Chapter 8

Dia contemplates bringing her visit to the imperial palace to a close.

As the season wore on and the sun inexorably climbed higher in the sky, Dia continued to divide her time between Ormaer and Aerandos. Her schedule suited her well enough and she derived a certain malicious enjoyment from watching her brother all but gnash his teeth in frustration. All his attempts to intervene in her growing relationship with and affection for Aerandos had met with failure as, for the first time in his life, Daerus found himself coming into conflict with the obstinacy their parents knew so well.

Dia could not tell if she was growing used to the terrible darkness that had seemed so frighteningly irresistible when she had first encountered it, or if the antidote she had found had caused it to grow less effective every time she grasped Lord Caelon’s hand. However it may have been, she could still see and feel that ever-present darkness that surrounded the imperial court, but it no longer had the ability to smother her senses.

In some ways, she was sorry for it. Uncomfortable that mental fog may have been, but it would have been a splendid buffer against the frustrated or even worried stares and whispered conversations between her brother and his beloved. It might even have rendered Prince Maermat’s tediously heavy-handed wooing rather more bearable. She could not tell whether the Prince was in earnest or merely attempting alleviate boredom. She conceived a notion that his Imperial Highness was, in fact, a rather shy young man whose position had forced him to conceal or conquer his self-consciousness as best he could. He generally managed to do so quite effectively, but idle flirtations, or even the earnest courtship of a young lady, still seemed to betray him into awkwardness. Indeed, she felt rather sorry for him, but still she found his attentions wearisome and wished he would find another object for his gallantry.

“Tell me, my lady,” he said to her one morning, “are you at all ambitious?”

“Ambitious?” she repeated in some surprise. “How so, your Highness?”

“Do you aspire to hold a great position in the Empire?”

She stared at him for a full minute, deliberately calming herself before answering. “I am a daughter of Shae, your Highness,” she said with quiet pride. “I do not think I need aspire any higher than that.”

“Oh, of course, of course,” he acknowledged hurriedly, nodding. “And, yet, do you not think that a daughter of Shae would be more than fitting to be a wife of Ormaer?”

“Certainly, Highness,” she replied, placidly, “but I am not on the hunt for a husband.”

“Nonsense, my lady,” Prince Maermat argued. “Somehow I cannot see you dwindling into spinsterhood, hanging on your brother’s sleeve.”

“Very likely not,” she said, unable to contain her amusement. “Poor Daerus! In any event, I am sure that my parents and my brother share the hope that I shall meet many suitable gentlemen among his Majesty’s court and shall receive an acceptable offer from among them.”

“And do you expect such an offer?”

Again, she fixed him with a level stare. Imperial prince or no, the fellow was mightily impertinent. “Really, Prince Maermat, you take an inordinate interest in my matrimonial prospects!” she finally protested.

“I take an interest in everything about you, my lady,” he replied meaningfully, his speculative gaze holding hers.

“How very dull that must be for you!” Dia said cheerfully, hoping to douse some of his ardor. His Highness, in Dia’s opinion, had all the subtlety of an enraged bull.

She said as much to her brother some days later, as they walked together toward the Emperor’s audience chamber, adding, “I have no notion of what he may mean by such oppressive gallantry, but I do wish he would stop.”

“Why should he?” Daerus asked her. “Just think what a splendid Empress you would make! I feel certain that you would be gratified by occupying such a high station. And,” he added with considerable asperity, “I was being perfectly serious, so you need not stand about chortling in that ill-bred way!”

“Daerus, I refuse to argue with you,” Dia managed to say, still laughing. “Only know that I have no wish to be further embarrassed by his Highness, and not the least ambition to be an Empress. One of us marrying into the imperial family is quite enough.”

“No ambition to be an Empress?” he repeated in the greatest astonishment. “What can you mean?”

“Well, what do you suppose me to mean, Daerus?” she asked, still amused. “Can it be that you are surprised to discover that I have no imperial aspirations?” Then, curious, she asked, “I can accept that you have been changed by your sojourn at court, but must it follow that you no longer remember the character of your twin?”

“No, of course not,” he said — a little too quickly, she thought. “But you are Shae, Dia. You cannot wed a nobody. Or do you mean to be wed, then, into Aerandos?” he went on, suddenly suspicious. “Is that why you are so assiduous in your attentions to Lady Tamia?”

“In the expectation of receiving an offer from her?” asked Dia, lifting a brow. “I fear that would not be at all the thing, you know.”

“Dia … !”

“I like her, dear. Indeed, I like all of House Aerandos that I have met so far. Lady Tamia and her lord remind me forcibly of my own parents, you know.” She sighed wistfully. “How pleased I shall be to see them again!”

Into the brief silence that followed that nostalgic remark — to which, she noted with interest, he made no sort of reply — Daerus asked in a determinedly casual tone, “By the by, are you anticipating an offer from Caelon of Aerandos?” Dia found it excessively curious that Daerus seemed to be growing … really, there was no other word for it but nervous … about that possibility.

She sighed wearily. “No.”

“There has been a great deal of talk, you know, my dear.”

“It is not like you to listen to the gossip-mongers, my dear.”

“You are certainly spending a great deal of time with Lord Caelon.”

“I am spending a great deal of time with his mother, Daerus.”

His mother, her Grace of Aerandos, was making no attempt to hide from the world her delight at the prospect of Dia as a marriage-daughter. (Really, she thought, is there no one in the capital who is not preoccupied with who I may take to husband?) Dia knew of that lady’s scheming and so, judging from the cynical smile with which he sometimes observed their chats, did Lord Caelon. That was certainly bad enough, but Dia had a notion that his lordship thought her in league with his mother, and that vexed her almost beyond bearing. She had not spoken of it to him; the subject was a matter of considerable embarrassment to her and she dreaded broaching it because she knew, if he did harbor such doubts, that she had no way to counter them. Still, if she could not defend herself against unvoiced suspicions, she could take great care to do nothing to lend weight to them.

Such a course of action was not easiest to accomplish when the entire palace seemed rife with conjecture about the pair. Dia, in a fair-minded spirit, acknowledged that the speculation was undoubtedly fed by his lordship’s habit of pausing at her door just before retiring to his chambers for his rest. Lord Caelon had scrupulously kept his word to her, shaking her hand whenever he met her in the palace, and appearing at her door after she had left the endmeal frolic to share a handclasp. He had not questioned her about this ritual, for which she was thankful. She knew that he felt the same power she did in the contact, and she was certain she would be unable to explain it to his satisfaction. Indeed, each time she felt the strangely compelling power that fortified her and strengthened the growing bond between them, she found herself unable even to explain the matter to herself. Yet, when she considered how little she had told him of her situation, she realized that she owed him a long explanation.

Meanwhile, Dia had long since suspected that her brother’s frequent goading had come about because losing her temper would somehow make her more vulnerable to the power of the darkness. Her counter-strategy was very simple; she took a page from dear Phoebus’ book and strove to remain calm whatever the provocation. She had no way of knowing whether or not Daerus had guessed that his clumsiness had betrayed him, but she did notice that eventually he stopped baiting her. Dia, not for an instant imagining that would be the end of it, now awaited his next move.

He did not realize it but her twin was running out of time. Dia had every intention of bringing her visit to a close within the next few wakings, before the sun had climbed high enough to make travel impossible. And why, it suddenly occurred to her to wonder, was it so important to ensnare her? Daerus had given her only the rather implausible explanation that, as his twin, she had always been with him and must remain with him as he walked his dark path. When she had expressed her dissatisfaction with that rationale, he had refused to explain further. Odd, that. Well, she had grown perfectly willing to allow Septha and His instruments to dip their evil fingers into the mind of her twin, if only they would leave her alone.

She shook her head at her own thoughts. In truth, Dia was a little ashamed of herself, for honesty compelled her to admit that she had not tried very hard to get through to Daerus. She could offer in her own defense that she had been busily trying to preserve her own mind and had little leisure to try to reclaim his. Besides, how was she to free him of the darkness when he seemed so enamored of it? He would fight her every inch of the way. But the heart of the matter lay in the fact that she found she did not much care for this new Daerus. So very detestable was she finding him that she had almost forgotten that the man she now knew as Daerus was not really her beloved brother.

Seated at endmeal beside Lord Caelon, she glanced across the table at the heir to Shae and became aware of a sudden overwhelming sadness. He did not even look quite like Daerus anymore.

“Someday, you will have to tell me what I have done to earn your brother’s disapprobation,” Lord Caelon said in her ear.

“What can you mean, my lord?” she asked him. “I did not even know that you were acquainted with him.”

“I have not been formally presented to him,” Lord Caelon agreed, “but that has not prevented him from directing some very formidable stares my way. Perhaps I should hasten to assure him that my intentions toward his sister are completely honorable?”

Dia smiled faintly. “I am afraid he would not be pleased with you, no matter what your intentions might be,” she said ruefully.

“He objects to my attentions to you?”

“He has lost his mind and has taken to talking such complete nonsense that it is not worth repeating.”

“I see.” Lord Caelon looked down at her with that quizzing smile in his blue eyes. “Do you know, I do not think I should care to figure in your memory as the cause of a permanent breach with your twin — no matter how much entertainment I may be deriving from needling the crown prince.”

That confession made her laugh. “What a handsome admission for you to make, my lord!” Then she sobered. “There is no need for you to fret on that score. You have never even seen my brother.”

“Indeed! How peculiar that everyone at court seems to believe the young gentleman currently scowling at you so disapprovingly is Lord Daerus of Shae.”

“I … No, he … ” Impulsively, Dia reached out and grasp his hand, having made a sudden decision. “May I beg your aid for just a moment, my lord?”

“My dear Lady Dia, surely you must know that you may command me in anything!”

“Oh, stop that!” She looked away from him and took a deep, calming breath. “I fear you may find this just a bit uncomfortable, my lord.”

“I have met the Throk on the fields of Aerand and lived to tell the tale, my lady. You do not frighten me so easily.”

Fleetingly, Dia wondered if Lord Caelon was ever serious about anything.

She would have to be quick about this, she realized. Daerus, as she knew him now, was not alone; instinct told her that he was never left alone. She hoped her contact with Lord Caelon would protect her, for she knew that she would be at least somewhat vulnerable during the sort of penetrating mind-touch she had in mind. Carefully, she prepared her defenses and reached out to touch the thoughts of her dinner companion.

I do apologize for this, my lord, she told him with silent sincerity. It will not be pleasant.

Not waiting for his reply, she stabbed in her brother’s direction with their joined minds, moving as quick as thought. As she had expected, she encountered a formidable barrier of dank darkness before she even reached him and, without slowing down, she stabbed through it with everything she could muster. Then she was penetrating her brother’s once familiar mind, and she had to clench her teeth together to keep from retching. To her, it felt exactly like plunging her arm into a stable midden. Daerus’ mind bore a heavy, dense cloak of sticky, cold blackness, rancid and poisonous, that seemed to go on forever.

And then, huddled miserable and alone deep in the core of his mind, she finally found the twin brother she had known and loved all her life.

And, as always, he recognized her touch immediately. Dia! Take care! It is not safe for you to touch me in this way …

Daerus! she cried out in relief, sensing his fear for her and all his terrible longing. Tell me what to do! How am I to free you of all this blackness?

Surrender to the light!

What?

Surrender to the light… And then he pushed her away, urging her wordlessly to escape from his prison. With a suddenness that bespoke a determined mental wrench, he was gone.

As briefly as she had touched her brother’s mind, she was not quite quick enough. She felt the first few tendrils of the same disgusting mental sludge that had overcome Daerus slowly entering her thoughts. Lord Caelon seemed to feel it too, for she felt his shoulders stiffen and sensed his indignation through their mind-link. Very suddenly her mind was filled with a blazing, blinding light, and the dark mire withered and died. She quickly reestablished her defenses.

Then she turned her head to glance at Lord Caelon and found him already regarding her pensively. “I have the oddest feeling … ,” he began slowly.

“Yes?”

“… that I should like, above all things, to excuse myself and go bathe.”

She grinned. “I did warn you, my lord.”

“So you did,” he replied cordially. “I see now what you meant when you said that I had never met your brother,” he went on, sobering. “Can nothing be done for him?”

“I am not sure.” A number of thoughts crowded her mind just then. Surrender to the light, Daerus had pleaded with her. That was what the Prophesy had said, as well. Surrender to the light? How was she to surrender? To what light? Daerus had not wanted her to do anything for him, she realized. Why? How could her surrender to this mysterious light free her brother? What did that mental mire in which he was trapped have to do with her?

Dia mentally shook herself and returned her attention to her companion. She found him watching her with a faint smile. “Tell me,” he asked in an innocent manner, “does your brother’s plight have anything at all to do with the service you asked me to perform for you when first we met?”

Touche, she thought. “It has everything to do with it, my lord,” she replied after a moment’s hesitation, an inexplicable discomfort making her sound prim.

He nodded in a satisfied fashion. “I had wondered what that might be about,” he said thoughtfully. “It did not seem likely that it was some sort of feminine ploy, for it has not escaped my attention that my mother’s plotting is embarrassing you to death.”

Blushing, she laughed, saying “Oh, but … ,”

“And, while it seemed that something was happening whenever we shook hands,” my lord continued as if she had not spoken, “I could not fathom what it might be or what benefit you derived from it.” He paused to look enquiringly at her.

Dia still felt some heat in her cheeks but she had recovered enough to reply with some composure. “As to that, my lord, I am not entirely certain what it might be. All I do know is that I, too, had succumbed, just as Daerus did, to that stinking darkness and that as soon as you took my hand, my mind cleared.” Another thought occurred to her. “How did you do that? Just now, I mean,” she demanded, rather incoherently.

He did not pretend any lack of understanding. “Did I do that? I had thought it must be you, and was lost in admiration of the skills you seemed to possess that your brother apparently does not.”

She shook her head, too deep in thought to defend her absent sibling. “Indeed, it was not I. Can you recall what you were thinking just at that instant?”

He was still smiling down at her. “Is it so very important?”

“Yes … yes, it must be! Do please think, my lord!” Dia was remembering her brother’s injunction.

“Well, I will,” he promised, “but we will have to continue this conversation later.”

Dia saw that the dining party was rising from the table at the Emperor’s cue and was preparing to return to the salon. She wanted to scream with vexation; she had been right on the brink of it, she was certain of that. What perfectly dreadful timing! She would have to take care not to let this day end without learning from him how he had accomplished what neither she nor her brother, both fully trained by Phoebus, had been able to do.

Once again, she found herself wishing she could speak with her tutor. She sighed, allowing Lord Caelon to lead her from the dining hall.

Perhaps, if she could understand how Lord Caelon had commanded the blazing, brilliant power that had vanquished the dark might of her enemies, she could help her brother. Was that what Daerus had meant by “surrender”? Perhaps that is how one learns control over it, by submitting to it? Lord Caelon might be able to help her with that, since he had apparently commanded the power of the light without effort. Indeed, she thought ruefully, he seemed to command powers he did not even believe in.

Dia paid little heed to her surroundings and her thoughts continued to race. She almost did not hear Lord Caelon’s softly spoken words.

“I might easily walk you into a wall, for all the heed you are paying to where you are going,” he said cheerfully. “I perceive you cannot set this matter aside, so perhaps I can be of some assistance.”

“Your aid would be most welcome, sir,” she replied, adopting what she hoped was an air of hesitant appeal. “I did not like to ask it of you, for you seemed to hold poor Daerus in the greatest aversion . . . ”

“Yes,” he agreed readily, his smiling eyes advising her that he was not fooled by her manner in the least, “but, as you have pointed out to me, I am not acquainted with your brother and, after the experiences of the last half hour, I am much inclined to believe you. So. You are wondering how best to help the fellow, are you not?”

They had reached the periphery of the crowd and Dia cast a nervous glance around to make sure they were not overheard. “I suppose I am. For the most part, I was trying to determine how it comes about that you so easily vanquish a power that neither of us seem able to defend ourselves against, for all our training.”

“I have not the most distant guess how I am doing it, if that is what I have been doing,” he told her unhelpfully. “And, while I can see how that would help you, I am not certain the knowledge would be of any use to your brother.”

“Possibly not, but it might help me to decipher his cryptic instructions. ‘Surrender to the light’ does not really tell me very much.”

“No, I suppose it does not. And I am afraid I can be of little help to you there, either.”

“Why, how is this?” she asked, rallying him. “I received much the same instructions from you.”

“I beg your pardon?”

She looked at him curiously. “Do you have no recollection of quoting the First Prophesies for us, that first time I joined your mother for midmeal?”

The expression on his face was one of determined forbearance. “No, my lady,” he said patiently but with a directness that was almost rude, “I do not. Although I suppose I must bring myself to believe I did so, since my mother has also questioned me along these lines. And while I gather from her that the incident has something to do with this Gaerud of yours, I fear it would be a waste of time to rehash the incident.” Dia perceived that Lord Caelon most assuredly did not want to discuss the matter, and she wondered briefly what he feared. She was still curious about it, but decided not to pursue it.

“So,” his lordship was saying, “let us pursue another avenue of investigation, my lady. Did you not tell me that your brother had summoned you here?” Dia nodded confirmation and he went on, “Do you know why?”

“He did not give me a reason when first he did ask,” she replied thoughtfully. “That was the last time he seemed as he had always been. By the time I had arrived here, he is as you see him now. He said that he wished to take the Princess Kera to wife and that he would present me to the Emperor in furtherance of his suit.”

“And did that not strike you as odd?”

She smiled at the question, remembering the protests she made at the time. “Decidedly odd, my lord, for what should I have to say to his Majesty’s approval of Daerus as marriage-son? And yet, if that was not my brother’s purpose in asking me to come here, what can it have been?”

“To own the truth, I have no notion of what may have occurred to inspire your brother to invite you here,” Lord Caelon said. “Whatever it may have been, it seems that once he knew you were coming, he fell pray to whatever ails him now. I find that very interesting.”

“You think he was tricked into luring me here?”

“It certainly seems that way to me.”

“But why?”

“A home question, my lady. What were you most likely to do, once you arrived and found your twin enmeshed in someone’s toils?” he asked her, beginning to smile.

“I suppose,” she said slowly, “I would do what I have done. Try to learn what has happened to him and how best to help him.”

“And he has told you that, in order to do that, you will have to ‘surrender to the light.’ Logic suggests that they will wish to keep you from surrendering to this light of which your brother speaks and that that was their purpose all along.” Lord Caelon was smiling broadly by this time.

Dia wondered what he was finding so amusing. “It does?”

“Of course! If you do as your brother has asked, if you find this light of his and submit to it, then they lose.” She was still unsure of his meaning and that must have shown on her face, for Lord Caelon continued to patiently explain. “Lord Daerus was bait, my lady. We know that this unseen enemy of yours — of ours, I must suppose” he amended with a wry smile, “is seeking to put you under their power in the same way they have enslaved your brother. I would wager that they could only do that if you were here, where they are. So, they persuaded him to send for you and then, once you were on your way, they imprisoned him in order to keep you here. They have used him to get to you.”

“But why?” she asked again. “Why me?”

“I haven’t the vaguest notion,” Lord Caelon replied with unabated good humor. “But it does seem that you, not your brother, are the key to this business — whatever it may be.”

“I see,” Dia said slowly, frowning again. “You have given me much to ponder, my lord. I th … ”

“Hail and well met, my lord, my lady,” said Prince Maermat, abruptly joining them.

“How do you do, Highness?” Lord Caelon welcomed him so heartily that Dia looked at him sharply.

Her own greeting to the Prince was much more restrained but he did not appear to notice.

“I have been searching for you, my lady,” his Imperial Highness went on. “We are making up a game of thannaer and wondered if you would join us.”

Even as he spoke, Dia felt the blackness descending upon her like the falling of a curtain. Her mind lurched out, instinctively reaching for Lord Caelon. Do you feel it? she asked him.

I do not feel it of myself, he said, but I can feel what is directed at you. It would seem to confirm our theory that you are the target of whatever your enemies have in mind.

“We?” she was asking Prince Maermat.

“Your brother and my sister mean to play,” he replied, even as the pressure against her mind grew heavier. “Lady Petra and Lord Taedal join us as well. What do you say, my lady? There are places for you and even for Lord Caelon if he should also wish to play.”

It would seem that any touch from you preserves me, my lord, Dia told her escort, even a mind-touch. I wish I had known this sooner.

Do you, my lady? I am not sorry for the frequent priviledge of taking your hand, he retorted, suiting action to words. “Do you join their party, my lady?” he asked aloud.

Dia noted but did not comment upon the measuring glint that came into the Prince’s eyes as he observed that seemingly possessive gesture. Nor did she reply to Lord Caelon directly. Well aware that he could feel her amusement, she said to Prince Maermat, “I am sorry, your Highness, but I do not care for cards.” And still the pressure of the darkness grew even heavier.

“Why, how is this?” asked a gay feminine voice. Princess Kera, on Daerus’ arm, joined them. “Daerus was certain that you would find a game diverting, and surely your twin brother would know your favorite amusements.”

“Indeed,” Dia agreed, fixing Daerus with a considering eye, “one would have thought so.”

“Come, Dia, you were used not to be so missish,” her brother chided her. “I cannot imagine what has come over you since you came to Ormaerand.”

That reprimand made her grin. “I might say the same of you, my dear,” she told him sweetly, “but I shall not.” Thinking quickly, and loftily ignoring Lord Caelon’s fit of coughing, she continued, “In any event, I shall be returning to Shae presently, and I have no wish to return to Mama with gaming on my conscience.”

A moment of shocked silence greeted this remark. Indeed, the company looked as perfectly appalled as if Dia had just announced her intention to appear for next endmeal completely naked. Except poor Lord Caelon, who continued coughing in such a distressing fashion that the Princess Kera glanced at him briefly and in some alarm.

Finally, Prince Maermat broke the silence. “You are returning to Shae?” he asked, his speculative gaze intent.

“Why, yes, your Highness,” Dia said cordially. “I shall have to leave soon, you know, before HighSun makes travel quite unsuitable.”

“Surely you do not intend to leave us so soon!” Princess Kera protested, worriedly glancing toward her brother.

“We shall speak of this later, sister,” was all Daerus had to say.

“If you wish,” Dia replied serenely. “And now, if you will all excuse me, I really must make my way to Lady Tamia’s side. No doubt she will be wishing to retire by now.”

“Allow me to escort you, my lady,” Lord Caelon wheezed, having almost completely recovered by this time, and placed the hand he still held on his arm. Together, they left the little knot of people behind. “And what of this sudden announcement of your departure, Lady Dia?” he asked her as soon as they were out of earshot. “Do you really mean to abandon your brother so callously?”

“I very much doubt that I shall be permitted to do so, my lord,” she replied, still very calm. “For so long as I remained here, trying to help Daerus, they need do nothing other than continue with their attempts to ensnare me with their darkness — and that cannot be very difficult for them, for their darkness is everywhere,” she added wearily. “But, if I am about to bring my visit to a close, they shall have to do something, and I am very curious to know what that something will be.”

“You play a dangerous game, my lady,” Lord Caelon said seriously after a moment’s consideration. “If they find they cannot control your mind as they have your brother’s, they may decide to put a period to your existence instead.”

“I do not think so, my lord,” she disagreed. “If their only purpose is to prevent me from some act which they fear, then the simplest way to accomplish that would be for me to die. Yet, they have not tried to kill me. No, for some reason, they need me and I am very curious to know why. Perhaps, if I push them a little, I shall find out.”

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