Chapter 9

Caelon learns of the Gaerud and Dia receives an offer.

“Come in, Daerus.”

So certain had Dia been that she would be gratified by a visit from her brother that she had not even begun to prepare for bed when Lord Caelon had delivered her to her room. Instead, she had spent that time in peaceful meditation, furnishing herself with the core of a calm she knew she would need. By the time she recognized his altered aura outside her bedroom door, she was ready for him.

Daerus did not await a second invitation, but let himself into her sitting room without ceremony and fixed her with a brooding stare. Dia placidly returned his gaze and waited.

“Why are you leaving?” he asked her abruptly.

She smiled. “Why should I stay? I do not live here, you know.”

“Are you trying to offend the imperial family?”

“Not at all, and I know of no reason why they should be offended.”

“Oh, come now, Dia!” he said, distracted. “Almost no one leaves the Emperor’s court so soon! He is sure to be offended and my chance to be wed to Kera will be lost!”

At that, she laughed aloud. “How can you be so absurd, Daerus? It has been obvious to everyone at court since before ever I arrived that his Majesty quite dotes upon you. Indeed, I fancy you had no need of my aid, no matter what you may say to the contrary. No, Daerus, do not start to rant at me, if you please. I have met the Emperor and his family, and have thoroughly charmed them all. What reason have I for prolonging my visit?”

He was shaking his head. “What I do not understand,” he said in bewilderment, “is why you would want to leave. Do you not find the palace comfortable? Is not the company far more congenial than any to be found at Shae at this season?”

“My tastes do not run in that direction, Daerus, and you should know that,” she replied gently. “I have told you many times that I will not stay here any longer than I must, so I cannot conceive why you should be so surprised. Moreover, if I do not go soon, I will be stranded here for the better part of half the year.”

“And what of Maermat?” Daerus went on, ignoring her protests. “Have you given any thought to his reaction to this news?”

“No,” she said.

He frowned. “Why not?”

“Why should I?” Dia asked. “Surely, his Highness must be quite used to bidding his father’s guests farewell.”

“Come now, Dia,” he said impatiently, “you know perfectly well that you are more than just another imperial guest in his eyes.”

Dia regarded her brother calmly for a few moments, wondering if his keepers had given him permission to be more forthcoming than he had been so far. “I fear I know nothing of the sort. Do not say that the fellow has developed a passion for me?” she asked in mild amusement.

“Is that so difficult to believe?”

“Frankly, yes.” She waited but he did not speak. So, she added, “Daerus, do you tell me that your Prince Maermat intends to offer for my hand?”

“His Highness has not confided in me,” Daerus said, repressively if unconvincingly, “but I should not be at all surprised if that was indeed his intention. It should be obvious that he is quite smitten with you.”

“It is not obvious to me,” Dia stated. “In any event, since I have no wish to be wed to Maermat, I shall hope that you are quite mistaken and that I shall be spared the embarrassment of having to refuse him.”

“Refuse him?” asked Daerus incredulously. “Are you mad?”

“Me?”

“The most advantageous offer any female in the entire Empire could wish, and you would refuse it?” he raged at her. “Have you any idea how many ladies at court would give anything to be wed to Kaerkas’ heir?”

“No, but I very much wish that his Highness would offer for one of them, instead,” Dia said, still serene. She paused, fixing him with an interested gaze. “Just as a matter of some curiosity, I gather that you favor the Prince’s suit?”

“Well, of course I do!” he told her.

“And it does not appear to you to matter whether or not I hold him in the greatest aversion,” she observed. “Or does it?”

Daerus did not reply, merely bending a look of brooding disapproval upon her.

“The Daerus I once knew would never have urged me into a marriage simply for the sake of power or position,” Dia said, softly pensive.

“The Daerus you once knew,” he mimicked with a sneer, “was an ignorant bumpkin who knew little of the ways of the world.”

“Perhaps,” she said thoughtfully, “but that fellow was also my brother and I loved him dearly. I shall miss him.”

“Treasure your memories, my dear. That naive, stupid fellow is quite dead.”

Dia looked at him with a laugh in her eyes, knowing that he lied and that he knew she knew it. “How unfortunate! But that is neither here nor there,” she went on, not giving him a chance to reply. “You give me to understand that you desire that I respond favorably to Maermat’s suit, and no matter that I hold him in the greatest aversion?”

Once again, for a moment, he did not reply. Patiently, Dia waited as he brooded in silence. Then, finally, he said, “You must wed him.”

“Must I?”

“Yes, hang it all, Dia!”

“Why?”

“Think of all the people you will disappoint if you do not!” he replied, answering her question obliquely. “If you think my father will be glad to know that you turned down the opportunity to be the future Empress, you must be all about in your head. And my mother! Not to mention the whole of the imperial family. Do you care to distress them all so needlessly?”

“You have not answered my question, you know,” Dia said, still very, very calm. “Why must I be wed to Maermat?”

Again, there was a moment of tense silence. “Is it not enough that I wish it?” he asked her in some desperation. “Once, you would not have refused me this favor.”

“Once, you would not have asked it,” she retorted instantly. “Now, do please answer me. Why must I be wed to Maermat? What will happen if I am not?”

“You force my hand,” he told her reluctantly, his eyes growing as hard as granite. “Understand this, Dia, you shall be wed to Maermat, if not willingly, then unwillingly. I had hoped that you would come to your senses in this matter, and so be spared a great deal of pain and humiliation. If you will not, then so be it; I have done what I could. You may refuse his honorable offer, if you are feeling so capricious, but in the end, you will find yourself with no other choice.”

Dia chuckled. “Really, Daerus, such theatrics! Truly, I am not so unreasonable as you seem to think, my dear. But if I am to mortgage my future and my happiness in this fashion, then you will at least have to give me a reason for it.” She paused but he did not reply. “Since you seem unwilling to do so, you cannot be too surprised to find me intractable.”

There was a long pregnant silence. “You know nothing of the power you so disdain,” he finally said in a hoarse, tortured voice, “and, as you will learn to your sorrow, you cannot escape it!

“And, still, he has not answered my question,” she mused sadly. “Or perhaps he has? Never mind, then, since you are reluctant to answer that question, let us try you another. I make no doubt that this proposed espousal to Maermat has to do with that cold, beauteous darkness of yours, is that not so?” When he did not reply, contenting himself with staring at her warily, she added, “Come, twin, do not be coy. That is what you meant when you spoke just now of the power I so disdain, is it not?”

Still, he hesitated for a moment before finally nodding an affirmation.

Dia smiled then. “You say I cannot escape it,” she told him gently, “but it must surely be obvious to you that I have escaped it.”

“What can you mean?” he asked, sounding so shocked that she might easily have laughed aloud.

“Can it be you have not noticed that I have thrown off that blanket of darkness and have not succumbed to it again?” she asked him placidly. “I rather fancy that ‘escape’ does not even come into it, Daerus. I have made my choice. I choose to eschew that revolting darkness and you cannot force me to choose differently.”

Her brother’s scowl grew blacker and blacker throughout this speech and, when it was done, she saw his hands bunch themselves into fists. That amused her, and she smiled faintly but her gaze remained steady. “You would be among the Chosen of Lord Septha, and you presume to refuse Him?” he asked, outraged.

“Most assuredly, dearest,” was her gentle reply.

Daerus continued to stare at her, breathing heavily, looking angry, offended, even shocked, and quite obviously bereft of speech. Then, as if he must put some distance between himself and his sister, he flung himself to the door, wrenched it open and almost fell into Lord Caelon’s arms. “Your pardon, sir,” Daerus said stiffly.

“Indeed, I beg your pardon, sir,” Lord Caelon replied promptly, smiling.

“Tell me, Daerus, have you been presented to his lordship?” Dia asked him, the picture of innocence.

“I have not,” replied her brother with an ill-grace.

“Really, Daerus, how remiss! You must certainly pay your respects to Lord Saeros and Lady Tamia of Aerandos, for Lady Tamia is a particular friend of Mama’s and she would be so disappointed if you did not.” Indeed, she thought to herself, I am beginning to sound like Lady Tamia, chattering on like this. “Allow me to present Lord Caelon, heir to Aerandos. This is my brother, my lord, Daerus of Shae.”

“I am very happy to make your acquaintance at last, my lord,” Lord Caelon said, apparently taking his cue from Dia and holding out his hand.

Daerus stared at that hand as if it were a poisonous snake, and it seemed for a moment that he would commit the terrible solecism of refusing to take it. Finally, he reached out, moving as if he were about to plunge his arm into a fire, and executed the expected handclasp. Dia, an interested spectator, saw Daerus turn pasty white and wince when Lord Caelon’s hand closed around his. Really, the lad looked quite ill!

Hurriedly, Daerus excused himself and rushed off toward his own apartments. Lord Caelon looked after him for a moment before he turned quizzical eyes upon her. “I do hope he makes it back to his rooms before he faints!” he said.

Dia gazed pensively after her brother’s rapidly retreating form. “I must admit, I had wondered what the result would be, if I could contrive to place him in a position in which he would have to grasp your hand.” Then she smiled at him. “I am surprised to see you again, my lord. You are taking very good care of me, you know.”

He laughed at that. “Dear me! I am now wholly at a disadvantage, for in fact, I have come to you in the hope that you will indulge me with a few explanations.”

In reply, she held open her door, wordlessly inviting him inside. As she did so, she reflected ruefully that this new development would certainly give the palace rumor-mongers much to occupy them.

Lord Caelon seemed to have had the same thought. “Are you sure you want to encourage the speculations that have been distressing you so, my lady?”

“To be honest with you, I do not care one whit for these silly people and what they may have to say of what I do. There are much more important matters to occupy my thoughts.”

“So I perceive. It begins?”

“Indeed.” She crossed the room to resume her seat.

“And what have you learned?”

“I am informed that I am required to be wed to Prince Maermat.”

Lord Caelon greeted this news in silence for a moment, absently refusing her gestured invitation to seat himself. She got the distinct impression that he was disturbed. “You will accept?”

“I had rather be wed to a toad,” she assured him promptly.

He chuckled. “I would think your brother’s reaction to such sentiments rather defies description. Maermat is the premiere catch in the Empire, you know. Your parents may not be pleased with your choice.”

Dia shook her head. “My father has little use for Emperor Kaerkas, although he is very careful to speak of him with respect. Papa will not reproach me for my decision.”

“You are fortunate, then, in your family.”

“Very true, my lord, but I do not think you came here to discuss my family with me,” she said smoothly.

“Well, only insomuch as they affect your present predicament,” he replied with a grin. “Your brother thinks to somehow force you into this marriage?”

Dia nodded.

“I wonder why.”

“So did I. I did ask him, but he would not answer. Or at least,” she corrected herself thoughtfully, “he did not answer directly.”

“I see. And what was his indirect answer?” his lordship asked.

“I gather that Lord Septha is unwilling to allow me the privilege of my choice,” she replied, wondering if she would be obliged to argue with him about the identity of their adversary.

To her surprise, however, he did not comment on her theological assumptions. “One is forced to wonder whether this proposed match is the means to an end or the end itself,” he pondered, beginning to pace the floor.

She frowned thoughtfully. “Do you know, I cannot tell. Certainly, Prince Maermat has been very particular in his attentions all along, but I am not sure if his purpose has been to keep me here, basking in his favor,” and Lord Caelon laughed at the irony in her voice, “or if he has been in earnest in trying to persuade me to favor his suit. But why would the God of Chaos need me to wed the prince?”

“I should have thought the answer to that question would be obvious,” Lord Caelon said. “He does not want you to wed someone else.”

“Oh, goodness, surely this elaborate scheme does not have so simple an aim!” Dia protested with sudden impatience. “They could have let me remain at Shae and accomplished the very same thing. What possible difference could it make who I take to husband or even if I remain unwed? That cannot be it!”

“That must be it, my lady. Either that,” Lord Caelon added, smiling, “or it is their intent to imprison you here without seeming to.”

That gave her a moment’s pause. “Frankly, that makes a great deal more sense. After all, they cannot fling me into a dungeon. I fancy my father would have something to say to that.”

“And not just your father. Should the Emperor treat the child of any of the Great Houses so, he would find himself embroiled in a civil war without delay, for you may be very sure that Aerandos, Tamaer and Gedbaen would stand with Shae, even if Ormaer cannot be expected to stand against an Emperor of their own House.”

“I wonder if they will care?” Dia said slowly, still frowning. “Septha the Destroyer is aptly named, you know. His purpose is always the same: war, famine, anarchy, chaos. His minions here in the palace may be working toward those aims without even realizing it.” She looked at him very seriously. “I do apologize, my lord. I fancy that this must all sound like perfect nonsense to you … ”

To her astonishment, Lord Caelon actually flushed. “No, my lady, do not apologize. I find myself forced by circumstance to revise some long held opinions. There was a time,” he added with a wry smile, “not so long ago, in fact, when I would have said that anyone who claimed to be able to hear the thoughts of another was either dreadfully untruthful or a raving lunatic.”

“Oh dear!” Dia laughed.

“Now I am forced to conclude either that I am a raving lunatic or I was mistaken.” He grew serious, adding, “In the wake of everything else that has transpired, I perceive that I must have some small part to play in this matter.”

Unbidden, she heard Lord Caelon’s transformed voice saying, “But if the other should surrender to the light … .” Aloud, she said, smiling impishly, “I shall hope you will not find that inconvenient, my lord.”

“I am apt to find it very inconvenient,” he retorted, “for although I would readily lend you my aid, I have not the smallest notion of what is required of me, or even what our goals are. I am a soldier, my lady. I am not comfortable without a battle plan.”

“I can certainly understand that,” she said feelingly. “Well, I will tell you want I can, as best I can recall from my studies with Phoebus.” She paused, folding her hands in her lap and gazing at him thoughtfully. “It were best, I think, not to bombard you with an entire theology at this time, however.”

Laughter suddenly lit Lord Caelon’s eyes, banishing embarrassment. “I would tend to agree with that.”

She smiled absently at his remark, still reviewing her lessons in her mind. “Very well then. Since you require a battle plan, the best I can do is to tell you of the battle.” She raised her eyes to his. “The Ages always end in the same way. Septha the Destroyer is said to await the final death of each Phoenix, for in the Interval between the death of one and the rise of another, He gains His chance to achieve a place in this world. If He succeeds in making that place for Himself, He is then strengthened to engage Ancient Phoenix in battle for what is said to be His lost place among the Gods of this world.”

“The Gaerud.” Lord Caelon’s guess was not really a question.

“Indeed, my lord,” Dia responded. “Right now, this world is in terrible peril, for never before has there been such a long Interval between the death of one Phoenix and the emergence of the next.”

“The length of the Interval affects the pitch of the battle?” he asked her, his expression intent.

“Well, the longer that Septha abides in this world and poisons our minds and hearts … ”

“In much the way that seems to have happened in this palace,” interjected Lord Caelon.

“Indeed, my lord, in the entire city and much of the lands in the district of Ormaer,” she agreed. “As more time elapses, Septha feels his strength as the number of His followers grows greater. His instruments acquire Secrets and spells of their own, even as the TimeKeepers’ Secrets grow feeble and useless until the emergence of the next Phoenix.”

“Hold a moment, my lady,” Lord Caelon said. “Septha’s followers? I fear I have noticed no mass conversion, nor anyone proposing to build temples to His worship. What can you mean?”

“Do you imagine the worship of a God or Goddess depends upon the building of temples and the construction of dogma? Septha acquires His following through the lives of the people of this world, even as does Ancient Phoenix. Under the gentle hand of the Phoenix, we live in peace and order. Septha brings chaos and destruction.”

Lord Caelon nodded his comprehension. “So, the longer this world must await the Phoenix, the stronger Septha’s power grows.”

“That is the heart of the matter, my lord,” she confirmed. “In the transition between Ages past, it was enough for the new Phoenix to wave His hand to banish Septha once more. It has been so long now that our Phoenix is like to have quite a fight on His hands, when finally He does appear.”

“If a fight is the final order of business, then perhaps I am well-chosen after all,” Lord Caelon said, sounding so satisfied with this arrangement that Dia laughed. “The only question to answer now is still the first: what must be done to clear the way for the return of the Phoenix?”

“‘Surrender to the light,’ Lord Caelon. That is the only instruction we have received,” she said ruefully. Then she frowned. “You know, that is really rather odd. The instruction for me is not to avoid the darkness. Nor is it to live with the light, or something to that effect.”

“Yes,” Lord Caelon said slowly, his brow furrowed in concentration. “You are charged with the act of surrender, rather than passively accepting this light.”

“So, while Daerus has already fulfilled his part of that prophesy — for he has surely drowned in darkness — it is not going to be enough for me to resist his schemes. I must find this light of which the Phoenix spoke and submit myself to it.” She paused again, and then sighed. “How very difficult this is! I wish I could speak with Phoebus!”

Lord Caelon regarded her with an uncharacteristic diffidence in his expression, clearing his throat to attract her attention. She raised her eyebrows questioningly, and he said, “If this Prophesy is, in truth, a prophesy, it is destined to happen, is it not?”

Dia nodded, her eyes narrowing as she tried to anticipate the direction of his thoughts.

“If it is destined to happen,” he went on, even more diffidently, “then you have no need of deciphering those cryptic instructions, have you? All you will have to do is avoid interfering with it.”

She stared at him in astonishment for a moment before breaking into reluctant laughter. “Oh dear!” she gasped finally when she could. “You are perfectly right, of course you are! For now, all I need do is to keep Daerus and his friends from succeeding in their attempts to prevent me from performing my task. The rest will follow as naturally as the Great Dark follows High Sun.” She shook her head. “I think I have been overly concerned because they seem to know what my task is, even if I do not. Unless … ”

“Unless?”

“Unless they have no more notion than do we but they believe they can control me by marrying me to Maermat,” she said, thinking aloud.

“There is no way for us to know, my lady, nor is it really necessary for us to know. For now, we must simply wait. I shall allow myself to be guided by you, for I am even more in the dark about this business than you are. But I mean to do what I can to help.”

Unexpectedly, Dia felt the sting of tears in her eyes. She could not have said why, but she found it profoundly moving that Lord Caelon, self-proclaimed unbeliever that he was, should utter so simple and sincere an expression of pure faith.

“Now, what have I said to distress you, my lady?” he asked, watching her.

She shook her head slowly. “Why are you doing this, Lord Caelon?” she asked in her turn, blinking the moisture from her eyes.

“Why am I doing what?”

“Why are you so willing to come to my aid in this pass?”

He smiled. “To own the truth, I do not really know. Perhaps it is because you are worth the effort, daughter of Shae.”

It was not until he spoke that she realized she was hoping for something more personal, but she nodded an acknowledgement of that reminder with quiet dignity, rising from her chair. It had long been established among the Great Houses of the Empire that they would stand together when any one of their members was being threatened or improperly importuned.

“Or,” Lord Caelon continued, “perhaps it is because it disturbs me to witness such fear and dismay in a gently-bred young lady — however valiantly she tries to hide it. I am a soldier of Aerandos, my lady; my instinct is to protect and to defend.”

Much to her chagrin, Dia blushed. “Thank you, my lord.”

With no further conversation, she escorted him to her door.

Just before he left her, Lord Caelon said, “Remains now only to discover your brother’s next move. I wonder how he will try to force you into betrothal with Maermat.”

“No doubt we shall find out soon enough,” she replied placidly.

Upon her next waking, Dia rose and unenthusiastically prepared herself for what had become her routine session with the Emperor and his children, fully expecting another harangue from Daerus on the way. Thus, she was somewhat surprised when Daerus did not come to her rooms as usual, apparently deciding to exclude her from the imperial audience chamber. She wondered in considerable amusement if her twin actually thought such an act would be punishment enough to persuade her to change her mind.

Not long before midmeal, however, she answered a knock on her door and found herself face to face with the detestable Lord Oshaed, accompanied by two ceremonial guards. “Your business, sir?” she asked him frostily.

“One hopes that you are well, my lady,” he said with his usual leer, “and are not too exhausted from your romping last night.”

Dia, eying the fellow like the insect that he was, considered and discarded various likely responses before settling on one of them. “Jealous, my lord?” she asked gently, with the faintest of smiles.

It was a bow drawn at a venture, but when Lord Oshaed’s leer was abruptly replaced by a ferocious scowl and a dull red flush, she realized that this wrinkled little man’s preoccupation had its roots in what others enjoyed that he could not. From the direction of the guards, she heard a muffled snort. Even more gently, she added, “Was there anything else you wanted, my lord?”

Through clenched teeth, he retreated into formula, “His Imperial Majesty commands my lady’s presence in his audience chamber.”

Still with that faint smile, she curtseyed and said, “Thank you, my lord.”

Lord Oshaed turned and stalked off down the corridor. The two guards followed, one of them being so impertinent as to wink at her before he left.

Dia beguiled the short walk to the imperial audience chamber wondering why she had not been summoned directly after firstmeal, as had been her brother’s custom. Surely, the day’s audiences must be almost over. Immediately upon entering the imperial presence, however, Dia knew that something was in the wind. Instead of occupying unobtrusive seats along the walls, her brother and the Prince and Princess were ranged in statuesque formality around the Emperor’s chair. The scene at once registered in her mind as of a pack of hungry jackals poised for an attack, for there was that in their postures that suggested decisive divisions into “us” and “them”. She saw at once that she had not been invited to accompany the imperial family during the Emperor’s audiences; she had been summoned to an audience herself.

“Lady Dia of Shae,” the herald announced her and withdrew.

“My lady,” the Emperor nodded at her.

Dia sank gracefully into a deep curtsey. “Your Imperial Majesty,” she responded with equal formality. As she rose, she noted the almost identical expressions of smug triumph on the faces of Daerus, Princess Kera, and even the amorous Prince Maermat. They looked very much as if they considered this particularly battle already fought and won. Quite unconsciously, Dia’s back stiffened.

“As you may know,” the Emperor began, “your good brother had gratified Us by aspiring to the hand of the Imperial Prince Kera. Shae is an excellent House and We are pleased to bestow her on so worthy a gentleman.”

Dia smiled calmly. “The House of Shae is honored, Sire, and I am sure I wish them very happy,” she replied, still very formal.

“Since Our daughter is so admirably settled, We have turned Our attention to Our heir. We are sure you will agree that it is even more crucial that he be wed suitably and that Our line be continued,” his Majesty continued.

Dia nodded and waited.

“We have decided that he too shall be connected by marriage to the most excellent House of Shae. Therefore, it is Our decree that you, Lady Dia, shall be wed to the Prince Maermat immediately.”

There was a long silence, during which Dia felt the oppressive darkness that permeated the palace grow thicker and heavier around her. Silently, she cursed her own arrogance. It had never occurred to her that Daerus might take this matter to the Emperor. Yet, she saw now that she should have known what his next move would be.

An imperial command, and what was she to do? Sternly, she reminded herself that her first task was to hold panic at bay. Her determination hardened as she recalled that she did, after all, have options, and she silently vowed once more that she would not be wed to Maermat, even if it meant she had to escape Ormaeranda altogether and live in exile in nearby Lemantia or out in the islands of Akkam to the west. If to force her into marriage with Maermat of Ormaer was the Destroyer’s means of strengthening His position for the upcoming Gaerud, he would find that he had chosen the wrong vessel.

Then, suddenly, she began to feel a warm glow, deep inside her, that pushed away the darkness that was bearing down on her and the chill fear that had frozen her tongue. The glow expanded, enfolding her in such a comforting warmth that her entire body stilled with an absolute calm such as she had never experienced. With no conscious notion of having formed the words in her mind, or of having ordered her tongue to utter them, she said, “I am very sorry, your Majesty, but I am afraid that that is quite impossible.”

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