In spite of the doubts voiced by His Grace, Berdaen was as good as his word and, within a sevenday, Shae Manor was once again fully staffed. It seemed a bit odd to Daerus, who was used to a household staff that had grown old in service to Shae, that none of them save Berdaen had more than thirty years of life behind him. Berdaen and his good wife, at five-and-forty, seemed very young to be serving as headman and headwoman of the Manor. On the other hand, Daerus found that his youthful staff had a deal more energy and much less formality than their predecessors. As Berdaen had predicted, almost all hailed from the ranks of the sons and daughters of his former tenant farmers. Many others were from families that were planning to leave his tenancy. Most of these young rebels, including Berdaen and his worthy spouse, needed a little help to gild the rough edges from their manners but, all things considered, Daerus found his new entourage suited him very well.
The arrival of Lady Risha (who still was not reconciled to the title with which Daerus had bestowed her) heralded a period of intense activity for the Grand Duke of Shae. His home filled as the Brethren of Lueg brought the Chosen of Septha to the one place in all the world where it seemed as if any of them were welcome. There was the exotically stunning Princess Tohra, who hailed from the desert kingdom of Pym and arrived, complaining about the early spring chill, with a smitten Lord Pandfer. Lord Loasdin accompanied the smith Faendun from the marshes of southeastern Gedbaen. The twins Sholeck and Sheloch journeyed to Shae from barren, mountainous Ychindacht under the escort of the twin Brethren Brasdin and Brandis. Many of them had been rescued from angry crowds by these Sons of Luegtha. All of them had stories to tell, tales of rejection and loneliness and bewilderment.
“I did nothing,” Tohra told Daerus bitterly in her heavily accented Tamaerand, while her almond-shaped eyes flashed with remembered indignation. “I wished harm to no one. At times, I asked questions.” She shrugged. “It was enough.”
Finding himself very much in sympathy with such tales, Daerus did everything he could to welcome this motley assortment of guests. He could easily sense that each of them had gifts of one sort or another that would merit exploration. However, he could also easily perceive that his first task must be to set them at ease, a chore that was much easier said than done.
When he was not engaged with welcoming these guests or riding among the tenant farms and tending to the management of the estate, he was conducting interviews of farmers who had left their lands from all over Imperial Tamaeranda to beg a plot of land at Shae. Daerus greeted these immigrants with some relief, for he had begun to fear that the exodus of so many of his father’s tenants would leave far too much Shae land lying fallow. During these interviews, the story always seemed the same. The farmer would display some labor-saving device he had fashioned to use on his own acres and recount to Daerus how he had brought the invention to his Lord and been banished from the estate for his pains. Daerus, his considerable curiosity always piqued, would immediately request an explanation or a demonstration of the innovation. Some of them were ingenious. Some of them were in need of further refinement. Some were rather astonishing failures. None of them seemed to Daerus to be sufficient grounds to have removed any of the farmers from their lands. His Grace of Shae was perfectly pleased to repopulate his rapidly emptying estate with these “dangerous blasphemers.”
“It is the most ridiculous thing,” Daerus said in amused exasperation to his steward, Waethus, as the two of them walked back into the Manor after another of these demonstrations. Daerus had not been in the least surprised when his father’s steward, Jeraed, had announced his retirement almost in the instant that the news of Lord Laread’s death had reached the Manor. Weathus had been an understeward at Aerandos, another who had been drawn to make the long journey south when he grew tired of being admonished to do things as they had always been done. “The most dangerous thing I have seen among these inventions thus far has been the distressing tendency of some few of them to collapse in the midst of their task!”
“But you must admit, your Grace, the axe we saw yesterday might be quite dangerous under the wrong circumstances,” Waethus retorted. “Just think if the apparatus had accidentally flung the blade farther away from itself.”
Daerus grinned. “The greatest danger from that blade would have come from having it land on one’s foot if a fellow happened to be standing right by the thing. I do not know how I managed to keep my countenance. I had no idea that I could be so diplomatic.”
“Indeed, your Grace, I was quite impressed,” said the steward, with a sly smile that put Daerus in mind of Phoebus. “Incidentally, you may be interested to know that those silent Ychindachian twins seemed very interested in that particular invention. I would not let that alarm me if only those boys would occasionally say something.”
“Why, how can you say such a thing? They talk. I have heard them speak quite often. It is no fault of theirs that we neither of us speak their language.”
“And when will you have them schooled in a civilized tongue?” asked Waethus.
“There is not the least need,” his Grace replied promptly. “They are but lads and will no doubt pick up the language on their own. It has not escaped my notice that they pay the strictest attention to everything that is said around them. It would not surprise me to discover that they understand a great deal of our language already, even if they choose not to speak it. Now,” Daerus continued as the two drew abreast of the steward’s office, “have you anything further that requires my attention?”
“Nothing that cannot wait, your Grace, for I see that the Lady Risha desires your attention,” Waethus replied, glancing over his employer’s shoulder.
Daerus glanced quickly over his shoulder and saw his guest hovering near the drawing room doors and watching him intently. Instantly dismissing his steward, Daerus strode to her side. “Good morrow, my lady,” he greeted her. “You have something you wish to discuss with me?”
She fixed him with the stare he had come to realize presaged a prophetic moment. Each time one of the Brethren came within a day of the Manor, the Lady Risha had warned Daerus that he was about to receive another guest. She had established herself to his satisfaction as a Prophetess within two days of arriving at Shae when she had brought him the first of these messages. It had been a few weeks since the last arrival and Daerus had thought his company was complete. Wondering what message she had for him today, he ushered her into the drawing room.
“Lueg approaches, Lord Daerus. He is foremost among the Brethren of Luegtha and the one who comes with him shall be foremost among Children of Chaos,” she told him as soon as the door had closed behind them.
“Indeed?” he replied, although as soon as he heard her words he became aware that she spoke only what he already knew. Someone was approaching, someone who was so great with the dark power of Septha that Daerus felt a touch of nervousness at his approach. Yet, it seemed this ominous presence had escaped his notice until Lady Risha brought it to his attention. He wondered why that should be.
But Lady Risha had not finished. “You must ride out to greet him, my Lord,” she intoned.
“And may I know why I must do this?” he asked her, staring at her eyes, trying to look into them.
“Our companion will not be able to safely come here to his home without your escort, my Lord,” she replied. “Find him at the edge of the Shae lands at dawn and bring him to us here. We will heal him so that he may heal us.”
Daerus did not doubt for an instant that this task was an important one but, in common with his sister, he had within him an imp of mischief that was never long dormant. “It shall be as you command, my lady,” he told her with a courtly bow and a decided twinkle in his eye. “As I ride out to greet such an important guest, it is to be hoped that I shall not lose my way in the darkness before sunrise.”
The glance leveled at him by Lady Risha then told him that her Sight had left her. In fact, the look in her eyes reminded him forcibly of his dealings with Phoebus on those occasions when he and Dia had been at their most trying. “As t’ that, me lord,” she said drily, “I’ve a fancy we’ll be seein’ a full moon this night. Ye’ll not lose yer way.”
And so it was. The border of the Shae estate lay only some five leagues or so from the Manor. Daerus rode out at a walk, alone, well wrapped against the early morning chill, by the light of the full moon. By the time he had accomplished half the journey, the sky had silvered with the approach of the dawn. He was pleased, thinking that he was making very good time as indeed he was. Just as the first rays of the sun slid over the horizon, he reached the tall cairn of stones that marked the boundary between Shae and Gedbaen to the north. Daerus reined in his horse and sat in the middle of the road, waiting. A familiar tingling sensation in his forehead impinged upon his awareness.
Within minutes, two figures emerged from the fields onto the road before him. There they halted and allowed him to gaze his fill. The fair, burly warrior with surprisingly wise blue eyes Daerus surmised to be Lueg. It was the other, pronounced fated to be first among his companions, who held him spellbound with astonishment.
It was a Throk.
The creature shambled at the side of the Chosen of Luegtha, towering over him by a full two handspans. From a protruding jaw, two stubby tusks emerged from his mouth, giving his face an unalterably beast-like appearance. He wore the bloodied tatters and rags of some kind of animal hide, which concealed only enough of his body to satisfy the demands of modesty, and his skin was covered with a thin layer of short, dark fur. The Throk had stopped and stood beside his escort, eyes fixed on the dirt road but suddenly, as if he felt Daerus’ unthreatening scrutiny, he lifted his eyes. Their expression would have been difficult to describe, a compound of such anguish and fear and hope that Daerus was reminded of Risha’s words. Yes, he thought, we will heal him.
After a few moments of silence, Daerus said quietly, “Welcome to the Grand Duchy of Shae, fellow travelers. Allow me to accompany you to the Manor.”
Lueg stepped forward and bowed. “I am honored that you know me, your Grace,” he said in a quiet, curiously accented bass voice. “I am afraid that I cannot introduce my companion, as I do not speak its language and so cannot learn its name.”
“His name,” Daerus corrected absently as he dismounted.
Lueg smiled. “As you say, your Grace.”
Daerus was no longer attending to him. The Throk commanded Daerus’ entire regard. Their eyes met and held for an instant before Daerus dismounted. He secured his reins on the pommel of his saddle and walked slowly to where the Throk stood. Then, still with that careful slowness, he reached out his hand and waited, his eyes never leaving the creature’s face. Finally, even more slowly, the Throk reached out and almost gently engulfed that hand with his own.
Daerus had been almost expecting the return of that now-familiar bone chilling cold that no longer had the power to distress him. In defiance of the new rising sun that brightened the air around them, he and this Throk seemed suddenly to be enveloped in an impenetrably dense blackness. Yet, once again, he did not feel violated by the darkness. Instead, he felt somehow empowered, by it and by the act of sharing it with this new companion. His forehead burned and Daerus realized, he knew. Everything. He knew.
“His name is Zhedthik,” he told Lueg calmly, his eyes still holding those of the Throk standing before him. “He was once a proud warrior of the Szidjik Clan of the Throk. Shortly after the rise of the new Phoenix, he was banished from all clans of the Throk — for something very close to what we would call blasphemy, I suppose.” Then he nodded to the warrior as he would to an equal as he added, “Be welcome, brave Zhedthik. Let us go home.”
Zhedthik said nothing. He looked into Daerus’ eyes for another moment and then slowly nodded in return. With that, Daerus returned to his mount, hoisted himself into his saddle and turned Nasaeth’s nose to the south.
They journeyed toward the Manor in silence for quite some time and Daerus had begun to wonder whether they would make the entire trek so. Of course, the one of his companions with whom he would most have liked to converse did not speak his language. He was pondering ways and means of overcoming that difficulty when it was unexpectedly solved for him.
Tell me of these ones of the south, Daerus of Shae, Zhedthik asked silently. His mental voice was deep and rich and thrilling, conveying a rock-steady character that one might not have expected to find in the Throk.
What did you want to know, good Zhedthik? Daerus asked in turn.
Surprisingly, a bass chuckle sounded in his mind. I wish to know all, was his reply. Your ways are so very different from the clans of the Throk. I am curious to know what your kind do, and how you can manage to be such a strong foe on the field when killing is not in your blood.
As it is with the Throk?
A lengthy pause greeted that question. Perhaps.
Daerus looked around him. Every few miles, they passed small knots of people emerging from their cots while other earlier risers were already industriously working the soil. I think perhaps killing is in our blood, in some measure, Daerus told his companion thoughtfully. But so is eating. We have tamed the land so that it supplies our needs, but we must tend it carefully and constantly. For many of us — indeed, for most of us — that chore takes almost as many hours as we have.
And yet, you also have others who do not tend the earth, Zhedthik countered, looking out over the fields. These are not the warriors we encounter in the north.
Not all of us are warriors, Daerus admitted, wondering if that confession would diminish his people in the eyes of his guest. There are many tasks that need to be performed to ensure that we are all cared for. Some bend their toil to provide sufficient food so that we may all be fed. Some are artisans who craft the tools we use, the clothes we wear, and the conveniences that make up the fabric of our lives. Still others concentrate their efforts on learning the warrior skills, so that we may also be safe. We have a saying among us: ‘each to his own craft.‘
Then … , and for a moment, the deep voice trailed into silence. Then you would not seek to conquer the Throk had the Throk not sought to conquer you? Zhedthik finally asked.
That made Daerus smile faintly. We still do no seek to conquer the Throk. Why should we? It is just that we have no wish to be conquered by them, either.
Zhedthik did not answer and Daerus, glancing at him, noticed that his eyes were on the ground and he was frowning in concentration. He wondered what sorts of conclusions the great Throk warrior would glean from his revolutionary thoughts and wondered, as well, whether it would matter in the end. For Daerus knew a great deal more about Zhedthik than he had revealed to Lueg. As well he understood, better than he really wanted to, just how dangerous a fighter Zhedthik truly was and knew, further, of the cause of his disgrace and banishment.
It is peaceful here, Zhedthik observed suddenly.
Aye, that it is.
And does your kind believe that this is a good thing? he wanted to know.
Of course, it is! Daerus responded, somewhat startled.
What a very odd question! And yet, Daerus had to think for a moment before he could answer it. We enjoy this peaceful life because it leaves us free to do other things than make war on each other, he said carefully.
Other things? Zhedthik repeated slowly, tasting the phrase as if the concept of doing other things besides fighting was foreign to him. What sorts of other things? the Throk wanted to know.
It is because we have been at peace for so long that we have learned to husband our land as well as we do, Daerus pointed out. We have plentiful food, we have comfortable places in which to live, we have the love and companionship of our families and friends. These are things we would not have if we spent all our time seeking to spill each other’s blood. And then he smiled, not quite sure why he added, That is why there are so many more of us than there are of you.
Zhedthik’s face grew troubled as he looked out again over the quiet fields, dotted here and there with toiling farmers. My kind are dying out, are they not? I have lived a full six and twenty summers, including the Time of the Endless Sun. In my clan, I was considered an old warrior, past my prime but still with perhaps a little fight left in me. This is why we cannot conquer your kind, no matter how fiercely we fight. There are just too many of you to be conquered by such as we.
The sorrow in the Throk’s mental voice touched Daerus. They would not listen? he asked, aware of a surge of fellow feeling.
Zhedthik shook his head. I was not permitted to tell them even as much as I have told you. No sooner did I suggest that perhaps the Throk need not always be fighting and killing than I was accused of betraying the spirit of the Clans and I was punished.
Daerus pondered that for a few moments, and then he smiled ruefully. To be honest, good Zhedthik, I do not know that my kind are so very much different from yours. And he looked around, almost bemused and feeling that he had never really seen his world before. Their small party was attracting a few chagrined stares, Daerus noted absently. Nothing ever changes here either.
Zhedthik did not reply.
But no sooner had Daerus mentally uttered that observation then it seemed to take possession of his mind. He wondered again what would happen if Ormaer decided that it would not meekly accept its removal from the Imperial Throne. What if the sons of Ormaer contested it violently, with civil war? For that matter, what if there was a group of commoners somewhere who considered they should remain loyal to the House of Ormaer? Would they revolt? How would Saeros handle such insurrection?
Yet, even as he considered such revolutionary scenarios, Daerus thought how impossible those turns of events would be. Everyone in the Empire seemed content to placidly accept everything that happened, to them and around them. No one ever sought to change anything and he was sure that most would say that this was evidence of the blessings of the Phoenix, who bestowed order and held chaos at bay.
Now, however, a startling thought occurred to Daerus: perhaps unflagging peace and order might not be such a good thing. Not that Daerus would have ventured to suggest that it would be good for the humans of the world to adopt the senselessly violent lifestyles of the Throk. But he thought suddenly of Aerlin, his new-fangled plow, and the scandalized shock it had provoked among some of his tenant farmers. Had the way farming was done changed at all in the last ten generations? he wondered silently. Is the virtue of order truly superior to even the slightest, tiniest change? Have I done evil, then, by welcoming such changes here at Shae?
It was a question he could not answer.
* * *
The echoing silence left in the wake of the voice of a mighty god was not quite the same as true silence, Kera discovered. They had said nothing to each other since the presence of Luegtha left them. Whether that was two minutes ago or two ages ago, she could not have said. Time had no meaning in this timeless, bizarre place. She shifted her position, the better to accommodate the pile of pillows that had transmuted once again, this time into tree stump. She had not looked at Septha since Luegtha had complimented her wisdom — Wisdom! she thought in a mental tone heavily laden with sarcasm. Yes, of course! — but she could hear His muffled sobs beside her.
There were words one could apply to children who would not learn from previous experience, either their own or those who had gone before them. Kera wondered if those same words could be applied to a God. Did she have the temerity to suggest that her Host was behaving like a spoiled child? Luegtha had said much the same thing and Septha had not received the notion well. Kera knew there was much she could say and knew, as well, that Septha was likely to provoke her into saying it all eventually.
Finally, she spoke. “Why do You weep, my Lord?”
For a few moments, the only reply she won was the sound of His quiet sobs and she wondered if He would answer. “Why do you question Me, mortal woman?”
She frowned. Really, God or no, He was quite impossible! “I question You because I wish to know the answer,” she said with studied patience.
“You are surly, woman,” He growled at her.
“You are not answering my question, my Lord,” she replied with great sweetness.
Again, silence fell. Kera studied her hands folded in her lap. I wonder what it is that is so very difficult for Him to say.
“Do I not have cause to weep?” Septha said at length.
“As to that, I do not know, my Lord,” Kera said thoughtfully. “You are a God, after all, and You have great power. I cannot think what cause You might have for such sorrow. Is there some want of Yours that goes begging? I would not have thought it.”
“And now you mock Me? Are you so determined, then, to join your brother in the House of the Dead that you would goad Me so?” He asked her threateningly.
Abruptly, the tree trunk beneath her turned into a large boulder. “I do not mock You, my Lord!” she cried, already almost out of patience with him. “I want to understand!” She took several deep breaths, striving to calm herself. “I want to understand,” she said again after a few minutes. “Why do You grieve so?”
“I have lost,” Septha finally muttered. Then, His voice gaining strength and volume, he went on. “Age after age, I have lost. I am lost. Banished here to this House of Chaos, unable to earn a place in the world of humans, shunned by the Others. I am lost. I am alone.” And His voice dwindled into silence.
“You are lonely, then?” she asked.
“NO!” He roared at her. “Do you not understand, woman? I am not whole, by my own choice. Yet, still, I am. But none seem able to accept Me as I have chosen to be. My Brethren have rejected Me. My Father has banished Me. And there are none in your world who would worship Me.” She was still frowning, unsure of His meaning. “I am a God, mortal. I need a people!”
“Ah!” she murmured, her face clearing. “When You and the Others came here, You were not permitted to choose a people? Because You were banished?”
“When We came here, My Father gave Me a people — or so He said,” Septha replied indignantly.
“Why then, You have a people!” Kera said in the voice of someone who had found the answer to a particularly knotty problem. “Do You not think, my Lord, that You should make Yourself known to them? No doubt they are suffering greatly without the blessings of their God.”
“If I had been whole, the Tamaerands would have been My people. Instead, My Father gives them to the sickly half-god Phoenix,” the Septha said quietly, almost as if he were talking angrily to himself.
She was frowning again. “I do not … ”
“I am God of the Throk!” He bellowed at her. At her gasp, he uttered a short laugh. “Aye, shocking, it is not? I wonder that My Father thought to appease Me with beasts, as though I was unfit to be God to your kind!”
“I do not know what to say, my Lord,” Kera said quietly. “I do not believe the Throk to be beasts in the same way that a horse or a bear is a beast. The Throk have tools … well,” she corrected herself swiftly, on familiar ground now that the conversation had taken a turn toward affairs of state, “they have weapons, at the least. They have posed a significant threat to the northern border of the Empire for Ages. The Grand Duchy of Aerandos has had to breed military genius into its line for generations simply to hold them at bay. I know little of them but they are not mindless.”
“And what has that to say to anything?” demanded the enraged god. “Think you then that I am fitted to be God to the Throk?”
“I have just said that I do not know much about them,” she reminded Him, growing calmer as He grew more agitated. “I know little of the God Re, as well. Is He truly so petty as to bestow the Throk upon You simply to insult You?” Recalling her own family, she added, “I would have thought He would have much better resources at His command for that sort of thing.” She paused but he did not speak. Finally, she asked, “Do You know aught of the Throk, my Lord?”
“Why should I?” He asked, His voice beginning to assume a familiar quaver as his tears threatened to return.
“Do You not think You should investigate their ways even a little, my Lord? They are Your responsibility, after all,” she challenged Him.
“And still you seek to mock me, do you?”
“Upon my word, I wish You would stop that!” she snapped impatiently. “What I seek is instruction, Great Septha. I am … well, I was … an Imperial Princess. I have been listening to reports about the movements of the Throk for much of my life but I do not think it had ever occurred to either my father or to the Grand Duke Saeros that the Throk were such elevated creatures as to have their own God. Learning that they do has made me curious about them. That is all!”
Septha heaved a long-suffering sigh. “You wish to know of them?” he asked, sounding bored. “Look your fill.”
Out of nowhere, a mirror appeared before her, showing not her own reflection but a swirling mist that resolved itself into a scene of what looked like a village of straw huts in a forest clearing. As the image cleared, Kera began to watch, fascinated. Zhedthik could have told her that she was witnessing the way of the Throk early in the mating season but it was difficult for her to make sense of what she was seeing. A large male, dressed as a warrior, entered into her pool of vision and looked around eagerly. Another joined him and they began to fight. Then another Throk entered, snarling at the two, and Kera surmised that this one was female as she was much smaller that the two combatants and her body was shaped differently.
Within minutes, all three were filthy and bloody. As she continued to watch, the two males concluded their fight and the victor then stepped up and began to beat the female. She kept snarling and she fought back, even though she was only half the size of the successful male. Her defiance only seemed to enflame him. Finally, he subdued her, literally threw her to the ground and mated eagerly with her before her embarrassed eyes. His companion and erstwhile opponent, who had been egging his rival on, now stepped forward for a turn at mating with the prone female. She continued to thrash and snarl, although it was difficult for Kera to tell whether the sounds she made indicated pleasure or fury.
It was a scene she was to witness again and again. The Throk were always fighting, always bleeding. When they were not fighting, they were mating — although there did not seem to be much difference between the two activities from her observations of them. Occasionally, she caught sight of what she thought might be older Throk, swilling some sort of brew and throwing themselves about as if under the influence of strong drink. Age did not prevent them from brawling, either.
Eventually, her face troubled, Kera sat back and let her gaze leave the mirror — which was no longer a mirror but simply an upright pool of water that dripped endlessly into the middle distance of nothingness. “I see,” she said softly.
“Fine creatures to be the chosen of Septha, eh?” her host said derisively.
“Well, my Lord, You must admit that their ways are chaotic. In fact … ,” she began, but then her voice trailed off into silence.
“You are troubled,” He observed. “What ails you?”
Suddenly, inexplicably, she blushed. “I could not help noting how similarly to the Throk were the people of the Capital behaving when they were under Your sway during the late Interval, my Lord.”
“Indeed?” was His unpromising reply.
“It did not seem to matter whether one was in the palace or on the street, the people did not do much of anything except fighting and drinking and wenching. Really, there was very little difference between that and what I just saw among the Throk,” she said slowly, obviously thinking aloud.
“And … ?” He said, his tone still more forbidding.
Kera hesitated, aware that what she was about to suggest would not be welcome to Him. “And I begin to think I understand why your Father bestowed the Throk upon You to be Your people, my Lord.”
“Lord Septha, if we humans were to behave like this for very long, we would die,” she said earnestly and urgently. “We cannot reel about in endless orgies such as this, with no thought to such trivial matters as food or clean water or bathing or … oh, all manner of things! This is why there were pockets in the Empire, in Ormaer or close to the Capital, where whole villages perished for want of food! And why people sickened and died elsewhere when someone reeling about in a drunken stupor fouled the well and none were sober enough to think to clean it! We simply cannot live like this, my lord. Or at least,” she amended conscientiously, “not for very long.”
“And this is why you believe My Father foisted those beasts upon Me?” he growled at her.
“Was the behavior prevailing in Ormaer pleasing to You during the late Interval, my Lord?” she asked him in her turn.
“You must know that it was! An endless paean to Chaos! It was glorious … until it was all spoilt by the Phoenix … and your Daerus of Shae.”
Kera took a deep breath. “If that is so, my Lord, then perhaps You should not so disdain the Throk. It seems their ways are exactly what would be pleasing to You. And please,” she added with considerable asperity when she heard him draw breath to speak, “do not accuse me of mocking You, for I am perfectly serious!”
“Humph!” was His only response.
“Why do You not make use of Your excellent glass, my Lord, and see whether or not my observations have merit?” she suggested, again with that challenge laced through her voice.
She heard Septha draw breath once again as if to reply but, after several tense moments, He did not. Instead, rather to her relief, the blob of water was removed from before her to hover before Him instead.
A brooding silence descended. As usual, Kera’s thoughts returned to Daerus.