Chapter 10

Dia overcomes imperial importunities

” . . . and so, of course, his Majesty asked me at once whatever I could mean by such a statement,” Lady Dia was recounting to an audience of interested Aerandosians, kneading her hands anxiously. Caelon watched her with interest, rather amused that the normally self-possessed Lady Dia should be reduced to the nervousness of a kitten and wondering what under the sun could have happened.

Neither he nor his parents had been a bit surprised to see her when he had opened his mother’s sitting room door and invited her inside. After all, she usually arrived shortly before midmeal to enliven his mother’s day with her company. Today, however, she had hurled herself into his mother’s sitting room as if all the demons of Chaos were chasing her and, instead of settling down to chat, she had said in some agitation that she had done something dreadful and wished to beg their pardon. Thus far, the nature of her crime had wholly escaped Caelon, for the girl seemed to be taking the devil of a long time getting to the point.

“So, I told him . . . I told him . . . ,” and Lady Dia faltered to a stop.

After a seemingly interminable wait, during which it became apparent that her ladyship could not bring herself to continue, his mother prompted gently, “You told him . . . ?”

She took a deep breath. “I told him that I could not honorably accept the Prince’s offer b-because I was already p-promised . . . ,” her eyes fell away from Lady Tamia’s and, crimson cheeked, she continued in a mortified whisper, ” . . . to Lord Caelon.”

For an astonished moment, no one spoke. Caelon exchanged a glance with his parents and then, as one, they fell into gusts of merriment. Lady Dia raised startled eyes to gaze at them all and, sadly, her obvious bewilderment made the laugh all the more.

“Well, young lady,” his father said when he could command his voice again, “you have certainly shown that you know how to keep your wits about you in an emergency.”

“You do not mind this subterfuge?” she asked anxiously, directing the question impartially at the three of them.

“Mind? My dear child, I would willingly commit a far worse crime than this to preserve a daughter of Mara’s from having her hand forced in this odious fashion!” his mother declared. She suddenly giggled, adding, “Your mama would be so proud of you!”

Lady Dia paled, her eyes dilating. “Oh, dear! Mama!”

That made his parents laugh again. Caelon, managing to keep from grinning, chimed in, “Well, really, I find all this mirth unseemly! Here am I being entrapped into marriage by this designing female, and you two can do nothing but laugh!”

Lady Dia stared at him in considerable dismay. His parents, who knew him rather better than did my lady, very naturally laughed again, until his father grinned at him and said, “You know, you could do much worse, lad.”

“Oh, you two are perfectly dreadful,” Lady Tamia declared, trying unsuccessfully to contain her mirth. “Here is poor Lady Dia, almost ready to sink from the mortification of having been forced into this prevarication (and doubtless terrified that we will think ill of her), and all you can think of to do by way of reassurance is to tease her in this terribly unkind way!”

“How can you say so, my lady?” protested Lord Saeros, eyes twinkling. “I am sure I would never behave so callously toward Lady Dia. I was teasing Caelon!”

“Odious wretch!” retorted the Dutchess with a fond smile. Then she looked at Lady Dia. “So, what had his Majesty to say to your mendacious tale?”

Her ladyship reddened once more. “He has said that he will take up the matter with Lord Saeros and Lord Caelon presently,” she told them, still looking terribly embarrassed.

Lord Saeros looked at her with shrewd eyes. “And you hurried off to your alleged groom to beg him not to give you away. Is that it?” he asked her gently.

Lady Dia, once more kneading her hands, nodded miserably. “Really, I am so sorry, I would never have embroiled any of you in this, but truly, I did not know what else to do. My father is not here and Daerus . . . ,” here, she hesitated.

“Daerus,” Caelon completed the sentence for her, “is unlikely to be of any more use in this case than he has been since you arrived. In fact,” he added, thinking aloud, “I shouldn’t wonder at it if this whole thing was his idea.”

Lady Dia ducked her head, looking so ashamed that he found himself wishing he had left that thought unsaid.

Lady Tamia, also noting her distress, said, “Oh, surely not! Your brother might wish for you to wed into the imperial family as he intends to do, but he could not be pleased to think that you are forced to wed against your will!”

To Caelon’s complete astonishment, Lady Dia’s only response to this protest was the single tear which escaped her control and slid down her cheek. Her hands worked even faster, until he wondered if she would tear her own skin in her agitation.

Naturally, that was entirely too much for his mother. She leapt at once to her feet to enfold the girl in a tender embrace, crooning and fussing over her comfortingly. But Caelon could see, by the stiffness with which she returned Lady Tamia’s embrace and the muscles rippling along her jaw, that her ladyship was not so much hurt by her brother’s betrayal as she was enraged at his machinations. He would have given a great deal to have been present at their next private interview.

Meanwhile, Lord Saeros cast an appraising eye over his son. “The question now,” that gentleman said, “is whether or not you mean to expose my lady as an undutiful fraud.”

“It is a very lowering reflection,” Caelon said mournfully, to no one in particular, “that my own father thinks his only son a dastardly villain. Of course, I will maintain the fiction. I am a gentleman, sir, and I shall always lend my aid to a damsel in distress, whether I save her from a ferocious dragon or a boring bridegroom.”

“Well, you may laugh at all this, my dear,” Lady Tamia said regretfully to her husband — a gracious permission of which Lord Saeros seemed to be taking full advantage — “but I for one will be honest with you and admit that I wish my lady’s tale were indeed true.”

Lady Dia, listening to this confession, blushed a fiery red and looked more mortified than ever.

“Why, how shocking,” Caelon said in wholly feigned amazement. Then, he grinned again. “Really, Mama, there was no need for you to make such a disclosure. You have been as subtle in your matchmaking as an axe to the head.”

“Now, stop it, young man,” Lady Tamia said, unruffled. “Here is poor Saeros, guffawing and wheezing in the most distressing fashion, and just think how dreadful if he should take a fit of choking and die of laughter. We will discuss this matter calmly just as soon as my lord has composed himself.”

“What is there to discuss, ma’am?” Caelon asked his mother.

“Do you still mean to leave the palace, my dear?” she asked Lady Dia by way of an answer.

“Indeed, your Grace, I shall be gone from here before ever firstmeal is served,” Lady Dia informed them fervently. “I must advise my father of all that has come to pass. Daerus will wed where he chooses, but I rather fancy Papa will have some words for my dear brother about his duty to compel the respect due his sister.”

Caelon grinned. She spoke with a certain vindictive pleasure that made perfect sense to him. Really, the boy deserved to be horsewhipped — or he would, if he were not bound in that accursed mental slime. Recalling their conversation when first she had announced her intention to return to Shae, he now wondered what next their enemies would do to prevent it, for they had certainly given Lady Dia good reason to want to leave the palace as soon as possible.

“You are going to have to accompany her, you know, Caelon,” Lord Saeros interrupted his thoughts.

“Indeed?” Lady Dia asked in some surprise. “May I know why?”

“If we are going to maintain this fiction long enough for the Grand Dukes to respond, it would look odd for your prospective bridegroom to permit you to set out alone, my lady,” Lord Saeros explained.

“Respond?”

“Whether or not you and my son are to be wed is beside the point,” his Grace continued severely. “It is quite intolerable that you should have been put in a position in which you had to fabricate such a tale in order to avoid a distasteful marriage of the Emperor’s choosing. His Majesty cannot simply dispose of the children of the Great Houses as if they were his chattels, and he seems in need of being reminded of this.”

Caelon looked at his father sardonically. “Just how long is that going to take, sir?” he asked politely. “Shall I, in fact, be required to wed my lady in order to give you enough time to prepare this response?”

“I think not,” Lord Saeros said blandly, “but how ungallant of you to display your distaste for the notion so plainly. I have already given you my opinion that you might do much worse.” Caelon grinned at that reproach as his father continued. “Loraed’s prompt reaction cannot be in doubt. Gaeron of Tamaer can also be counted on for swift action, for he has three daughters and will no doubt be quite dismayed by his Majesty’s behavior.”

“And Permaedon of Gedbaen is your marriage-brother,” Caelon interjected, still grinning, “and will do as he is told.”

“Sisters do have their uses,” Lord Saeros remarked blandly.

Two pairs of unfriendly, feminine eyes fixed themselves upon him.

 *   *   *

Dia sat in the bathtub that had been prepared in her sitting room, trying to soak the accumulated tensions of recent events from her tired body, and considered Colonel Lord Caelon Aerandos. He had certainly seemed to take the whole betrothal charade in much better part than she had expected, for she had feared he would take this as some sort of ploy to entrap him into a match. She would have liked to have explained to him that the deception had not been entirely her idea, but since she could not have said from where those unbidden words had come, she knew that such an explanation was unlikely to mend matters. She sighed and found herself wishing, not for the first time, that she could have met the Grand Duke Saeros of Aerandos and his delightful family under different circumstances.

Turning her thoughts to her much more immediate problems, she wondered once again how Daerus and his imperial fiancee would now contrive to get her wed to Prince Maermat. Perhaps they would give up on that idea, if they could decide upon some other course of action by which they could hope would control her. If she could imagine what they hoped to achieve by such a match, she could also perceive certain disadvantages to them, for Dia would be no docile, dutiful bride and her position within the imperial family would be likely to give her a much better vantage point from which to combat the evil darkness that had consumed her brother and was threatening her.

And yet, even with those advantages, she felt a growing conviction that she would very soon have to leave this place. Not just yet, for there was still a piece of the puzzle missing, but very soon. She smiled ruefully to herself. From her point of view, the puzzle was still a puzzle and all of it was missing. Once again, she was visited by the rather odd notion that she was being fed minute bits of information, little flashes of insight that would prompt her to act but would give her no extras in the way of explanation or instruction. She recalled that comforting warmth and light that had overwhelmed her in the throne room during her interview with Emperor Kaerkas. In its way, it was every bit as powerful and irresistible as the cloying darkness which Septha the Destroyer spun, but Dia did not fear its power. She could not have said why she felt so certain that the warm brilliance was no threat, even when it was every bit as controlling as the darkness, and it occurred to her that she was operating on hunches and guesses and gut instincts that reduced to a more profound sort of faith than any she had ever had to summon to her aid before.

Suddenly, there was a loud knock at her sitting room door. Dia, stepping from the bath and wrapping a large toweling sheet around her body, reached out with her mind and encountered her brother’s familiar presence. “Go away, Daerus,” she called to him. “I am indisposed.”

Much to Dia’s annoyance, her brother’s reply to that denial was to open the door without further ceremony. She opened her mouth to scold him but the words died on her lips as her eyes met his. His smile was distinctly unpleasant and the only word she could think of to describe the way he looked at her was evil. Unaccountably, her heart gave a frightened thump.

More to dispel that ridiculous knot of fear — Whatever they have done to him, this is still Daerus, she told herself sternly — than from any real desire to exchange in bantering converse with him, she said with a resigned sigh, “Can you never rid yourself of this habit of bursting into my chambers whenever you have news? Really, Daerus, only think what Mama would say to such incivility!”

To her surprise, the wicked light faded from his eyes and he blinked in some bewilderment. “Mama?” he said stupidly.

“Yes, Mama,” she said, taking a free corner of the towel and beginning to pat herself dry with it. “You do remember her, I trust?” Deliberately, she kept her tone casual and offhand as, without betraying her interest, she watched his reactions.

“Yes, of course I remember her!” he said impatiently, sounding just as he might have a week before he left home. “What has she to say to anything?”

Dia grinned. “What, indeed? Poor Mama! Papa would not thank you for speaking so disrespectfully of her.”

“Dia … !”

“And how often has she had to remind you that,” and here, Dia’s voice took on the sing-song quality of one reciting an oft-heard refrain, “no matter that she is your sister, my dear, Dia is still a lady, and you must not go about bursting into her rooms as if they were your own.”

Oh, how he fought against the smile that was curving his lips! “I am afraid I have lost count,” he said. Then he sighed. “Poor Mama! It is as well that she can have no notion of what her children get up to when they are from home.”

She chuckled, longing with all her heart to prolong this interlude with her twin, for he seemed suddenly so much more like the brother she knew. “For that matter, it is as well that she can have no notion of how often we find ourselves saying, ‘Poor Mama!’ about one thing or another.”

A reluctant laugh greeted this sally. Again, Daerus sighed and the wistful sorrow in his eyes touched her to the heart. “Indeed,” he agreed. “I wish … well, never mind. I am sorry, Dia.” And then, so slowly that she knew he was fighting against it, the eyes that held hers lost all their warmth and laughter until, finally, her beloved twin was once more hidden from her sight.

Affecting not to notice the change and deliberately misunderstanding him, she said cheerfully, “And so you should be, but never mind. Tell me what has occurred to send you barreling into my chambers in such a bang. Has the Emperor dropped down dead? Is the palace on fire? What’s afoot?”

He shook his head, and Dia saw with some misgiving that the evil leer was back. “Nothing so earth-shattering, my dear.” Then he turned his head to speak over his shoulder. “Come in, your Highness.”

Dia frowned as her brother opened the door further to admit Prince Maermat. What were they about? The prince strolled into the center of the room, his gaze frankly sensual. Defiantly, she straightened as her temper heated. How dared they … !

“I shall myself attend to the meddler Aerandos,” Daerus was saying to Prince Maermat.

Dia saw that he fully intended to leave her alone with the prince and her eyes widened. “Daerus, have you utterly taken leave of your senses?”

He looked back at her over his shoulder. “Not at all,” he said, smiling. “I did try to warn you, Dia.”

And, with that, he stepped into the corridor and quietly closed the door behind him.

Prince Maermat, still smiling, began to walk toward her and she stood her ground. She did not attempt to deny to herself that she was very much afraid, but she preferred to focus upon the fact that she was also growing angrier by the minute. Clearly, she had underestimated the depths to which her foes would stoop in order to assure her cooperation. Daerus had warned her that she would be given no choice in the matter, but it had never occurred to her that the Prince might try to force himself upon her. No doubt they were trying to frighten her into capitulation.

“What are you about, your Highness,” she asked primly, and with a degree of formality that she privately acknowledged was rather ridiculous under the circumstances.

The Prince stopped. “I am securing my own,” he replied, his smile widening as if he agreed.

“Securing your own?”

The smug smile he wore never wavered. “Your brother has already explained matters to you, my lady. You will be mine whether you would or no.” He seemed very sure of himself.

“And is this your notion of persuasion, then?” she asked suddenly scornful. “I am Shae. You are Ormaer. Do you truly think I would stoop to wed one with so little notion of the honor of his House?”

At that, Prince Maermat frankly laughed. It was not a pleasant sound. “What do you think I care for that?” he asked her. “The chosen of Dark Septha have no need to concern themselves with petty notions of honor.” Once again, he started toward her. “Come, my lady, let us have done with this missishness. If you will but cooperate, you may find that you enjoy the experience prodigiously.”

Dia’s flesh crawled at the thought. Indeed, somehow, she still could not bring herself to believe that Maermat truly intended to ravish her. “And if I refuse?” she demanded with a prideful tilt to her chin and a considering expression in her eyes.

He eyed her up and down in something very like contempt. “It will be no particular trouble for me to take you,” he told her. “I’d had some hope that, in this situation, you might bow to the inevitable and make this a pleasant interlude for us both.”

“I had rather by far that you killed me, sir,” she said, her voice flat with hostility. “You may very well overpower me, but I will never submit to you and yours.”

“Ah, no, I cannot.” he told her. “There are rules, you know. You may choose to kill yourself when, once I have done with you, you discover yourself to be with child,” he added indifferently, closing the distance between them. “Or you may choose to go on living, to give birth to the ultimate instrument of Chaos. It really does not matter, my lady. Whatever you choose, the end will be the same and Great Septha will finally regain his place in this world.” He paused for a moment, his eyes travelling over her face in such a way that, for a moment, she could almost have believed this man genuinely might have cared for her. “I will confess, though, that I rather think I should like to father a child of you, my lovely Dia,” he told her gently.

That insolently spoken familiarity was completely lost on Dia. As the sense of his words penetrated her shock and anger, she began to see that Maermat had nothing to lose in this pass. And now, as she realized that bedding her was not a means to an end, but the end itself, she began to be truly afraid.

The Prince lifted a hand to caress her cheek but Dia struck it away angrily. His eyes hardened, but the smile he wore did not falter, and those eyes continued to hold hers as he unexpectedly reached out to rip the towel away from her clutching hands as if he would strip her of the honorable pretensions to which she had clung. Then he grasped her shoulders and drew her resisting body against his with a jerk, to caress her neck with cold lips. Dia felt certain that her soul froze at the touch of his mouth on her skin. She instinctively cringed away from him and, aware that he was done with talking, she gave a tremendous heave to free herself.

There she stood, naked, and no longer tall and proud as a daughter of Shae but crouched into a fighting posture that dared him to try his might against her. He laughed lightly. “And still you resist me, foolish Dia? Observe how useless such defiance is.” She felt him release a spell, felt the strength slowly draining from her limbs and felt her fear as quickly escalating to panic. Struggling now against his magic as well as the arms that encircled her once more, she silently screamed, Caelon!

It was only because she continued her seemingly hopeless struggle against his Secrets that she gained a reprieve when, quite by accident, her knee violently connected with her assailant’s crotch. Distracted by pain, Prince Maermat’s spell dissolved in his curses and Dia, once more in command of her body, wrenched herself free of his embrace. But before she could make any further move, Prince Maermat, still snarling incoherently in pain, fetched her a stunning backhanded slap that sent her hurtling halfway across the room to crash into the table that held her daggers.

Dia’s cheek throbbed where he had hit her and her vision was blurred as a result of rapping her head on the furniture. Frantically, struggling to retain consciousness, she made a desperate grab for the table. It mattered not to her in that moment whether she used them on herself or her attacker, but she had to get to her daggers. She could not black out now! Caelon! she called again, putting all the fervent urgency she felt into that silent shout.

Each of her hands closed on the hilts of her daggers and, sensing that Maermat was coming up behind her, she tried to spin to face him. As quick as she was, she was not quite quick enough. As she was in the act of turning, he grasped her left wrist and levered her arm up so that her fist was raised toward the ceiling. She struggled to get free of his grip for a moment but, realizing that leverage was working against her, she slashed out with her other hand instead and Maermat, in the act of dodging her blade, loosed the wrist he held. Then, she felt his mind at work again, felt the peculiar inrushing sense of gathering strength and knew that he was preparing to release his spell once more. She could not fight him if he were going to use Dark Secrets to rob her limbs of the will to resist. Her arm whipped out like a bolt of lightening as she sent one of her daggers spinning through the air, directly toward the Imperial heir’s head.

With a startled shout, Maermat dodged. The knife whistled past his ear but she had at least distracted him, and thankfully felt his spell dissipate. She would have to stay on the offensive, she realized, keeping him off balance so that he would not have the focus he would need in order to use magic against her. She did not have leisure to attend either the fluttering in her belly or her thundering heartbeat, and was aware of nothing but her own desperate determination. She also saw with considerable misgiving that her resistance, her willingness to resort to violence and his own extreme confidence in his ability to overcome that resistance were combining with the spectacle of her nudity to enflame him even more. He was thinking very loudly. Vile images of his imagined eventual conquest flickered across her mind, both revolting and terrifying her, and where was Caelon?

Meanwhile, she saw that she now had only one dagger, while the other was stuck in the wall behind the Prince. Before it occurred to him to turn and arm himself with it, she rushed him, the dagger in her had flashing dangerously. For a moment, it seemed she saw an opening but Maermat was not to be bested so easily. He danced clear, sidestepping her attack and slipping around her to the other side of the room.

But it seemed he had seen his own dilemma: he would have to stay far enough out of reach to avoid her blades, yet not so far as to give her room for a clean cast. She could not tell if Daerus had, indeed, warned him of her skill with knife and javelin, or if the sound of her dagger whistling past his head had given him pause. Whatever he might have been thinking, his awareness of his own physical danger now that she was armed served the purpose of giving him other things to ponder than the Dark Secrets he would use against her.

Before she could get to the dagger protruding from the wall, Maermat rushed her, as aware as she that she was twice as dangerous armed with two daggers than she was with but one. She danced back, her blade flickering while with her other hand, she groped behind her in search of a dagger hilt. It was awkward, as well, for she could not look away from his attempts to grasp the hand that wielded the knife. Dia began to wonder despairingly just how long she would be able to keep this up.

And then, just as his hand closed on her wrist, a very welcome voice barked out, “Maermat!” Caelon of Aerandos stood in the doorway, his aura brilliant, his expression thunderous.

Starting with surprise, the Prince released her and backed away. Rendered almost faint with relief, Dia sagged back against the wall, letting her arms fall to her sides, although her hand still convulsively clutched her dagger. As reaction set in and she began to tremble violently, she slowly slid down the wall to the floor, hugging her knees into her chest.

Caelon had been striding down the halls of the imperial palace, when he realized that he was being watched. That cold menace was back, oozing waves of hatred that were laced with a peculiar sort of puzzlement, as if there was something about Caelon that it could not understand. Much more to the point from Caelon’s perspective, there were human watchers awaiting him in the shadows ahead. Very well, then. Caelon gave no outward sign as he passed them, reaching surreptitiously for the short-bladed sword he now wore concealed among his clothes.

He had just walked past yet another darkly shadowed embrasure when they leapt at him in the same instant that he heard Lady Dia call him, her voice in his mind so full of furious and desperate terror that he felt his guts congeal with fear. What in Chaos was happening?

Caelon’s sense of self-preservation was well-honed in any event but the added impetus of her ladyship’s cry lent strength and speed to his arm. Even as he spun to face his attackers, ducking under the sword stroke he felt more than saw, he ripped out his sword and plunged it straight into one fellow’s chest. Before he could recover from the thrust, another sword whistled toward him out of the darkness. Cursing the shadows of the hallway, he pulled his shoulder back and the blow, which would have caught him across the chest, slashed instead across his arm. It was not a serious wound; he hardly felt it and at least it was not his sword arm.

But, if the lighting was causing Caelon some trouble, it was not helping his attackers, either, he realized as he ducked into the shadows from which the fellows had just emerged. He had an urge to even the odds; slowly and silently, he pulled his dagger.

“Chaos and confustication!” exclaimed a rough sounding voice. “He’s gorn and disappear’t!”

“He has done nothing of the sort,” snapped another voice, a voice with which Caelon was wholly familiar. “He has not gone far. Find him!” Caelon discarded his initial assumption that this attack had to do with his father’s position on the General Staff. But why would Daerus of Shae make an attempt on his life?

Caelon! As if in answer to that question, Lady Dia’s voice echoed in the vaults of his mind once more, lending even more urgency to his taut nerves. The outrage that had been in her voice before was gone now, leaving only despair and a terrible fear.

He could not have known what was happening, but the thought that she was somehow in danger and needed him, and that her brother was apparently determined to keep him from coming to her aid, roused in him an outrage of his own. As his anger grew, his vision cleared and he found suddenly that the darkness had been swept aside, seemingly by his own fury. He loosed the dagger in his hand.

Lord Daerus’ hireling doubled over with a grunt, clutching the dagger that protruded from his lower chest. Coughing blood, he crumpled and fell.

But Caelon had forgotten him almost as soon as he had thrown his dagger. Now, he faced Daerus of Shae. Looking into the boy’s cold grey eyes, Caelon thought again of the young man’s obvious intent to keep him from helping my lady. The thought brought with it another wave of unmitigated rage.

Lord Daerus screamed with a gut-wrenching agony and stumbled away from him. He screamed again and fled back into the shadows and down the hall . Caelon did not pause to wonder why. Without any further waste of time, he turned and sprinted the short distance to my lady’s chambers.

The scene that had met his eyes had required no explanation and he was engulfed in a fury that owed something of its power to the fearful knowledge that he had almost been too late. When he had promised Lady Dia that he would help her, would champion her cause, he’d had no notion of the depths to which her enemies would sink to ensnare her as they had her brother. Now, more than ever, Caelon renewed a private resolve. Whatever else happened, he would not fail her.

“I think you forget yourself, sir,” he now said icily.

Prince Maermat, who had automatically straightened to attention when Lord Caelon had snapped out his name so commandingly (for, after all, his lordship had spoken to the Emperor’s heir in much the same way he would have spoken to the rawest recruit to the Grand Duke Saeros’ army), cast his speculative gaze at Lord Caelon.

“Do not,” Caelon advised him quietly, still seething.

“My lord?” asked Prince Maermat.

“Do not seek to convince me that you are an invited guest in my lady’s chambers,” Caelon readily supplied. He then opened the door behind him a little wider, indicating with that gesture that his Highness should take himself off.

In a voice he hardly recognized, so harsh and trembling with emotion, Lady Dia endorsed that silent suggestion. “Get out!” she said emphatically.

The Prince once more looked from one of them to the other. Then, appearing neither embarrassed nor remorseful, he shrugged and strolled toward the door. Before he reached it, however, he paused and turned back to Dia. “Very well, my lady,” he said to her, supreme arrogance in every line of his body, “I am willing to allow you this small victory. Do you use the time to consider the matter well and remember, for I will not be denied!”

Caelon swung the door closed directly into the imperial heir’s face.

He stared at that closed door for several moments, frowning thoughtfully. It would seem he had been quite right, both in believing that wedding her to Maermat was an end in itself and in cautioning Lady Dia about the dangers of the game she played. Being right was little consolation in that moment, he found. Why would it be so crucial for Dia to take Maermat to husband that they would try to ravish her into it? For his part, he would have thought such a course of action to be fraught with all sorts of dangers for them, not the least of which was his very strong conviction that he would not wish to take any woman to wife who had good reason to plot to murder him in his sleep.

Setting such speculations aside, he turned back to Dia and found her still seated in a trembling little ball on the floor, staring at him in shock. “Where is Daerus?” she asked him tonelessly.

“I could not say,” he replied, keeping his counsel. She did not need to hear of how her brother had tried to aid her ravisher. “As well you were planning to quit this place as soon as your eyes open, my lady. If he will stoop to this, there is no knowing what Maermat will be trying next.”

Caelon was trying very hard to behave normally, but he was contending with such a confused tidal wave of emotions that he found himself pacing the floor to walk them off. He wanted Prince Maermat to return so that he could thrash the fellow soundly. He wanted to throttle Lord Daerus, as well, for doing nothing to help his sister and everything to injure her. He wanted to comfort Lady Dia, to somehow wipe the shock and terror out of her eyes. He hoped he never saw such an expression in a woman’s eyes again as long as he lived. And, suddenly, without warning, he felt an overwhelming wave of desire rise in him, almost drowning all else, and filling him with self-disgust. It caused him to bend and scoop up her towel, tossing it at her and snapping irritably, “For the love of Chaos, ma’am, cover yourself!”

He regretted the words as soon as they left his lips. Lady Dia’s stricken gaze flew to his for an instant. Judging from her expression, he might just as well have struck her. Then she dropped her eyes and flushed scarlet as she tried to get the towel around her body with violently trembling hands.

Cursing himself fluently, Caelon strode into her bedchamber to snatch a blanket from the bed. He then knelt beside her and wrapped her in the blanket, saying gently, “I am sorry, my lady. After what you have just been through, I should not speak to you so.”

She drew a shuddering breath, and the last vestiges of anger and defiance faded from her face as tears streamed down her cheeks. Then, as if his words had caused a dam to burst, she began to cry — great, heaving, wracking sobs that tore themselves from her throat so painfully that his own throat closed in sympathy. He enfolded her in a tender embrace and let her weep into his chest, easily ignoring the inappropriate clamoring of his body in his compassion for her ordeal.

Finally, her sobs quieted and she slumped, exhausted but trusting, against his shoulder. He picked her up and carried her into her bedchamber to lay her upon the bed. Kneeling by the bed to bring his head level with hers, he asked, “Are you hurt, my lady?”

Mutely, she shook her head, still apparently unable to bring herself to look at him. He traced the bruise forming on her cheek with a gentle finger, wondering absently if she would tell him if she were hurt. He knew he should go; she was neither ill nor injured, so his presence was not really needed. Yet he felt a curious reluctance to leave her, telling himself without conviction that she had sustained a severe shock and needed his support until she had recovered. More than anything, he was aware of an irresistible need to look into her eyes, to see that the shame and pain he had seen earlier were gone.

“Come, Dia,” he said to her, very softly, “look at me.”

For another long moment, she kept her eyes lowered, seeming to struggle with herself. Then, finally, she slowly raised them to gaze at him. The shadow of hurt was still there and Caelon knew suddenly that it would be a very long time indeed before she fully recovered. “It’s over, Dia,” he told her, hardly knowing what he said. “You are safe now.”

She continued to stare at him gravely before one hand timidly emerged from the blankets wrapped around her to grip his. Her eyes widened. Caelon felt it, too; a warm, comforting light that seemed to come from nowhere to close around the two of them as if it would sheathe them both in a protective cocoon of peace. Again, he was swamped by a wave of passion that he considered wholly inappropriate. He fought against it, unwilling to betray the absolute trust he saw in her gaze, but it was much stronger this time.

Abruptly, he became aware that she was in his mind once more, with an immediacy and intimacy that they had not before experienced in their mental joinings, and that mental touch was his undoing. “Dia . . . ,” he heard himself say, experiencing a reluctance which she did not seem to share. Now, her eyes glowed joyously, tenderly, relieved.

Then, another voice spoke to him, a voice he did not recognize, that was deep and resonant and seemed to carry all the echoes of all the endless corridors of eternity. Surrender, Caelon, it said. Surrender to the light.

He had no very clear recollection of how it came about, but the next thing he knew, he was naked in her bed and everywhere his skin touched hers burned with holy fire. There was no drawing back nor hesitation on her part and, when his body joined with hers, it felt so profoundly right that it seemed to Caelon as if he had somehow become a part of that very first perfect moment of creation so long lost in the misty realms of antiquity. Their minds still linked, he experienced her pleasure as well as his own, causing this encounter to reach a zenith of intensity such as he had never known, and his release, when it came, was so total and complete that he felt he had poured his entire soul into her body to do with what she would.

Finally, exhausted, he slept.

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