Brandis stared out the window, meditatively stroking his short greying beard as was his habit. There was really not much to see; the capital city of Tamaeranda was much like every other city he had ever seen – dirty, crowded and noisy. He supposed this task the Master had set them was doing him good. It is sometimes possible to become too well accustomed to solitude or the company of very few men, he thought ruefully.
Pay attention, Brandis, the Master’s voice chided gently in his head. You are being rude.
Brandis smothered the snort he was tempted to utter and turned away from the uninteresting view. Loasdin was talking.
“ … be more forthcoming, Master. We have completed the task with which you charged us. All the Children of Chaos were conveyed to his Grace of Shae safely. Why must we now trail along as they deal with the Throk?”
Because it is needful, Loasdin, Lord Luegtha’s voice replied firmly.
“Are you feeling homesick, Loasdin?” asked Tomasadin.
Loasdin’s face grew warm with embarrassment. “Do you say that I alone am longing to return to Luegoria?” he asked, looking around at the rest of his Brethren.
I am afraid you must be, their Master replied. Pandfer would doubtless follow the Princess Tohra to the ends of the earth. Brandis and Brasdin are happy to be working together for once. Tomasadin has developed a relationship of profound depth with a chance-met feline and Lueg is … well, he is Lueg, is he not?
By the time He had finished speaking, they were all grinning … except Loasdin. He was frowningly looking around at his comrades, lips resolutely closed. The silence in the room thickened and grew tense. Finally, Lueg asked in a surprisingly gentle voice, “Can you not confide in your brothers, Loasdin?”
There was another lengthy, uncomfortable silence before Loasdin muttered, “Why am I the only one among us who is not comfortable among these servants of Septha? Of course I did my duty by Faendun and even found him a good and gentle being. But – ”
“Did I ever tell you of how I found her Highness of Pym just in time to foil an assassination plot?” Pandfer interrupted. “They were going to ride out into the dessert with her, gagged and bound, and dump her in the sand to die. They said she was ‘unnatural’ and none could bear the touch of her hand.”
“Lady Rischa had not known the touch of another human being for more than twenty years,” Tomasadin said softly, his hand gently stroking the cat that sat on his lap. “She had been wandering from village to village to village. They blamed her for everything, too, everything from storms to colicky babes, so that every time she settled somewhere, eventually a mob chased her off.”
Brandis joined in. “We found Sholleck and Shelloch in the process of being hanged in the town square of the village where they’d lived,” he recollected. “No parents or family that we could see, no one complaining about the treatment the boys were getting. Couldn’t understand a word, of course, and those two are the devil’s own cubs for mischief.” He paused, shaking his head, “But I doubt whatever they did would have been bad enough to deserve hanging.”
“We have not spoke of this before, have we?” Lueg added. “Zhedthik had collapsed of his wounds in the hills of Lemantia, bewildered and heartsore and friendless, before the high priestess of Istha led me to him. I could not understand his language nor he mine, but I could see that he was deeply shamed and terribly afraid.” He paused to look around at them all. “The same story again and again, isn’t it? It is not diffucult to see why these people needed our escort.”
With that, Lueg turned to his brother once more. “And what of your Faendun, Loasdin? How did you find him?”
Loasdin had spent his time during these recitals scowling down at the scrubbed table before him. He did not raise his eyes upon being addressed by Lueg and he said nothing for another long moment. Finally, he said, “They were stoning him.” He drew a shuddering breath and continued, “The villagers had backed him against a wall and were all throwing stones when I got there. He was already unconscious. I think, if I had been just a few minutes later, it would have been too late for him.”
And can you not find it in you to pity the poor smith who had been stoned for no reason under the sun? Luegtha broke His silence to ask. Did you not ask him why his neighbors had treated him so? Do you even know his story?
“I didn’t ask,” Loasdin admitted in a voice of deep shame. “I carried him away from that place in my arms, for he was unconscious the whole time. When I judged that we had left the village far enough behind, I lay him down and built a rude shelter around him. I tended his wounds so that he could travel. That is why we were so late, even though Faendun had the least distance of them all to travel.” Here, he hesitated.
Yes? Luegtha gently prompted.
“I wish I didn’t have to touch him, I’ll confess. Every time I did, I felt as if the bleakest cold darkness of the Great Dark had invaded my blood,” Loasdin went on. Then, suddenly, a sob escaped him as he continued. “Master, I am sorry to be a disappointment to you but I even reached a point where I wished he would die of his injuries, just so that I would not have to touch him anymore. And now, every time I must ride at his side and vow to protect him from all harm, I can only think that I must be terribly flawed – for none of my brothers have harbored such thoughts of those they were tasked to protect!”
The next few moments were given to a silence that was broken only by Loasdin’s smothered tears. Finally, Tomasadin said, “Loasdin, you are not alone. It is not easy to touch them, we all know this.”
Loasdin raised his wet face to stare at Tomasadin in shock.
“We overcome the difficulty only because we do know their stories,” Brasdin said. “We see how wretchedly, terribly lonely they are.”
“Imagine, brother,” Pandfer urged him. “None will hold them as they weep out their sorrows or stroke them with a loving touch or even shake their hand in friendship. What must that be like for them? How can we add to that sorrow by rescuing them and carrying them off to Shae while still refusing to touch them?”
Into all this compassion, Luegtha spoke sternly. Look past yourself, Loasdin, and see the reality that Faendun has been forced to live. This is not and never has been about you.
“Indeed, we need to be united in this,” Lueg said, “for our next task, as we travel north, will be to help his Grace of Shae to teach a bit more of tolerance to her Highness, his twin.”
As always, Lueg, you understand Me so very well …
* * *
Her Imperial Highness Dia Aerandos stared pensively through a window that gave onto one of the many small courtyards throughout the palace compound. A scene of sober industry met her approving gaze. This particular courtyard housed the wood workers: the wheelwrights and the coopers and the carpenters, plying their trades in service to the palace household. Here, then, was purpose and discipline and pride in workmanship, she thought. Here were the blessings of Order.
How very different the capital had been during the last days of Kaerkas of Ormaer, when he and the whole of the city had reeled about in an endless, pointless drunken debauch under the sway of the Destroyer! It saddened her to think how easily everyone seemed to forget the dreadful Chaos they had banished not so very long ago, how quickly they had come to take the blessings of Order for granted.
Perhaps she should step back and let matters take their course. Perhaps, when Septha emerged once more from the House of Chaos in a premature bid to take a place in this world, everyone would stop behaving to her as if she were a hysterical female.
Dia turned from the window and began to pace about the sitting room she shared with Caelon. She considered repairing to the practice room to spend her excess energy by practicing her swordplay, or perhaps she could indulge in a bit of target practice with her daggers or her javelins. Of course, none of those activities would do much beyond tiring her body; they would not help her to decide how best to solve her problem.
The Phoenix – her little Caerad – had told her brother not to heed her should she try to turn him from his task. Dia took a difficult, gasping breath as the pain of that pronouncement struck her once again. I do not believe it! she told herself stubbornly. He would not have said such a thing of me. She had come to realize already that there was no one to help her. Daerus had somehow charmed or bewitched everyone in the palace – before ever he had arrived, she thought, recalling her conversation with Phoeday – so that it seemed there was no one but herself to recognize the danger in which they all stood. If even the Phoenix had turned against her, she felt she would have to choice but to wholly surrender to despair.
What else had Daerus said? ‘I serve two Masters, Dia,’ she recalled his voice speaking into her mind. Could that be true? It seemed absurd to her that anyone could be called upon to serve two such opposite extremes. How was that even possible? No, she decided, it could not be. For some reason, Daerus wished her to believe he had received the blessing of the Phoenix as well as that of Lord Septha, and that reason was not far to seek. Of everyone in the palace, clearly hers was the interference Daerus feared most.
The question was why? It did not seem to her that the Secrets of the TimeKeepers would be of much use to her in her current quandary. Her only weapon here was the bond she had always shared with her twin, and his mind-touch was now so steeped in the cold darkness of Chaos that she had shuddered away from it instinctively. When his mind had been filled with the black ooze that had imprisoned him during the late Interval, it had been that link that had shown her that Daerus was not himself. Caelon had said that Daerus was in full possession of himself at this time but Dia did not think so. Perhaps, she thought, if she could bring herself to hold that mind link instead of shying away from it, she could once again find her brother somewhere within the blackness of his mind.
And why was Daerus so very weak that Septha could control him so easily when he had been trained just as she had been in the ways of Order? Was it Kera? The Destroyer had used his attachment to her before to ensnare him. She could think of no reason why the Dark God would tamper with one of His own rare successes. There seemed nothing to be done about that since her brother had so foolishly taken her to wife. At the thought of Kera being set in her mother’s place at Shae, Dia frowned fiercely. Well, if she was his choice, Dia could do nothing about it but they would not bring their infection into the rest of Tamaeranda.
That thought raised yet another question. Even if Dia were to discover that Daerus was once more controlled against his will, what was she to do about it? He had some task, she knew, for Phoeday had told her so. Perhaps, if she could but prevent him from accomplishing this task, he would be set free. The task, it seemed to her, was the key to the whole business.
Suddenly, unbidden, Dia recalled something else Phoeday had told her. “I believe I recommended to you before that you should not meddle, your Highness,” he had said with all his usual gruff frankness. “You cannot help him and if you insist on trying you may well cause him to fail. If he fails, this world as you know it will wither and be no more – and your son will be lost forever.”
At that recollection, Dia groaned aloud without realizing it. Must she now choose between her brother and her child? Would it be up to her to decide which of them must be lost to her forever? Surely there must be something she could do, without having to resign herself to allowing Daerus to complete this task of his that will keep Septha from meeting His end. Why should she do anything to help keep evil alive in the world? And why was Phoeday counseling her to do so?
Well, I shall not! Dia thought in full rebellion. Someone must take steps to keep this abomination from happening and if no one will help me, then I shall do it alone!
“One wonders what has become of the faith you once professed to have?” another voice spoke from her past.
Dia gasped incredulously. “Phoebus?” Spinning around, she stared about wildly but no one was there.
Dia was shaken but resolute. This had nothing to do with her faith. It had nothing to do with either the Phoenix or Septha the Destroyer. No, this had been her goal since she had first arrived at this palace at the beginning of that final High Sun. Nothing had changed. She was determined to retrieve her brother from his bondage to the darkness, regardless of what anyone else may have said to the contrary.
And with that, her decision was made. There had been quite a lot of talk about Dia accompanying Caelon when he rode north with his Grace of Shae and company, but she had not yet agreed to make one of the party. Now, she saw that she had no choice. She turned and hurried toward her bedchamber. Caelon and Daerus planned to leave at sunrise. She would have to hurry if she wished to be ready.
* * *
Daerus and Caelon sat sipping maered together, comfortably sprawled in the sitting room of the apartments that had been turned over to the party from the Grand Duchy of Shae. Everyone else had retired, cognizant of the fact that his Grace planned to embark upon the final leg of their journey at first light. Daerus was fully aware that it behooved him to rest himself but he also felt a strong need to spend a little time with his marriage-brother. He had invited Caelon to his apartments to share a mug of the rich brew but acknowledged to himself that his acceptance of that invitation had been a surprise.
They had made desultory conversation for a short while but both had fallen silent, aware that they were preoccupied by the same thing.
“Are we quite certain that we truly wish for Dia to accompany us on this journey?” Caelon said suddenly.
Daerus smiled, recalling his conversation with Lady Rischa earlier that day. “Yes, indeed, your Highness,” he said.
“She has not yet agreed to come with us,” Caelon mused, “and you have no idea how stubborn she can be.”
At that, Daerus gave a shout of laughter, quickly doused. “If there is no one else in the whole of the world who has a very good idea of how stubborn she can be, it is I, my friend.” He gave the matter another moment’s thought. “I do not think we have much to worry about, though. You may be startled to discover when you return to your chambers that she is entirely packed and quite ready to set out with us.”
Caelon looked at him with that habitual quizzing smile in his blue eyes. “I don’t suppose you would care to give us a hint as to why my lady must needs accompany us?”
“It is needful for her to see what transpires.”
“And what is it that will transpire that she must see?”
His smile faded. “There are two things she will see, my friend. First, she will see that the Children of Chaos will do precisely what we said we would do, in despite of her insistent distrust. And besides that, she will see – as will you all – what results when the Chosen One makes his Choice.”
With those words, Daerus dropped his gaze, deep in thought. He was well aware that he had chosen The Phoenix when the moment was upon him, in part because of his disgust for what Lord Septha had turned his beloved Kera into but more so because he knew that humans could not exist in the swirling Chaos in which He gloried. He frowned as he followed the gist of his thoughts. He had promised that he would not be the instrument of Septha’s demise but he still could not condemn his fellow creature to the lives they would live with Septha as their God.
Into the silence, Caelon asked delicately, “And this Chosen One is … you?”
Still frowning, Daerus nodded. “Aye,” he said before once more meeting his marraige-brother’s eyes. “Dia would have it that this Choice should be an easy matter and she would not for an instant be able to acknowledge that there are two sides to this coin. If she were with us right now, I have no doubt that she would argue as forcefully as she could that there can only be one choice.” He uttered a short, mirthless laugh. “How ironic that she should be the one now who urges me to withstand my own destiny in favor of blindly following her Master. Last time I spent any time in this palace, the boot was on the other foot.”
“I do not know that I would describe it as merely a case of switching places, Daerus” Caelon ventured. “The path on which Septha had set your feet was a path to darkness. Dia cannot countenance Septha and nor can she countenance your allegiance to Him because Septha is everything that is evil.”
“Not so, Caelon,” Daerus said, his tone forceful but not argumentative. “Septha is not a god of evil. He is a god of Chaos and Chaos is not, of itself, evil. It is difficult for us to live with. It cannot meet our needs. But it is not evil any more than Lord Septha is evil.”
Caelon lifted a skeptical brow. “Do you not consider it to have been the will of an evil Master that caused you to murder me?” he asked.
Daerus smiled faintly. “Septha is not evil, Caelon. There were things He wanted and He did not have any reason to believe He could persuade, so He fell back on force. In many ways, He is but a child.”
“Daerus,” his companion reproachfully.
“What?” Daerus said with an air of wounded innocence.
“Daerus,” he said still more reproachfully.
“A child?” Caelon repeated incredulously.
Daerus chuckled. “My lady spent a lot of time with Lord Septha before I was able to retrieve her,” he said thoughtfully. “She has told me a great deal about Him. Most important for the purposes of this conversation, brother, is that Septha is terribly lonely and desperate to be loved. But Septha is also arrogant and wholly unable to ask for help … or anything else, for that matter … no matter how badly He may need it. He cannot earn love, for He does not know how. He is very frightened of being rejected but His experiences teach Him nothing.” Finally, he raised his eyes to Caelon’s. “Yes, certainly, He is a child.”
“It sounds as if you have given a great deal of thought to all this,” Caelon said encouragingly.
“I have had to, Caelon,” Daerus told him, suddenly very serious. “The burden I bear is not as easily decided as it may seem to you, who serves only one Master.” He paused, recalling many of his conversations with former tenants, with his sister, with the Children of Chaos, before he went on. “It is an easy thing for you to see how living with Chaos is unhealthy and unwholesome because Chaos uncontrolled causes humans to reel about without sufficient attention to the basic things they need to survive. But it is not so readily apparent to you that living with Order uncontrolled is every bit as unhealthy and unwholesome.
Caelon laughed quietly. “Really, Daerus, do you not think that ‘Order uncontrolled’ is itself a contradiction in terms?”
“Not at all,” he replied with an absent smile. “Order uncontrolled creates stagnant customs and mindless tradition. No one ever questions the way things are. No one ever tries to improve anything at all. Recall your father’s predecessor. He was styled Kaerkas the Beast, and he was certainly a cruel and petty tyrant, but do you think that the people would ever rise up in revolt against an unjust ruler? No, of course not. Such a thing would be unthinkable, simply because Order alone demands that every other principle must be sacrificed to what is predictable and stable.”
Silence fell. “This choice you must make,” Caelon ventured, “is a choice between Lord Septha and The Phoenix, is it not?”
Daerus nodded. “I think so but, of course, it might be more complicated than that. These things always seem to be needlessly complicated.”
“And have you decided yet whom you will choose?”
“No,” he replied. “I will make my choice when the Time comes for me to make my choice. Not before.”
“Dia will try to influence you, you know.”
Daerus smiled winsomely. “As to that, I expect you will try to influence me as well.”
“I am not so very sure of that,” Caelon said. “As you have explained it to me, I am not sure I could presume to imagine I know what the right choice should be.”
Really, Daerus thought, his marriage-brother really was a capital fellow! “I cannot describe to you how very much I appreciate that, Caelon,” he said earnestly.
“Yes, that is all very well but don’t think that I can preserve you from your sister,” Caelon said. “I give you fair warning that I’ll not even make the attempt.”
“I can handle Dia,” Daerus said confidently, “although I feel certain that we will, between us, cause you to immediately seek out the Empress Tamia upon our return to the palace, to thank her for never having inflicted siblings upon you.”
* * *
Lord Septha sat brooding upon His throne in the House of Chaos – which, for once, was actually a throne for the moment. He would never have admitted this to anyone at all but privately He could acknowledge that He was afraid. He sensed that His Chosen were moving north to meet the ranks of His Children the Throk. He could, if He had chosen to do so, summon His looking glass to watch the events He knew were about to come to pass. Septha found that He did not wish to watch.
He found Himself wishing for what seemed the thousandth time that the human woman were still with Him. She had seemed to understand absolutely nothing but her chatter had at least distracted Him from His woes. He could not bring Himself to admit that He was fond of the woman. How absurd of Him to actually miss her!
“Wise Companion,” Septha muttered to Himself scornfully. “Hmmph!”
She had left the House of Chaos to return to the world of humans with Daerus of Shae. Him! Why must Daerus of Shae have been destined to make the Choice? Septha wondered, feeling somewhat sorry for Himself. Of course, he had promised that the God of Chaos would not meet His end by the hand of Shae. But how could He trust such a promise when He had been betrayed once already by Daerus of Shae? The answer to that question was obvious; He could not. But there was nothing He could do to influence the outcome and Septha found that He was not well suited to accepting His own powerlessness.
I am a God! He told himself bracingly. I should not have to accept powerlessness!
Somehow, the thought did nothing to make Him feel any better.
Suddenly, Lord Septha stiffened. “What doth thou do here?”
Astonishingly, the Phoenix stepped out of a Time Window in that instant, saying, “If We have to wait, We might just as well wait together.”
“Thou must be very sure of thyself,” Septha muttered frowningly at Him.
“No more than You,” replied the demigod. “Come, let us bury the hatchet. This will all be done soon. We have no cause to brangle anymore at this point.”
Septha did not reply, merely scowling in what He hoped was a discouraging manner. But His unwelcome guest merely smiled faintly and sat upon the seat occupied not so long ago by the woman. “Will You watch?”
The Phoenix shrugged. “As You will.”
As he settled more comfortably into the chair that had, moments ago, been a large boulder – damn him to eternity for bringing his curst Order into the House of Septha! – Septha realized that the demigod would be perfectly willing to sit together with Him in silence for as long as it might take.
How long would that be? A meaningless question in the House of Chaos.
All the Dark God knew in that instant was that He was still afraid … but He was no longer alone.