Chapter 5

Dia explores the darkness

Dia knew, before she opened her eyes, that her brother was pounding on the door. She had risen and dressed in some haste, determined to give herself enough time to commune again with that eternal, internal core of herself before she was required to face the dangers of the darkness once more. She felt wonderfully refreshed, even more so than when she had awakened from a deep and restful slumber. She took a deep breath, cloaking her skin with a profound calm that she hoped she could carry about with her, refusing to be hurried. “Dia!”

She heard several more thumps on the door. Inhaling deeply once more, she went to admit her brother.

Dia wasn’t sure what Daerus was expecting but when she opened her door and he looked upon her, his head reared back slightly and his face reflected amazement and displeasure.

Her brows lifted. “Is something amiss?” she asked him in a tone of polite interest as she ushered him inside.

He stared frowningly at her. “Where did you run away to last night?”

“I did not ‘run away’ at all, my dear,” she placidly replied. “I merely retired some time after endmeal.”

“Without bidding our hosts a good rest? I had not thought you were so rag-mannered.”

“I supposed I must be just so rag-mannered,” she said pensively, “but, as it happens, Prince Maermat met me on my way out and I was able, at least, to take my leave of him.” She noticed but did not comment upon the hint of a satisfied smile that greeted this news. “I must say, I am at something of a loss to understand you, twin,” she went on. “When last I saw you, before you came to this place, you would have been horrified at the sort of activities that the Emperor’s guests seem to enjoy.”

“It would do you no harm to learn something of pastimes that are more elegant than hobnobbing with the grooms,” he told her severely.

Dia laughed. “More elegant? I am given to understand that dicing, wenching and drinking wine as if it had just been discovered are more elegant than honest work, caring for our beasts of burden?”

“You are beginning to sound like Phoebus, sister,” he said with a sneer.

“Thank you,” Dia retorted cordially, but she wondered with something like despair if she would ever hear her brother’s merry laugh again.

Daerus continued to staring at her disapprovingly. “It is not for you to judge the conduct of your peers,” he said.

He is goading me, she thought, her curiosity aroused even as she renewed her mantle of composure. Interesting. “So you say,” she replied pleasantly. “But, even if I am not to judge them, do not expect me to emulate them, for I had rather throw myself from the topmost tower of this palace.” She suddenly grinned as another thought occurred to her. “And, if my father should learn that I had been aping the behavior of my ‘peers’, as you style them, no doubt he would spare me the trouble and perform the deed himself.”

That surprised a laugh from him and hope surged in Dia’s heart once more. Perhaps Daerus was not entirely lost to her, if she could still joke him about their beloved, if tiresome, parent. “So. Did you merely come here to scold me? Or had you some other errand?” she asked, still smiling.

“His Highness awaits you in the small dining room.”

“Ah.” She nodded and followed him from the room.

“Why do you not take your meals with the imperial family?” Daerus asked her as they walked down the corridor.

“I have not been invited to take my meals with the imperial family,” she replied, “for which I am profoundly thankful.”

“Why?”

“Because I have no wish to spend any more time with them than is strictly necessary.”

“And why not?”

“I do not suppose you will permit me to say merely that I am not comfortable around them?” she asked, smiling faintly.

“Really, Dia, one would think that you were the veriest country bumpkin!” Daerus expostulated, almost laughing. “There is no need for you to feel intimidated, simply because the Emperor shows you favor.”

Dia’s backbone automatically stiffened at this insult, drawing her to her full height. “I am not in the least intimidated, and well you should know it,” she snapped contemptuously. “I am Shae; I have no thought of being cowed by Ormaer, on the throne or elsewhere!” He is goading me, and to some purpose, she told herself. Come, Dia girl, pull yourself together. After a brief pause and a few steadying breaths, she added gently, “I was right, you know. This is an elegant brothel and, I give you fair warning, I shall quit the place just as soon as I may.”

His eyes went flat with hostility. “Well, here’s a high flight. Emperor Kaerkas is a great man; we are fortunate to have him on the throne of Ormaeranda. And, if it is not your place to judge the amusements of your peers, it is even less your place to judge those of your emperor.”

“Very likely not. I wish you will tell me why you must needs get angry with me every time I open my lips to speak,” she said mildly. “I had thought that my task was to win the Emperor’s approval. You never mentioned that I was required to like him, as well.”

“And how do you imagine that you will win his approval if you avoid him at every turn?” he asked her impatiently.

Dia feigned a melancholy sigh. “Alas, my poor brother is so little acquainted with me that he thinks I cannot be adroit!” She went on confidingly, “That certainly puts me on my mettle! I shall contrive to avoid him at as many turns as I can, and so smoothly that he shall suspect nothing. And, I shall expect you to be suitably impressed.”

“Oh, stop talking such nonsense!” he said furiously. “And I don’t see what you find to laugh about!”

“Very likely not,” she said again, still chuckling.

He said nothing for a moment, obviously mastering his irritation. “And what did you think of Prince Maermat?” he asked her with studied calm at last.

She shrugged. “He seemed a pleasant enough young man, I suppose,” she said carelessly. “It is to be hoped that he improves upon acquaintance.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

She looked at him then. “I mean, my beloved brother, that his Imperial Highness is a bit of a bore.”

“And that is your last word?”

“No, how should it be?” she replied in a reasonable tone. “I am barely acquainted with him. I would certainly hope that he can be persuaded to be more amusing than he has been thus far. That awful endmeal last night cannot have shown him to advantage.”

Daerus responded to that with a grunt. Then, as they came in sight of what appeared to be their destination, he stopped and, turning to her, said, “He is the best of good fellows and if you turn up your nose at him, then you are a worse featherhead than Father has always proclaimed you and I wash my hands of you!”

That made her laugh again. “Well, that is certainly a threat to make me tremble in my boots!” she gasped, but sobered — with considerable difficulty — when she saw that he was looking offended. “I do not know what ridiculous scheme you have in your head,” she added with fraternally good-natured scorn, “but you know that you have never been able to manipulate me into what you had not the temerity to ask for outright. And I have already warned you, Daerus, that I shall leave this place as soon as I may without giving offense.”

“We shall see,” was all he said, and rather ominously, before ushering her into the room.

Indeed, we shall, she thought very privately as she followed him.

“Lady Dia!” Prince Maermat had risen and come around the table to greet her. “I can see that you have enjoyed a pleasant rest, for you are looking wonderfully refreshed.” He bowed.

“Thank you, your Highness,” she replied, her eyes brushing his briefly before she sank into a curtsey. “I had a notion that I was looking quite hagged last night, only my brother was too kind to say so,” she added with an impish smile.

“Oh, dear,” the Prince said with comical dismay, trying to catch her eyes, “you mistake my meaning, my lady! But come, here are my father and sister waiting to greet you.”

Again, Dia sank into a curtsey, as the Emperor fixed her with a jaundiced eye and barked, “Well, Dia of Shae, yes? You here, ha!”

The Imperial siblings exchanged a quick glace before Prince Maermat, frowning slightly, said, “Er … yes, Father. You will recall that Lady Dia joins her excellent brother in attending us for morning audiences.”

Emperor Kaerkas responded to this reminder with a grunt. Eyes glittering in a manner that chilled her to the marrow of her bones, he told Dia, “I hope you are properly humbled to be among the favored of Ormaer.”

And that, Dia thought ironically, is certainly the sort of greeting designed to appeal to a proud daughter of Shae. “Thank you, Sire,” she said, wrapping her composure about her shoulders in search of warmth.

“Very well, then,” said the Emperor, pushing himself heavily to his feet.

As the small party followed him from the room, Princess Kera fell in beside Dia and smiled at her. “My father was very happy to make your acquaintance, my lady,” she said in a caressing voice. “Indeed, he is becoming more and more fond of House Shae.”

“How gratifying,” Dia replied lightly, still not looking at anyone. In spite of her resolve of the previous evening, she realized that she was going to have to exert considerable force of mind to voluntarily endure another session of mental darkness. “My brother bid me be sure to make a favorable impression upon the Emperor, you know,” she went on. “It would appear that I have been agreeable to some purpose. I have nothing now to do but thank him and go back home.”

Princess Kera fleetingly looked a bit alarmed at that but only laughed and said, “Your brother warned us that you are a merry soul, my lady. Indeed, he begged us not to take your words too seriously, thinking you might unwittingly offend us with your jests.”

“Poor Daerus! I fear I am a sad trial to him,” Dia agreed pleasantly.

“Oh, you must not think he does not hold you in affection,” said the Princess in apparent distress. “It is merely that he was particularly anxious to keep us from judging you harshly, for I understand that you had never been from home before this trip?” Dia nodded affirmation and her Highness continued, “So, how can you be expected to know how you should go on?”

“How indeed?” Dia remarked thoughtfully. “One would think that the district of Shae was some remote pigsty. How could I be expected to know aught of propriety of manner or deportment?”

“Not at all,” the Princess insisted. “But you cannot deny, my lady, that at my father’s court you are seeing a level of conduct that you are not at all accustomed to.”

“And you are quite right,” said Dia, seemingly very much struck, “I could never deny that!” Without seeming to, she noted the indignant expression on her brother’s face with amused interest.

“There!” Princess Kera seemed relieved. “I daresay a touch of court sophistication will do you good and I am sure you will enjoy it excessively. Oh!” she added in her soft voice, as if the idea had just occurred to her, “how would it be if you were to place yourself in my charge while you are here? Surely, that would much relieve your mind.”

“Relieve my mind?”

“Why, yes. I expect you must be quite nervous about your first stay at court.”

“Indeed?”

“For fear that your inexperience will cause you to embarrass yourself, you know,” Princess Kera said, making the matter quite clear.

“I see.” The imperial princess was gazing at her earnestly and Dia found herself wondering uncharitably if her Highness’ air of ingenuousness was supposed to make these blood insults more palatable. Perhaps she was again being goaded? Dia chose instead to be amused.

“But I can easily guide you so that you will avoid social mishaps, leaving you free to savor the amusements of the palace.” The Princess concluded her little speech with something of the air of a successful conjurer.

“And which amusements would those be, your Highness?” Dia asked, her face a picture of innocent inquiry.

The Princess laughed again. “Oh, you are joking me again. Seriously, my lady, what do you say? I would be happy to serve you in this way and,” she added with a coquettish glance at Daerus, “it would be as well, I think, were we to become better acquainted.”

Dia took another deep, steadying breath, ruthlessly suppressing both her annoyance and her laughter. She was very sure that she was not imagining the sudden, tense silence that awaited her response to that offer. They seemed mighty anxious to adopt her into the family circle, she thought. Given the peculiar behavior of her brother, their very insistence invited her resistance.

Ignoring Daerus altogether, she said serenely, “You are very kind, your Highness, but I am commended by my mother to Lady Tamia’s care.”

“Indeed?” Princess Kera said, surprised. “Lady Mara knew that the Grand Duchess of Aerandos would be here, then?”

“No, how should she, your Highness?” Dia said calmly. “She merely suggested to me that I might investigate upon my arrival to discover whether the Lady Tamia of Aerandos or the Lady Lena of Gedbaen were in the palace. I gather that they were girls together at court, and my esteemed mother thought that either would serve the purpose admirably, should I find myself in need of an experienced friend.”

“How fortunate, then, that Lady Tamia is indeed visiting us at this time,” the Princess said woodenly.

Prince Maermat was looking disappointed and her brother’s expression was murderous. Dia affected not to see them. “Is it not?” she replied cheerfully. “For I would not wish to impose upon your kindness and my brother, having persuaded me to come here, has wholly abandoned me to pursue his own amusements.”

“Oh, if we are to talk of brothers … !” her Highness said, casting a saucy glance at Prince Maermat, which caused that young man to grin, and then allowing the matter to drop. Dia, without seeming to, saw the teasing twinkle leave her Highness’ glance, to be replaced with a baffled, frustrated expression.

They had by this time arrived in the throne room and proceeded to dispose themselves around the room, Daerus seating Princess Kera while Prince Maermat showed Dia to a chair. That provided the opportunity Dia had been both awaiting and dreading, for while she had thus far avoided allowing any of them to look into her eyes or to touch her, she could not dispense with the protocol of letting the Prince take her hand to guide her to her seat. Dia, beginning to feel that sinking pressure, took yet another deep breath and sank away from it, into herself. As she had hoped, the strange lassitude settled over her but did not consume her, and while she felt remote from the events around her, she did not think she would forget them.

Excellent, she thought, well satisfied even though she felt dreadfully uncomfortable, as if she were covered with the contents of the stable floors. And now, to work.

It was a curious process, a bit like closely examining a scabrous but painless rash that had somehow broken out on one’s arm. Dia felt/saw the mental intrusion as a blanketing barrier between herself and everything around her. And, she realized now, there was much more to it than the simple languid indifference initially conveyed by its overwhelming darkness. There were subtler influences in it that would have slowly shaped her preferences, without her awareness and against her will, had she found no way to neutralize it.

She sensed a distaste for all the attributes of a purposeful life — honor, duty, work — and a mindless, insatiable hunger for the sensual pleasures and for material wealth. As well, she began to understand the shameless debauchery of the denizens of the palace. She candidly admitted to herself that, if she had remained under the influence of this mental fog for long enough, the deadening indifference would have ended in a desperate need to endlessly titillate herself, if only to remain convinced that she was still alive.

But if she understood the craving, she also understood, within herself, how ultimately empty such amusements were. A surge of overwhelming pity for these people her brother had styled her ‘peers’ possessed her. Indeed, she was not even surprised to find the tiny kernel of a suicidal impulse buried deep within the darkness. She would have to handle Daerus with infinite care.

But the question remained: where was it coming from? She would have to find out before she could make any attempt to salvage her brother or even do much to protect herself. She looked around the room at her companions.

To her dismay, but not to her surprise, the peculiarly innocent beauty of Prince Maermat had been replaced — or perhaps overlaid, instinct told her — by a sort of arrogant hardness, and the speculative gaze that had become so familiar to her was back. There was, she noted with interest, an additional hint of possessiveness in his eyes as he returned her glance. Princess Kera’s insipid girlishness now seemed much less insipid; she now looked upon her world with a cynical, calculating eye. And, yet, they did not really look any different. Dia could not have pointed to any particular feature or act that had changed her impressions of these Imperial siblings. It was almost as if someone or something had already consumed them, even as it had consumed Daerus, and had stamped its mark on their features.

And that left her no closer to discovering who or what was responsible — and why.

Meanwhile, the Emperor did not seem to have changed at all; his eyes were just as dangerous as they had been when she had first arrived in the imperial breakfast room. He was interviewing a common tradesman, a scribe to judge by the inkstains on his fingers. Dia was a little surprised that she would notice such a detail, groping about in this fog. The tradesman had prostrated himself before the throne, visibly trembling, as the Emperor roared at him, clutching a sheaf of parchment.

“What do you mean, writing such stuff?” the Emperor was demanding.

“If it please yer honor,” the poor man said in a voice hardly above a whisper, “I didn’t write it, sir. I just copied down what was give me, sir.”

“I don’t care if you wrote it or not!” declared his Majesty, “You should have returned this commission as soon as you saw it’s content. You shall be punished for this outrage! I shall have respect!”

The shrill note in the Emperor’s last two sentences seemed to confuse the scribe. “Please, yer honor,” he said, “I didn’t know. I can’t read. I just copy.”

“That is no excuse! This is treason!” Emperor Kaerkas shouted, spraying spittle as he yanked violently on the bellpull beside his throne. “Take this traitor out and hang him,” he told the soldiers who answered his summons.

“Please, sir … ” the tradesman pleaded in some bewilderment as the soldiers roughly yanked him to his feet.

“Find his home and burn it to the ground, and hail his family, if he has one, to the slave markets,” the Emperor went on with relish. His eyes were alight with cruel anticipation as he issued these orders and seemed to pause to savor the pain he had certainly caused.

For the tradesman’s eyes now held panic and terror and despair, as he begged not for his own life but for the safety of his family. “No!” he cried. “My missus don’t have nowt to do wi’ what I scribe, yer honor! It ain’t fair to take her and her babies! Please … !”

Great, wracking sobs and incoherent, panicked entreaties echoed from the cavernous ceiling, but the Emperor, with calculated disinterest, was already instructing his guardsmen to admit his next appointment.

Dia blinked. For an instant, she heard a peculiar shimmering buzz and felt an odd stillness descend upon her. Inexplicably, she seemed to see a tiny kernel of light, like a flame applied to a lantern viewed from far away, shining steadily in that inner, sacred core of herself. Without consciously deciding to do so, she found herself focusing all her concentration upon that tiny light, as the room and its occupants faded from her awareness. And she knew, without knowing how she could have known, that something of consequence was about to happen.

Dia …

Dia immediately recognized her brother’s mental touch and realized, as well, that Daerus was not alone. In the instant before her brother’s mind had met hers, she felt that same black, bone-deep chill that had assailed her as she had left her rooms before last endmeal. She shivered, wondering absently why that should be.

Yes, Daerus?

I know that you feel this power.

Indeed, she did feel it. The blanketing fog that had enveloped her grew blacker, palpating as if it were a man flexing his muscles. She sharpened her focus on that untouchable inner core of herself, with its small, eternal light, even as she replied, Of course, I do. It feels perfectly dreadful, dearest. What is it?

Dreadful? A soundless chuckle tickled her senses. Oh, yes, I suppose it must seem that way to you, for you have not yet felt the beauty of it.

Beauty? she injected a note of distaste into her “voice”. Do you find it so, Daerus?

It is of all things the most wonderful I have ever experienced, sister, he told her persuasively. It is powerful, irresistibly powerful.

Is power so sweet to you, then?

Power is everything to such as we, Dia. Why else were we born to the talents we possess?

Why, indeed? she quipped, knowing better. I confess, I cannot share your enthusiasm for it.

Why not?

It is cold.

It is clear and stark and beautiful, he told her.

It is dark.

There is peace in the darkness.

It is unclean.

A scornful snort greeted that observation. Do not be a little fool, Dia, her brother told her with fraternal brusqueness. What need have we to care for such things? We are above considerations of what may or may not be unclean.

I fear I do not have such an exalted opinion of myself, dearest, she said with calm amusement.

She felt him “lean” into her, increasing the pressure that bore down upon her mind. No, but do you turn away from me so easily? he asked, wheedling. We have been together for as long as we have drawn breath; will you not walk with me now?

As he spoke, it seemed that a thousand memories flooded her mind. Daerus skillfully reminded her of the play, the squabbles, the camaraderie, and, above all, the laughter they had shared all their lives. Without even thinking, she sought to strengthen their mental bond, longing suddenly and passionately for the ease and comfort of their former link. She was so lonely, so very lonely and, while Daerus had been distant and unreachable since she had arrived, he suddenly seemed very close.

Yes! he encouraged her. Come with me, Dia. Surrender to this power, even as I have. I miss you, too.

She was sorely tempted, and she knew that he knew it. But, I detest this darkness of yours, she told him plaintively, after a long, silent struggle with herself. It is a vile, revolting, mental muck.

Do not be missish, Dia. he replied in brisk accents, brushing off her objections as if they were no more significant than a fly. It is not your style.

Irritated, she responded in kind. Well, and if this mire is the price I must pay for the privilege of wielding such power as you offer, I prefer to decline, she said tartly, as the blackness grew still heavier and she realized she was being goaded again.

You cannot decline, silly girl! Look at how easily I have buried your mind in darkness.

Well, and look at how easily I threw off your darkness after last endmeal, she pointed out, once more calm. Perhaps it is not so very powerful after all.

I have been gentle with you, Dia, he told her haughtily. I do not want to hurt you. But I have chosen my path and I am determined that you shall tread that path with me.

Why?

Because you must! And with that, his touch was gone.

Once again, she was assailed by a wave of longing for the familiar mental touch of her twin. Could she join him on the path he had chosen? she wondered. Could she willingly wallow in that awful mental slime, simply for the pleasure of the special bond they had once shared? Did she want to? Aye, now, there was a telling question. Her heart called out for her beloved brother, but the fellow she had just spoken with did not seem very like him; his touch was familiar, yet strange. Daerus had said she would soon grow accustomed to the darkness, but she found she had no real wish to become used to this dense mental fog, with its murky, chill indifference.

It seemed that she had a choice to make, and it was of all things the most irritating that she should learn of it when she was not in a position to consider what she had been told. Would she spend her entire stay in this blighted palace wishing for some peace and privacy in which to think? She turned her attention away from her disturbing conversation with Daerus and looked around the throne room again.

Emperor Kaerkas had risen and was stepping down from his throne. ” . . . advise them that they are to report to me directly after midmeal,” he was instructing a footman. “Come, let us repair to the dining hall.” And with that, he strutted toward the door.

Dia got to her feet and, in company with Daerus and the rest of the imperial family, left the throne room in the Emperor’s wake. Just outside the door, the party encountered Lord Caelon, in conversation with the same footman the Emperor had just sent on his errand.

“Well met, Caelon of Aerandos,” the Emperor hailed the younger man. “I had just sent this fellow to ask your father to report to me after you have had your midmeal, but no doubt you will spare him the trouble. I would have his decision, for the matter becomes urgent.”

“Well met, indeed, your Majesty,” Lord Caelon replied formally, bowing first to Emperor Kaerkas and then to his son and daughter. “I will be very happy to convey your invitation to my father.”

The Emperor gave Lord Caelon a sharp glance for his choice of words and then a curt nod of acknowledgement, before moving on. Lord Caelon, apparently oblivious, stepped up to intercept Dia, who dropped a curtsey and gave him her hand.

“How fortunate that I have found you, my lady,” he said, bowing over the hand she had given him.

With that greeting, two things happened. The inner light she had noticed in the throne room brightened and grew — a little, just a little — and the cloying mists that had clouded her thoughts and numbed her feelings vanished.

Dia raised smilingly thankful eyes to her unsuspecting rescuer. “Indeed, my lord?” she said quizzically. And, as soon as her mind was her own again, she knew that her choice was already made. Indeed, there was no contest — but how clever of Daerus and his unseen companion to attempt to pressure her into giving her pledge when she was sunk in that disgusting mental sludge and could not think clearly! She wondered if that had been his idea. Really, she thought, both surprised and self-congratulatory, I am glad I asked this of Lord Caelon. It was a very good idea.

She knew he heard her thought, for his eyes suddenly brimmed with suppressed mirth. “I am bid to convey her Grace’s compliments and to tell you that she is pining for your company. You recall that you are promised to us for midmeal?”

She had, with some difficulty, retrieved her hand and now cast a surreptitious glance at her brother. He was exchanging a look with his betrothed that was as vexed as it was mystified.

With a certain malicious delight, she said, “Yes, of course I remember and was just about to make my excuses to my imperial hosts. I do hope your Highnesses will forgive me,” she added, turning to them with a gracious smile once she had taken the arm Lord Caelon offered. Let them sit and wonder how I have shed their trap so easily, she thought, knowing but not minding that Caelon of Aerandos could hear every uncharitable word. No doubt it will keep them out of mischief!

“You return to us after midmeal?” Daerus asked her, his eyes thunderous.

“I fear not, twin,” she told him sweetly, smiling with satisfaction at her brother’s silent and bewildered fuming. Never had she derived so much enjoyment from simply refusing an invitation! “I shall be with her Grace for the rest of the day and will likely accompany her down to endmeal. No doubt I shall see you then.”

She felt her brother’s mind at work before he actually attempted to touch her again. Never had she experienced such a ponderous mental weight, as if he sought to crush her mind and her will to resist, and Dia recalled his previous assertion that he had been gentle with her. Was this his attempt to prove to her how much power he had at his disposal? Did he think to force his stinking darkness upon her here and now? With deliberate calm, she pushed the overpowering touch away, making no effort to be gentle and wondering why the task should be so easily accomplished. Do not try to bully me, twin, she told him in tranquil accents. I will choose my own path.

There is only one possible choice, Dia, Daerus told her. Remember.

Nonsense! Surreptitiously and, she hoped, unnoticed by Lord Caelon, Dia allowed her fingertip to touch his lordship’s wrist as she held her brother’s glance with her own. If one of the choices is darkness, then the other choice must surely be light.

And, even as she said it, that inner kernel of light flared unasked into a brilliant flash of bright and cheery warmth. How intriguing! As she had previously done with her brother’s darkness, she wondered absently why that should be.

Even more intriguing, Daerus flinched away from her. So, Dia noted with interest, did Princess Kera. No, Daerus had not been alone, but Dia wondered why he seemed to require assistance to reach out a mere five feet in order to contact her mind. He had never needed such help before. It would appear that this beauteous darkness of which her brother was so enamored was a weakening influence, rather than a strengthening one.

Overall, a productive morning, Dia decided as she sailed away on Lord Caelon’s arm. Only now, she found she must decide whether or not to style her brother her enemy. And that, she thought, may prove the most difficult choice of all!

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