The upheavals that had marred the peace of the empire had subsided. The Long Interval was finally over and the Gaerud was done. The ceremonies were all over. The new Emperor, Saeros of Aerandos, had been firmly installed on the throne of the newly christened Imperial Tamaeranda by the newly risen Phoenix himself. And the Imperial heir, Prince Caelon, had taken Lady Dia of Shae to wife, their union blessed by no less a personage than Divine Istha herself.

All was done. And Daerus of Shae was finally going home.

He sat easily astride his favorite roan stallion, Aeran, riding at a sedate walk with Phoebus trudging at his horse’s head as was befitting a TimeKeeper archpriest. Daerus knew as well as Dia did why the TimeKeepers would not ride but it always made him uncomfortable traveling with Phoebus. Somehow, it had always seemed to the much more youthful Daerus that he should give up his seat for his revered instructor as a gesture of respect. But Phoebus had merely smiled his sly smile at the suggestion, telling his pupil that three hundred ninety-eight was really not so very old and that he could certainly do his own walking.

And Daerus, who had been much easier to put out of countenance at the age of fifteen, had stammeringly apologized if it sounded as if he was implying that the archpriest was in a state of decay. It was one of the few times the boy had ever heard Phoebus laugh outright.

This morning, they traveled together through the broad basin of the Shae Valley, a fertile plain seated in the lap of the southern foothills that climbed into the Tamaer Mountains further to the north. This was some of his father’s best farmland when the world was not being ravaged by an Interval, and Daerus looked around him with some satisfaction. The farmers had been busy in the few months since the Phoenix had risen.

Daerus had sometimes amused himself wondering if the Phoenix had deliberately timed his return for the spring. The farmers had missed some of the early planting season, to be sure, but enough of it remained so that there was every chance that Shae would have a respectable harvest by summer’s end. He could see that his father had lost no time in rousing his tenant farmers once he saw that the world had returned to normal and the growing months were at hand. Yes, Daerus could easily imagine his father’s relief; the Long Interval would have been a lean time here indeed.

He had not spent any part of the Interval at Shae. In fact, he had not been home in what seemed an eternity but then, so much had come to pass since he had been from home that it was no wonder he felt he had been gone for an Age. Abruptly, he shook himself as if rousing from a bad dream. Daerus had no wish to let his thoughts go there.

Instead, he deliberately looked around him as he rode through the golden late spring morning, dragging his attention back to the healthy condition of the Shae estates. As his father’s heir, he had always taken more interest in the husbandry of the land than had his twin, Dia, who seemed to find it all a dreadful bore. Now, as he looked about him, he silently resolved to have a long talk with his Grace to find out how he had managed during those two dreadful years. The capital had been wretched — distressed, disorganized, and wholly under the domination of the Dark God — but it appeared that somehow Lord Loraed had managed to keep order and hold Chaos at bay.

“Well, Lord Daerus!”

Daerus smiled with genuine pleasure. “Gaenon, old fellow, how do you go on?” he asked, leaning back to halt his stallion’s easy walk and reaching down in greeting. “How are your acres faring at this season?”

“Ah, ’tis well, sar, ’tis well,” old Gaenon replied with his habitual good cheer. “We had a fine time of it them two year but, me ‘n t’boys, we put in a guid planting. Come harvest’ll be raison fer celebratin’, you’ll see.”

“I have every faith in you, Gaenon,” Daerus said, grinning. “The boys,” he knew, were four burly men in their middle-thirties and early forties, any one of whom could have tossed their strong-willed sire over a shoulder without strain. “I know well that you have but to frown at your seeds and they will cower in the ground and grow to abundance. Indeed, they would not dare to do anything else!”

“Aw, ’tis yourself and yer teasin’ again,” the old man said with a dusty laugh. “My, but is guid t’ have ye home at last, my lord! And yer fine sister, how does she?”

“Oh, she is firmly settled with her Prince, you know. I left her terrifying the ladies at court and enjoying herself tremendously,” said that undutiful sibling cheerfully.

Gaenon laughed. “Aye, and wouldn’t I’d love t’see it an’ all, to be sure! Mighty glad we was t’hear o’ her very good fortune. I’m sure I wish her joy.”

Daerus’ smile twisted. “Thank you, Gaenon. I am sure she would appreciate that and I am equally sure that she is very, very happy,” he said.

He lifted a hand in farewell and started Aeran walking again, his heart aching. It was not that he begrudged his dearest Dia her blessings. Indeed, it had been the one pleasant result of his sojourn at the Imperial Palace. But Dia, in her happiness, had been unable to accept that he could not share that happiness and all her efforts to keep him at her side until his spirit had healed had felt like someone leaning on a very bad bruise.

Finally, with a little help from her new husband, the Imperial Prince Caelon — really, a capital fellow! — she had been brought to see that she was not helping, and he had been allowed to leave.

And today, he would be at home. Perhaps then he would be able to finally face all that had happened to him. All he had done. All he had said. All he had lost …

Again, he shook himself. He did not want to think about that now. Not yet. He was not ready yet. “How gratifying to know that my father’s tenants have not quite forgotten me,” he said to his companion with as much raillery as he could inject into his voice around the tightness in his throat.

“Surely, you did not think it could be otherwise, my Lord?” Phoebus replied with his faint smile.

Daerus was silent for another moment as he wrestled with emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. I am become quite womanish, he told himself in disgust. “I have been gone a long time,” he was finally able to say.

“Indeed you have, my Lord,” Phoebus agreed gently. “And you have no need to pretend to me that your sojourn there passed uneventfully or that you have no cause for your present sorrow. Relax, Lord Daerus. You are home now.”

A rueful half smile touched his face even as his eyes filled. “I never could fool you, could I, Phoebus?”

“To be sure, my Lord, I cannot think why you still try.”

Much to his own surprise, that made Daerus laugh outright and the painful emotion dissipated.

Old Gaenon was the first of several of his father’s tenants who greeted Daerus as he continued on his leisurely ride toward Shae Manor. Some caught sight of his roan, a well-known stud animal before it had carried its master to the Imperial Palace at Ormaerand, and waved cheerily from the fields. Others, who happened to be closer by the road as he passed, stopped him to chat. One and all welcomed him warmly after so long an absence, and most enquired affectionately after his sister.

It helped. As much as Daerus had been looking forward to returning to Shae, he had dreaded it, too, fearing that he would feel that this estate that would one day belong to him would feel too alien for him to be comfortable there again after all that had happened to him at the Palace. He had often envisioned his return to Shae but his visions contemplated a very different set of circumstances surrounding his arrival.

And there it was again. Sternly, he reined in his unruly thoughts.

Perhaps, my Lord, it were better if you simply come to terms with the events of the Gaerud rather than censuring your thoughts on the subject, Phoebus suggested silently. You may find it less exhausting, you know.

Indeed, I know that I must face it sometime, Phoebus. But not, and here Daerus smiled with some mischief, on the open road. Only let me reach the sanctuary of my home, where I can wrestle with my demons in private.

Yes, of course, my Lord.

Between their sedate pace and frequent stops, they did not arrive at the Manor until late afternoon, when the sunshine bathing the walls of its facade became tinged with orange and the workers were beginning the long trek in from their fields and barns for endmeal. Daerus, surprised by the strength of the relief he felt, heaved a sigh as he tugged the reins and swung down from his mount. A few more ceremonies, and he would be able to relax.

The doorman was bowing deeply and Daerus nodded an acknowledgement. One of the many ideas he and his twin sister had shared had been their opinion that their father’s love of formality, even with his offspring, could be curst tedious. He wondered again, as he had many times before, if there was a reason why Lord Loread so often substituted ritual for conversation, and what that reason might be. Perhaps that can be my new task, he told himself as he crossed the threshold into the dim coolness of the Great Hall. Perhaps I can contrive to know him better.

Their Grace, the Grand Duke and Duchess of Shae, awaited him and Daerus, knowing what was expected, strode to his sire and went down on one knee. “Your Grace,” he said formally, and took the hand his father extended to kiss the ring bearing the Seal of Shae.

“Welcome home, Lord Daerus,” his Grace intoned, his voice carrying both great dignity and great affection.

Rising to his feet, he replied, “Thank you, sir.” Then he turned to his mother and looked into her eyes, somehow unable to conjure a smile for her. “Mama,” he said simply before enfolding her in a vast embrace.

He could tell by the way she clung to him that she had missed him, however unlikely she might be to actually say so. Then she held him off from her so that she could search his eyes. He could not know what she saw there but whatever it was seemed to distress her and her own eyes clouded. But all she said was, “Welcome home, my son.”

“Your servants arrived this morning, my Lord,” the doorman said then, being also well versed in this particular ceremony. “You will find that your chambers have been prepared for your return and you baggage is unpacked.” And he bowed again.

“No doubt you will wish to refresh yourself after your journey,” Lord Loread added. “We dine in an hour.”

All at once, Daerus wanted to scream. Here he was, returned home after three years gone, wounded in mind and spirit, and all they could do was to mouth formula at him! He did not want words just then. He wanted to be truly welcomed, he wanted warmth after being so cold for so long. He wanted to be comforted. He wanted to be truly himself, just for once, in this Hall. At that moment, he realized just how difficult it would be for him to be in his father’s house without his sister’s mental touch to give him patience.

Dia had never troubled herself to indulge their father’s love of ceremony, brushing all that aside with her own unique brand of well-mannered impudence. She had always been unfailingly polite, of course. She simply strode through the ritual with such an honest display of her affection for her parents that Lord Loread, however trying he might have found it, never seemed able to bring himself to remonstrate with her too forcefully.

At that moment, he found himself wishing he could emulate her. What a relief that would be! But all he said was a quiet, “Thank you.” He did not see his mother’s worried gaze follow him as he made good his escape.

Once he had gained his rooms, he felt himself begin to fully relax. He had not spent any time alone since he had left the Palace and, as much as he loved his old instructor, the constant attendance had been something of a strain. Still, he could not be sorry for it. The presence of his companion forced him to hold his feelings at bay and kept him from surrendering to the sorrow that ate at him like acid.

In his home, he would still have to keep up appearances but, here, he had at least one place of sanctuary. He flung himself down upon his bed and let despair wash over him.

Dia, in an excess of concern for him, had spent quite a lot of time trying to get him to see that he had not been responsible for the dreadful things he had done when he had been the prisoner of Dark Septha. Daerus had never made any attempt to persuade her that it was not that which haunted him so or made him so wretched even in the face of their victory.

Dearus, my love! Do not leave me! Kera’s words, spoken directly into his mind, tortured him and the terror in her eyes just before she had vanished along with Septha endlessly reproached him.

Of course he knew that they were not, in fact, Kera’s words. By then, she was possessed so wholly by the spirit of the Dark God that nothing she said or did was her own, any more than he himself had the power to resist doing Septha’s bidding during that dark time. He knew, too, that he had made the right choice when he had surrendered to the light.

But somehow, knowing that he had spared his world a slow and painful descent into chaos, madness and destruction was little consolation for the price he paid. In vain did he review that dreadful scene in the Imperial throne room again and again, trying to find some way he could have saved her. No matter how often he concluded that there was nothing else he could have done, Daerus could not escape the simple, terrible truth.

He had betrayed her. He had made his choice and turned his back on her and, in doing so, he had condemned her. He might just as well have stabbed her in the heart.

Abruptly, he rolled off the bed and strode restlessly to the window. As much as the pain of that decision had been eating at him almost from the instant he made it, he had never been able to release himself in weeping. For now, it was a hurt too deep for weeping. He opened the window and leaned negligently against the casement, staring out into the sun-drenched spring afternoon and seeing nothing of the courtyard below him. His thoughts drifted and the brightness that had a moment before seemed to beat against his eyes now dimmed.

And there she was, just as he remembered her, with the red-gold halo of her hair framing her lovely features and her velvety brown eyes full of sadness. As he watched, she reached out a longing hand. For just an instant, he even seemed to feel the caress of her fingers against his cheek. And then she was gone.

Daerus blinked. Slowly, he closed his window and began to ready himself for endmeal. This was doing him no good at all. He could not spend the rest of his life yearning after shadows and mooning about in this stupid way. Somehow, he would recover. Indeed, he must. And he would begin this instant, he decided. He would make a study of his beloved Shae, the estate he would one day inherit.

He paused in his preparations to smile wryly at his reflection in the glass. Truth to tell, I have much to learn, have I not? he told himself, mindful of some of Lord Loraed’s remonstrances. The thought made him chuckle to himself. And, with that, he resumed his toilet.

Half an hour later, he left his chambers to join his parents for endmeal.

Since there were only the three of them to dine — Phoebus preferred to remain apart from the family party during meals — they repaired to the morning room and took their places at a much smaller table than was housed in the large banquet room that was used when they entertained guests. Daerus stood behind his place as his father held a chair for Lady Mara and said without preamble, “Father, I believe I should like to accompany you as you go about your duties on the morrow. It is time I learned more of the management of the Shae estates.”

He was rewarded for this speech with a pair of startled glances from his parents, which caused him to grin. “Now I wonder why you both look so astonished?” he said with a wounded innocence that fooled no one.

Having settled Lady Mara to his satisfaction, Lord Loraed paced around the table to his own place and sat down. “What new whim is this, if I may ask?” his Grace ventured warily. “I should have thought you would have liked to rest for a few days before plunging into anything resembling work, my boy.”

“And why would I wish to do that, sir?” Daerus parried. “I have spent the better part of three years frittering away my time in the idle pleasures of the court. If I spend much more time doing nothing, I shall certainly die of boredom.”

“But you looked so very tired when you arrived, my dear,” his mother interjected in her gently worried way. “I felt sure you would need time and rest to recover from your stay.”

“Recover?” Daerus smiled at her, affectionate teasing in his weary eyes. “Indeed, ma’am, I shall do very well. I mean to do my very best to forget the Emperor’s court and all that passed there. That is all the recovery I require, to busy myself about the estate. Besides,” and here, pure mischief lit his eyes, making him look almost like his old self, “my poor father has complained for so long of his wastrel offspring, I would not wish him to think the court has made his fribble of a son any worse than he already was.”

“Daerus,” said his mother reproachfully.

Loftily refusing to rise to this bait, Lord Loraed said, “Very well, then, Daerus. You shall join me in the third hour after sunrise, in Jaerad’s office. And none of the nonsense you and Dia were used to talk, of how terrifying you found the fellow, is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Daerus said with suspicious meekness. Poor Jaerad. The Shae twins had taken a particular delight in making the stewart’s life a burden to him. He only hoped the fellow had not taken a permanent aversion to him.

“And how did you leave your sister?” asked Lady Mara, her manner making it clear that she would have liked to have asked this question much sooner.

“She is very well, ma’am, and she is very happy,” he told her promptly.

“I do so wish your father and I could have traveled to Orm … or I guess I should say Tamaerand, to see her wed,” she went on fretfully. “I cannot think why there must needs have been such haste to the business!”

Daerus frowned slightly. Now he came to think on it, he did not know why that should have been so, either. Lady Mara had only the one daughter and she had been robbed of the pleasure of witnessing her marriage. “Really, ma’am, I do not know what to say. At the time, it seemed that the new-risen Phoenix was most anxious that nothing should occur to delay their union but I cannot think why. It certainly cannot have been because they were not sincerely attached to each other.”

“Hold a moment,” said Lord Loraed. “Did you say ’twas the Phoenix Himself who arranged for your sister to be wed to Caelon of Aerandos?”

Daerus nodded.

“Well, then, there is nothing more to be said,” his father pronounced with finality. “It was the will of the Phoenix. Shae is honored that He would take such an interest in the affairs of our House.” And that, evidently, was to be that.

Daerus looked at his mother across the table and their eyes met. The message in each pair of them was crystal clear. We shall speak more of this later, when we are alone. “At least you may console yourself with the reflection that she is under the eye of an old friend of yours, Mama. I expect the Empress Tamia will manage to keep her out of mischief.”

“Your sister is a married lady now, Daerus,” said Lady Mara gently. “Surely, her days of mischief are over.”

Lord Loraed stopped chewing to gaze at his mate in astonishment, but it was Daerus who gave voice to the thought in his mind. “Really, Mama, how can you be so sanguine as to imagine that marriage would so dramatically alter our Dia so quickly?” he asked laughingly.

“Oh, surely Prince Caelon would never have consented to take her to wife if she were still as … ”

“Featherheaded?” her husband supplied without hesitation.

“Well, she had not grown noticeably more sober by the time I set off for home,” Daerus assured her, “but do not fret. Prince Caelon and Dia are very well suited. He can handle her.”

“Oh, dear,” Lady Mara said, still looking worried.

Amused, Daerus applied himself to the excellent meal he had been served. He had long since given up on the impossible task of trying to keep his mother from worrying so about her children and, indeed, about everything else, for that matter. And, he suddenly discovered, he was actually hungry. There’s the barber, old boy, he told himself bracingly. It has been some time since he had been able to bring himself to eat with appetite.

And, as he mentally reviewed how he imagined he would be occupied in the near future, he was satisfied. He simply needed to keep himself busy. That would help him lay his ghosts to rest.

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