Daerus eyed the three miscreants before him with a sardonic gaze. Privately, he thought that Sheloch and Sholeck were a very clever set of rascals but he would never have told them so. As far as he was concerned, they needed no encouragement.
When first they had arrived, he had been fascinated by their gifts. He had watched, unnoticed, when one of them had stared very hard at the coals in one of the braziers in the stables until it abruptly became a conflagration that threatened to burn the building to the ground. Then the other — and he was still having trouble telling them apart — had made a curious gesture, bringing his rounded hands together to confine an imaginary space and, suddenly, the raging fire became nothing more than a glowing source of warmth. Daerus had spent the rest of the day pondering the significance of what he had seen and wishing to see this curious gift displayed under other circumstances. He was to have his wish.
It was as well that the one of them seemed to be able to contain the works of the other, no matter how wildly out of control that first step in their conjuring seemed to be. The two were continually experimenting. Daerus had thought at first that they were simply testing the limits of their talent now that they had found a place where they could do so without having to worry about getting hanged for it. He had been perfectly appalled when Brandis and Brasdin, the twin Brethren, had explained to him the circumstances under which they had found Sheloch and Sholeck. Now that he had played host to the boys for a few weeks, he was beginning to understand the impulse to throttle the pair.
Much to his surprise, they had adopted Zhedthik almost as soon as he had arrived. Daerus had expected the boys to be afraid of the towering Throk as many others around the estate seemed to be. On the contrary, evidently, he had seemed to them to be the perfect playmate. Thus it came about that every moment that he was not in the company of the Lady Risha he could be found somewhere about the estate with the twins. Idly, Daerus wondered how they managed to communicate with each other when none of them spoke the same language.
“Well?“ he asked, fighting the urge to laugh. The three stood before him with a collective hang-dog air. “I beg you will not keep me in suspense. What have you done?“
As one, the boys immediately looked up at Zhedthik, silently indicating the culprit. Daerus grinned. Yes?
I suppose I will have to begin at the beginning, Zhedthik replied thoughtfully.
Daerus nodded. As you will, he said politely.
When I first arrived here, Risha told me that I should ready myself to take my rightful place among my people as the High Priest of Chaos, Zhedthik began. If he noticed his host‘s astonished gasp, he said nothing about it as he continued. I was disturbed by her words for I know nothing of priests or chaos or the god Septha. I thought, too, that I am unworthy of such an honor as one who is outcast from my clan and from the Throk but Risha gives me no chance to refuse. If I am to accept this role then, as she has said, I must make myself ready. She has given me some instruction but there is much that I need to learn.
Daerus‘ mind was racing. High Priest of Septha. The prophecy that Lady Risha had shared with him, he recalled, had mentioned a Priest as one of his companions. Daerus had decided that Zhedthik must be the Companion, simply because he could not see any other role for him among the Chosen Ones named as participants in that first Event. If you are the Priest, he wondered, who, then, is the Companion?
I do not know, Daerus, Zhedthik replied. Zhedthik never used titles when he spoke to or of anyone and no one seemed inclined to protest his lack of formality. It may be that you will need to seek instruction of Risha as well. He paused and then continued. I do not know if you have ever noticed the things those cubs do. I have watched them and have been able to sense some of their actions through my own body. I have even found some evidence that I, too, share this type of power, although I think I need more skill to master it.
And so you have been experimenting with it? Daerus asked, remembering his and his sister‘s reactions to the discovery of their Talents.
My experiments have been very limited, Zhedthik confessed, because I do not have a companion to control the Chaos I unleash as those boys do. But I have been asking them to do things so that I may watch and learn. I think they are learning from these trials as well, he added thoughtfully.
Daerus, still remembering, smiled and said, And now you will tell me that one of your experiments has gone dreadfully amiss, will you not?
I think so, Zhedthik admitted. I have never seen or felt anything like it but I do not think it is a normal thing.
It is a cold place of large blackness that dances where it stands. It has power. I do not know what to make of it.
Daerus‘ eyes had widened during this description. A Chaotic Maelstrom! he said in astonished dismay.
It is … er … a storm of chaos, Daerus groped for an explanation. He paused, thinking quickly. And you mean to say that yon twins have opened one of them? Where is it?
Zhedthik tilted his head and looked at Daerus with curiosity in his eyes. It stands in front of your hut, in the space before the stone steps. Will you teach me what you know of such things?
I will try, he promised before saying aloud to the twins. “Come with me.“ And with that, he led the small party out of the drawing room and through the Great Hall to the door yard. The sight that greeted him when he opened the door was familiar, although Daerus saw at once that this Maelstrom was smaller than that which had once depopulated his father‘s stables. He stared at it for a moment before addressing himself to the twins without taking his eyes from the swirling darkness before him.
“What were you trying to do? And please,“ he added impatiently, “do not try to convince me that you do not speak my tongue! Let us have done with this subterfuge for once.“
The pair remained silent for such a long moment that he dragged his eyes from the Chaos to glance at them. They were staring at him with a look that was at once wary and speculative.
That made him grin. “If you like, I will promise you that none shall ever hear from me that you speak at all. But do answer the question, if you please.“
He was rewarded with a pair of return grins. One of them — some day, he would really have to think of some way to tell them apart — said, “He want … make lightning … us,“ indicating Zhedthik with a gesture.
Daerus raised an eyebrow. “It is not sporting of you to blame another fellow, you know,“ he chided the boy.
His brother was shaking his head in disagreement. “Us no play rain make. He want … .“ Again, there was that gesture indicating Zhedthik.
“He has a name, you know,“ Daerus replied, still chiding.
Neither of them spoke but they both tilted their heads to one side in silent query.
“Zhedthik, my lads,“ he went on, trying not to laugh. “His name is Zhedthik.“
You have made them a gift of my name? Zhedthik asked silently in response to hearing it on Daerus‘ lips.
Indeed, Daerus replied in kind. I have no notion how you three have been managing to make yourselves understood among each other but the very least they can do is learn how you are called. They say this accident, and he jerked his head toward the Chaotic Maelstrom that was almost upon his doorstep, came about because you insisted on making them play with lightning. Is that so?
May I know why? Daerus asked gently.
When I am with the cubs, Zhedthik replied with a calm deliberation that seemed habitual to him, I can feel what they do. That is how I come to understand it.
You feel what they do? Daerus repeated, curious. With your mind, as you feel my words now?
A little but also I feel it with my body. Maybe with my whole being. It is difficult to explain. After a beat, he continued, I have asked them to do many things as they come to me or as I have seen them perform such feats.
And have you seen them produce lightning before?
Many times, Zhedthik said easily. It seems to be one of their favorite games. They have done it so many times that I would not have thought it would cause any problem now.
As I thought, Daerus said in considerable amusement. They would have it that this experiment gone awry was entirely your fault, no doubt operating under the assumption that I would not thrash you as I might do to them. I did tell them that it was not sporting to place all the blame elsewhere but I fear they are incorrigible. As for this Maelstrom, and here Daerus paused and took a deep breath, let us see what we can do.
This time, Daerus determined that he would attend more closely to how he managed to vanquish the thing beginning with the tingling in his forehead that had faintly made itself felt as soon as he had opened the door and seen it. Slowly, he walked down the shallow steps and confronted it, feeling the tingling intensify as he did so. He stood before it, considering what to do next and trying to recall what Phoebus had said. Impose order upon it? He wondered if that were truly so. When he summoned his Talent, as he had been taught by Phoebus, the tingling in his forehead lessened and he became aware of an obscure sort of pain. From what Phoebus had said, Daerus had thought that imposing Order on this maelstrom must in some fashion be accomplished in the ways of the Phoenix but he saw now that assumption was incorrect.
Very well, he thought and pushed the thought of the Talents of the Timekeepers away from him. Instead, he focused again on the Chaos before him and noticed that the tingling sensation in his forehead once again grew stronger.
I am not sure I will be able to teach you about this, he told Zhedthik, who still stood behind him. I can only hope that you are able to sense what I do as you do with the … er … cubs. Perhaps we may discuss it at a later time.
Experimentally, Daerus reached out a hand and plunged it into the blackness. He was at once filled with a sudden sense of power, which he also recognized from his last encounter with such a storm. Directing that power, focusing it upon the hand that was hidden in the blackness, he thought again of his conversation with Phoebus. Smother it and absorb it, he thought. Slowly, so slowly that he did not even perceive it at first, the darkness began to shrink. Still curious, Daerus considered another idea. Feed it and expand it, he thought. Again, so slowly that it was difficult to see immediately, the darkness stopped shrinking and then began to grow. Once again, he reversed it, feeling potent with the power he wielded. The darkness relapsed yet again, shrinking into a small ball of blackness in his hand. And then, with a final thought, he closed his fingers around it and it vanished.
Feeling deeply unsettled, Daerus turned to face his audience. The twins stared gravely back at him, inspiring in him an impulse to say to them, “Have no fear, I am not angry and you will not be punished. Just do be more careful the next time you decide to experiment, if you please.“
In eerie unison, they nodded silently in acquiescence. Fleetingly, he wondered again about the life they had lived before they arrived at Shae. “Off with you then,“ he dismissed them and the pair took off at a run as if they feared he would change his mind if they remained within his sight. Slowly, his mind still shifting and darting this way and that, Daerus turned back toward the Manor door with his large companion following in his wake.
What troubles you, Daerus? Zhedthik asked him.
I can hardly say, Daerus replied, his mental voice slow and thoughtful. When first I did come home from … well, never mind that, Daerus hastily corrected himself. Zhedthik was almost certainly demand explanations, and Daerus was unwilling to embark on a discussion of what to him was the irrelevancy of the Imperial Court and the political structure of Tamaeranda. He led the way back to the drawing room. Some ten moons ago, there was another Chaotic Maelstrom here and I was able to do as I just did and send it on its way. My old tutor in the ways of the Phoenix told me then that I had the Talent of imposing order upon Chaos.
No, that is not right, Zhedthik said immediately. There was nothing of order there.
Daerus smiled. And how would you describe it, then?
It is no great mystery. You had power over it. You commanded it. In battle, we see this every day.
There was that in the mental voice of the Throk warrior that suggested to Daerus that Zhedthik did not understand why so obvious a matter was not clear to him. Perhaps that is why I am surprised. I am used to power but I am not yet used to command.
Perhaps, and Zhedthik was skeptical.
In any event, I am quite certain that Order … that is, the way of the Phoenix … had nothing to do with what just happened in the door yard, Daerus continued. I would say, too, that I somehow was able to control it but not in the same way that the one of those cubs is able to control what the other does. And yet, Phoebus was so very certain that I would be able to do so.
A considering look came into Zhedthik‘s eyes. Are you so very certain, then, that he was wrong?
Daerus, who had crossed the drawing room and stood staring into the flames of the fireplace, deep in thought, raised startled eyes to the Throk. Was he not? he asked.
I do not know, Daerus, Zhedthik said calmly, lowering himself to the floor to assume his habitual cross-legged position. What you just did had nothing to do with Order but that does not mean you do not have this power to … how did you say? … impose order upon chaos. If you wish to find out, you should try it.
Yes, I suppose I should, Daerus replied, beginning to smile. Perhaps I should borrow a leaf from your book and attempt my own experiment?
You would play Sholeck to my Sheloch? Zhedthik asked him.
And you are even able to tell them apart, Daerus remarked in wonder.
Zhedthik shrugged. It is not so very difficult. They do not at all smell the same, you know.
I will have to take your word for that, good Zhedthik. At that moment, Daerus bethought himself of another puzzle and decided to set aside experiments in Chaos for another time. Do you recall that evening when Lueg greeted me here in this room and Lady Risha spoke strangely to us? You said then that she did not share her words with you and I told you that I would share them in her stead?
Zhedthik nodded. I recall the time.
I believe she spoke words of prophesy to us, Daerus said.
That should not surprise you, Daerus, Zhedthik said gravely.
It does not, Daerus replied, but I fancy I will need to unravel what she said.
Do you recall her words? Zhedthik asked.
Well, no, but fortunately, Lord Tomasadin wrote it down for me. He had already spent some time explaining writing to Zhedthik the first time the Throk had entered his library. Zhedthik had seemed fascinated about the existence of a means of keeping ideas from being lost that did not involve the memories of the Old Ones. One of the more interesting things about Zhedthik, Daerus had long since decided, was the many aspects of the life he took for granted that was unknown among the Throk.
Now, however, Daerus strolled over to the desk in the corner and lifted the fragment of parchment from its surface. Yes, here it is: “The Chosen of Luegtha shall bear witness when the Chosen of Septha shall stand upon the field of battle and bar the way of the Children of Chaos. And among the Chosen Ones shall be the Priest and the Seer and the Silent Ones and the Companion, and those five shall walk with the One bestride Order and Chaos. And this Event shall be a sign unto ye that the final task has begun and thus it shall fall once again to the One to choose and in his choice shall that which was rent asunder once again become one.“
And what is it that puzzles you? Zhedthik asked him.
All of it puzzles me, my friend, but for now I would identify these Chosen Ones. I gather that you are the Priest and Lady Risha is the Seer. Who are these Silent Ones?
That would be the cubs, Zhedthik supplied instantly.
Ah. Daerus nodded, smiling. Of course, I should have guessed. And the Companion?
I do not know but I do not believe I have ever met her, Zhedthik said.
How do you know these things, Zhedthik? Daerus asked, curiosity displacing his task for the moment.
The Throk shrugged his massive shoulders. I see them.
You see them?
I see their destinies stamped upon their faces like a mask, Zhedthik explained.
Has it always been so? Daerus asked, curious.
Zhedthik shook his head. No. It had never happened before I came here. There are not many but, when I asked Risha about what I saw, she said these were the faces of the Chosen of Septha.
But you say of the Companion that you have never met — her? You know, then, that this Companion is a woman?
Zhedthik smiled his careful smile, scrupulously not showing his teeth. It seems that I do.
I think I am going to have to find her, Daerus began, to be interrupted at once.
“Indeed, you must find her, my Lord,“ Lady Risha told him as she stepped into the room.
“Good evening, Lady Risha,“ Daerus said, rising to his feet politely. He had been so focused on the puzzle before him that he had not heard her open the door. Waiting only for her acknowledging nod, he continued, “Do you suppose you might be able to offer some direction as to where I might find her?“
“You have no need of my instruction, Lord Daerus,“ she replied. Then she turned toward the far side of the room where, much to his astonishment, a Time Window was opening. “You will receive instruction elsewhere.“
From the darkness inside the Time Window, a voice he recognized spoke. “Good evening, your Grace.“
He was so surprised that he could not say a single word for a full minute. And when he did find his voice, he could not bring himself to return that greeting as he knew he ought.
“But what a pleasant surprise, Phoebus,“ Daerus said sardonically, trying and failing to detach himself from the sense of abandonment and betrayal that abruptly visited him again. “Surely, you should not be here for,“ and a wisp of memory returned to him, “experience has taught me something of the pain you suffer among so many of the Children of Chaos.“
“Your solicitude does you credit, your Grace,“ Phoebus returned, ignoring the bitterness and emerging from the darkness. “I will not delay and my errand is not a lengthy one. My Master wishes to speak with you.“
At that, every vestige of bitterness left him as suddenly as it had returned to him and Daerus found himself hard put to it to contain his amazement. “Indeed?“ he asked. “And does He wish for me to present myself to Him at once?“
Again, Phoebus nodded, adding, “We journey through a Time Window, as you see. The Master will return you to this place at this instant, and none but these of your companions will know that you had even left the Manor. Come.“ With a very civil gesture, Phoebus then indicated that Daerus should precede him back into the portal. Feeling a bit bemused, Daerus exchanged glances with Zhedthik and Risha and then wordlessly followed.
Since he was unable to reliably produce them himself, Daerus had previously had little experience with this mode of travel. Besides, while he and Dia had always made full use of the mind link Talent they shared, there had been little need to use their other abilities. Then, of course, when the last Phoenix had died His final death, the Secrets of the TimeKeepers had steadily weakened and often failed until the new Phoenix had risen.
It was not a lengthy journey, for it lasted only two steps, but those two steps seemed to contain an eternity. Stepping into the portal, Daerus was immediately surrounded by a blackness that was every bit as profound as the blackness of swirling chaos he had banished from his door yard so recently. And yet, this was very different. This was the blackness of the whole Abyss of Time and Daerus was preternaturally alert as he sensed it. After an instant of mind-numbing awe, he was aware of a strong impulse to stop where he was to explore this strange, sightless place, to stretch his senses as far as they would go just to see what, if anything, he learned. At the same time, he found himself wondering what he would sense if he stepped into the Chaotic Maelstrom and what he would learn if he stayed there. A blasphemous thought crossed his mind: the blackness of Order and the blackness of Chaos did not seem so very different. He wondered if there was a reason for that.
His next step brought him into a simple room that seemed strangely bright. In a rush of recall, he remembered the brilliant light that sometimes had seemed to surround his sister in Kaerkas‘ palace, the light that had so pained him when he was under the sway of the Dark God. Blinking, Daerus let his eyes adjust to the light.
“You are perceptive, your Grace,“ said a rich, calm voice just as his vision cleared. “But, of course, what else could one expect of Daerus of Shae?“
Again, Daerus blinked. Seated before him at a simple wooden table set with bowls and platters of the most tempting fruit he had seen in many seasons sat a young man who could only be the Phoenix. Even if He had not been garbed in the traditional purple silk robes that declared His identity, Daerus could easily sense His augmented but still human presence. Belatedly, he bowed in greeting and acknowledgment of the compliment. “I thank you, Ancient One,“ he said very respectfully.
At that, the Phoenix chuckled. “How very odd that sounds, to be sure! I am not at all ancient yet, you know … Uncle,“ and His eyes twinkled wickedly as He uttered that sly recognition of their relationship. “Come, we do not stand on ceremony here. Join me.“
Obediently, Daerus strolled across the stone floor and seated himself with his Host at the table. “I never thought to find myself here, I‘ll confess,“ he admitted with a wry humor touched with discomfort. “I am honored. How may I serve You?“
“To own the truth, on this occasion it is the other way round. It is my hope to be of service to you,“ said the Phoenix.
“I beg Your pardon?“
“Although I suppose one might view this meeting as a case of mutual service,“ He went on in a musing tone, the smile tugging at His lips the only outward sign that He had heard Daerus‘ startled question. “Let us instead say that you are here to receive instruction.“
“I see.“ Daerus recalled Lady Rischa‘s words and knew this visit was what she had meant. To cover his uneasiness, he began to browse among the fruits on the table between them.
“I rather doubt it, but never mind. We will begin,“ said the Phoenix in much the tone of a tutor, “with your recent stay at the Imperial palace, for I can readily see that you will not be able to receive this instruction until you have purged yourself of the needless guilt you hide in your breast.“
Daerus suddenly raised stricken eyes to his companion. He knows. Of course, he knows. Speech was beyond him.
“I do wish you would stop that!“ With surprisingly restless energy, the Phoenix rose and paced across the room. But, when he turned back, his steps slowed and his eyes were thoughtful. “Tell me, do you recall the passage in the First Prophesy that foretold of the roles played by you and your sister in the late Gaerud?“ he asked.
He frowned slightly in an effort at recall. “I believe I do.“
Still wearing that faint, mischievous smile that reminded Daerus so irresistibly of his twin, the Phoenix drew a deep slow breath. Daerus blinked. His host did not seem to be exerting Himself in the least, yet Daerus suddenly sensed the awful, raw power that began to swirl around Him. And, when He spoke, the echoes of eons resonated in His voice.
“And if the one does drown in darkness, shall this world perish and be no more. But, if the other does surrender to the light, then shall the fullness of Time be returned to its own and so shall the New Age be born.“ He paused, and His final words ricocheted around the bare stone walls of the room. “Do you understand what those words mean, Daerus of Shae?“
Daerus, in common with his sister, was deeply respectful of the Phoenix but, also in common with his sister, his sense of humor was never long dormant. He felt his lips start to twitch as he said, “I begin to think I do not.“
The Phoenix smiled sympathetically as he returned to his seat at the table. “If you read that passage in the same way as my archpriests did, then no doubt you believed that drowning in darkness‘ referred to you and that surrender to the light‘ was a reference to her Imperial Highness.“
Daerus nodded, causing the Phoenix‘s smile to broaden slightly. “Ah, but you see, the passage should have been read the other way around.“ When Daerus did not speak, He continued patiently, “If Dia had not resisted the importunities of Septha‘s minions, there would have been no Gaerud for I would never have been born. The world did not perish because she did not drown in darkness.“
For all he held dear, Daerus could not have held the steady blue gaze directed at him. “I did,“ he muttered, staring at a point of nothingness on the far wall.
“For awhile,“ the Phoenix agreed cheerfully. “But when the Gaerud was upon us, you did finally surrendered to the light, did you not? That is why the fullness of Time was returned to its own and so the New Age could be born.“ Again, He paused, and Daerus felt those ageless eyes upon him. “Do you not see, Daerus? It was your choice — to join with Caelon, to surrender to the light and to finally deny your Master — that gave us our victory. You have no need to regret the part you played, for it was as needful as that of my mother.“
Still Daerus did not speak, although his face grew thoughtful as he recalled again the words of the latest prophesy spoken to him by Lady Risha. It seemed he had another choice to make in the not so distant future. I will think of this another time, he decided, returning his full attention to his Host.
After a few moments, the Phoenix spoke again, this time very gently. “It grieves me to see you so troubled by what befell you at Ormaeranda, for you are almost as much Tiphoen of this Age as Prince Caelon. I do not think any the less of you for what you did while the hand of Septha lay so heavily on your mind. No, Daerus, on that subject I have only gratitude for your endurance and admiration of your courage.“
As the sense of these words penetrated, Dearus felt his mind and spirit filled with the warmth and light of a blessing and something loosened in his breast. No one, not even Dia, had ever known how his sensitive soul had writhed within him at how thoroughly he had betrayed every precept of his teachings in the months leading up to the Gaerud. He had felt himself a traitor to every tenet of decency that he had ever been taught and it mattered not in the least to him that the Phoenix had gained His victory in spite of Daerus‘ weakness. He had not been able to forgive himself and he had somehow been convinced that the Phoenix would not forgive him either.
Yet it seemed that, not only was he forgiven, but he now learned that his apparent treachery had been as necessary as its reversal and that the Phoenix had prevailed not in spite of his weakness but, after a fashion, because of it.. It had been Daerus of Shae who had made the ultimate choice that had restored the Phoenix. He had never felt completely free of those dark times at the palace and he had resigned himself to the belief that his lost love was the atonement required for his sins. Still in something of a state of shock, he ruthlessly pushed the rushing thoughts away for another time and, instead, said the first thing that came into his mind.
“And yet, if Phoebus is to be believed, He is still my Master?“
The Phoenix did not pretend to misunderstand. “He is your Master, Daerus of Shae,“ He said, nodding once and staring intently at His guest. “What Phoebus told you is true … ehrm, at least, as far as it goes. You do indeed have two Masters. The spirits of both the Phoenix and Lord Septha abide in you, Daerus, and in your heart and mind rest the meeting of light and dark.“ He settled back in His chair more comfortably, His eyes never leaving Daerus‘ face. “It was for this that I summoned you here, Daerus. Your task is not yet complete.“
“So I have been given to understand,“ Daerus replied, “although I am having some difficulty in ascertaining what more needs to be done.“
The Phoenix smiled. “Ah … that is a long story, your Grace. Perhaps when we have leisure, I will share that story with you. Or perhaps, when your company is complete, it will not be needful. But know this: the Final Age is upon us now and the Time draws nigh for that which was once one to become one anew. You, in whom light and dark are joined, will be central to that rebirth. Some who are dear to you may try to turn you from your task and, indeed, you may be inclined to heed them for much of what you will be called upon to do will be contrary to all you have been taught.“ He leaned forward to emphasize His next words. “I ask that you learn to trust yourself, your Grace. Before you listen to anyone else, listen to your own heart. The knowledge of your task was born in you.“
That said, he relaxed again, apparently satisfied with whatever He read in Daerus‘ eyes. “For now,“ He said, “know, too, that your task is already well begun and, I must say, you have been doing quite nicely. But, having finished the first part of what was required of you, you seemed to be having some trouble getting on with the next bit,“ said the Phoenix.
“The next bit?“
For the first time, the Phoenix hesitated and then sighed. “Yes. You need to retrieve the Lady Kera, your Grace. You cannot do what needs to be done without her by your side.“
Again, Daerus had to sternly keep command of himself as his emotions threatened to erupt. Unable to think his way through the hope that toyed with his heart, Daerus fell back on bitterness. “That is not amusing,“ he said coldly.
“Do you really believe I speak in jest? I would not have thought that Phoebus would teach you to serve a Phoenix who indulges in wanton acts of cruelty.“
It was more than Daerus could endure. “If that is so, then why was she taken from me?“ The furious question exploded from him. He did not even hear the tortured, accusing accents in which he spoke. “If my choice meant your triumph, why did you give her life to Septha? Why did she have to die because of my choice?“ All the fiery pain that he had labored to keep at bay rushed to the fore as he spoke those bitter words, and he fought to choke down the feelings that threatened to overwhelm him.
“She is not dead.“
So caught up in his emotions as he was, Daerus almost did not hear those quietly spoken words over the sound of his own tortured breathing. When their sense finally did penetrate, he stared at the Phoenix in silence for a moment, his mind darting in several different directions at once. Finally, he stammered, “I … she … what … What did you just say?“
“Kera of Ormaer is not dead,“ the Phoenix said still in that gentle voice.
“Kera is not dead,“ Daerus repeated, stunned. “Not dead. But … but then … where is she?“
“She is in the House of Chaos, with Septha.“
“But … no, wait … after the Gaerud, you said … you said … “
“I said, Return to your throne in the House of Chaos and take with you the ones who served you here.“
The scene came back to him with startling clarity and, Daerus suspected, with some assistance from the Phoenix. 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 him 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!“
Shaken as he always was by that memory, Daerus took a deep, steadying breath. He was still confused but he could worry about that later. All the months of guilt and misery he had endured had been both fruitless and pointless, but he was not inclined to be peevish about that either. Nothing mattered to him in that moment — nothing except the simple, shining fact that Kera still lived.
Into the silence, he spoke, carefully calm. “You said I must retrieve her. How?“
“You must go to the House of Chaos and return with her to Shae,“ the Phoenix said, as if this were the simplest thing imaginable.
“And how would you suggest I get there?“
“You know how to get there, if you will consider the matter carefully.“ He paused significantly before adding, “He who can close a door can also open that door.“
With that, the Ancient One who was not so very ancient, rose and opened another Time Window. “Think about it, your Grace. When you feel yourself ready, you will know what to do.“