Dia was numb. She leaned heavily upon Phoebus’ arm as they entered the inner sanctum of the Temple, for she had never been so exhausted in her life. Her brother’s corruption, followed by the deaths of Caelon and of their newborn son had left her heart an echoing barrenness of grief. She retained her grip on sanity only by holding the dreadful, burning pain at bay and, since it seemed to her that her heart and mind held nothing but her terrible sorrow, she was left with nothing at all — or so she thought.
The inner sanctum was actually quite small, with rows of benches to seat perhaps fifty in comfort. Before those benches rose the dome of the temple, which could be seen shouldering its way into the sky from the outside of the building, and under which were the altars and the plain, carved wooden chair from which the Phoenix presided over the Temple. A pair of huge, elaborately cast golden pedestals held twelve equally huge candles, and their golden light touched the faces of the living and the dead with an impartially gentle hand. With dull eyes, Dia noted that Caelon’s body had been placed upon the central altar and that her infant son reposed on a marble bier off to the left.
The lone hope still lighting her heart was that perhaps Caelon was intended to be reborn as the next Phoenix, and it was for this purpose that she was attending this ceremony. They would have attended to this as soon after she had arrived as was possible, once she had had a chance to rest, but had been interrupted by the birth of her baby. Involuntarily, Dia found herself wondering if her son would have lived, had he been born after Caelon had risen to be Phoenix. Sharply, like wincing away from pressure on a deep bruise, Dia pulled her mind away from that thought.
Phoebus seated her in the center of the front row with tender care and then joined his fellow TimeKeepers under the dome. There was stately Phoenedra … rotund, merry-faced Phoeday … youthful, serious Phoetar … and Phoebus, steadfast and familiar. The four archpriests took up positions around Caelon’s body and, surrounding them, the underpriests formed an outer circle with very precise care. When they were all in position, there was a moment of silence and Dia felt a wave of profound serenity wash over the Temple, emanating from the TimeKeepers, like the warmth of a hearth fire. She waited.
Finally, the four archpriests lifted their hands to their chests, fingertips touching, and bowed their heads. The underpriests raised their arms slightly, extending their hands toward their neighbors on each side, one hand facing front and the other turned back, so that each priest stood palm to palm with his neighbor, although their palms did not touch. They stood so for a moment, whether to sink further into that central peace or to commune silently, Dia could not tell. And then, they began to sing.
Dia had never heard this song before. The archpriests began with a simple melody in a mournful minor key that seemed eminently appropriate to Dia, for it sounded like every broken heart in the world. Then the underpriests joined in, singing their harmony and turning the dirge into a yearning, questing plea.
As she listened, Dia felt tears sting her eyes as she recalled all that she had done since arriving at the Emperor’s palace at Ormaerand, all in obedience to a prophesy she did not understand, in the service of a Phoenix who still did not come. No one had been able to explain to her what any of this — the rift with her brother, her affair with Caelon and his subsequent murder, the child she had carried and his subsequent death — had to do with the Gaerud. So many times during those recent events, the scant instructions she had received, the instincts she had obeyed, the expanded senses she had trusted had led her into situations and behaviors with consequences that seemed senseless to her and her blood still burned with the pain of their aftermath.
And yet, she had plodded on blindly; not even in the nadir of her despair over her son’s death or her bitterness over Caelon’s had she seriously considered simply refusing whatever had been required of her in this peculiar series of events. And, as the second chorus of the TimeKeepers’ song came to its lingering, longing close, her spirit rose with it, renewed, shiningly renewed. She knew now that she would continue on this path, whether Caelon rose or not. She had paid too dearly for the birth of this New Age to abandon the process now. Phoebus had taught her no more than truth when he had told her that the ways of the Phoenix were not the ways of men. He would come. In her heart, she knew that He would come and, when He did, she would be prepared to serve Him. In that sense, she had been surrendering to the light all along.
Dia remembered her caustic complaints to Phoebus when they were journeying to this place. She winced, a little ashamed as she recalled her raw bitterness in the wake of Caelon’s death, and how pointless everything had seemed to her then. How very odd it was, that one could still serve the Sacred Way of Time in spite of oneself — even if one was in rebellion against it, as she had been, even if one did not believe, as Caelon had not.
Perhaps, she thought, she was not so very unworthy. Perhaps her faith was stronger than she had suspected.
And still Caelon’s body remained still and unresponsive as the TimeKeepers swung into the third repetition of their longing hymn. Her eyes still full, Dia drew a deep, shuddering breath. Really, she ought to have known that Caelon’s resurrection had been only a remote possibility, largely born of her desire. Caelon was dead and their infant son was dead, as well. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. Daerus had won.
One of the underpriests, less disciplined than the archpriests, gasped. Startled, Dia blinked the tears from her eyes. Caelon still lay cold and dark but, following the direction of the young priest’s glance, she looked at the marble bier on the left side of the dome, where the body of her dead child lay.
Dia blinked. No, her eyes were not deceiving her. The tiny body had begun to glow with a soft golden light, a light that had nothing to do with the candles burning in the Sanctum, a light that grew steadily brighter as the TimeKeepers’ singing continued. At the end of this final verse of their song, the glow abruptly intensified for several heartbeats before there was a brilliant flash as the child’s body flared to ashes in an instant. Into that momentary silence, Dia’s heart began to pound.
Suddenly, the TimeKeepers began the final chorus, lifting their faces and their voices to the rafters in a joyous hymn of praise and thanksgiving. Those faces, in the soft glow of the candlelight, looked exalted, uplifted. The ashes of what had been her dead baby began to stir, sifting gently at first, as if touched by the lightest of breezes. The movement grew more pronounced, wafting about in the air in rhythm with the hymn that filled the Sanctum. Finally the ashes seemed to flow together into a moving, flowing, changing mass of energy that congealed into the naked figure of a boy.
Dia stared up at him, trembling so violently that it seemed her bones would be shaken to pieces. He looked to be some sixteen years of age, slender and well-made, just budding into manhood. His features were a blurred combination of hers and Caelon’s; this was their son! It was!
She could not see his eyes, for they glowed with the same light that had consumed the dead infant he had been. But she could see that those glowing eyes were turned upon her, and she was suddenly overwhelmed with joy and humility, the abject hope of the faithful and the boundless love of the mother for her son. He stood before her in glory, reborn from the ashes of bleak death to embody radiant life, and all the confusion and anguish and loss no longer mattered to her in the least. The Phoenix had risen!
The four archpriests had retrieved the ceremonial robes of the Phoenix and brought it to the foot of that marble bier, where they stood, waiting. Gracefully, He allowed them to help him to the floor, and to garb Him as He held himself proudly, chin high and back straight. Then he turned to them and they knelt before Him to receive His blessing.
Having concluded these small but important ceremonies, the Phoenix walked over to where Dia sat and gently took her hand, drawing her to her feet. The brilliant light in his eyes had faded and she saw now that they were as blue as Caelon’s.
As if he had discerned her thought, he smiled a gentle smile that washed over her like a benediction. “Thank you, Mother,” he said to her in a pleasant tenor voice. “I know this has not been an easy thing for you, and I am grateful.”
Dia was speechless, her eyes devouring his face hungrily. It does not matter in the least, dearest, she said silently.
His smile widened slightly before He looked around expectantly. “But, where is my father?” He then asked in brisk accents.
Sorrow once more swept over her as she indicated the altar where Caelon’s body lay.
“Dead?” The Phoenix seemed surprised, and displeased. “Now, how can this be?” Purposefully, he turned and strode to his father’s corpse, retaining his clasp of his mother’s hand so that Dia, perforce, came with him.
Together, they stood over the violated body of Caelon of Aerandos. The Phoenix placed a hand over the dreadful wound in the silent chest, shaking his head severely. “No, no, no — this will never do,” he muttered to himself. A thoughtful frown spread over his face.
An impossible hope sprang up in her heart and she turned her gaze on her son in anticipation. A momentary surge of disbelief again possessed her; it seemed quite impossible that she, of all the women of this world, should have given birth to the Phoenix! She shook her head, disconcerted, and turned her eyes back to the body of her lover. And then, she gasped is astonishment.
The wound in his chest was almost gone and, even as she took note of that impossible feat, the last vestiges of it disappeared from his chest. A quick glance at the Phoenix showed Him to be wearing His gentle smile once more, as He performed this miracle without visible effort.
A cough drew her glance back to the gentleman lying on the altar. Dia saw his chest rise and fall and rise again. Once more, she was trembling violently, her eyes filled with tears, and, when she felt the return of his presence to her mind, a sob of relief escaped her. And once again, she recalled her bitter doubts with a feeling of deep shame. Without a second thought, she fell to her knees, lifted the hem of the Phoenix’s robe and kissed it.
“Mother!” He reached down and gripped her hands, pulling her back to her feet. “Please, do not!” He looked terribly embarrassed.
She looked into His eyes searchingly, her own still swimming with tears. This was going to cause some major revisions in her religious thought, she realized. The Phoenix of the Last Age was to be worshipped; the Phoenix of this Age was her son, and He was to be loved. She lifted a hand to his cheek. “I have no wish to confound you, dear heart,” she told him shakily, “but you will at least allow me to thank you.”
“Really, there is not the least need,” He said, adorably flustered.
This tableau was abruptly interrupted. A string of curses, uttered feebly but with great feeling, came from the recumbent figure on the altar. A startled gasp was collectively uttered by the TimeKeepers, who looked quite shocked — except Phoebus, whose shaking shoulders indicated that he was laughing silently into his cowl. Dia looked into the eyes of the Phoenix and was surprised to see amusement and mischief there. In that instant, He seemed less like the focus of a religion and more like the child she bore. Their eyes held for a long moment and then, together, they giggled.
Dia moved to stand by Caelon’s head and, seeing that his eyes were still closed, she called to him softly, “Caelon.”
His eyes fluttered open. After staring at her for an uncomprehending moment, he said, “Where am I?”
“You are in the Sanctum of the Temple of the Fires,” she said gently.
He continued to stare at her, his eyes roving over her face, and she remembered that the last time she had seen him, he had been in her bed. Then, still apparently struggling to understand what had happened, he said, “I remember. I was dying — murdered.”
Caelon frowned. “And now I live?”
Dia nodded again before tenderly helping him to achieve a sitting position.
He put a hand to his head, still frowning at her. Then his eyes widened. “Really, my lady, you are an unending treasure of unsuspected ability,” he said with a tentative smile. “Clearly nothing is impossible for you.”
Dia grinned. Death did not appear to have changed his lordship noticeably. A smothered giggle behind her informed her that her thoughts had been clear to their son. “This was not my doing, my lord,” she told him demurely. She then turned and drew the Phoenix forward, somewhat amused to see a touch of shyness in the boy’s gaze. “You owe your restoration to this young gentleman.”
“Indeed?” Caelon said in some surprise. His voice was thickened from disuse, as if he had just roused from a long sleep, but the eyes he turned on the young boy-god were as alert as ever. “Well, you are certainly Talented for one so young. How may I call you, sir?”
“I am the Phoenix,” the boy said hesitantly, a touch of shyness lingering in his smile.
“He is your son,” Dia added.