Dia had just finished tightening the cinch on her saddle when she felt Caelon die. His mental touch weakened with alarming rapidity and then, abruptly, it was gone, leaving her feeling empty, incomplete and far more alone than she had when she had closed off her mind to her twin. For an instant, everything within her stopped — her blood, her breath, her heart, her mind. She had had no notion of the power of the bond they had formed with a handshake and infinitely strengthened with their recent, shared passion. Now, she understood, and it seemed to her that she knew how it must feel to have a limb amputated. For the rest of her life, she would remember that moment of indescribable loss.
Uncomprehendingly, she stared at Phoebus. What had he said? “Lord Caelon does not travel with us at this time, but will travel in another fashion to meet us at another time.” And suddenly, she was certain that Phoebus knew, had known all along, that poor Caelon was doomed. “Why?” she grated out around the lump in her throat. “Why could you not have told me? We could have gotten him out in time.”
“Lord Caelon fulfills his destiny,” Phoebus told her imperturbably, “as does your brother, as do you.”
“My brother? What has he to say to this?” The priest held her gaze but did not reply. As unmistakably as if he had spoken the words, Dia had her answer. She drew a ragged, shuddering breath. “Do you say that Daerus has murdered him?”
Phoebus still did not reply, wordlessly handing her up into the saddle.
“Why did you lie to me, Phoebus?” Dia managed to say. Gods, the pain was terrible! “Could you not have prepared me for this?”
Her old tutor gazed at her sympathetically. “I doubt that anything could have prepared you for this, my lady. Come,” and he took the reigns and guided her stallion out of the stables.
Dia rode slumped in the saddle, torn between grief and fury, neither knowing nor caring where the priest led her. Her tears streamed unheeded down her cheeks but her thoughts burned like acid. As soon as I have surrendered to the light and welcomed Caelon into my bed, he was fated to be slain? Why? What is the point? Was it my destiny then to come to this wretched place and, by enlisting his aid, cause the death of my lover at the hands of my twin? Of what earthly use is any of this in the dawning of a New Age?
“By the by,” Phoebus interrupted her roiling thoughts, “I did not lie to you, my lady.”
Incredulously, Dia stared at the back of his head. She could not have forced any words past her raw throat, but let her thought challenge such an absurd claim. He will not be there waiting for us, Phoebus, she said accusingly. He is dead.
That is not quite what I said, my lady. And does not the Phoenix wield his power over death? Phoebus reminded her.
Caelon is to be reborn as the Phoenix? Dia asked incredulously. Her feelings about that possibility were jumbled and she had no wish to pause to analyze them just then. How exquisitely funny! He does not even believe — and I am coming to have some sympathy with him.
The archpriest was silent for a moment and Dia, who had made no effort to keep the bitterness out of her voice, felt a little ashamed of herself. All will become clear in time, my lady, he said at last. One wonders what has become of the faith you once professed to have?
I have borne a great deal since I went from home, Phoebus, she told him wearily.
So. Then, all that you have believed since childhood is set aside for bitterness and doubt at the first true test?
Another wave of pain rose to engulf her. Caelon and Daerus had been reduced to “tests”? Have I not reason to be bitter, after all that I have lost?
Perhaps, child, but if your faith is so easily vanquished, you had as well hand this world into the keeping of Dark Septha without further delay.
I have passed your tests, Phoebus! Why must you reproach me still?
On the contrary, my lady, if they cause you to turn your heart from Revered Phoenix, then you have not passed them, Phoebus chided her gently. And, in that case, the death of Lord Caelon and your brother’s blackened soul are indeed without meaning.
Dia was silenced and the tears had their way with her again. She closed her eyes and let them flow unheeded. She had managed not to interfere with the fulfillment of destiny, but she could not have pretended to be glad that it was so. If the triumph of the Phoenix must rest upon my ability to endure these sacrifices willingly and cheerfully, she thought, then I have surely failed and Chaos will abound. In that instant, she could not make herself care. Daerus had been right about one thing, at least; their lives in the neighborhood of Shae had in no wise prepared them for the Emperor’s court. Disillusionment was always painful, she bitterly supposed.
Shortly after they had set out, she heard her brother calling faintly but she did not answer. Nothing that he said to her could undo what he had done. Nothing that he said could matter. Nothing mattered.
As well that you do not answer, was Phoebus’ approving comment, and never mind the reason. Daerus seeks you out at the bidding of his Master. If He finds you, He will immediately have you killed.
That did not really matter, either. She did not have the will to defend her life and she did not have the energy to wonder why Lord Septha should suddenly wish for her death. Let Phoebus concern himself with such irrelevancies; Dia wanted nothing other than to be left alone.
After an unknown period of time, Phoebus stopped her mount and now busied himself with some chore or other. She felt too depleted and bereft to care, and offered no resistance when, moments later, he helped her down from her horse. “We will go no further today, my lady,” Phoebus said solicitously. “You are tired and must rest.”
She drank the warm, sweet concoction from the cup he handed her without comment. She was tired, she conceded privately. Indeed, she thought, she had never been so exhausted in her life. Certainly, she was much too tired to think clearly. Without protest, she lay down with her head on the saddlebags her escort had provided as a pillow. As Phoebus gently covered her with a blanket, she realized groggily that her exhaustion had seemed to come on her awfully suddenly, after all, and she wondered what the wily priest had put in that drink.
Phoebus’ sly chuckle sounded very far away in her head. Vaguely comforted, she slept.
When she woke, she felt much rested but her heart was heavy indeed. She ate what Phoebus gave her and recommenced their journey without comment. She had nothing to say. Her anger had dissipated, but pain still gripped her, and apathy had laid its cold hand on her spirits. She stared dully at nothing, her eyes fixed on a point between her horse’s ears and her mind as blank as she could keep it.
She could not have said how long she rode in that abyss of despair, eating what Phoebus provided for her, sleeping in dreamless exhaustion at his bidding and traveling on with him when she woke. She let Phoebus lead her where he would, plodding along with the reins in his hands. The TimeKeepers did not ride. Phoebus had told her once, long ago, that to artificially shorten distance was an act of disrespect to the amount of real time needed to cover that distance. When the TimeKeepers were in a hurry, they used time windows, which allowed them to go to any single instant in time as that instant occurred wherever they needed to go. The more skilled among them — and, certainly, the archpriests — could even travel back and forth in time, within the confines of their particular Age. Of course, time windows were one of the many Secrets of the TimeKeepers that had begun to fail after the death of the last Phoenix.
And, still, Phoebus elected to walk. Dia wonder what the point of that gesture could be. It seemed wholly futile to her.
It was the weather — or lack of weather — that finally reached her in that bleak place in which her mind dwelt. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, it occurred to her that she had been out of doors all this time with a bare head, and had not suffered so much as a peeling nose. In fact, she realized in some astonishment, she did not even feel heat. Dia’s eyes suddenly came back into sharp focus and she looked around.
The world was grey. That was the first thing she noticed. Not precisely colorless but dim, as if they sky was overcast. Everything around them was perfectly still and quiet. Not even the air was moving; at a season of the year when the hot, dusty winds out of the north should have been growing ever more forceful, there was not even the hint of a breeze. Dia somehow got the distinct notion that she, Phoebus and her stallion were the only things in the entire world that were moving. Something was wrong.
The next thing she noticed was that she did not recognize anything around her. How long had she been woolgathering? “We should be home soon, should we not, good Phoebus?” she asked, her voice sounding dusty with disuse.
“We do not return to Shae, my lady,” Phoebus said, as calm as always.
A frown slowly gathered on Dia’s brow. “Indeed?” She looked around again, taking careful note of her surroundings. They were in the foothills of some mountains, and behind them were the sere plains they had just crossed. The trail they followed wound up into the hills, surrounded on either side by tough, scrubby thorn bushes that were already starting to look parched, and a few tall, majestic oaks with their roots so deeply buried in the soil that they had survived two years of peculiar weather with vigor. Trying to recall the geography of the region around the capital, she said, “Wither away, Phoebus?”
“I am taking you to the Temple of the Fires, my lady,” he replied. “You will be safe there.”
“You may as well tell me the rest of it, Phoebus,” Dia said, her voice studiously reasonable. “How does it come about that I have been traveling all this time with no protection from High Sun and have not fainted or died of it?”
“It seems that we are outside time, my lady.”
Shock held Dia speechless for several moments. “Outside time?” she repeated faintly.
“Why, yes, my lady,” the priest assured her, so sedate that he sounded smug to her. “I believe we stepped into this particular unmoving instant shortly after we left the city.”
Dia digested that piece of information in silence. Finally, she said, “You have unsuspected talents, good Phoebus. I had thought your Secrets were of no use to you without the Phoenix to lend them potency.”
“I am touched by your confidence in me, my lady,” said Phoebus, “but I did not do this.”
“Come, Phoebus,” said Dia impatiently, “do not be modest. It certainly was not I; it must have been you!”
Phoebus merely shook his head. She could not see his face but she was almost sure he was smiling his sly smile. There was no need for Phoebus to be coy. Indeed, she found it quite annoying. Dia sighed in some irritation, but decided not to persue the matter.
Instead, she returned to his earlier words. “How long must I remain in hiding at the Temple?”
“We are outside of time, Lady Dia,” Phoebus said, and Dia very definitely heard a note of amusement in his voice, “so it does not matter how long we stay here. I did not cast this spell and, to be completely frank with you, I would not have the least notion of how to reverse it.”
“So, we are to remain in this limbo until whoever put us here decides to let us go back?”
“So it would seem.”
“You do not seem particularly worried about it.”
“I am not worried about it.”
She closed her eyes and sighed with determined patience. “I suppose I should envy such placid acceptance,” she said. “I find I do not care to be in this place in which I did not enter willingly and have no way of leaving. Particularly when I do not know who brought me here and why.”
“I expect you will discover why soon enough. As for who … do you bend your mind to the problem,” he advised her. “It will give you something to occupy your thoughts during the journey.”
Dia cast a smoldering glance at the back of the priest’s head and colored her thoughts with vividly gruesome images of the many possible ways to torture an archpriest of the Phoenix.
Phoebus chuckled. “Really, my lady, how macabre!”
“Come, good Phoebus, can you not tell me what task I have been brought here to perform?” she demanded.
Phoebus stopped and turned to face her. His glance on her face was penetrating. “Do you not listen to your body, my lady?” he asked, sounding genuinely curious. “Can you not hear what it is telling you?”
Great Phoenix, grant me patience, she thought irritably. Is the fellow incapable of answering a simple question in a direct fashion? “My body has been telling me nothing except that I am excessively tired, good Phoebus,” she said.
“You have also grown quite clumsy, you know,” Phoebus pointed out. “I very much doubt if you could manage to hit the side of a tree at ten paces with those much-vaunted daggers of yours. As well, you are become uncommonly irritable, my dear Lady Dia.” As he spoke, he had walked back to stand by her side, still gazing up into her face, and Dia idly wondered why he should be looking so joyous. “And your thoughts tend to wander,” he added, smiling faintly.
“You are taking a very long time to get to the point, my dear Phoebus,” she told him severely.
“Very well, my lady,” he said with a chuckle. “We journey to the Temple to care for your health.”
“But . . . ”
“We will remain there until you give birth to the child you now carry.”
Dia stared. “Ch-child?” A dozen different feelings swept through her heart in that instant. Instinctively, she placed a protective had low on her belly.
“Indeed, my lady,” confirmed the imperturbable Phoebus. “And now, what would your ladyship like for endmeal?”