Colonel Lord Caelon, heir to the Grand Duchy of Aerandos and future commander of the finest army in the Empire of Ormaeranda, was a gentleman of quick wit and decision; the education provided by the Grand Duke Saeros had seen to that. His lordship had been in more than one situation in which rapid thought and decisive action had saved his life, and he could always be counted upon not to lose his head in an emergency. There had been a time when he had thought that there was little his life could throw at him that he could not assimilate and act upon immediately.
But, of course, that was before he had become acquainted with Lady Dia of Shae.
The last thing he remembered was his encounter with Lord Daerus in the dusky halls of the Imperial Palace, and the searing pain of a sword piercing heart and lung. He distinctly remembered feeling the seriousness of the wound and becoming aware that he had been killed. Yet, here he was, confronted with my lady, who looked just as he remembered her and who was introducing as his son a young gentleman who claimed to be the fabled Phoenix. His son! Why, the lad had to be quite sixteen or seventeen years of age! Try as he might, he could make no sense of these revelations.
He fixed his eyes on Dia and ventured upon a question. “Who,” said his lordship, “is his mother?”
“I am,” she replied promptly, blushing rosily.
“You are remarkably well preserved, my lady,” he said, beginning to smile. Clearly, he had gone insane when he had entered the House of the Dead. “Either that or I have been absent for a great many years. How old is he?”
The lad — that Ancient Phoenix, who was the focus of an important element of the world’s religious devotion — giggled.
“To own the truth,” my lady said, somewhat diffidently, “he was born yesterday.”
“Yesterday?” Shock reduced Caelon’s rusty voice to something of a wheeze.
She looked at him with a curious expression that combined amusement with concern and something else which Caelon could not at that moment identify. “Are you all right?” she asked him.
Given all that she had just told him, the question seemed so preposterous that he recovered from his shock instantly, falling into laughter. “Yes, certainly, I am fine. Here I have been reclaimed from death by my son, the Phoenix, and nothing could be more common, after all! Indeed, I do not know why I was not expecting something like this!”
A sympathetic grin spread over Dia’s face as she said, “Oh, dear! I suppose this is rather a lot to throw at you so suddenly. A great deal has happened since you died.”
That statement made him laugh all the more. He still did not in the least understand the impossible thing that seemed to have happened but, all things considered, he really had little to complain of. “I find myself in complete agreement with you, my lady,” he said finally. Then, he looked at the young man and said, “I have never believed in you, you know.”
Dia winced but the boy continued to smile. “Do you believe in me now?” he asked ingenuously.
“I suppose I shall have to,” Caelon conceded.
“Well, no, you do not have to,” he said judiciously.
“Not if you continue in the belief that you are simply mad,” the boy said, grinning again. “Or if you come to the conclusion, as I see you mean to, that you have conjured up a splendid fantasy with which to entertain yourself, having found Death to be a bit boring.”
“Oh!” Dia broke into scandalized laughter. “Caelon, you did not!”
“Not yet, but I was about to,” he admitted, warming to the sound of her laughter.
“Never mind,” the lad said magnanimously. “I do not mind. It is a very great deal to take in all at once, particularly when one was predisposed not to believe in any of this. I think it would be a very good thing, Mother, if you were to tell my father all that has befallen you since you saw him last.”
“And what of you, young sir?” she asked him with a gentle authority that was so very maternal that Caelon grinned.
“There are preparations I must make, Mother, and instructions that I must give to my children,” and he indicated the hovering priests with a careless flick of one long-fingered hand. Then, he gave his parents a shrewd glance and added, “Besides, I fancy the two of you have many things to say to each other. You will require a few moments of privacy.” With that, this child who called himself the Phoenix turned to the knot of priests clustered nearby, saying, “Come.” With his retinue trailing behind him, the boy exited through one of the doors behind the altar.
Caelon then turned his gaze to Dia, who was still looking after the boy with so much tenderness in her face that he felt an irrational surge of — what was it? Not jealousy, he realized as she turned back to him. There was naught of the lover in her manner towards the boy. He took a breath and then had to laugh a little. “I never thought I’d hear myself ask this of anyone,” he said with a rueful shake of his head, “but how long was I dead?”
She chuckled. “How very odd that sounds, doesn’t it?”
“Do you want to know how much real time has elapsed or how long it has seemed to me?”
He frowned slightly, wishing she would stop talking in riddles. “Is there a difference?”
“We are outside time at this moment,” she said in the most matter-of-fact way imaginable.
“Yes, have you not noticed how dull and grey everything looks? That is because of the peculiar time we are in. So, when we return to real time, almost none of it will have passed since you fell in the Emperor’s palace.”
Very well, he thought. I suppose I followed that. “And how long have you been in this peculiar sort of time?”
“It has seemed like a matter of several months,” she said, her gray eyes watchful, “although I was surprised at how quickly the baby came.”
She stopped and for a moment they simply sat surveying each other in silence. He could not imagine at first why she was looking at him so oddly, until finally she said, “Are you vexed with me?”
“Vexed with you?” he repeated, surprised at the question. “No, how should I be?”
“Because I … because of … of the baby,” she said with considerable difficulty.
He shook his head vaguely, a bit surprised that she would worry about that. “Now, how could you have helped that, my lady?” he asked, quite reasonably. “Indeed, it is I who should beg your pardon for using you so shamefully.”
She blushed rosily and her smile was full of tender mischief. “I did not mind.”
“Perhaps not,” he said sternly, summoning the self discipline to push away the memories her smile evoked, “but one should have more respect for a daughter of Shae.” He saw that she was still looking doubtfully at him and realized that she would misinterpret his austerity. “I do not blame you for that, you know,” he explained gently. “It was I who … ”
“Oh, stop that!” she said with sudden impatience. “You had no more choice in the matter than I did and if you mean to sit there and spout such noble, meaningless stuff at me, I shall be very much inclined to murder you all over again!”
This unexpected harangue not unnaturally rendered him speechless. Under any other circumstances, such a bizarre threat would have made him laugh heartily, but he could see the angry tears in her eyes and he prudently swallowed his mirth. What under the sun was she so upset about?
“What, indeed?” she snarled at him, making him aware that she was listening to his thoughts. “Of course, I have not the least cause to be upset with anyone about anything at all! How can you … oh, never mind! Permit me to show you what has been happening, my lord!”
She spoke violently, uttering these last words in much the same tones Caelon would have expected to hear from a fellow offering to knock his teeth down his throat. He felt her mind at work and braced himself.
He was used to the experience of her mind slowly melding into his, like a shy and inexperienced maiden who was eager not to give offense. On this occasion, she was not gentle. She plunged into his mind with the abruptness of a knife thrust. Then she was expanding into his awareness, consuming him, and her thoughts became his. As did her memories.
He saw and felt it all in an instant, everything she had experienced from the moment she had felt his death until the moment of his resurrection. As if it had been his own, he endured the bereavement and betrayal, the anger and bitterness, and a pain that burned like acid; the surprised tenderness when she learned of her pregnancy, the fear of a young girl deprived of support during her first childbearing experience, the lingering sorrow over a boy who would never know his father. Then the consuming pain and exaltation of the birth itself, followed by the devastating blow of the baby’s death. And finally, battered numb by so many terrible losses, the rebirth and renewal of her own faith and willingness to serve the Phoenix, whatever else He required of her, the amazed humility of watching her dead child rise to become the new Phoenix, and the unexpected bounty — her inexpressible joy and relief, the release from regret and guilt, when their son had given her the gift of restoring his father’s life.
Into the vaults of his mind came her voice. Do not speak to me of anything so petty as the honor of Shae after all I have endured! she told him, with all the contempt of one who had learned, through bitter experience, of things that were far more important than the honor of the Great Houses of Ormaeranda.
Shaken, Caelon stared at her as her mental presence dwindled to a faint touch, and he found himself wishing she would not leave him. Her face was as calm and unmoving as a quiet pond on a summer day, but her eyes were dark with emotion. Any of the obvious platitudes that he might offer her in comfort would be meaningless to her, he knew; she did not blame him for any of what had befallen her, however much he might blame himself.
He shook his head in bemusement. “What can I possibly say to you?” he said softly, his throat still tight from the avalanche of emotion she had shared with him. Her eyes fell away from his and she shrugged but, when she would have turned away, he caught her wrist, preventing her. “Do you turn away from me now, after all I have just seen? Come, my lady,” and he smiled ever so faintly, “this is less than honest of you.”
To his delighted surprise, vivid color rushed into her face at this gently teasing reproach. “That is not at all fair of you, my lord!” she protested.
At that, Caelon laughed outright. “What is not fair? You have been making it all seem so very easy, this heeding of prophesy and such, that I fear I had been taking you thoroughly for granted. And now, I have come by my just deserts, for I am rendered quite speechless”
“Not noticeably,” was Lady Dia’s wry interjection.
“And how is it that I have sunk to ‘my lord’ again? I am quite certain I heard you call me by name but a few moments since,” he continued, his quivering lip the only indication that he had heard her quip.
Grey eyes sparkling, she gravely replied, “Very well, Caelon.”
“Thank you,” he said as seriously. “I was very much in earnest, you know. I have no notion of what to say to you after all that has passed. I would not want you to think I make light of what you have done.” Then he smiled again and lifted the hand he still held to his lips.
Her only reply to this speech was a return of the pressure of his fingers on her hand. She then guided him to the temple door and placed him in the hands of one of the priests, informing him that very likely the Phoenix would be sending for them both soon enough and no doubt she would see him then.
He did not truly have any wish to leave her just then but, taking this dismissal in good part, Caelon followed the priest to an unadorned apartment nearby, in which he was installed with very little fuss. The young priest, a fellow of about his own age named Phoelan, suggested that he might like to rest for awhile before midmeal was served and inquired whether he wished to be served in his chambers or conducted to the dining hall. On another occasion, he might have been curious to see more of this Temple that he had come to believe did not exist. However, it occurred to him that he would like a bit of privacy to sort out his scrambled wits. He elected to take his meal privately.
Caelon was not much given to introspection but he could not deny that the notion of having a son almost grown was going to take some getting used to. That that son turned out to be fabled Phoenix, whom he had thought someone had invented to justify the existence of a theology, unsettled him further. How could he have any sort of paternal relationship with a religious icon?
For that matter, how could he be father to a boy that most of the continent prayed to, that he would have prayed to himself, if he had been that sort of man. Clearly, his religious thought was going to need major adjustment. Much more difficult for him was the unwelcome notion that his son was unlikely to need much in the way of a father. He found himself resenting that. He had been looking forward to fathering sons — granted, not for some time yet — and all that entailed. Now, he was to be done out of that role and it did not matter in the least that he would have been pleased to play it.
Brooding over that was unlikely to produce much more than a headache, and the other matter begging his attention was much more pleasant to contemplate. What was he to do about Dia?
He had spoken nothing but the truth when he had told her that he did not know what to say to her. When he considered all that she had done, all that she had suffered, for the sake of her faith in her God, he felt strangely humbled — a sensation that was new to him. On the other hand, when he recalled the boundless love of which she had proved herself capable, and the terrible pain she had endured, for himself and for their son, his heart filled. He had no words for these overwhelming feelings. And, of course, when he remembered that magic time when he had shared her bed, had loved her and then held her as she had slept, he knew his fumbling with language did not matter in the slightest. She was his lady, his mate, and all that remained were the formalities.
Caelon smiled ruefully. He still did not like being led about by some inscrutable Fate, very much preferring to believe that he controlled his own destiny. And, for the most part, he knew that he did. In the matter of Dia of Shae, Fate had proved too much for him — but never mind. Caelon was willing. Dia was worth it.
After he had washed and dressed himself in a robe that was the only clean garment to hand — his newly bathed skin cringed away from the clothing he had been wearing, which was crusted with his own blood — Caelon was seized by a sudden, compulsive restlessness. Accordingly, after he had eaten the midmeal that had been brought to him by the obliging Phoelan, he emerged from the room and began striding along the corridors in his usual decisive fashion, even though he had no destination in mind. He roamed about, ignoring the closed doors in the halls of the Temple, for he had no wish to offend anyone by inadvertently invading their privacy, and no real wish to encounter anyone, either. Those he did encounter did not speak to him, although one and all gave him a low, reverent bow as he passed. The gesture irritated him. Why in the name of ashes were they bowing to him? he wondered. Then he remembered that he had sired their Phoenix and so unwittingly earned a place of honor among them. He sighed. The obeisance disturbed him, for he felt he did not deserve it.
Such was the thought in his head when he absently turned into the only open door he had thus far encountered. Once inside, he stopped short, for he had come face to face with his son. “I beg your pardon,” he murmured awkwardly, preparing to leave.
“No, please, do not go,” the boy said.
Caelon saw again that shy smile that had greeted him when first he had regained consciousness. He looked more closely at the lad, noting that he had Caelon’s own blue eyes and Dia’s slight frame. He looked to be delicately built, although Caelon saw some evidence that he would fill out nicely as he grew older — or whatever it was that a Phoenix did. What struck him most forcefully, however, was the timid innocence in those blue eyes. Perhaps, he thought, growing more cheerful, the boy did need a father … at least, for a little while.
“I would not intrude upon your privacy,” Caelon said formally, not quite sure how to proceed.
Somewhat to his surprise, the boy blushed rosily. “Well, sir,” he said with a deference that Caelon found even more surprising, “as to that, your arrival was not quite accidental, you know.”
“Well, you see … I called you.”
Caelon surveyed his offspring in considerable amusement. Really, the boy was as nervous as if he expect his father to deliver a clout to the head for insolence. Caelon could not imagine himself so severe a parent. Even less could he imagine being able to bring himself to offer violence to the Phoenix. “How may I serve you — you know, this is most awkward,” Caelon interrupted himself to complain. “How shall I call you? I really cannot address my young son by his title — even if I could so address an unknown demi-god with whom I had little acquaintance.”
The boy grinned. “Well, if I had lived longer than a few hours, my mother would have called me Caerad,” he supplied. “You may call me so, if you wish.”
Caelon returned the grin a bit ruefully. “Splendid, Caerad,” he said, already feeling a bit more normal. “Now, then, how may I serve you?”
“Serve me?” Caerad repeated, looking nonplussed. “Oh, no, no, no, sir. It is just that I was hoping to become better acquainted with you before we go our separate ways.” He paused, thinking. “I shall be forced to go about my duties with no real experience of having lived with my family, and that is not what was intended, you know.”
“Oh!” That startled Caelon. “Do you know, I did not know that. I had thought all this was foreordained.”
“It was destined that you and my mother should produce me,” the lad agreed, “but not in the manner in which it has come to pass. In fact, you two should have met some three years ago … and would have, if she had accompanied her brother to court when first he did journey to Ormaerand, as her parents suggested to her at that time.”
Caelon’s amusement deepened. “Well, yes, but I was not at court three years ago,” he pointed out.
“You would have been. I expect some matter concerning the defense of the Empire would have come up, so that Lord Saeros would have found it necessary to see the Emperor personally. You would have accompanied him. However, since my mother refused to go, there was no need for you to be there,” Caerad explained earnestly. He hesitated, looking at Caelon in some uncertainty. “I love her dearly but I must confess that she can be very stubborn,” he added.
“Not that I mean her any disrespect,” the boy went on hurriedly.
“No, of course not.”
“She really is an extraordinary woman.”
“I quite agree.”
“It is just that she can sometimes be a bit uncooperative … ”
“Not to say, obstinate.” Caelon chuckled. “No, lad, there is no need to stare at me so warily. You seem to know her much better than I do and I am perfectly willing to take your word for it. No doubt I shall encounter this stubborn streak soon enough. It is as well to be forewarned.”
“Oh, dear!” he said, sounding so dismayed that Caelon laughed outright. “This has all become so excessively awkward that I really do not know what is to be done.”
“Why? To be sure, you should have been here some time ago but, surely, that is of no moment. You are here now … ”
“Oh, so much is different. That is why the Gaerud will be much more difficult for us. You should have been wed to my Lady Dia some two years since, and have been well enough acquainted with her brother to be willing to lend her your aid now that he has been ensnared by Septha. You would have liked him very well, you know.”
Caelon recalled that brief encounter with the trapped mind of Lord Daerus of Shae. “I expect you are probably right, but I am willing to lend Dia my aid in any event, as indeed I have,” he said, gently reproachful. “Besides, no one should be left to have their thoughts embalmed in such a stinking darkness as we found in the mind of Daerus of Shae. Is he so very crucial to this Gaerud of yours?”
Caerad nodded. “Indeed, he is quite crucial, Father,” he said and Caelon felt an odd, wistful pang at being addressed so. “And Septha has been in Ormaerand unhindered for so long that He will be difficult to overcome. His instrument is the Princess Kera and He has strengthened her hand so that she has become almost impossible to withstand.”
“And yet, your mother managed to withstand her rather handily,” Caelon pointed out.
“Oh, that was your doing, sir,” his son told him ingenuously.
“Why, yes.” The boy smiled. “Did you never wonder why , on the two occasions on which you actually felt that terrible darkness invading your mind, you were able to obliterate it with but a thought?”
“I was?” Caelon asked, stunned. “I had thought that must have been your mother’s work.”
The boy shook his head. “You are invulnerable to them, Father. Septha did not recognize you were when you arrived at court — which, I will confess, has me in something of a puzzle. That is why they did not kill you until they learned that they could not control my mother so long as you were about to protect her. If they had known who you really were, they would have been making attempts on your life before you had even unpacked from your journey south.”
“In any event, I should have spent a bit of time in the lap of a loving family, for that would better have sustained me — and the two of you, as well. I only hope I can overcome the Dark One, for I am ill prepared for this battle,” Caerad said worriedly.
Caelon digested this in silence for a few moments, for he found himself visited by a series of conflicting emotions. Most vivid among these was the image, generated by Caerad’s words, of the loving family that would have been forged by his union with Dia. Without realizing it, he sighed wistfully and, unnoticed by him, his son’s lips twitched. “And what would become of you if you were to fail?” Caelon asked finally.
“I would be no more,” the boy replied simply.
Well, that was assuredly not an option. A surge of protectiveness welled up in Caelon that was just as primitive and primal as his feelings for Dia. Caelon eyed his offspring speculatively. The boy looked much too innocent and unworldly to warrant the suspicion, but Caelon nonetheless had a notion that he was being very cleverly manipulated. Not that it really mattered. His son would not be sacrificed to monstrous Septha.
Then he realized that Caerad was watching him. “I should be quite angry with the two of you, you know,” he remarked.
“As difficult as it may be to believe — I can hardly believe it myself, for I had not considered the matter — I was looking forward to being a father to my son. Between you, you and my lady have cheated me of that,” Caelon explained.
“There will be other sons, sir,” the boy said soothingly. “I, too, regret the necessity, but it had to be this way.”
“Very well, my boy,” Caelon said cheerfully, and managing to sound much like his own father. Other sons? Fathered upon Dia? “What now?”
“Now,” Caerad replied, smiling his mother’s impish smile, “we make my mother welcome.”
An instant later, Dia entered the room. Like him, she wore one of the robes which adorned the underpriests of the Temple and the severe, utilitarian garment served as an excellent foil for her luminous beauty. She was looking at Caerad as she entered the room and Caelon noticed that motherhood had added a tenderness and depth to her eyes that had not been there before. He wondered dazedly if his son was tampering with his mind but rejected the notion. Perhaps he had never allowed himself to look at her before. Slowly, he drew a deep, much-needed breath.
Dia turned her gaze to him and searched his eyes. Caelon could not know what she found there but whatever it was seemed to please her. She fetched up before him and dropped a curtsey. “My lord,” she murmured formally in greeting.
Caelon took her hand and kissed it. “My lady,” he replied.
She smiled in some mischief. “You pursue your acquaintance with your son?”
“Indeed,” he said, returning the smile, “the hour has proved most instructive.”
That made her laugh. “Really, my dear,” she said over his shoulder to Caerad, “it is unkind of you to tease your father so.”
The boy blushed. “Mother!” he protested.
That made them both laugh. “Come, we have plans to make, do we not?” Dia said when she recovered her composure.
“All in good time,” Caelon replied, placing a chair for her.
Flicking a glance toward the Phoenix, he made due note of the expression of satisfaction on that young gentleman’s face. Caelon mentally shrugged. Before any of this began, he would resent being so shamelessly manipulated, but he found he could not summon up the righteous anger he might have expected of himself. That did not really matter to him anymore. This was his mate and here was their son, and Caelon had no desire to resist the bond of the small family that was speaking to him so loudly. There was no rush. This instant would last for as long as the Phoenix allowed it to last. And, if this would help them all to face Dark Septha and prevail, then it would be time well spent.
They spent the equivalent of a month or so in that timeless place in which the Temple had dwelt since the death of the last Phoenix. As matters evolved, all three of them found the experience of being together as a family to be very instructive indeed. More than anything else, they managed in that short time to forge a bond of love and mutual togetherness that made the approaching separation difficult for them all to contemplate. They all knew that, once this time was over, they could be family no more, and that awareness lent a certain poignancy to their gatherings.
It was the Phoenix who finally said, “It is time, I think.”
“Time?” Caelon said, looking blank.
“Oh, surely not so soon,” Dia protested at the same time.
The boy smiled his gentle smile and said, “This will only get more difficult the longer we postpone it, Mother.”
“What of the plans we were needing to make?” Caelon asked, quizzically eyeing his son.
“There are really no plans to make, Father,” the boy replied. “Septha will instigate this battle and without much delay; the longer I remain, the more strength I will gain. He will want to challenge me when he thinks I am still weak enough to be easily vanquished.”
Dia saw Caelon scowl and his eyes took on a look of such implacable determination that she regarded him with satisfied pride. “What do you want us to do?” she asked her son.
“You will do what comes very naturally, Mother,” the boy replied. “It may very well be that you will engage in this Gaerud and triumph over the Dark One without even knowing it.”
“Do you know,” Dia said with a laugh, “somehow I envision the scene being a little too spectacular for that.”
The Phoenix smiled and then sighed. “Know that I love you both and I do believe the darkness stands no chance against the two of you.”
Caelon and Dia exchanged a smiling glance, both thinking the same thing. There spoke the adoring child to adored parents, and it did not seem to either of them that there was much point in disabusing Him of the trust He had in them.
Caelon then asked, “We return to the palace?”
The Phoenix nodded.
“Do we ride out?” Dia wanted to know.
“Now, really, Mother,” the boy reproached her gently, “would I ask you to needlessly exhaust yourselves so? I shall open a time window and you shall step back into real time. You will arrive at the time shortly after you left the city. Once back in the palace, you will know what to do.”
“And may we tell anyone of the rise of the new Phoenix?” Caelon asked meekly.
Dia and her son both grinned, for Caelon had come in for a great deal of teasing from them for his earlier skepticism. “Of course, you must tell them,” He said, “although I do not know that you will wish to tell them … er … how I … I mean, where I came from … if you know what I mean … ”
Now Caelon grinned. “Yes, my boy, I do know what you mean, so you need explain no further.”
“Phoebus and Phoeday accompany you back to the palace,” the Phoenix went on, having speedily recovered from his embarrassment. “They have received certain instructions and have their own tasks to perform. I have sent for them … and here they are,” he added as the two archpriests entered the room. “Now, I will bring the Temple back into time and then open the window for you … oh, no, wait. I think perhaps Phoenedra had best go out to the front courtyard, do not you? There is that poor fellow watering his donkey at the stream, you know. No doubt the sight of the Temple appearing from nowhere will give him quite a fright … ”