Dia stepped out of the time window and into her own sitting room in the imperial palace with Caelon, Phoebus and Phoeday close behind her. She swallowed against the tightness in her throat. It had been difficult to bid her son good-bye, particularly when he was afraid and could not say so. Dia was afraid, as well, not for herself but for Caerad. I really must stop thinking of him so, she chided herself, trying to insert a practical note into her thoughts. Squaring her shoulders, she looked around, trying to get her bearings, for she was separated from this place now by so much time and distance that she needed to assimilate the current now into her thinking before she could do anything else.
“One wonders how anyone can see in this palace through this curst darkness,” Phoeday grumbled, looking around uncomfortably.
Dia smiled faintly. “The whole city is like this, good Phoeday,” she told him. “No doubt they do not even know this darkness is there. Lord Septha has done his work well in this part of the Empire.” She looked around at them, her eyes seeking and finding Caelon’s. “Come. We each have things to do and have no occasion to dawdle here.”
Dia had received no further instruction from her son and she suspected that Caelon also had been told nothing. Yet, somehow, they each knew that they had business in separate parts of the palace and, with no further words, Caelon, followed at a discreet distance by Phoeday, left her, striding purposefully down the corridor. She watched him for a moment, smiling wistfully and thinking nothing in particular but feeling a very great deal.
Your pardon, my lady, but I believe you have your own business to attend to as well, Phoebus gently brought her back to reality.
Nodding once, she started toward Lady Tamia’s sitting room.
As well that Phoebus reminded her, she thought. She could not allow maudlin sentiment to cloud her mind or prevent her from the performance of her tasks. She still did not know what those deeds would consist of, but she very much doubted that any of them would prove as pleasant as the first of them was like to be.
In real time, only about an hour or two had elapsed since she had left the palace, but it seemed to Dia that she had not talked to her Grace of Aerandos for some months, and she found that she had missed the lady. When she reached her Grace’s sitting room door, she tapped gently and, upon being bidden to enter, did so without ceremony, quickly crossing the room to her hostess. “Your Grace,” she said, stopping just before she had flung her arms around Lady Tamia. In some confusion, she dropped a low curtsey.
“Gracious, child,” Lady Tamia said, observing her disorientation in a considering fashion, “I had thought you and Caelon must be leagues away from here by now! Certainly, I am glad to know that you have not yet departed, for I made sure Caelon would have come to my sitting room to bid us good-bye, and when he did not I was prepared to give him a very severe scold. But, surely, I cannot have been mistaken. Did you not mean to start for Shae just after firstmeal had been served? How do you come to still be here?”
By this time, Dia had risen from her curtsey. Her eyes met Lady Tamia’s and her Grace suddenly gasped. Dia smiled; almost, she had no need of even saying it. She nodded. “There is no need for me to leave this place, now, your Grace, and every reason for me to stay. The Phoenix has risen!”
“Oh!” Lady Tamia lifted a trembling hand to her mouth and her eyes filled with tears. Then she quickly rose from her seat and came to Dia, giving the girl the embrace that Dia had been too shy to initiate herself. “Oh, this is the most wonderful thing anyone could have told me just now, my dear! How had you the news? Is it all over the court yet?”
Dia grinned. “I very much doubt it, your Grace. I know of it only because I was there when it happened.”
That announcement caused Lady Tamia to freeze, staring at Dia in astonishment for a moment. Then her eyes narrowed and the shrewd gaze her Grace usually kept hidden emerged from behind the facade of the fluttery chatterbox once more. Lady Tamia took a deep breath and those keen eyes alighted upon Dia’s companion.
Blushing, Dia made haste to repair an omission. “I am very sorry, your Grace. Do allow me to introduce Phoebus, of the purple, who serves us at Shae.”
But that introduction seemed unnecessary, as Lady Tamia slowly walked over to Phoebus and raised her hand in the traditional greeting gesture that Dia had seem him exchange with Phoenedra at the Temple of the Fires. Then she turned back to Dia, and suddenly Lady Tamia of Aerandos was gone. In her place was …
“Phoetara,” her Grace supplied, informing Dia that her thoughts were clear to one trained in the Secrets. “It has been a very long time since any have either called me by that name or even thought of it in connection with me. But that is neither here nor there.” Again, Lady Tamia swept Dia with her glance. “Yes, you were there when it happened. I can see that in your face — as I can also see that there was a great deal more involved than just having been there, is that not so?”
“Well, yes … ,” Dia hesitated. Surely, she could not be contemplating divulging the entire, shocking story to the Grand Duchess Tamia of Aerandos? Then she smiled. Possibly not, but there was no reason why she could not tell the entire tale to Phoetara, priestess of the Phoenix. TimeKeepers, Dia knew, were not easily shocked.
And so, Dia poured forth the whole story of all that had befallen her since she had seen the Duchess last. She told her Grace of Prince Maermat’s attempt to rape her and how she was able to hold him off until Caelon had arrived; she spoke very frankly of the moment when she had realized just how she was to surrender to the light, and how she had joyfully welcomed Caelon of Aerandos into her bed. Dia recounted how she had awakened alone, to the overwhelming sense of danger that had sent her scurrying to the palace stables, where she had met Phoebus; of how he ultimately told her of her pregnancy, and of the shock, pain, guilt and bitterness she knew when she had felt Caelon die at her brother’s hand. Her Grace learned of Dia’s journey to the Temple of Fires, of her fears, of her loneliness, of her ongoing feelings of guilt over Caelon’s death, of her sudden compulsion to return to the palace to retrieve Caelon’s body, through a time window that she should not have been able to open. Dia, losing herself in her narration, spoke of her arrival at the Temple, of her confinement and of the almost immediate death of her infant son. And, finally, eyes glowing, Dia told of the glorious aftermath of all that pain — the rebirth of her son as the Phoenix and His restoration of Caelon’s life.
“And the Gaerud?” Lady Tamia asked. Dia had noticed that her Grace had not had an easy time listening to this tale. When she had heard of her son’s death, she had paled alarmingly and, upon learning that he had been brought back, a small sob had escaped her. Now, she was composed and serene, and her expression showed nothing except the shadow of the same implacable determination Dia had seen before in Caelon’s eyes.
“That is in the hands of Lord Septha, your Grace,” Dia replied to the question with a little shrug. “I am not entirely sure, even, that He and His minions are yet aware that we are back in the palace. Although … ” and here, Dia exchanged a glance with Phoebus, who nodded. The archpriest also felt the approach of a familiar, though altered, aura. “It would seem that my brother, at least, has felt the return of my presence, for he comes.”
“Here?” Lady Tamia asked, brows lifted.
Dia nodded, smiling absently with her eyes on the door.
“Well, I very much hope that I can keep my nails from the boy’s eyes,” was the Duchess’ surprising comment. “Perhaps, if I keep reminding myself that Caelon is hale and hearty, and that I shall be seeing him shortly … ?”
Dia, still smiling, turned her attention back to her hostess. “Indeed, you shall. For the moment, I believe he has sought out Lord Saeros. No doubt, he will join you both for midmeal.”
“And do you join us as well?” asked Lady Tamia.
Dia was about to decline, thinking it would be best for her to rest herself well before she was required to appear for endmeal, but Phoebus forestalled her. “Indeed, my lady, you should be here.”
At that moment, a polite knock was heard at the sitting room door. They all knew that it was Daerus seeking admittance and, further, that he had come alone. Phoebus looked questioningly at Dia and she nodded. While she did not have anything to say to her twin, she thought she might do herself, Caelon and their son some good if she were to give ear to whatever Daerus had come to say to her.
He entered the room trailing clouds of darkness, and fixed her with a brooding stare, nodding off-handedly at Lady Tamia and wholly ignoring Phoebus. That alone would have told her that this was not truly her brother, if any doubts had remained with her. “How did you do it?” he asked without preamble.
“Do what?” she asked, raising a brow.
“I killed that man with my own hands, sister,” Daerus said, eyes and voice flat with hostility. Lady Tamia stiffened.
“Yes,” she agreed pensively, retreating into a calm that brought a faint smile of approval to her tutor’s face, “and someday you will have to explain to me why you should have done such a thing.”
“At the time, it seemed preferable to killing you,” he said, sneering.
Dia lifted her eyebrows. “Now, why would you wish to kill me?”
“I have already explained the matter to you, Dia,” he said impatiently. “You must be wed to Maermat, or at least allow him into your bed.”
“My choice is to submit my body to Maermat or to die?” she asked. “How would murdering Caelon of Aerandos have accomplished my cooperation?”
“It was obvious to us that he would interfere for as long as he was about. My Master decided that he must be removed.”
“He would interfere?” Dia repeated. “Lord Caelon was not present when I held his Highness at bay with my daggers, twin.”
“Your daggers?” It was Daerus’ turn to repeat her words.
“Well, yes, dearest,” she confirmed in some amusement. “Can it be that you are surprised to discover that I was unprepared to cooperate with my rapist?”
Oddly — or at least, Dia found it odd — that gentle question wiped the sneer from his face. “Your rapist?” he asked her, frowning.
Dia said nothing for quite a long moment. She was not mastering her temper or any other emotion, so much as she was wondering if he would say further what was on his mind if she remained silent. Also, she felt she had some small advantage in adding to his discomfort by her silence. When he began to fidget, she said, “Was there some part of that description that you did not understand?”
“You cannot have been such an idiot as to have attempted to resist him?” Daerus asked her incredulously.
He seemed so astonished that, try as she might, she could not help laughing. “Really, Daerus, I am already quite convinced that you have taken leave of your senses. You need no longer work at it this hard.” Sobering, she added, “Surely, you cannot have expected anything else of me?”
“But, he is the crown prince!” Daerus said, apparently very much shocked. “You cannot refuse an imperial command!”
“As I recall the scene, Prince Maermat did not trouble himself to issue an imperial command,” she informed him with sedate good cheer. “And, in any event, he has no authority to issue such a command to me.”
If you had had the slightest doubt that this man is not, in truth, your brother, Phoebus said quietly, this conversation must surely provide it, my lady.
Indeed, she replied, I would not have had to explain this to Daerus.
“Come, sister,” Daerus was saying, “the Emperor has absolute authority and, as his heir, Prince Maermat should have been obeyed. I am ashamed of you.”
“Somehow, your shame fails to distress me, my dear,” she said, calmly. Then, her eyes narrowing, she spoke directly to the Dark God. “It would have been much better, my Lord Septha, had You taken the trouble to understand our ways in Ormaeranda before You embarked upon this elaborate scheme.”
There was a moment of pregnant silence, during which Dia felt a swirling darkness slowly gathering momentum and whipping around her with increasing fury. Lady Tamia and Phoebus watched her with almost identical expressions of startlement in their eyes. A gasp came from her brother’s lips and echoed through the vaults of her mind like the slow death of a rumble of thunder. “Thou art impertinent, Muphoen,” said a deep, heavily powerful voice that reverberated around the room, bouncing off the stone walls and sinking into silence.
“I am bored, Dark Septha,” she replied, suddenly more irritated than prudence suggested she should be in the presence of a God. “We neither of us accomplish anything by forcing me to explain things to Daerus that he really ought to know. I am sure he came to her Grace’s sitting room in search of me for some reason. Do please instruct your instrument to get to the point.”
“Enjoy this, thy last waking, then, Muphoen!” the voice came roaring at her from Daerus’ still and uncomprehending face. “Before next thou seekest thy bed shall the battle be joined. Even now do my instruments prepare to celebrate next endmeal by giving over the souls of all Ormaeranda to me. With such power, thy Phoenix shall find me invincible.” There was an ominous pause. “Be assured that thou shalt feel the weight of my displeasure for thy presumption when the Gaerud is done and I am its victor! Foolish woman, canst thou not feel how great is my strength and how feeble is thy new-hatched godling? Fear me and tremble, Muphoen, for I shall prevail!”
Having delivered himself of this ominous promise, the enraged God caused her brother to turn from her and, with a gait that was curiously wooden, stalk from the room.
“Well!” said Dia, after a moment of stunned silence.
Fire and ashes, Dia, have you taken leave of your senses? Caelon snapped in her head, clearly incensed.
No, she replied calmly, why?
That was very dangerous, my lady, Phoeday informed her. Septha is a God, after all. He could obliterate you with but a thought.
And very likely will, if He gets the chance, but not until after next endmeal, Dia told them, smiling roguishly at Phoebus. So you heard all that, then?
I feel certain they must have heard it as far off as Nedalia, Caelon said sardonically. And you could not have known that you would not be struck down when you spoke to Him so.
Enough of these reproaches, she said impatiently. Let us address the heart of the matter. We know now that our battle will be joined in a matter of a few hours. I expect there are some preparations that we will need to make and, and here she looked pointedly at Phoebus, some instructions that will need to be given.
She was rewarded with Phoeday’s robust chuckle. Very well, my lady, he said wryly, we will leave off these remonstrances. What is done is done, and my good brother Phoebus and I have our work to do.
With that, his presence and Caelon’s faded from her mind. She turned bright, expectant eyes upon her companions. She saw Phoebus exchange a glance of rueful amusement with Lady Tamia before turning back to her. “I suppose there is not the least use in advising you to try to restrain your temper?” he asked her.
“Well, really, Phoebus, I do not plan these things, you know,” she pointed out reasonably. “I had the firmest of intentions of maintaining such an unearthly calm as must have made you proud of me. It is just that everything about this business has been so tediously indirect, and nothing moreso than my alleged brother’s dealings with me. I am used to speaking my mind to him and old habits, after all, are very difficult to break.”
Reluctantly, he began to laugh. “It well may be that our most excellent Phoenix knows you even better than I had thought,” he said cryptically.
At that, Lady Tamia laughed as well. “One can only hope so,” she said. “I will confess, I had thought for a moment that we would all be incinerated by lightening bolts or some such thing.” She rose and stepped over to Dia, reaching out to clasp her hands. “My dear, if courage alone is all that is needed in order to prevail, we have nothing at all to fear. It is not every lady who would so address Septha the Destroyer. Accept my compliments, Muphoen.”
Dia grinned. “Gladly, your Grace,” she said.
In another part of the palace, Caelon tried to unobtrusively compose himself. He had been attending his father as Lord Saeros conferred with Giseth of the Chosen, Ambassador from Lemantia, when he had heard Septha’s mighty voice roaring in his mind. He had not been alone in his perception, he knew, if the priestess’ pained wince were any indication. Indeed, once he had finished his brief, rapid conversation with Dia, she had looked at him gravely and said, “Thy lady is perhaps unwise to goad One who is feeling His strength more fully than has been possible for Him for longer than thou couldst imagine.”
“So I have given her to understand,” he replied grimly.
Lord Saeros observed this exchange with no more change of expression than he had evinced when Caelon had walked into the sitting room in which Giseth received visitors. “Ah, Caelon, good of you to join us,” his Grace had said, just as if he had not been expecting his heir to have been leagues away from the palace by then.
Caelon had nodded his greeting to them both, a faint smile appearing on his face. “I fear I am sadly tardy,” he said with an apologetic air that was slightly overdone.
“Lord Caelon,” had said Giseth reproachfully.
Lord Saeros had raised a brow at that. “It would appear that you need no introduction,” he said.
“Indeed,” Caelon agreed, eyeing the priestess speculatively.
“I am Giseth,” the lady had then said, anticipating his Grace, “of the Chosen.”
“And how am I to call you, ma’am?” Caelon asked politely.
“We of the Sisterhood do not indulge in such formality, my lord,” she said. Then, she surprised him further. “I am happy that thy journey has been fruitful.”
“Thank you,” he had replied, falling back upon ritual civility in order to resist the temptation to cast a wildly appealing glance at his father. “Have I missed very much of your discussion?” He affected not to notice Phoeday’s silent laughter.
“Giseth has been briefing me on the Lemantia situation,” Lord Saeros had replied.
Caelon accepted the seat that his father offered, listening with only half an ear to the discussion of the massing of the Throk on Lemantia’s eastern border. He did not quite know what he was doing there, but he did know that strategic positioning had little to do with it. He had wanted to give forth his news, except that it seemed unnecessary; this Giseth seemed to know already, and Caelon knew better than to interrupt his father when that gentleman was immersed in military matters. Caelon was tense, knowing that the Gaerud was but hours away and knowing, as well, that he had no notion of what part he himself was to play in the battle. Like Dia, he had no fear for himself. All his anxiety was focused upon the frail newly-born boy called The Phoenix. The waiting was making it difficult for Caelon to focus his attention on the discussion.
All this worrying does neither you nor your son any good, you know, Phoeday told him, and it is curst tedious besides.
The simplest solution to that complaint, good Phoeday, would be for you to get yourself out of my head, said Caelon with a sad want of respect for the priesthood.
Be sure that I do not abide in your mind of any desire of my own, halfling, Phoeday returned. I obey the injunctions of my Master. If you object, you may take up the matter with Him. Considering your relationship with our Phoenix, he may even listen to you — but I doubt it.
Caelon ducked his head and covered his grin with his hand. It would never do for Lord Saeros to see it.
The discussion continued, and Caelon did his best to attend to it, until his attention had been captured by the anger of The Destroyer. Now, Lord Saeros continued to watch him in mildly bewildered annoyance, causing Caelon to suppress another grin. Finally, his Grace said, “I cannot imagine what has come over you, Caelon, but it is very plain that you will not be able to contain yourself until you have spoken whatever is on your mind.”
Now that the moment was upon him, Caelon surprised himself with the discovery that he felt very happy in spite of his tension. He straightened, and threw his shoulders back and his head up. Gathering himself to deliver his message, joy and pride flooded him. “Indeed, I do have news, sir, although I am ashamed of having been so impolite as to interrupt you here.”
Lord Saeros, who listened to this speech with an expression of growing irony, merely said, “Yes?”
“The New Age is upon us, sir,” Caelon told his audience solemnly. “The Phoenix has risen.”
Caelon had spoken diffidently, half expecting his father to demand in irate tones why he had been interrupted for that. He realized, even as he was making this brief statement, that he had never discussed matters of faith with Lord Saeros and had no notion of what his Grace’s beliefs might be.
Lord Saeros stared at Caelon for a moment, blinking rapidly. Then, taking a deep breath, he sank back into the comfortable chair in which he was sitting. “Great Gods, boy!” uttered his Grace, obviously shaken. “Why did you not tell us this at once?” Then, completing Caelon’s astonishment, his gaze returned to his hostess and he said, “This explains the Throk.”
“Indeed, your Grace.” Giseth, smiling radiantly, suddenly reentered the conversation. “I do beg thy pardon. I could see, of course, what had occurred immediately Lord Caelon entered the room. I had hoped that he would be so delighted with bearing such glad tidings that he would share it without delay.” Then her expression turned slightly impish as she added, “Thou wilt forgive me if I suggest that his lordship is very well trained.”
Caelon felt that he had somehow wandered into another universe as he watched his father laugh sheepishly at that oblique criticism. I wonder if I know him at all, he found himself thinking.
Actually, you know him rather well, considering that he is your father, Phoeday opined.
Oh, be quiet!
Lord Saeros then turned to his heir. “Does your mother know of this?”
Caelon nodded. “I expect my lady will have informed her by now,” he said, having no idea of how he knew that was what Dia had done when she left him.
Lord Saeros was eyeing him consideringly again, a smile growing on his face. “In that case, I expect we shall be entertaining your lady to midmeal,” said that perspicacious gentleman blandly. “Have you any notion of when the Gaerud shall begin?”
“I have a few suspicions,” Caelon replied with a quizzing smile that caused his Grace to chuckle.
“In that case,” said Giseth, “it is of the first importance that these few hours before battle is joined be spent reinforcing the loving bonds that join House Aerandos and House Shae. Lord Saeros, thou and thy excellent son must away at once.”
“Indeed,” Lord Saeros agreed, his eyes full of laughter, “and excellently well-put, Giseth.”
Once again, Caelon pretended not to notice the merry laughter that echoed in the vaults of his mind.
Dia was seated in Lady Tamia’s sitting room engaged in quiet converse with her hostess and her mentor when Caelon returned with Lord Saeros. For the briefest of instants, her eyes sought his of their own volition. There was no private message to be read in the glance they exchanged; rather, she just felt the need to refresh herself with his gaze, even after so fleeting an absence. Absently, she wondered if it would always be so between them.
Lord Saeros crossed the floor toward her in his leisurely way, saying, “Well, my dear, it seems that you have no need to rush off to Shae after all. I am glad to know that I have not yet seen the last of you.”
Dia grinned with mischief. “Oh, well, I expect that you would not have seen the last of me in any event, your Grace,” she said. “Allow me to present the archpriest Phoebus, who serves us at Shae.”
Lord Saeros nodded in acknowledgement and Phoebus politely returned the gesture. Then he looked around at them all. “And have you concluded, then, how you mean to pursue this Gaerud? Shall you have need of my services?”
“I rather expect that we shall,” Caelon replied, his expression suspiciously bland but his blue eyes twinkling wickedly. He had crossed the room to his mother and now took her hand and kissed her cheek. “How do you do, Mama? I vow, it seems I last saw you months ago, rather than just a few hours since.”
Lady Tamia’s eyes laughed up at him. “You are a very wicked boy, my dear,” she murmurred reproachfully.
Meanwhile, Lord Saeros was staring at his son as if he had never seen him before. “I see,” said his Grace. “And might one enquire as to how one might best be of service?”
“Yes, of course, you may enquire, sir,” Caelon said, feigning astonishment at the question. Then he turned back to his mother. “And here is my lady to bear you company once more. Tell me, do we increase our covers for midmeal, ma’am?”
Lord Saeros audibly sighed, although his eyes were losing impatience in amusement.
“Indeed, your lady has been so good as to promise herself to us for midmeal, ” Lady Tamia told him, adding in an undervoice, “as I expect you know very well, you naughty boy!”
“Do you not think, good Caelon, that it might be of some use to know what to expect?” Lord Saeros was asking with uncharacteristic meekness.
With exquisitely slow movements, Caelon turned his head toward his father to show that gentleman an expression of such comical astonishment that Dia was hard put to it to keep from laughing. “I expect it very well might, sir, but surely there is no need to discuss such a dreary subject when we are entertaining a guest.”
By this time, Lady Tamia was clearly in dire straits and Dia, pained to see such a want of chivalry on the part of her lord, thought it prudent to intervene. Caelon, do stop baiting your father like this! she said to him in tones of the greatest reproach.
Why? he asked her, in very good spirits. I expect it is doing him a great deal of good to be on the receiving end for once.
That is all very well and good, but only consider your poor mama, Dia pointed out to him, glancing meaningfully at the sorely afflicted Duchess.
An excellent observation, my love.
Oh, stop it!
Meanwhile, Lord Saeros glanced at his heir sardonically. “I suppose all this is designed to give me my own back again,” he observed in wry accents. “No doubt, when you have finished playing these games, we might be able to discuss the matter at hand.”
At that, Caelon burst into pent up laughter. “And I suppose I should know better than to imagine that I shall ever get the best of you, sir,” he admitted handsomely between guffaws. “Truly, there is little to tell, Father. I gather that my lady and I both have tasks to perform in the furtherance of this Gaerud, but all the instruction either of us have received,” and here, he glanced severely at the two archpriests seated demurely in a corner of the room, “is an assurance that those tasks will flow very naturally from who we are and will therefor require no preparation.”
Armed with this information, a considering look descended upon Lord Saeros’ face. “Aye, I can understand that.”
“Indeed, sir?” Dia asked in some surprise, for the continued withholding of instruction had rankled.
“Yes, of course, child,” replied his Grace promptly. Then he cast a beetling gaze at his heir. “There is such a thing as over-preparation, you know.”
Once again, Caelon began to laugh. “Touché, sir.”