Dia’s eyes snapped open. She was suddenly and completely awake, memories flooding her of both the crown prince’s frightening attack and the glorious interlude with Caelon that had followed. Indeed, that remembered pleasure was so vivid that her body was enveloped in a languid sensuality that was not usual for her, even as her mind was preternaturally alert. It was difficult to make herself move, but her mind knew, if her body did not, that she had to get away from here now.
The delicious languor faded from her limbs as, once again, the sense of a vivid danger, drawing ever closer, invaded her senses and dispelled pleasant memories. Dia did not question the impulse. She simply rolled out of her bed and dressed herself quickly in her cool, travel clothes. As the unseen threat seemed to grow stronger, she began to get frightened and her fingers shook as she fumbled with her clothes, haste making her clumsy. Within minutes, she was hurrying out of her room, moving as silently as possible and keeping to the shadows. Yet, the shadows did not seem to offer friendly concealment; they were cold, threatening, and she looked around nervously as she crept through the corridors of the imperial palace.
Why was she skulking about the palace in this absurd fashion, anyway? she asked herself in some irritation, trying to dispel the peculiar notion that she had somehow left the ordinary world behind in favor of an enchanted world full of unknown wonders and unseen horrors. She had done nothing wrong! The law allowed a woman the right to refuse her favors to any she chose, and the crown prince was not above the law. There was no cause for her to steal away like a common criminal from the gutters. She was a daughter of Shae, scorch it!
Still, she crept on, impelled by that sense of approaching danger. Being a daughter of Shae did not stop that disgusting Prince Maermat from trying to ravish me, she told herself ruefully. Nor was it likely to mean much to the headsman’s blade, if the Emperor took it into his head to declare that she either be wed to his son or be outlaw. Better to be safely away from here. She would contact Caelon once she was within the stables. He would be looking for her.
Dia stealthily let herself out into the palace courtyard and, after peering around carefully, made her way across to the stalls. The sun had been climbing steadily in the eastern sky during her stay in Ormaerand, and the air inside the sheltered stable yard was still and terribly warm. She would have to make sure she brought adequate water supplies for the journey, still trying to think pragmatically, even if she was sneaking away as inconspicuously as possible. She hoped there was a well inside the stable complex, so that she could get the water she needed while staying out of sight. She wondered if she dared to wake any of the servants who had accompanied her up from Shae. Better not, she decided. There isn’t time.
She stepped into the dim stables and stopped short, her jaw dropping in amazement. The figure standing before her was carefully shrouded in a white robe with the cowl turned up to conceal his face, but the familiarity of his presence left her in no doubt of his identity. Relief flooded her. “Phoebus!”
Phoebus, archpriest of the Phoenix, appeared to be a man of middle years although Dia knew that he had been in service to the Grand Dukes of Shae for some six or seven generations. The archpriests did not possess the Phoenix Gift, but among the Talents of those who rose to the purple in the service of the Phoenix was the Secret of holding Time at bay. Phoebus was only as tall as Dia but the white and purple robes of his station gave his lean body the appearance of great height. Overall, he gave one an impression of quiet, of stillness and of repose.
The priest unhurriedly lifted a hand to push back the hood of his robe. He gave her a keen glance and then, to complete her astonishment, he dropped lightly to one knee before her. “My lady,” he said, bowing his head.
She had never seen Phoebus bow to anyone and she was profoundly embarrassed to be greeted with such reverence. “Please, good Phoebus, do get up!” she implored him. “I do not deserve such homage, I assure you.”
Rising easily to his feet, Phoebus smiled his faint smile but did not reply. Instead, he said, “Do you feel well, my lady?”
“Yes, yes, of course I am well,” she said hurriedly, staring at him. “How do you come to be here?”
“The Phoenix comes, my lady,” he told her, and his smile widened. “I have some small part to play in the dawning of the New Age.”
“As do I?”
At that, Phoebus actually chuckled. “Just so, my lady. But come, we must leave this place before you are discovered here.”
“Oh!” She glanced back toward the castle and hesitated. “But what of Lord Caelon? He was to accompany me and . . . ”
The priests shook his head. “Lord Caelon does not travel with us at this time,” he said with finality, “but will travel in another fashion to meet us at another time.” She looked at him doubtfully, unable to make sense of his words and, for some peculiar reason, reluctant to leave his lordship at the palace without her. Phoebus, seeing her reluctance, said again, “Come, my lady. We must not tarry here. Will you not trust me?”
Of course, she knew that she could trust Phoebus as she had once trusted Daerus. Indeed, she thought with wry amusement, she had been pursuing ends and means that she did not understand ever since she had arrived at the palace. Why should she cavil now? The sudden twinkle in her mentor’s eye told her that he had heard her impious thought, and she grinned. Still, and in spite of her momentary levity, the sense of danger had not lessened, and Dia was assailed once more by its urgency. She turned away from her old friend and began to saddle her horse.
* * *
Colonel Lord Caelon of Aerandos stalked down the corridor, on his way to his mother’s rooms. That he was angry would have been obvious to anyone observing the absent scowl he wore as he walked. He had encountered none of the Emperor’s guests, for which he was thankful. He was in no mood to endure the sly winks and twitters with which he was likely to be greeted by his peers, who, he privately snarled to himself, had minds like cesspools.
If the truth were known, Caelon was angry with himself. He did not like being manipulated, and his loss of control infuriated him. Not that my lady had complained; she had seemed positively eager for his embrace. That did not excuse him, however. No doubt her ladyship would, if taxed with her unmaidenly behavior, spout some nonsense of prophesy and surrender and such. Well, if that was what she needed to believe in order to live with herself, so be it. Caelon preferred to assume that he was responsible for his behavior, even when his behavior left a great deal to be desired. He also chose to disregard the voice that had commanded him and overcome his will to resist. No doubt that irresistible command had been nothing more than the demands of his own lust.
In fact, Dia’s obvious trust in him made his capitulation to his appetites that much more dastardly. His feelings for her were both new to him and more complex than he could easily evaluate. In a more orderly universe, he would have taken the time to decide what those feelings really were and then, if it had seemed appropriate, he would have very properly offered to make her his lady. Even if he had decided that he did not care for her, he would still have been inclined to treat her with respect. She was, after all, a daughter of Shae.
Caelon had not been suffering from any of this doubt or dismay when he had awakened to find her sleeping beside him. He had lay there for a few moments, simply watching her and remembering. She had spoiled him for anyone else, he had thought ruefully. Coupling alone was pleasant enough, but when combined with the mind-touch he had shared with Dia, the act transcended love and lust and every other emotion for which he had a name. His body remembered, as well, and had awakened, clamoring for more. He wanted to reach for her, to rouse her to repeat that incredible act of union. But he did not. Instead, he contented himself with gently pushing aside a stray tendril of her soft, dark hair with infinite care. Then he rose, dressed and quietly made his way back to his own quarters. He would be escorting her back to her home; he had plenty of time.
Once he had refreshed himself with a wash and fresh clothing, he decided, he would make his way to his mother’s sitting room to take his leave of his parents. He was certain they would already be awake and breakfasted; even in the timeless time since the days had become years, his father kept military hours and could be counted upon to be up and about when all others were still abed.
While he had busied himself with the first part of this program, he considered the tidings that he had been taking to her rooms when he had been waylaid by Lord Daerus and his ambushers. He considered her likely reaction to the news that she had gained a reprieve in the matter of the Emperor’s insistence that she be immediately wed to Prince Maermat. Not that His Imperial Majesty had made any promise not to pursue the matter; in fact, Emperor Kaerkas had never spoken of it.
Caelon and his father had reported to the imperial conference room for their usual meeting with the General Staff after midmeal. They had both had a notion that the Emperor would want to try to pressure Caelon into releasing Lady Dia from their fictitious betrothal. Instead, Emperor Kaerkas greeted them in a businesslike fashion, expressed the hope that they had enjoyed a hearty midmeal repast and, then, launched his firestorm.
“Gentlemen,” said His Majesty when the generals were all gathered as usual, “I have been giving some thought to the matter of the spiritual doings of the Empire.”
Everyone stared. No one spoke.
“I will declare this evening before endmeal the institution of a new religion to replace what was lost when the sorcerer Phoenix was killed,” Emperor Kaerkas continued, remaking history, as rulers are sometimes apt to do. Each of the generals, including Lord Saeros, was pinned briefly by a beetling imperial stare. “I fully expect considerable resistance to the idea of a new religion for Ormaeranda, particularly from the uncouth peasants in the hinterlands, and I shall require the assistance of all the armies of Ormaeranda to quell any unrest and to compel the observances of respect and worship of our new God.”
Another member of the General Staff, a General Lord Baenar of the Duchy of Gedbaen, asked rather diffidently, “If you will forgive me, your Imperial Majesty, exactly Who is our new God?”
Emperor Kaerkas stared frowningly for a moment before he replied, “Why, Ormaeranda will be dedicated to the glorification of Lord Septha, of course!” He paused, seeming to wait for protests. The silence was deafening. His Majesty continued. “Saeros, you are to pull the armies of Aerandos away from the northern border and position them about the northern quadrant of the empire. You will be responsible for the area north of the Aerie Wood. General Kraetus, I want you to place the Third, Fourth and Seventh Infantry units in the foothills of the Tamaer Mountains and I want extra men … ”
His Imperial Majesty was abruptly interrupted. Without ceremony, the door opened and in walked a young woman. She wore a deeply cowled, white woolen robe with a bleached rope belt. Her feet and head were bare and she carried no weapon and no purse. Her manner was deferential but determined. She seemed neither afraid nor cowed, and she walked in unannounced.
When she reached the conference table, she bowed deeply but she was very obviously angry. And then she spoke. “For five wakings have I awaited word from thee, Emperor of Ormaeranda. My sisters can wait no longer. Wilt thou hear me?”
“Hear you!!???” the Emperor all but screamed. “How dare you simply walk into this meeting, uninvited and unannounced! Did I not advise you … ”
“Indeed, Emperor of Ormaeranda, thou didst instruct me upon my arrival some five endmeals ago that thou wouldst hear my urgent message as soon as thou didst have some leisure,” she agreed readily, her eyes as hard as steel. “If it was thine intent to ignore we who have commended ourselves to thy care, it would have been as well if thou hadst the temerity to own it when first I did arrive.”
Dear, me, thought Caelon, thoroughly enjoying the scene and wondering what was afoot.
“Since it is plain that thou wouldst prefer to ignore thine obligations, I but thought to present our plight directly to thy generals. Mayhap, as military men, they will comprehend the urgency of the matter as clearly thou dost not.” The Emperor was yanking the bell pull, obviously intending to summon servants or guardsmen to expel this determined woman. She ignored him, turning her attention to the men sitting around the table. “Gentlemen, the matter is simple. The Throk, evidently despairing in their hopes that the Long Interval had dulled the wits of the armies of Aerandos, have left their usual points of attack and have, instead, come east and south, and now threaten the eastern border of Lemantia.”
Both Caelon and his father sat straighter in their seats upon hearing this news. Lemantia was a tiny nation, a matriarchal theocracy without a standing army. Infinitely vulnerable, Lemantia had always looked to its powerful neighbor for protection. In practice, however, Lemantia had actually been protected and defended by Aerandos, and the heirs to Aerandos had always been instructed, from early in their military careers, in their obligation to the preservation of Lemantia.
The messenger, observing the alert attention of the gentlemen from Aerandos, had nodded in satisfaction. She then said, “No doubt, General Lord Aerandos, thou dost well perceive the implications of this new threat to Lemantia.”
“It is of no moment, ma’am, what you imagine Aerandos to perceive!” the Emperor said, regaining control of the conversation. “I have other uses for the forces of Aerandos at this time; they are not free to come to your aid and, indeed, I do not see that the matter is of any consequence.”
“Art thou then ready to proclaim to The Chosen, and to the world as well, that thou art without honor, Kaerkas of Ormaeranda?” she asked him.
“Honor be ashes!” exclaimed the Emperor. “The armies of Ormaeranda are available only in the service of my God; they will aid you only if you forsake your Goddess and bow down to worship Him.”
The woman stared at him for a moment. Then her face blanched. “Forsake Divine Istha to worship Septha the Destroyer?” she whispered, appalled.
“That is my price,” said Emperor Kaerkas.
She said nothing. She cast a brief, worried glance at Lord Saeros. Caelon could not know what she saw in the thoughtful face his father wore as he observed this scene, but it seemed to reassure her. And then, for the first time since she had entered the room, she had looked at him and her eyes widened briefly. Only for a fleeting moment did their eyes meet but that was long enough for Caelon to realize that he had somehow been … there was really no other word for it … he had been recognized. Now, what’s afoot? he wondered.
Her gaze swept the rest of the men sitting at the table. Then she turned and swept from the room.
But, as he watched her retreating back moving toward the door, for the second time in his life, he heard a woman’s voice in his mind. Have a care, Caelon of Aerandos.
And then, she was gone.
Caelon wondered now whether he would not be better employed riding north to direct their forces in the relief of Lemantia. He did not for one instant imagine that Lord Saeros would simply leave the tiny nation to its own devices, regardless of what plans his Imperial Majesty might have made for their army. He would see my lady on her way first. She had a sizable retinue; she would be safe once she was away from here. Still, Caelon decided, he would see what plans Lord Saeros might have made for his heir.
His ablutions completed, Caelon’s thoughts turned back to the Crown Prince and his iniquitous attack on Lady Dia. He was puzzled by it; what would the rape of the lady have accomplished? It seemed that their object cannot even have been marriage, for a lady so abused had often been known to take her own life rather than be forced to take her ravisher to husband. Lord Daerus and Prince Maermat seemed willing to take that chance. Did they perhaps believe that Lady Dia would not do such a thing as to take her own life? Or did they care? What could their object be, that it could be accomplished simply by bedding her?
He had been flinging a few items into a saddlebag but, as his thoughts progressed, his hand slowed. Indeed, he realized, what could their object be other than to get her with child? Once again, he grew outraged at the thought that Prince Maermat and Lord Daerus would be willing to use my lady so callously. She was not a chambermaid or a whore, or even a brood sow. She was a daughter of Shae. She deserved to be treated better.
And at that moment, Caelon, himself born to one of the Great Houses of the Empire, realized the enormity of his weakness. Lady Dia was not a chambermaid or a whore. She was a daughter of Shae, and she had a right to be treated with respect by both the Crown Prince of Ormaer and the Lord Caelon of Aerandos. He should have resisted base impulse and left her untouched — no matter that their joining had felt as if it were so right as to have been fated since the beginning of time, a niggling little voice in the back of his mind reminded him.
Caelon continued to wrestle with his conscience, torn between his lack of real remorse for his behavior — how could he be sorry he had laid with her when it had been such an extraordinary interlude of multi-layered intimacy? — and his awareness of the constraints of his and Dia’s heritage. So involved was he in this self-castigation that he did not see the young man standing partly concealed in the shadows of the corridor until he had nearly walked into him. A sneer curved Caelon’s lips. “You are abroad early, Lord Daerus,” he said in greeting. This young man was surely the last person he wanted to see at this moment!
“I have something I must attend to,” Lord Daerus replied hoarsely. Caelon looked at him sharply. Dia’s twin brother was looking terrible; his eyes were puffy and bloodshot and haunted. He looked as if he had been through a terrifying experience and Caelon, recalling his brief encounter with the imprisoned reality of Daerus of Shae instead of recalling his most recent encounter with the fellow, felt himself relax slightly with remembered sympathy.
And that slight relaxing proved to be Caelon’s undoing. When Lord Daerus moved suddenly, Caelon thought only that his lordship would pass on his way to complete his errand, and so he courteously stepped aside with a polite nod.
Instead of going on his way, however, Lord Daerus thrust the small, light sword he had been holding in the shadows straight into Caelon’s chest, puncturing heart and lung. Pain seared Caelon’s suddenly shallow breathing; he stared in shock at the man who had just killed him. Lord Daerus’ face twisted with some intense emotion — perhaps it was grief or remorse, perhaps it was grotesque triumph, Caelon did not have the time to decide. His knees buckled and he began to fall. As the blackness slowly crept across his sight, his last thought was of Dia, of the fact that he would never again clasp her hand, and of the fact that he had failed her.