Her Highness, the Imperial Princess Dia Aerandos strolled along a corridor in the Imperial Palace in Tamaerand deep in thought. She hoped Daerus did not think she was such a goose as to have believed his protestations when it had been crystal clear to her, without even the need to resort to their shared mind-touch, that he had wished for nothing more than to be rid of her as quickly as possible. Her own fertile imagination failed her when she tried to conjecture as to what sort of mayhem her twin might be up to now, but he need not think he had fobbed her off so easily. He had suggested that she consult with Phoeday about this task of his but Dia was certain he did not really think she would do so. Well, he had fooled her in just such a way too many times in the past for her to fall for his tricks again! Daerus would soon find that marriage had not dulled her wits in the least.
Dia felt herself to be on very familiar ground now, for she had rescued Daerus from idiotish scrapes times without number when they were both much younger. She had been fretting for the past several moons because their success in the late Gaerud had not only left him so haunted and miserable, but also seemed to have rent the two of them apart. And, while he had grown so distant, so preoccupied with the business of the Grand Duchy of Shae, he had also grown in a sort of power that was unfamiliar to her and possibly unwholesome for him. The present circumstance in some wise convinced her that he was still the Daerus of her youth, who could sometimes find himself embroiled in the sort of tomfoolery from which his sister would have to extract him.
Another few moments’ walking brought her to Phoeday’s chambers, giving her time to decide just how she would approach the shrewd archpriest. Phoeday was very different from Phoebus, being much more direct and much less willing to play along with her information seeking games. He had been particularly unsympathetic when it came to her earnest desire to be of service to her twin and she felt sure he would tell her again not to meddle if she were to approach him with a direct query. Clearing her thoughts of all duplicity, she rapped smartly upon his door.
Please join me, your Highness, he said so promptly and so calmly that she felt as if he might have been expecting her.
Dismissing the thought, she did as she had been bid. She rarely disturbed the palace archpriest in his quarters and was struck again by their very plain furnishings. Somehow, one expected so corpulent a fellow to surround himself with as much comfort as possible. Phoeday, who spent every day in the Imperial Palace with all its ostentatious opulence, lived with nothing more than a hard cot, a table and a chair.
Of course, the plain furnishings did not mean that the place was tidy. On the contrary, the table and the floor around it were littered with parchment scribblings and scrolls and ink-stained pen shavings – the detritus of scholarship. Phoeday sat among the ruins and regarded her with peaceful good humor. “I believe you had something you wished to ask me, Highness?” he offered without preamble.
Dia laughed. “Indeed, I do, good Phoeday, although I had intended to wish you a joyous waking first.” He grinned but said nothing, clearly waiting for her to speak further. But Dia was finding it increasingly difficult to come to the point, for she was suddenly convinced that she had no hope of fooling him. “Phoeday,” she began.
“Yes, your Highness?”
“Did you not tell me some time hence that you were studying the final passages of the First Prophesy?”
Phoeday simply nodded in answer to this question, his eyes never leaving her face.
“Why do you study it now?” she asked then. “Is there something more that this Age requires of us so soon after the Gaerud was won?”
The archpriest sighed. “I study it because I was commanded to do so by my Master, my dear Princess Dia. As for what this Age may require of us, I think I may safely say that it will require nothing further of you, your Highness.”
That response caused Dia to scowl down at her half-boots. He really was not helping her at all. “What are the final passages of the First Prophesy?” she asked suddenly, changing her tactics. “At one time I knew, for Phoebus had us learn the entire thing by rote. For some reason, I cannot seem to call it to mind just now.”
The archpriest stared at her for a few moments, a look in his eyes that was amused and at the same time speculative. Then his face cleared and he smilingly replied, “It does not surprise me that you cannot remember it, your Highness. It is the veriest nothing.”
Dia raised her brows at this evasion. “I fancy it is not long but surely, good Phoeday, it cannot quite be nothing if you were instructed by the Master to study it,” she chided him gently.
This statement was greeted with Phoeday’s rolling chuckle. “Very well, then, Princess,” he said before rising to his feet and drawing himself to his full height. Then he continued, his sonorous voice adding a note of profundity to his words. “For know ye that this shall be the Last Age, when the Chosen One shall bring together a company of the servants of destiny,” he said. “And these servants of destiny shall stand with the Chosen One bestride war and peace, order and chaos, life and death. Into his hands shall fall the fate of all mortal men and all immortal gods, for in the end shall he once more make his choice and all men and gods shall abide by that choice. And should he choose well, then shall the world be born anew. And should he choose ill, then shall this world wither and be no more.”
By the time Phoeday had finished speaking, Dia was scowling once more in concentration. “The veriest nothing?” she repeated. “I beg your pardon but what you have just recited to me sounds quite ominous.”
“Do you think so, your Highness?” asked Phoeday in the mildest of accents.
“Please do not make came of me, Phoeday, for I am in no humor for it,” she snapped, still scowling. “Daerus has just told me of some task that lies ahead of him and bade me inquire of you what you may know of it. Yet I know of nothing that you have just said that seems to speak to any task of his. The Chosen One of the First Prophesy can only be the Phoenix, yet Daerus cannot be of His company if I am to judge by what I have just seen. Can you tell me nothing more?”
“May I know why you are making this inquiry?”
“Yes, your Highness,” Phoeday confirmed. “Why is it that you wish to know?”
“Why?” Dia became so agitated at his questions that she quite forgot herself. “Because he is my brother, my twin! If he has another critical, fated task to perform after all he has gone through, then I must surely help him! Really, Phoeday, how can you ask me such an idiotic question? Have you grown quite stuipd?!”
At that, Phoeday laughed. “Why no, I do not think so, your Highness.”
Dia gasped. Great Phoenix, she thought, how can I have spoken so to an archpriest of the purple? “I beg your pardon,” she muttered, feeling her face burning. Even though she was utterly mortified by her loss of temper, Dia was still struggling to calm herself. Taking a deep breath, she added, “Phoebus would be very disappointed in me.”
“I doubt that, Princess, but let us set that aside for now, for I have a question for you,” he said. When she raised her brows inquiringly, he went on, “During the Interval and into the Gaerud, you had critical, fated and difficult tasks to perform, did you not?”
“Did his Grace help you with any of them?” asked Phoeday.
Dia smiled faintly, remembering the many times she had wanted to box his ears and worse after she had arrived at the palace. “On the contrary, he hindered me as much as he could … but,” she added quickly in her twin’s defense, “that was not his fault! His mind was not his own. Recall that he was under the hand of Septha the Destroyer.”
“That is very true,” agreed Phoeday. “But here is another question to consider, your Highness. Did anyone help you to perform the tasks that were laid upon you?” Dia opened her mouth to remind him that Caelon had stood by her side throughout but he forestalled her.
Taking both her hands in his, he said, “No, Princess Dia, not even your excellent Prince helped you then, for he could not. Only consider. You chose to hold the minions of Septha at bay when they tried to drown you in darkness. You chose to yield to the urging of fate and to welcome Prince Caelon into your bed in contradiction of your station and your breeding. You chose to heed Phoebus when he directed your steps to the Temple of Fire. You chose to do battle with Maermat of Ormaer in defense of your honor.”
Very gently, he continued, “You chose to defy a god in defense of your son, and it was by your hand that he died to be reborn at his full strength. These were your tasks and none could have helped you to perform them … just as you cannot help Lord Daerus now.”
With that, he released her hands and walked back to his table. “I believe I recommended to you before that you should not meddle, your Highness,” he said with all his usual gruff frankness. “You cannot help him and if you insist on trying you may well cause him to fail.”
“But Phoeday … !”
“If he fails,” the archpriest continued relentlessly, “this world as you know it will wither and be no more – and your son will be lost forever.” Ignoring her dismayed gasp, Phoeday seated himself and said, “And now, if you will excuse me, your Highness, I believe it is time you joined your mate in the throne room.”
“Phoeday, can you tell me nothing of this task then? Have you studied these few sentences for nigh on a year and gleaned nothing from them?” Dia persisted urgently.
“I am afraid I cannot,” he told her calmly, not lifting his eyes from the parchment that had recaptured his attention. “As I recall, you have your own copy of the First Prophesy, your Highness. Do you bend your mind to the problem. You may perhaps unravel the meaning of the passage yourself and then we will both be satisfied.”
She stared at the top of his head in exasperated affection for a moment. “Only if I choose to share my findings with you, good Phoeday,” she murmured, mischief in her eyes in spite of her demure voice.
At that, he began to chuckle but he did not reply directly. “I do not mean to be uncivil, your Highness, but they are about to need you in the audience chamber,” he reminded her , lifting his eyes briefly. “You will not wish to absent yourself from those events for I have no doubt your excellent brother bade you expect to receive a visit from him soon.”
And, as easily as that, she somehow found herself dismissed from the archpritest’s chambers in much the same manner that the Phoebus was used to send a much younger Dia on her way. She smiled ruefully as she hurried toward her marriage-father’s audience chamber. There were not many who could get away with manipulating her quite so obviously and she felt a momentary rebellion. However, she usually joined her family in chambers of a morning and she felt it would be much too discourteous to cause his Imperial Majesty to send a servant to look for her today.
Deciding that Emperor Saeros was very likely to have already begun the morning’s audiences, Dia chose to enter the room via the Imperial Family’s private chambers so that her arrival would not interrupt whatever was going on within. But of course, Caelon felt her approach before ever her hand had closed upon the door handle. There you are! he said to her without preamble. I was about to send someone for you, for I fancy you will not wish to miss this news.
As she entered the room, she replied, Indeed, my lord? Is it that urgent? Or is this one of those matters that you perceive as critical, while your mother and I wonder that you should make such a fuss of it?
You shall judge for yourself, my dear, he said, unruffled.
“ … considered sending a message but Lord Braeden thought that you might wish to interview the sentries yourself, your Majesty,” the soldier bowing before the throne was saying.
Caelon met her halfway to the raised dais and, taking her hand, courteously saw her to her seat. Emperor Saeros was seated in the center of the dais, appearing wholly at his ease and eying the messenger with growing disfavor. “As to that, I do not yet know if I might wish to interview the sentries myself, since you have not seen fit to divulge what they have seen. It is not like you to take this long to get to the point, Lieutenant,” he said.
The soldier reddened. “Beg your pardon, sir,” he said and then fortified himself with a deep breath. “The northern sentries report that the Throk are coming south.”
There was a lengthy silence. Finally, Caelon said gently, “Do you mean to tell us the rest of it, sir, or would you prefer to have us to guess?”
The Emperor snorted in sour amusement. But Dia’s interest had been piqued as soon as the man had started talking, for she had not forgotten Phoeday’s news that her brother was entertaining a member of that race at Shae. She leaned forward, frowning and silently urging the lieutenant to deliver the rest of his message.
After another moment, the lieutenant nervously continued, “Well, your Majesty, apparently all the Throk are coming south.”
This time, the silence could only be described as shocked. “All of them, Lieutenant?” Saeros asked quietly.
The lieutenant nodded vigorously but it was his silent, burly companion who spoke. “It looked like the whole herd, my liege,” he said.
“Herd?” Saeros said.
“Well, all of the clans, then,” the sentry corrected himself. As a thoughtful expression descended upon the Emperor’s features, the man continued, “There’s more of them than Aerandos can handle alone, and so I warn you, sir.” And he emphasized his words with a nod.
More than Aerandos can handle alone, Dia repeated silently. More than … . “I will contact Daerus,” she said in resolute tones.
“That is thoughtful of you, child, but he will receive my message,” Emperor Saeros said, smiling faintly.
“Yes, father-Saeros, but he will receive the message and act upon it much faster if I simply tell him now what has come to pass,” she pointed out. “Even on one of the fastest horses in your stable, your best messenger will not arrive in less than ten wakings. In that time, he could have gathered the men and be on his way marching north. I do not know how far away the Throk are but surely, the faster we can assemble the armies of all the Grand Duchies, the better?”
“My lady makes a good argument, sir,” Caelon added. “Ormaer and Shae will have farther to come than any other. Do you not think it would make sense to give them a head start?”
Saeros was nodding in agreement. “Indeed, your lady has the excellent dower of a quick mind, my boy. By all means, daughter, inform your brother and urge him to our aid with all possible haste. Gentlemen,” he went on, addressing himself to the two soldiers before him as he tugged a bell-pull, “my people here in the palace will see to your comfort for now but hold yourselves in readiness, for my generals may wish to question you personally. Upon the next waking, you will carry my dispatch back to Lord Braeden. Show these men to appropriate quarters and inform the General Staff that we meet within the hour,” he said to the servant who answered his summons.
Dia sat back and set to work. Daerus! she called, reaching out in search of the familiar mental touch of her twin.
Dia? he replied almost instantly, making her wonder why she had been so hesitant to re-establish their contact for so long. I had not expected to hear from you again so soon, my dear.
You may not be so pleased to hear from me when I have delivered my message, she told him grimly.
Indeed? If you are wishing for me to intercede in a dispute between yourself and your excellent spouse, I fear you will have to hold me excused, Daerus told her just as he might have six months before he left for the Imperial Palace.
No, that is not what I am wishing for and, pray let me remind you that if I were having a dispute with Caelon, you would be the last person I would … you are such a brat! she interrupted herself as she heard him begin to laugh across the distance. Never mind your funning! The Emperor has need of your services, your Grace.
That put a period to his amusement, she noted with satisfaction. Does he indeed? Daerus said with the oddest note in his voice. And what does your marriage-father require of me?
We have just received word that the Throk – all the clans of the Throk – are marching on our northern border. Saeros agrees with his general in Aerandos that they will not be able to hold them without assistance from the other Grand Duchies, Dia delivered this message with as much urgency as she could infuse into her mental voice. You will have to gather the men as quickly as may be and bring them north to join the rest of the forces of the Empire, and you must also advise Ormaer while you are about it.
And so it begins, he mused, without the smallest indication that this news was in any way surprising to him. Very well, sister. We will be on our way at first light and should be with you within ten or twelve wakings, he told her in the most incisive tone she had ever heard from her frivolous twin.
At first light!? she repeated. You cannot possibly have the whole of Shae’s armed forced ready overnight …
You are quite right, he interrupted her, but I shall have no need of them and neither will Saeros. We will speak more of this when I arrive, sister, but tell your marriage-father to be easy. We will settle the Throk and in such a way that they will never again come against the Empire.
Surely she could not have heard him aright. Daerus! Do not, I beg of you, make the mistake of not taking this threat seriously! I have just told you that this is not the time for funning … !
He interrupted her without the smallest vestige of an apology and he was clearly exasperated with her. Dia, my dear, I love you as no other but someday you are going to have to bring yourself to believe that I truly have grown to manhood. I make allowances for the fact that you can have no notion of what has been happening here since Papa died, but I wish you would bring yourself to believe that I know what I am about. I feel sure that you must have consulted with Phoeday by now and learnt that I have further tasks to complete in this Age. In fact, I have been expecting this summons and my obligation to respond to it is greater than you can know, greater even than my obligations as a Grand Duke of the Empire. Now, my dear, if I am going to rush to the aid of my Emperor, I fear I must excuse myself. There are preparations I will have to make, as I feel sure you can appreciate. I promise you I will be with you as soon as may be.
And with that, to her intense frustration, his touch was gone.
* * *
Daerus sat in his drawing room, silently reviewing that brief contact with his sister. It was not like her to opt for such melodrama, especially when dealing with her twin. He sensed from the brief contact that she was troubled about him in some way and he wondered what Phoeday had said to her. As he considered the matter, he feared that he had been somewhat harsh but, truly, the girl could try the patience of a Timekeeper! “It seems we are to begin our journey to meet the Throk sooner than we had thought,” he quietly told his companions.
“What do you know?” asked Zhedthik in the clipped speech he had adopted, being still uncomfortable with the language his God had so abruptly taught him.
“My sister informs me that the Emperor has received word that the clans of the Throk are on the march,” he replied, still plumbing that brief contact with his twin, extracting its nuances. “She instructed me to gather the armies of Shae and head north, and to advise our neighbors of Ormaer on our way.”
Kera gasped and he swung his gaze over to her. “This is what we saw in Lord Septha’s looking glass in the House of Chaos,” she said urgently, her eyes on nothing. “If we do not intervene, they will throw themselves against Aerandos until they are all slaughtered. This was the Master’s greatest fear, that the Throk will all be killed and He will be no more.”
Daerus was already shaking his head even before she had finished speaking. “The Master has little confidence in me, I know that, but it will not come to that, for we are going to intervene.” He got to his feet, saying, “We set out tomorrow.”
“We?” asked Zhedthik.
“The Children of Chaos,” Daerus replied with a smile. “I will travel with my Wise Companion and, of course, the Seer and the Priest and the Silent Ones must all be present.” He turned to Lady Rischa. “Shall we include good Faendun and her Highness of Pym?”
She nodded sloowly. “Aye, let us have them all, for we each draw strength from each of us and we will need as much strength as we can muster for the tasks ahead of us.”
There were so many ideas in his head at that moment that Daerus felt he needed to resolve at least some of them or he would be unfit to command anything by next waking. What would he say to his Emperor when he arrived with none but his seven companions? Would he have to waste much time defending Zhedthik in order to prevent the High Priest from dismembering those whose fears would prompt them to attack their small group? Should he inform Ormaer, even though he knew they would not be needed? Should he apologize to Dia or would that simply encourage her in her meddling?
And what was he to do about Kera … ?
“Why do you need to do anything at all about me, your Grace?” Kera asked him, tacitly informing him that she could hear his thoughts. The question had been delivered with a rather tart note in her voice and he found the expression in her eyes to be indecipherable.
“Well, I suppose I do not need to do anything about you, my Lady,” he answered promptly, adopting the same formal speech as had she. “For that matter, I am not required to do anything about you, either. There need be no question of any danger to your virtue, as you will be traveling with two other ladies.”
“My … ! Oh!”
“But I am willing to own that I fully intend to ask for your hand, Kera,” he continued as if she had not spoken, his voice growing tenderly amused, “and I cannot quite decide if I should do so now or wait until this business of ours is done.” He noticed that her indignation seemed to melt away during this speech and, much encouraged, he added, “I am convinced that I should very much like being mated with you but I fear I may find that happy state to be somewhat distracting.”
“Indeed, your Grace, I would expect that righting the gods will require your full concentration. And, as you say, I will travel with sufficient other females so as to protect my reputation.” After a brief pause, she fixed glowing eyes on his face and added, “Not so long ago, I had thought I would never see you again. I am willing to wait a while longer.”
“No,” Zhedthik said, suddenly entering the conversation.
Lady Rischa smiled.
“No?” Daerus repeated, tearing his eyes away from Kera’s face with considerable difficulty.
Zhedthik was shaking his head. “You make no sense, Daerus,” he said.
Daerus blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Why do you and she speak of waiting?” he asked. “Did you tell me that this Kera was your mate?”
“Well, yes, I did tell you that but … “
”Did you say you were willing?” Zhedthik then asked Kera, speaking directly to her as he rarely did.
“Yes, I did say that,” Kera replied, “but really … “
”Then why do you wait?” he asked the two of them.
Daerus turned to glance at Kera. As their eyes caught and held, rueful amusement abounding in both, he wondered whether he should endeavor to explain. Somehow, he rather fancied that he would not be able to do so to his Throk friend’s satisfaction.
“There are other things, important things, that must be dealt with now, Zhedthik, before we take our leisure for … “
Zhedthik had started to shake his head almost as soon as Daerus had begun to speak. “Daerus,” he said, gravely gentle, “it is mating. Mating does not wait.” He shook his head again, slowly this time as he pondered. “I do not understand your kind. Among the Throk, mating waits for nothing. This business we are to do is too important for you to be disturbed by unfinished mating.”
Disturbed by unfinished mating. Daerus turned the phrase over in his mind. It was certainly a much more delicate way to put it than he would have expected from the usually graphically frank Zhedthik. Daerus was not without experience, particularly after his sojourn in the Imperial Palace, and he was easily able to conjure the sorts of scenes the phrase evoked in his mind. He suddenly cleared his throat, feeling unaccountably warm and hoping devoutly that Kera had not perceived the thought that had briefly troubled him. Daerus bent a wary glance upon his betrothed. She did not seem embarrassed or uncomfortable, and he loosed a sigh of relief.
They exchanged another glance. “What do you say, my Lady? Shall we take our vows … well, now, I suppose. We would have to do so before seeking our beds this night, for we set out next waking. Will you not feel rushed?”
“I do not think that is something that should worry your Grace,” Kera replied, the meekness in her voice belied by the twinkle in her eyes.
Daerus grinned. “But whom shall we prevail upon to join us?” he asked her.
“Why, Zhedthik must do so, of course!” Kera responded at once, her eyes still full of mischief. “I am astonished that you need ask, your Grace.”
“What is this that I must do?” Zhedthik asked, frowning at the pair of them.
“You must join us, o High Priest,” Daerus informed him.
“What?” the Throk demanded.
“It is an important ceremony among my kind, Zhedthik,” Daerus explained patiently. “We two will stand before you and promise to be mated together and to none other. You respond by invoking the Master to bless our mating. That is all.”
“Why is this needed?” the Throk wanted to know.
To his surprise, Kera answered. “It is how we announce to the herd that none other may mate with me, as I am mated with Daerus, and that he can mate with none other, as he is mated with me.”
“Well said,” Daerus murmured. Before he could resume his part in the conversation, the door opened to admit Lueg. Daerus moved across the room to greet him.
“Well met, good Lueg,” Daerus said cheerfully. “I am very glad to see you, for I have news for you and your fellows.”
“Do you, Lord Daerus?” Lueg asked unconvincingly.
“I have a feeling that your Master has been before me, my friend. The Children of Chaos set out for the capital city on the morrow,” Daerus announced.
Lueg bowed. “So we have been informed, your Grace. At what hour do we set out?”
“We will leave at first light,” Daerus said and then hesitated. “Ah … there is another matter I should like to … “
”Your Grace?” the burly warrior asked when Daerus trailed off into sudden and inexplicably embarrassed silence.
“Well, he began again, “well … the Lady Kera has done me the honor of accepting my hand and we are to be joined … er … after endmeal,” he said, making a sudden decision. “I would be still further honored if you and the rest of the Brethren would come down to witness the occasion.”
“We are even willing to eat with you, Lord Daerus,” Lueg said with such seriousness and formality that it took Daerus a moment to realize he was being teased.
He grinned, feeling a curious sense of relief now that he had put a name to what was about to happen to him. It had all seemed so very matter-of-fact a moment ago when he had been discussing the event with Kera and Zhedthik that Daerus was momentarily stunned as the magnitude of the huge step he was taking settled upon him.
Lueg seemed to realize this as well. “Of course I have no personal experience in the matter, your Grace, but I have been told that there is life after handfasting.”
“I will be sure to give you the benefit of my experience upon our next waking, should I happen to call it to mind, good Lueg,” Daerus replied, still grinning.
So it came about that His Grace, Lord Daerus of Shae took the Lady Kera Ormaer to wife in a very brief ceremony before ten witnesses and presided over by the High Priest of Septha.
The handfasting ritual was very, very short. “We will witness that these two have pledged to be mated,” said Zhedthik, with no preamble at all. Then he turned to Daerus, “Daerus, you will mate only with Kera?” he asked.
“I will,” Daerus replied, his heart full as he remembered those dark and painful moons when he had though she was lost to him forever.
“You will mate with none but him, Kera?” Zhedthik continued.
“I will,” she said in a voice thick with tears.
“It is well,” Zhedthik said, his voice growing surprisingly gentle. “It is said before these witnesses.” And then, the Throk suddenly lifted his face and said something in his native language, something that sounded at once demanding and entreating. And suddenly, the room, the air, the eve changed.
The candles did not dim, nor did the weather alter. Yet it seemed to all in the room to grow colder and darker as a distant voice answered in that same harsh and snarling tongue. Zhedthik spoke further and the other voice answered at length. Finally, the strange conversation ended. Light and warmth returned.
“This mating is blessed by the Master,” Zhedthik said. “It is done.”