to each other. I have not the least doubt you would have me clapped in irons, were I to address you so!”
To his surprise, she blushed a fiery bright red. “You know very well I did not mean … I did not say that I would wish you to … that is … “
“Ah, I see that you have realized the advantages of having a brother, ma’am,” he interrupted her smoothly, still teasing.
“Oh! You’re impossible!” she said, suddenly dissolving into laughter.
“I know,” he agreed with some sympathy. “Here you were preparing to give me a very severe scold, and I could think of nothing more to do than talk nonsense!”
“It is very clear to me that you have certainly realized the advantages of having a sister, my Lord,” she said feelingly. “You leave me with nothing to say.”
“Well, that is a relief,” he said, forgetting himself for a moment. When he had caught her astonished and slightly affronted gaze, he had hurriedly added, “Not that I mean to say … that is …”
“Oh, you are impossible!” she said with another chuckle. “Wretch!” Then she had composed herself. “Indeed, sir, I am sorry if it seemed that I was being deliberately quarrelsome. Sometimes … .” And she frowned down at her shoes as her voice trailed off into silence.
“Sometimes … ?” he asked, gently.
“Sometimes, I wish that Father were not the Emperor,” she said in a rush after a few more moments. “I wish that I were not an Imperial Princess!”
That did surprise him. “Why?”
“Because the ladies make up to me so that I can recommend them to the future Emperor. I do not for an instant believe that they flatter me so ardently because they are enamored of me, even if they do seek the favor of the Imperial family! And then there are all the silly young men who offer to walk in the gardens with me and then become tongue-tied because they cannot think what to say to an Imperial Princess!” Her fingers fluttered on his arm.
And, without even resorting to his Talents, he understood her dilemma. This beautiful specimen of royalty, with whom he had thought himself enamored and was fully prepared to worship from afar, was lonely. Did I think myself in love? he wondered as he glanced over at her profile. I do not even know her. “May I offer you a bargain, your Highness?” he asked briskly, sensing that voicing his sympathy would get his ears boxed.
“Yes, and what might that be?” she asked in her turn. Her voice was a bit muffled and she kept her eyes averted.
“I shall faithfully promise, on my oath as the heir to Shae, that I will wholly forget that you are an Imperial Princess whenever we are together as we are now,” he began.
Her eyes flew to his, hopeful and wary. “And what would you want of me in return?”
“You shall faithfully promise, on your oath as a daughter of Ormaer, that you will not try to pick any more fights with me.” And he stopped and turned to face her, offering to shake hands to seal the bargain.
Again, she hesitated for a moment, studying his face. He could not know what she had seen there but, whatever it was seemed to satisfy her. Solemnly, they shook hands and closed their agreement.
“Now then, my Lady,” Daerus had said, pleased, “would you care to sit?” and he indicated a stone bench attractively situated among the blossoms.
They had talked for hours that first afternoon. She had asked him about Shae and about his twin sister. He had listened to her tales of her father’s court, surprised at her uncanny ability to see past the facade of so many of the people who constantly surrounded her. She was as young as he, to be sure, but she had a keen ear, a perceptive eye and more than a little wisdom. She had even asked him about the Phoenix and the TimeKeepers, and had noticed when he had answered her with some restraint.
By the time they had separated to prepare for endmeal, they were firm friends. And Daerus had felt that perhaps an Imperial Princess may not be so far above his touch after all.
* * *
Daerus found himself smiling faintly as the memory faded. He closed his window and returned to his bed.