Chapter 16

And in the end, everyone’s plans came to naught.

The Grand Duke Daerus and the Grand Duchess Kera of Shae, following a plentiful firstmeal taken in company with their various traveling companions, made their way to the Imperial Throne Room to offer their bows to Emperor Saeros. As he and his lady passed into the massive room already half full of courtiers and ladies, Daerus felt himself relax as he realized that the soldiers guarding the chamber door had been given no orders to deny him entry. He realized that he had come to the Throne Room prepared to do battle if need be, to assure his rightful access to the Emperor. He realized as well that he had somehow come to regard his twin sister as his enemy. A faint, sorrowful sigh escaped him.

Daerus, no, Kera’s voice spoke inside his head.

He did not reply but neither was he convinced. Dia was seated in the customary place of the Imperial family, behind and a little to one side of the Emperor’s throne. Daerus could see that she wore a disagreeably triumphant smile, no doubt congratulating herself on successfully intimidating him into leaving his companions in their apartments for this audience. He wished in that moment that he had some way of informing her that he was less concerned about her threats than he was about the safety of his companions and of the Emperor’s court. Do not fool yourself, sister, he was unable to resist telling her silently. You have not ‘won’ anything at all.

I may not be able to tear you away from this darkness of which you still seem so enamored, she replied in a tart mental voice, but I can at least keep you from endangering my Emperor.

At that moment, his Majesty’s chamberlain announced them and Daerus and his lady made their obeisance. “Your Majesty,” Daerus said in tones of profound respect.

“Welcome, kinsman,” was the Emperor’s surprising response. “We are pleased beyond measure that you have broken your journey north in order to visit with us.”

Daerus lifted his head in amazement and caught his marriage-brother’s eye. Caelon was standing beside the throne, grinning broadly. That was all the warning he had.

“We are given to understand that, among the noble members of your company, we are entertaining the High Priest of Septha,” Emperor Saeros went on.

“That is so, your Majesty,” he responded, contriving with some difficulty to keep his countenance.

“We would be pleased to be presented to him.”

This was said in the blandest of tones but it amounted to an Imperial command and Daerus was not at all inclined to disobey. “Why certainly, your Majesty.” He turned to my lord chamberlain and said, “Could you please send someone to my apartments and request that Lord Lueg and Zhedthik join us here in the Throne Room?”

The chamberlain bowed, “Certainly, your Grace,” he said.

“If I might be so bold, your Majesty,” Daerus went on, casting a glance over Caelon’s shoulder at his sister’s appalled expression, “I am curious to know how you learned of Zhedthik’s presence in the palace.”

“Why, the Crown Prince brought me the news, your Grace,” his Majesty answered promptly. “I am only sorry that you were given to understand that it would be desirable to keep this guest away from us, for we are eager for some conversation with him.”

“I beg your pardon, your Majesty,” said Daerus. “My only concern was that his presence may seriously discompose the members of your court.”

At that expression of concern, Saeros Aerandos, Emperor of Imperial Tamaeranda, looked around the room and began to laugh a gentle, rich laugh. “Was it indeed, your Grace?” he said so quietly that none but he and Caelon and Kera heard it. “Well, I will confess to you that I am rather looking forward to it.”

His Majesty then turned his attention to Kera, drawing her into conversation by welcoming her back to the Palace and assuring her that his respect for the noble House of Ormaer was in no way diminished by the events of the Gaerud.

It was just well that both of them were occupied, as Daerus found himself involved in a pressing conversation of his own.

Daerus! his sister said urgently.

My apologies, Dia, but my Emperor wishes to make the acquaintance of the High Priest of Septha. What would you have me do? After a significant pause, Daerus added, His Majesty knows that I am no danger to him, even if my own sister does not. He made no effort to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

Daerus, do not! Dia cried silently, distressed. You cannot know what you are doing, any more than you did the last time Septha laid his hand on your mind! What other reason can you have had for bringing a Throkish beast to the Imperial Palace? You are not yourself!

By the time she had finished this speech, Daerus was angry enough to easily ignore the genuinely frantic note in her voice. On the contrary, sister, I know precisely what I am doing and I am quite wholly myself, he told her with a steely note in his own voice. You would know all this if ever you listened to anyone when they told you something you did not wish to hear. I know what Rischa told you when we arrived here and I have a fairly good notion of what Phoeday told you when you asked him about it, as I am very sure you did.

Indeed, I think you mistake, brother, she said, sounding rather defensive. Phoeday said nothing to me of your bringing enemies of the Empire into the Palace …

Do you know, he interrupted her in a thoughtful tone, I begin to think that you have taken a pet simply because you do not know what is going on and you are no longer the center of attention.

Why … you … you brat!

He laughed harshly into her mind. I beg your pardon, Muphoen, but your task is over. You acquitted yourself well but it is time now for you to step aside. This is my task, Dia, and it has nothing at all to do with you. And I will tell you a few other things, since you are so very desperate to know what I am about. I serve two Masters, Dia, and I have pledged my word that Lord Septha shall not meet His end at my hands. That is part of my task and I have been advised that I should not to allow myself to be turned from it by the distress it causes to some I hold dear.

I should be suspicious of any who suggest to you that you should not listen to me, for that is how I take that bit of advice!

Should you, indeed? he challenged her. That is very interesting, Dia, for I received that instruction from my nevvy, you know. He heard her gasp echo through his mind and pressed his advantage. Yes, I had that from my other Master, my girl. And since the Phoenix himself advised me not to heed your hysterical meddling, I feel certain that you will agree that I should at least do as He tells me.

On this unanswerable note, Daerus withdrew from her touch and took a few deep breaths to calm himself.

At that moment, the double doors of the Throne Room swung wide and the doorman stepped through. He looked to be trembling from head to foot and he opened his mouth for a moment without managing to produce a single sound. Over his shoulder, Daerus heard his Emperor again laugh that quiet, gentle laugh. The fellow finally pulled himself together and announced, “Lord Lueg, first deciple of Luegtha, and … and …”

After a rather lengthy pause, as if the doorman was having difficulty remembering how to talk, a deep, resonant voice he knew well growled, “Say it.”

The doorman jumped as if he had been poked with a sharp object and said, “ … a – a – and Zh-Zh-Zhedthik of the – of the Throk, High Priest of Septha.”

As the pair of them stepped across the threshhold and into the light, a collective gasp went around the room and the courtiers and ladies froze in shock where they stood. Daerus, watching them approach the Throne with a fond smile, was suddenly struck by a curious thought. Both were large and well-muscled, for both had long histories as warriors. But Daerus had suddenly been seized by the notion that they were also both the pre-eminent holy men of their respective gods. And, he continued the train of thought, both were spectacularly suited for the service of those gods – which suggested to him that each of Them chose Their servants well.

Perhaps, he thought, remembering his silent conversation with Dia, even me.

As they joined him before the Emperor, Daerus stepped forward and said, “Your Majesty, I have the profound honor to present Lueg of the Brethen, High Priest of Luegtha, and Zhedthik of the Throk, High Priest of Septha. Lueg, Zhedthik, may I present his Imperial Majesty Saeros Aerandos.”

Caelon smiled. Very good, Daerus, he said into the vaults of Daerus’ mind.

Thank you, Daerus replied.

“Welcome to the court of Imperial Tamaeranda, your Emminences,” Emperor Saeros said graciously.

“I thank your Imperial Majesty,” said Lueg with a deep bow.

Meanwhile, Zhedthik was scowling. He bent his frowning gaze upon Daerus, “What is this emminences?” he demanded of Daerus.

“It is a term of respect, Zhedthik,” Daerus replied.

The High Priest of Septha turned back to the occupant of the Imperial Throne and said, “I am Zhedthik. I am not emminences.”

As soon as the Throk began to speak, Emperor Saeros smiled broadly and Daerus could see that he was suppressing wild excitement. Now, he said, “I ask your pardon, Zhedthik.”

Zhedthik shrugged. “It does not matter.” Then he looked around the huge Throne Room for a moment before bringing his gaze back to the Emperor. “You are the leader of these Others of the South, yes?”

“Er … ,” and he gazed a little helplessly at Daerus, who nodded vigorously, “yes, I am.”

Zhedthik nodded as of to say, “That is what I thought.” What he did say was, “Your people are interesting, Saeros. I have learned much of you while I shared the hut of my friend Daerus, although there is still much that you do here that makes no sense. But that does not matter. I wish only to tell you that you of the South are very different from the Throk.”

“Do you know, Zhedthik, I felt sure that must be so and I have always wondered about those differences,” the Emperor said so smoothly that Daerus was impressed. “In fact, I have frequently wished that the Throk spoke our language, so that I could ask them questions and they could perhaps answer. It may have been a foolish idea but it was my thought that if we could only discover what the Throk wanted and why they continually attacked us, perhaps we could find a way to stop fighting and bring about a lasting peace.”

“You are right, Saeros,” Zhedthik said without hesitation.

“Why, that is …”

“It was a very foolish idea. If you were to say to any of my clan that you wished to make peace with them, they would feel insulted.”

“Really?”

Zhedthik nodded. “They would pull off your arms.”

“Dear me,” said Caelon, wearing that quizzical smile that was habitual to him.

“Quiet, Caelon,” said the Emperor.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” Caelon responded at once.

“Do not worry, Saeros. They would not like to talk of peace but they will find themselves living it. They must, whether this pleases them or not,” Zhedthik said in somewhat severe tones.

“And why is that, good Zhedthik?” asked Emperor Saeros.

Zhedthik stared at the Emperor for a long moment, long enough to make the Emperor begin to fidget and wonder if he had somehow given offence. Finally, he replied, “We cannot conquer you of the South. If we keep trying to do so, we will die. If we die, the Master will die. I will not let the Throk die. I will not let the Master perish.”

“I see,” the Emperor said thoughtfully. “I do believe I have to thank you, Zhedthik.”

“No, you do not need to thank me.” He paused again before adding, “Your people are lucky, for I can see that you have wisdom. There are others who, if they had your power, would have tried to slay me as soon as we came into this place. You are an old warrior, I can see this. You know when you face one who means you no harm. I honor you.” Then Zhedthik transferred his gaze to the Crown Prince. “Rischa tells us that you and your mate will travel with us to turn back the Throk.”

“Why, I’ll confess that I had given some thought to it, if his Grace of Shae will permit,” Caelon responded promptly.

Daerus was still smiling. “We should be delighted to have you, kinsman.”

“Your mate fears us,” Zhedthik stated quite positively, evidently following his own train of thought.

“Does she?” Caelon asked turning to glance over his shoulder at Dia.

“Yes.” He was silent for a moment before adding, “I would speak with her.”

Caelon grinned and Daerus suddenly could easily see that the Crown Prince was often a sad trial for the Imperial Princess. “Why, certainly!” he said before turning away and striding to her side. Daerus could not hear what he said to her but he watched her cast a startled look at her mate before she took his hand, stood and returned with him to the edge of the dias. Daerus wondered if she had placed herself beside her marriage-father deliberately or whether it was unthinking coincidence. Idly, he wondered what she thought she could do about it if the hulking Zhedthik suddenly decided to dismember the Emperor.

“You wished to speak with me?” she asked Zhedthik, avoiding the dilemma of not quite knowing how to address him by not addressing him at all.

“Why do you fear me?” Zhedthik asked in his usual blunt fashion.

“But I do not – “ she began but he interrupted her.

“No, do not,” he said. “Be truthful. Why do you not look at me?”

“I … I … ,” and she looked rather desperately at Caelon for help. Interestingly, she did not look to her twin.

“No, no, my love,” her mate said immediately. “I cannot help you.”

Dia dropped her eyes to the tips of her slippered feet, scowling. After a moment, she looked up at the Throk, meeting his eyes for what Daerus suspected was the first time.

“Very well,” she finally admitted, “I will confess that I am a little afraid of you.”

“Only a little?” murmurred Caelon.

“Why?” Zhedthik demanded as both he and Dia ignored the interruption.

“Well … you are very large, are you not?” she pointed out.

“That is not my fault,” Zhedthik returned.

Daerus smiled.

“And you are of the Throk,” she continued. “The Throk are our enemies.”

“I am not your enemy,” he told her very simply. “I have no plan to harm you. If you were a warrior, you would know this.” Zhedthik turned to Daerus. “There is one way in which Throk women are superior to your women, Daerus. Our women are not so fearful, for they are warriors. They know when one means them no harm and, when they meet one who does mean them harm, they fight.”

Before he could respond, Emperor Saeros re-entered the conversation. “I would like to learn more of this, Zhedthik,” he said, adapting himself somewhat to the Throk syntax that Zhedthik used. “Will you come talk to me later this waking? I will send someone for you.”

“If you wish to talk to me of my people, I will talk to you, Saeros,” Zhedthik said. “You may learn something if I tell you of a true warrior people.”

“Just so,” said the premier general of the past five generations.

Zhedthik turned back to Dia. “You will come with us to the north, as will your mate. You will not be comfortable if you are afraid all the time. But there is nothing I can do to calm your fear. No one but you can do that. I believe you know, in your gut, that you need not fear but you clutch fear to you. I do not know why.” He stared at her consideringly, head tilted to one side, for a long moment. “I am not even sure what exactly you fear.”

Daerus watched his sister’s scowl form and wondered what she would say. He knew that petulant expression very well. “You do not know what I fear?” she asked him. “I fear that you will not return my brother to me.”

Zhedthik frowned, looking perplexed. “I do not understand. Is not Daerus still your brother?”

“Of course he is still my brother!” she answered impatiently. “But he is not as he once was.”

“Well but you are not as you once were either, are you?” he asked. “You were whelped with Daerus but you are changed now that you are mated, yes?”

“Well, yes, but –” she began but Zhedthik interrupted her.

“Daerus is mated now, as well,” Zhedthik went on. “He is no longer with you, for he is one of our company. You cannot have him as he was when he was a cub but that does not mean he is no longer your brother.”

“He will not be my brother if he serves Septha the Destroyer,” she stated fervently.

“But what a stupid thing to say,” Zhedthik told her. “Of course he is still your brother. You have only just said so. No matter what he does, there is nothing that will change that. Not even the Master could change it. Surely you know this.”

“Never mind, Zhedthik,” Daerus interjected before his sister could speak again. “I don’t know if you will ever be able to understand my sister’s view on this subject.” He looked around and spied his lady engaged in lively conversation with one of the ladies of the court. “Will you send someone to fetch us when you are ready to continue your conversation with Zhedthik, your Imperial Majesty?” he asked, while beckoning to Kera.

“Of course, your Grace,” the Emperor responded in kind. “I hope you will accompany your guest when he returns to us.”

“Your Majesty is very kind,” he said with a deep bow, as befitted his Emperor.

Kera curtseyed and Lueg bowed as well. Zhedthik did not bow. No more than he ever used titles would Zhedthik ever bow to anyone of Throk or of human. As one, they turned and made their way through the Throne Room, Daerus and Kera leading the way and the two High Priests following along behind them. The room slowly filled with an echoing silence, the noblemen and women falling silent once again as the quartet trod with great dignity toward the exit. Finally, they passed through the massive doors and, as those doors boomed shut behind them, Daerus was finally able to relax into laughter.

“I would not have missed that for anything,” he chortled.

Lueg grinned sympathetically, while Kera and Zhedthik bent curiously similar, indulgent smiles upon him.Then his lady spoke words that put a period to his amusement at once.

“You were very harsh with her, my love,” she murmured thoughtfully.

Daerus threw a startled glance her way. “Oh, so you heard that then?”

Not by the flicker of an eyelash did she indicate that she even heard the question, evidently considering it too obvious to warrant a reply. “She is terribly frightened, you know,” she said instead.

“That is her own doing,” he pointed out, feeling a bit defensive. “She will not listen to me or Zhedthik or Rischa or even Phoeday. What is to be done such an obstinate woman?”

She stared at him in mild exasperation. “Well, I do not know, Daerus, but I would think that you do.” She paused when he frowned, wondering what she was trying to imply. “Daerus, she is your twin. No one knows her as well as you do. I feel sure you know just how to set her mind at ease, if you would but put your mind to it.”

“I expect you are quite right, my dear, but …” he paused long enough to identify the feelings in his breast as a truculent sense of injury. “To own the truth, I am very much inclined to let her live with her fright until she sees that she should have trusted me.”

The exasperation in her eyes was no longer particularly mild. “This is not chivalrous of you, Daerus,” she scolded gently. “She is your sister. She is afraid. Will you not come to her defense?”

“Defend her against what? Her own silly ideas? Or would you have me defend her against myself? That is what she is afraid of, is she not?”

“I had thought better of you than this, Daerus,” she said, frowning at him as she passed through the door he held open for her. “Of course, she is not afraid of you. She is afraid that she will lose you. She has been afraid of that for some time,  as you would know,” she added with considerable asperity, “if you would stop sulking!”

She reached the chair that she had claimed as her own in their comfortable salon, turned to face him and, eyes closed, took a slow, deep breath. Daerus tried to think of something to say that would restore her opinion of him without also being wholly dishonest. Fortunately, since not a single word befriended him, she opened her eyes and, as they rested upon his face, her gaze softened. Suddenly, she laughed.

“Is something amusing?” he asked her mildly, very ready to change the subject.

She shook her head. “You are very like the Master, you know,” she told him, mischief in her expression.

Daerus decided not to ask her to elaborate.

The Chosen of Septha gathered together with the Chosen of Luegtha for a sumptuous midmeal in a common room in their wing of the Palace. Daerus joined them in a pensive mood, still wrestling with the problem of his twin, but he looked around at the motley group with which he broke bread and smiled. The two disparate groups seemed to have melded together almost seamlessly. Here was Lord Tomasadin engaged in a lively debate with Lord Loasdin, while Lady Rischa looked on with an indulgent smile. Toward the center of the table, Lord Brandis and Lord Brasdin ate with single-minded concentration while Sholeck and Sheloch exchanged one of their rapid-fire conversations in their unintelligibly guttural language. At the other end of the long table, Kera was involved in earnest converse with Zhedthik while silent Lueg was silent. He smiled.

“What amuses you, Lord Daerus?” asked Princess Tohra, seated to his left.

“It pleases me to see how much at ease we all are with each other,” he replied. “How do you do here, your Highness?”

She smiled and looked around her. “This place pleases me,” she told him. “It is not unlike my home.” After a brief silence, still smiling, she added, “I had not known until we arrived here that I miss my home.” The smile became mischievous as she added, “I do not miss the people there, though.”

Daerus laughed. “Thank you, your Highness. I had begun to fear that you were feeling homesick and was wondering what I should do about it.”

“Be easy, your Grace,” she assured him at once. “I may feel nostalgic a little while I am in this place but I was miserable at the court of Pym. I would not go back there.”

“I am happy to have been of service, your Highness,” he said, feeling a little embarrassed by the warmth in her dark eyes. It reminded him a little of the expression in Kera’s eyes when she had told him of his resemblance to the Master. He would never have confessed it to anyone but it made him rather nervous. He shrugged off the discomfort and turned his attention to his meal.

They had not long to wait after the servants had removed the covers from their repast before another courtier came to summon Zhedthik to resume his interrupted conversation with Emperor Saeros. “I am curious to know his thoughts,” the High Priest of Septha told Daerus as they followed their guide to the Imperial family’s chambers.

“As am I,” Daerus agreed before turning to silent Lueg. “I hope you will forgive me, Lueg, but why do you accompany us? Have you also something about which to speak to the Emperor?”

“No, of course not, your Grace,” Lueg replied at once. “I am tasked to accompany the Priest as he goes among the people of Tamaeranda and, in particular, when he might be in any danger. There are far too many well-armed guards here in the palace for me to relax my vigilance.”

Daerus grinned ruefully. “Do you really think Zhedthik needs you to preserve him from harm?”

Lueg returned that smile. “I am sure Zhedthik can very well take care of himself, Lord Daerus, but it would be best to avoid the consequences that would naturally come about if Zhedthik found it necessary to defend himself while he is here in the palace.”

“You are both very foolish,” Zhedthik said on a sigh. And then he frowned. “I do not understand why you are always laughing, Daerus. Do you not fear that you will not be taken seriously?”

Daerus composed himself as best he could and replied, “The problem has not yet come to my notice, Zhedthik.” His Throkish friend opened his lips to speak again but Daerus forstalled him. “I am afraid there is not time to discuss this further, for we have arrived.”

The courtier had ushered them to a door, knocked politely and opened it.

“Welcome, welcome!” said a familiar voice. “Please come in.”

They stepped into a comfortable sitting room, attractively appointed and at the same time much less formal and much more relaxed than the public rooms of the palace. Here they found both the Emperor and the Crown Prince, quit of their state robes and comfortably attired in plain tunics and breeches. His Majesty stood as they entered the room and moved to a tray laid upon a table containing a decanter of wine and several wine glasses. “May I offer you gentlemen some refreshment?” he asked.

“Your Majesty is very gracious,” Daerus said as he accepted his glass of wine.

“Not at all,” Emperor Saeros responded politely, as he handed another full glass to Lueg.

Then he glanced enquiringly at Zhedthik, decanter poised over a third glass.

Zhedthik shook his head. “I will drink water, Saeros,” he said.

Emperor Saeros nodded his head. “You may not partake of spirits, High Priest? Yes, I understand.”

“I do not like this wine that you of the South drink so often,” Zhedthik corrected the Emperor.

“Oh.”

“I will drink water,” Zhedthik added definitively.

A smothered chortle reminded all present that Prince Caelon was also in the room. The Emperor loftily ignored his son, tacitly indicating that Caelon could pour his own wine. “Very good, Zhedthik,” moving toward another table and picking up a brass pitcher.

When they had all been served and Saeros invited them to be seated, Zhedthik instantly took the initiative. “What is it that you would learn from me, Saeros of the Others of the South?” he asked in his habitual blunt fashion.

Caelon grinned. The Emperor never even blinked upon hearing himself called by this intriguing new title and Daerus would have given a great deal to have known what he thought of it. “Your people have been battling with us for a very long time, Zhedthik,” Emperor Saeros began. “I believe I asked you this question earlier but you were not given a chance to answer. What do the Throk want of us that they continually attack us and even now are massed on our norther frontier?”

“Yes, you did ask this before,” Zhedthik replied, staring so hard at the Emperor that that gentleman began to fidget in his chair. “It is no great secret. They want to kill you.”

“Yes, of course,” Emperor Saeros smoothly agreed, “but why do they want to kill us? Do they want our land?”

“No.”

“Do they want our women?”

“They might take your women, at first,” Zhedthik answered thoughtfully. “Once they came to know them better, they would give them back.”

Caelon suddenly erupted into a fit of coughing. ‘Tis a thousand pities that my Dia is not present to hear this!

This time, it was Daerus’ turn to grin. If you are feeling brave, you may recount the episode to her, you know.

Indeed, it may well be worth braving her wrath but I doubt I could repeat it with just Zhedthik’s inflection …

The Emperor, oblivious to this rapid-fire colloquy, was frowning in bewilderment. “Well but if they do not want our land and would not want our women, then what do they want?”

“It is as I said, Saeros. They want to kill you.” Zhedthik watched the Emperor’s confused expression for another moment before adding, “The Throk wish to spill blood. That is the way of the Throk. That is what my people believe they were made for and they are very harsh with any who question this. I was an honorable Throk warrior but I was punished – banished from my clan – for questioning this. There is nothing you could offer them to make them stop.”

This was a lengthy speech for Zhedthik and Daerus cast a speculative glance in his direction. There had been a note of hurt indignation in the Throk’s voice that surprised him. They had never discussed the circumstances under which Zhedthik had left the lands of the Throk. Zhedthik had not seemed to wish to discuss it but, listening to him now, Daerus had a strong sense that Zhedthik had been a victim of the sort of injustice of which all the Children of Chaos had complained when they had arrived at Shae. It was difficult to imagine anyone bullying Zhedthik, and not just because of his size; Daerus decided that he would like someday to hear that story.

Meanwhile, Emperor Saeros seemed disconcerted by Zhedthik’s description of the Throk. “There is nothing we can offer them to make them stop,” he repeated slowly. “Do you say there is nothing left then but for us to kill them all? For although we are weary of always fighting, I tell you we will not step back and just let them kill us.”

“As matters stand now, my Emperor,” interjected Daerus, “that does seem to be the ultimatum facing us. All the clans of the Throk are poised to the north. They, too, are tired of generation after generation of defeat. They have concluded that they must throw everything they have against us, to finally subjugate us or to perish in the attempt.”

“But that is madness!” Caelon interrupted, startled.

“It may seem like madness to you, but what else is left when peace is not possible?” Zhedthik posed the unanswerable question, ageless wisdom in his eyes. “They will not yield. They must either defeat you or die.”

“This is disturbing, Zhedthik,” Emperor Saeros said, firmly resuming control of the conversation. “I tell you frankly that I have no real wish to wholly exterminate the Throk. I am no such barbarian and have no wish to expend the lives of so many soldiers doing it.” He cast a speculative glance at his guests and added, addressing Daerus. “You would have me believe, your Grace, that you and your companions have the power to stop them where generations of defeat cannot?”

Daerus nodded gravely.

“You will have to convince me of that,” the Emperor said, staring at him so hard that he seemed to be trying to put him out of countenance.

“But why, my leige?” Daerus asked, doing his best to hide the sudden mischief he felt. “Have you forgotten that my friend Zhedthik here is High Priest of Septha?”

“No, I have not. But have you forgotten that he has just told us that he has been banished from his clan? It is difficult for me to credit that he has much influence among his countrymen,” Emperor Saerus returned sardonically.

“When I was exiled from my clan, I did not know my fate, Saeros,” Zhedthik interjected quite calmly. “When I journeyed to the south, I was nothing more than a clan-less, wounded and disgraced Throk warrior. Today, when I walk among my clan, Lord Septha walks with me. Even if I cannot convince them to turn from this desperate attack, the Master will.”

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