In which Dia is presented to the Emperor and his heirs.
Dia watched the gentleman walk away from her down the dim corridor and wondered again who he might be. Everyone she had encountered since she had entered the capital city had been carrying that aura of darkness that chilled her to the marrow of her bones. She had even wondered if fatigue was clouding her sight. It was not until she had been within an inch of giving the impudent fellow a severe scolding that she had realized that he was different. Handsome, certainly, and as arrogant, but to her tired eyes he seemed a blazing beacon of light in an ocean of blackness.
Whatever was the matter with her? She did not for an instant think that she was sickening for anything and she knew that she had always had unusual perceptions and abilities. But nothing like this had ever happened before, where her eyes started playing tricks on her. She turned away from the young man and started toward her brother’s rooms, sadly puzzled.
Very likely, none of it meant a thing. Not the peculiar things she was seeing. Not the very odd, bone-deep chill she had felt just before she had opened her chamber door. Not even her brother’s bizarre moods and haggard appearance. She would drive herself insane if she spent too much time trying to solve puzzles that did not exist. But, she owned privately, unconvinced by her own arguments, she wished she had Phoebus by her.
Only Daerus knew how much she detested occasions such as the one she would be attending that night. Her mother, thinking to solace her once she no longer had her twin’s companionship, and hoping that some local gentleman would catch her eye, had inflicted countless entertainments upon her after her brother had left. Much to her mother’s dismay, Dia had gained nothing from these revels except a great deal of practice at hiding her distaste for them. Poor Mama! she thought fondly as she paced the silent corridor. How patiently she bore my ingratitude for her ridiculous scheming! I wonder if she would be pleased to know that those tedious evenings seem likely to do me some good now?
She could not determine from Daerus’ incoherent conversation what would be at risk during this endmeal, but she was determined not to fail him. Bearing in mind his injunctions, she had selected her raiment with some care and entered his room with a flourish. Her flowing gown was of an older design, in linen and crepe of a pale aqua, rather than the silken overdress and close-fitting leggings currently worn by young ladies of fashion. Its cut she thought both demure and becoming; dressed so very modestly, she felt certain to please her suddenly exacting sibling.
Daerus’ first words instantly disabused her of that notion. “Great Temple fires, Dia! What do you mean by wearing such a grandmother’s gown?” he asked, surveying her in some disgust.
Dia halted abruptly in the act of crossing his room, startled by this unexpected scolding. After staring at him for a moment, she sighed. “I had thought you were worried that I might be taken for a fast sort of female,” she said in long-suffering accents. “At least, that is what you were complaining about earlier. No doubt that exquisitely polite Lord Oshaed has already given out his opinion of me. I but thought to counteract the gossip.”
“The very thing you, of all people, would be worried about,” Daerus told her sarcastically.
“I was not worried about it. You were. Remember?”
“I know of no reason why you cannot be ladylike and attractive at the same time.”
“The Emperor is quite old enough to be my father, Daerus,” said Dia wryly. “I am not trying to seduce him, so what matter if my gown is demure?”
“Do not expect me to swallow that tale, sister!” he replied, clearly distracted. “It seems you are determined to ruin all my chances … ”
“Oh, give over, Daerus!” she snapped, completely out of patience with his hysterics. “You are become tiresomely difficult to please all of a sudden! You speak to me in the most general of terms and give me none but the vaguest of directions. If you are not going to give me a round tale, then you must not snarl at me if I stumble, for I am groping in the dark.” She paused but he remained silent. Smiling faintly, she added, “You seek the Emperor’s approval of me, do you not? And why should he not approve of a retiring girl-child from the country?”
A long pause ensued. The tension in the room slowly dissipated, while a reluctant smile fought for possession of her brother’s lips. “A ‘retiring girl-child’? Surely, such a role would be much too arduous for you to maintain, my dear,” was his overly solicitous inquiry.
Dia grinned. “Brat!”
He grinned back.
“Have we done with brangling? I confess, I am longing for my endmeal,” Dia said, taking his arm and hoping that he would not treat her to any more such scenes for awhile.
“I cannot think why you should complain,” he replied mildly. “What would you do, if you had no brother to fight with when you are feeling peevish?”
“Do you know, I have no idea,” she said, apparently much struck. “I shall have to consider the matter.”
They left the room together, and Dia was a bit easier now that they had revived their normal style of conversation. She had made the painful decision, while she was preparing herself for the evening, to pull herself out of mental contact with her brother completely, until she could discover what had happened to him. Nothing had ever been so hard for her to willingly do! Her mind seemed echoingly empty; she had never felt so alone in her life. Yet, they chatted easily as they made their way to the throne room, where the Emperor’s guests gathered before endmeal, and Dia realized sadly that her brother had not even noticed her withdrawal. She suppressed another sigh.
They came presently to the massive oak doors of Emperor Kaerkas Ormaer’s throne room and a pair of uniformed, ceremonial guards sprang to open them. Daerus led her into a vast cavern of a room, filled with little except the reverberation of noisy talk, the glitter of brightly colored clothes and jewels and, overlooking all, the throne. Dia almost reeled backwards at the noise; the gentry in the neighborhood of Shae were much more refined in their social chatter. She had not been expecting such a clamorous babble.
Daerus led her forward and she had not time to distinguish more than an impression of swirling color, restlessness, a liveliness that had a touch of hysteria about it — and, of course, the ever present darkness. Then she found herself standing before the raised dais on which sat the throne.
She had had no idea of what to expect and she examined the Emperor of the realm with interest. He was a small man, not much taller than herself, and he sat his throne as if it were a tunic that was several times too large to fit comfortably. His figure was compact, if a little pudgy with the approach of middle age, but his face came as something of a shock. It was almost invisible to her, for his darkness was so dense that he hardly looked human, and she had to struggle to keep herself from backing away.
“What ails you now, Dia?” Daerus hissed fiercely.
Faintly, she shook her head. If he could not see it, there was no point in mentioning what seemed to her to be growing evidence that she was losing her mind. The chatter of the guests, the swirling colors and, above all, the darkness, seemed to be closing around her. Sternly, she repressed her growing discomfort.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” Daerus was saying, “allow me to present my sister, Lady Dia of Shae.”
Dia sank into a deep curtsey, as the Emperor replied, “Welcome to court, my lady.”
She rose and tried to look into his eyes, but she was blinded by his darkness. “I am honored, Sire,” she said.
“A well-spoken child,” the Emperor said to Daerus, “and quite the beauty. Why did you never mention how charming your sister is, Lord Daerus? Do you not agree, Maermat?”
It really was unfair of her, but she could not resist. Did you not tell them how charming I am, twin? she murmurred into his mind. But how shocking!
After a moment’s struggle with himself, Daerus replied, “Indeed, Sire, she has improved beyond recognition in the time since I left my home.” He bestowed a fatuous smile upon her. “I hardly recognized her.”
Score a point for Daerus, she thought, sternly containing her laughter.
Meanwhile, the Emperor had beckoned to a classically beautiful young man with carefully curled black hair, who stood quietly behind his throne. “Allow me to make my son and heir known to you,” he said.
Again, she curtsied. “Your Imperial Highness.”
“My lady,” he replied courteously, bowing over the hand he held and examining her speculatively.
Dia looked into his eyes with a growing sense of confusion. She knew she had never met this imperial personage before, yet his glance was startlingly familiar. But even as she tried to remember where she might have seen those eyes or that gaze, a strange kind of lassitude came over her. It seemed that her memories grew far away, as if she had arrived years ago instead of just after midmeal. Oh, merciful Phoenix, what was the matter with her?
How long she stood transfixed she could not have said. Again, she experienced that sensation of something trying to enclose her, to swallow her whole. Prince Maermat had not moved, yet he seemed to be a part of her feeling that something was trying to steal into her mind and take her away from herself. Startlement, discomfort and even curiosity slowly faded and a peculiar ringing filled her ears.
She had no idea what the Emperor was saying to her, or what she was replying. No one seemed to notice anything peculiar, so she relaxed and ceased to worry about it. She felt like a puppet; as long as whomever was pulling her strings knew what they were about, and would not land her in a scrape, she was willing to allow them to do with her what they would. It did not matter; nothing mattered.
Meanwhile, it quickly became obvious to everyone present that Shae was currently enjoying imperial favor. Dia and her brother were the object of interested glances and whispered conversation throughout the room. They were even partnered at endmeal by the Prince and Princess, while his Imperial Majesty looked on with smug satisfaction. Dia would have found such scrutiny trying, had she not still been enveloped in that comforting fog. She began to look around with incurious eyes.
Endmeal was a sumptuous affair, with course after succulent course offered at table, and the guests seemed to be drinking a great deal. In fact, the small part of her brain that was not entirely asleep noted, the lords and ladies attending the court were swilling their wine in much the same way as the commoners she had seen when she had entered the city. Fortunately, the guests had lost interest in her, and were busily carrying on countless indiscreet conversations at the top of their lungs. Several improper assignations were made, and any number of vulgar suggestions were shouted across the table amidst bawdy laughter. Dia looked gropingly at her brother but, in truth, she could see very little.
After endmeal, the Emperor and his court returned to the throne room to continue their evening’s entertainment. Still sunk in that peculiar detachment, Dia had no desire to participate and retired to an unoccupied corner to watch. Several games of dice flourished and a number of thrashing tapestries suggested that the couples who had retired to hide behind them were enjoying vigorous exercise. Liveried servants were gliding around the room, dispensing wine as the guests drank without pause. A duel erupted from one of the dice games, the combatants snarling at each other as they grappled and the spectators taking bets on the victor. Dia looked about her mindlessly, still undisturbed by the scene. Absently, she wondered where her brother was.
“I had hoped that your brother would stay by you, at least long enough to present me,” a vaguely familiar voice seemed to answer her unspoken question with what were, oddly enough, the first words she had heard clearly all evening. “Since I see that he has abandoned you, I shall make bold to introduce myself.”
Dia turned and found a gentleman bowing before her, suffused with a strangely compelling brilliance that was almost painful to look upon. She stared at him with dull, apathetic eyes.
Meanwhile, the young man had risen from his florid bow. “I am Caelon of Aerandos,” he said.
“Dia of Shae,” she murmured, giving him her hand.