The Grand Duke Daerus of Shae sat astride his favorite mount, the coal black stallion Nasaeth, listening to the complaints of one of his tenants. This was the third time this morning that one of the farmers under his protection had voiced this complaint and Daerus was growing weary of it. Nasaeth pranced restlessly, seeming to empathize with the thoughts of his rider, as always, and being at greater liberty to display his boredom.
“It ain’t right, yer Grace,” Tadaeus was saying decisively.
“And what is not right about it?” asked Daerus.
“It ain’t t’ way it’s done, that’s what! I been farmin’ all me life and me father and his father afore him, and I ain’t never had no need to use a contraption like ‘at to till t’earth, sir,” Tadaeus replied.
“Very likely not,” Daerus said with determined patience. “After all, it has only just been crafted.”
“Yes, yer Grace, an’ I’m sure there’s been others as has come up with all kinds of dirsty idees, but I never seen nor heard of any o’ yer Grace’s kin sufferin’ sech fools,” his tenant told him, coming very close to the kind of scolding he would have given a much younger Daerus.
“Yes, but you know, Tadaeus, I truly do not see what is so foolish about it. Aerlin’s new plow does open up the ground very nicely and much more quickly than the tool the farmers have always used before,” Daerus said, as persuasively as he could.
He wondered as he spoke whether Tadeaus and the other two farmers who had approached him on this subject were envious of their neighbor. Aerlin had rather timidly approached his Grace with the new plow — which, Daerus reflected, was not really so very different from the old one, except for the curved blade that lifted the sod away from the furrows, and the framework that let one hitch the contraption to a team rather than a single beast. The fellow had behaved as if he had expected his new landlord to fling him bodily from his own field but Daerus had been intrigued enough to ask for a demonstration. When he saw what short work the new plow had made of turning two acres of earth, he had given Aerlin his complete approval.
Now Aerlin could plow twice as many fields as his fellow tenants, in half the time. But, rather than emulate this wonderful labor-saving device, they had complained about it.
“Yes, and that puts me in mind of another thing,” he said now, curiosity bringing him suddenly alert. “Why do you care?”
Tadaeus glowered at him for a moment. “Yer pard’n, yer Grace?” he asked politely, his tone implying that his Grace might do well to match his tenant in civility.
“What does it matter if Aerlin does not use the same sort of a plow as you do?” Daerus asked. “I have not asked you to use one of them, you know. His land does not march with yours, either, so that you need not even be forced to watch him use it. Really, the more I think on it, the more I feel that you are making a piece of work about nothing.”
“Nay, sir, I ain’t worried yer goan make me use it. But what happens if’n that eldest lad of mine sees it?”
Daerus actually smiled at that. “Well, what if he does?”
“Ah, sir, ye know he’ll be wantin’ t’ use one hisself … and on my land, sir!” was Tadaeus’ indignant response.
“Yes, Tadaeus, but he could not do so if you will not permit it, can he?”
“He can, though, when t’ farm come t’ him after I’m goan!”
The farmer seemed to find that thought so distressing that Daerus checked the laugh that almost escaped him. “Possibly he will, but you will know nothing about it, will you?” he said gently, after a momentary struggle with himself.
“Yer good father woulda never allowed it, sir,” said Tadaeus, sadly shaking his head.
“As to that, you may be right,” Daerus allowed, remembering Lord Loraed. “But things change when there is a new Grand Duke, you know.”
“So ye says, but things ain’t suppos’d t’ change, yer Grace. Things is suppos’d t’ stay t’ same, so’s we’ll have Order. Tha’s t’ way o’ t’ Phoenix, so ’tis!”
That pious statement brought Daerus up short. It had not escaped his notice that there seemed to be something of a migration going on among his tenants. Some of the older, more conservative men were taking their families and leaving Shae and, before this interview, Daerus had not the least notion of why. At the same time, he had received several new farmers, younger men with young families, men who had ideas and the same sort of inquiring nature as did Daerus. Many of them had been chased away from farms elsewhere in Tamaeranda for no other reason than that they had had ideas. In the youthful Grand Duke of Shae, these displaced farmers had found a willing listener with an open mind, for these new ideas almost always fired his considerable curiosity.
Daerus had not really intended to sponsor a revolution when he had succeeded to his father’s honors some four moons since. At the same time, perhaps the greatest difference between him and Lord Loraed was that Daerus had never believed the best reason to do anything was simply that it was the way it had always been done. It had not occurred to him before this conversation that his willingness to let his tenants experiment with farming innovations might be seen as some sort of blasphemy. He wondered briefly if perhaps he ought to consult with Phoebus but put the thought aside to deal with the matter at hand.
His Grace gazed at his disgruntled tenant and concluded rather suddenly that Tadaeus would be the next farmer who left in search of a more devout master — which made the present conversation a complete waste of effort. In consequence, rather than the reasoned persuasions he had more and more often found himself offering to the dissatisfied, he merely said, “I am sorry, Tadaeus, but it would really be unjust of me to stop Aerlin from using his plow on the strength of this complaint. As long as the fellow works his fields and delivers his tithes, I have no issue with how he farms his land. And his equipment really should not concern you.” With a rather distant nod of dismissal, Daerus then turned his stallion toward the stable.
He rode at a walk, in no particular hurry to return to the echoing emptiness of the Manor. Very soon after he had contacted her, Dia had descended upon her ancestral home and swept her parents back to the Imperial Palace for an extended visit. She had very reasonably said that it was time her parents made the acquaintance of her mate and, before their father had had a moment to either hem or haw, Daerus was cheerfully waving them on their way with no notion that he would never see his sire again.
Lord Loraed had died peacefully and painlessly in Tamaerand and, upon Dia’s insistence, Lady Mara had remained at the palace rather than return to Shae with all its memories. Daerus could certainly understand that decision, his own grief still raw enough to have kept him away from the Imperial Palace for his parent’s state funeral. No doubt his mother had been hurt by his absence from Lord Loraed’s interment but Dia had understood. Dia always understood.
The only other person he had ever encountered who had understood him so thoroughly had been Kera.
Abruptly, Daerus shook himself, pulling his mind away from Kera. He had thought that his memories of her would gradually fade as the passage of time created some distance between him and his loss. Instead, he found her intruding into his mind more and more frequently, and he knew that was surely the way to Chaos. She was gone. He would have to accept that and learn to move on.
The only problem with that program was that it did not seem as if she truly was gone. Sometimes, he seemed to hear her voice calling out to him, full of woeful longing. Not like the terrified wail she uttered before Septha had spirited her away, but a forlorn cry that sounded like the imprisoned soul of a captive dove. At other times, he seemed to feel her hand gently touch his cheek as she had so many times during those magical months before Septha had claimed her.
She seemed so real in these imaginings that Daerus knew he ought to be alarmed but, in truth, he was not. Indeed, he took some comfort in his fancies. As melancholy as the thought was, some part of him was convinced that those memories were all he would ever have and he would have been loath to part with them.
He knew it was his duty to wed and produce an heir to Shae. Yet, he had never wanted to contract the sort of alliance in which his mate was no more to him than brood sow. Now that Kera was no more, Daerus ruefully acknowledge to himself that he no longer cared about producing an heir to Shae. Indeed, there were many days when it was difficult for him to make himself care about anything.
Nasaeth snorted and tossed his head, bringing Daerus away from his sorrowful thoughts. “I am growing forgetful, brooding about the past,” he said to the horse, slapping the proud glossy neck with rough affection. Then he sighed.
‘Perhaps I am spending too much time alone.”
Nasaeth nickered almost scornfully and, unbidden, began an almost playful trot toward the stables. The stables, yes, that had been another of the difficulties he had recently faced with his retainers. Daerus had had the deuce of a time persuading the grooms to return the horses to those stables, he recalled with remembered exasperation. Once that Chaotic Maelstrom had been banished, the horses had seemed ready enough to take up residence in the palatial stalls but the grooms were still timid about the place even now. Really, am I forever to be surrounded by such stupid fears? he asked himself, recalling Tadaeus and the other farmers who had quit Shae. I find it curst tedious!
But here, once again, he reined in his sour thoughts. There was no one at the Manor to break bread with him now, save Phoebus, and Daerus did not want to impose his crotchets on the only company he had left. Since he had returned to Shae, Daerus had grown quite adept at censoring his thoughts and, indeed, was proud of his discipline. If nothing else, he acknowledged to himself with a flicker of his usual irreverent humor, it gave him something less mournful to occupy his mind.
By the time he entered the Manor, he had managed to jolly himself into a better frame of mind. Much to his surprise, Phoebus awaited him in the lofty vestibule. “Your Grace, I must speak with you on a matter of some urgency,” the archpriest said with all his habitual calm.
Daerus halted in his leisurely stroll toward the stairs. “Urgency, Phoebus?” he asked quizzically. “From you?”
“Indeed, Lord Daerus, though I realize this is not what you are accustomed to witness in an archpriest of the Purple,” Phoebus replied with a hint of his faint smile, although his manner remained taut.
“May I not first bathe and change, Phoebus? Surely, this urgent matter can wait half an hour!”
As he spoke, Daerus looked carefully at his old friend. Great Phoenix, the old fellow almost looks uncomfortable! he thought. That is unheard of!
At that, Phoebus actually chuckled. “I feel certain I must look uncomfortable, your Grace, since that is how I feel. I would not press you but it may be that I will no longer be here in half an hour and I would prefer not to be so uncivil as to return to the Temple without taking leave of you.”
Shocked into silence, Daerus only blinked and said not another word as Phoebus gently shepherded him into the drawing room. But by the time he had poured himself a glass of wine and both men were seated comfortably, he found his tongue. “You return to the Temple of the Fires?” he asked carefully.
“May I know why?” Daerus inquired with a faint frown.
“My lord, do you not feel the presences that even now are converging upon you?” Phoebus asked in his turn, his gaze somehow both intrigued and reproving.
“No, Phoebus, I do not,” Daerus replied on a long sigh. It was only in that moment that he suddenly realized that he had sensed very little since his parents had quit Shae. Could it be that his efforts to sensor his thoughts had also depressed his Talent? That was certainly not what he had intended and the notion made him frown thoughtfully. “I should be immensely grateful to you if you will refrain from talking in riddles. I have had a difficult day and I am not in the humor for them.”
This speech was perhaps as close to disrespect as Daerus had ever come in addressing his old teacher, and Phoebus acknowledged that with a raised brow before bowing his compliance. “Very well, your Grace,” he said, very formal all at once. “I will endeavor to be direct but my knowledge is limited.”
“Say what you can, then.”
“I know only that there are some six or seven dark presences converging on the Shae estate. They come in response to your own unfinished tasks, your Grace, and they are great with the power of Chaos. I do not know precisely how far away they are at this present, but I expect they will begin to arrive within the next few hours. I must be gone from here before then.”
A short bark of bitter laughter greeted this explanation. “Do you know, ever since I have returned to Shae, it seems that I have done nothing but repulse everyone here into leaving.” he mused, his screaming loneliness momentarily escaping his control. “Had I known that my presence would cause you all to abandon the place, I would have stayed at court. I wonder how you have managed to abide here so long, good Phoebus?”
Phoebus sat watching the young man for several moments before his glance softened and he spoke again. “It has been very difficult for you, your Grace,” the archpriest said gently, “but indeed, you need not be so very sorrowful. It is true that those you have known and loved have been leaving you, but it does not follow that you must needs always be alone. Even now, your true companions make their way to you. It may not seem so just at this present, but you will find joy in their presence even if, at first, they seem strange to you.”
In that instant, his memories of Kera returned to him, unbidden and with unexpected force. She stood before him in all her loveliness and all his longing, and the mental image flicked him on the raw. Abruptly, he rose from his seat by the fire and strode to the window to stare, unseeing, into his mother’s garden. For all he held dear, he could not have banished her image in that moment and he did not notice the gradual fading of the light around him as he struggled to regain his composure.
Finally, without turning, he said, “You depart at once?”
“In this instant, your Grace,” Phoebus replied without hesitation, and Daerus had no difficulty perceiving both the archpriest’s increased discomfort and his sorrow.
“I see. At least,” and he turned from the window to face his old mentor, “I think I begin to understand.” He hesitated before reluctantly asking, “I, too, am great with the power of Chaos, am I not, Phoebus?”
With equal reluctance, Phoebus nodded.
For a moment, Daerus digested that in silence. Finally, he said sympathetically, “How difficult these past four moons must have been for you then, old friend! You have served Shae well and faithfully, Phoebus, and are a credit to the Purple.” With that, he bowed, some instinct warning him that Phoebus would accept his hand if it were offered but that doing so would cause him great pain.
“It has been a very great privilege, your Grace,” Phoebus said with gravely gentle formality as a time window opened beside him. He turned away to step into it but another thought stopped him, and he turned to face the master of Shae once again as he added, “You serve two Masters, Lord Daerus, and the task which lies before you is the most important that has ever faced any of this world. You have no reason to think ill of yourself. I am proud to have been one of your tutors.” And, much to Daerus’ astonishment, Phoebus’ eyes filled and his voice thickened as he added, “Be well, Daerus.”
And then he was gone.
Daerus stared at the spot where the time window had been for a few moments, deep in thought, before he made his way slowly to the suite of rooms to which he had promoted himself when he had succeeded to his father’s honors. As an impertinent teenager, he had faithfully promised his sister that he would never call those rooms his own, even when he was the Grand Duke of Shae. They were large and imposing and, like Lord Loraed, they were relentlessly formal. Very naturally, they had held little lure for Daerus.
But, after his father was gone, Daerus changed his mind. The notion that these rooms were only what was due to his consequence Daerus could shrug off with only a slight wince at such pretension. He had readily seen, however, that his willingness to entertain anything he found new or even just curious had brought about enough changes at Shae that he had decided not to do too many things that might shock his retainers.
Your retainers are far too easily shocked, Shae, he told himself ruefully as he closed his chamber door.
He recalled then that Phoebus had said his visitors would begin to arrive within the next hour and decided he had best bestir himself. If there were as many as half a dozen of them, great with the power of Chaos, his remaining servants might well run shrieking from the Manor. He would need to be there to reassure them.
And why had he not felt these dark ones converging upon him? he wondered as he saw to his toilet. Could it be that the day-to-day chores of the estate had dulled his senses? Perhaps, by closing himself off from his memories of Kera, he had shut himself away from his Talents as well? But, if he were to open his mind as it had been when first he had returned to Shae, would he not be overwhelmed once more by his grief? Once he had found himself alone but for Phoebus, he had found it difficult to keep his mind on the matter at hand and he had done what he thought best to rein in his wandering thoughts. Perhaps, he thought, he had done too much. Perhaps he needed to find a different way.
Tentatively, as he washed and dressed, he forced himself to relax the restraints he had placed upon himself. As he had half expected, his memories of Kera returned with renewed force — slowly at first and then in a gathering flood that almost did overwhelm him as he had feared. Daerus steeled himself against the pain, while the part of his mind that was not occupied with the deluge wondered if he would ever be free. They say Time heals all such wounds, he thought. No doubt Dia would say that there has not been enough Time passed to heal this. But, and here the stubborn chin he shared with his twin jutted out in defiance, she would be wrong! Neither the passage of Time nor her precious Order will cure what ails me.
And yet … Daerus found that the memories had not diminished in their strength or clarity but the pain they had once evoked had lessened and he could think of his lost love without the crushing weight of guilt that had marred his recollections when first he had come home. Well, that is something, at least, he told himself ruefully as he rapidly made his way back to the Great Hall. As he had suspected, the suppression of his memories had also seriously weakened his Talent. With his senses unleashed, Daerus now knew that his guests were very nearly upon him.
At the foot of the stairs, he told a waiting servant that he was expecting guests of uncertain estate, who were to be shown in to see him immediately upon their arrival. Then, tacitly refusing to answer any questions, he crossed the Hall and entered the drawing room to wait.
And who were these others who are also among the Chosen of Septha? Why had they not taken part in the Gareud? Poor Lord Septha, he thought with unexpected sympathy, so convinced that He would be invincible that he even rejected those who had been born into His service. Foolish, arrogant godling!
It was a few moments later, as Daerus was pouring himself a glass of wine that he realized the first of his visitors had arrived. Without stopping to consider the matter, he poured out two more glasses for them and was still occupied with that task when the door opened.
“Lord Tomasadin of the Brethren of Lueg, and … em … companions,” said the servant, speaking with such good humor and aplomb that Daerus cast a keen glance at him. Daerus could not fathom why the fellow’s cheer should strike him so forcibly and he felt a sharp pang of curiosity.
But of course, he had no leisure to pursue the thought. His guests had been ushered into the room.
They were an oddly matched trio. Lord Tomasadin was tall and fair, with a penetrating but friendly light brown gaze set in a face that was both handsome and nondescript. The woman accompanying him was a peasant, judging from her dress — although, no sooner did Daerus register this detail than he determined that it would be more fitting for her to be garbed more richly. Her age he could not quite determine, except to know that she was not a girl yet still not a crone.
The cat was simply a cat and, yet, it was the cat that made him smile as he said, “How do you do? I am Daerus of Shae. I bid you welcome.”
As he spoke, he courteously held out a hand, which Tomasadin clasped warmly.
“Good day to you, your Grace,” his guest said with exquisite polish. Dia would approve of this one, the stray thought came to him. “I greet you in the name of my Master, Lord Luegtha, and, in His name, deliver up my charge to you.”
Daerus raised an eyebrow. “So formal, my lord,” he murmured.
At that, Tomasadin grinned. “I beg your pardon, Lord Daerus,” he said, more in the tone of a man addressing an equal of much the same age. “I would not wish you to think that, because the Brethren dwell in the mountains away from civilization, we are without manners.” Noting his host’s grin, he continued. “Allow me to present my companion to you. This is Rischa.”
Rischa had spent the interval gazing around the room with something like wonder in her eyes, as she nervously wrung the ends of her shawl in her hands. Now, as Tomasadin gently drew her closer to Daerus, she brought her eyes back to his face and studied him warily. Daerus met that cautious gaze while a gentle understanding of which he was wholly unaware softened his gaze. At that moment, his only thought was that he needed to let her know that she was welcome here.
“Welcome, my lady,” he said. The longer he stood there looking down at her, the more strongly he felt strangely awed in her presence. As he had done with Tomasadin, Daerus extended a hand toward her.
“I ain’t no lady, yer Grace,” she muttered, looking embarrassed and making no move to take the hand he had extended in greeting.
“Perhaps not as such titles are normally bestowed in the Empire,” Daerus replied, “but, you see, I know better.”
And he did. He could not have said how he knew but Daerus could sense that this simple, forthright peasant woman was perhaps the most important person his Grace of Shae had ever yet encountered. He could not have torn his eyes away from her troubled glance for any sum on offer, her crude speech fell upon his ears like music, his skin yearned to touch hers. Daerus left his hand where it was.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, she laid her hand in his.
Daerus was not in the least prepared for the surge of swirling darkness he felt at her touch, another sort of chaotic maelstrom that seemed to stretch from one end of Time to the other. Risha’s hand seemed to drag him back and forth in that endless muddle of moments past and present, jerking him from forgotten memories long buried in antiquity to events so far in the future that were entirely incomprehensible to him. In that instant, he felt a profound sort of connection with this woman, as if they had been companions and comrades since the beginning of time. For a moment, he even felt a little dizzy.
She knows, he thought, stunned. Everything. She knows.
Startled, Daerus stood, staring at her. He was unsure of the full import of her words and, just at that moment, he was not inclined to pursue the thought. Instead, he was transfixed by her face, which had been transformed by a dark luminescence from ordinary to beautiful. Whatever had happened to him when their hands had met seemed to be a very small matter when compared to what appeared to have happened to her.
“Yes, they do seem to be getting on famously, don’t they?” Tomasadin replied cheerfully, evidently talking to the tabby. Then he turned back to his host. “Now that I have delivered Lady Rischa into your hands … ”
“Not you, too,” Rischa muttered.
” … might I trespass upon your hospitality, your Grace?” he continued as if she had not spoken. “I expect my Brethren will be arriving shortly and I believe the journey back to Luegoria will be much more pleasant if we could travel together.”
“Of course, my lord,” Daerus responded automatically, adding with a rueful smile, “Indeed, I shall be glad of the company, for my home seems to have been emptying itself of all who once lived here.” He strode over to the bell pull as he spoke.
When the cheerful servant returned, Daerus issued his orders without loss of time. “It appears that I have guests,” he began. “I do not know how long Lord Tomasadin will be with us; he awaits his Brethren. Have the blue room prepared for him.”
The man nodded happily. “Ay, sir, I thought as much,” he replied and waited for more.
Despite himself, Daerus began to smile. “Do you tell me that the rooms are already prepared?”
The servant nodded again. “Indeed, they are, your Grace,” he said.
“I am impressed. You are very astute, my good fellow. I believe you may put Lady Rischa here in my sister’s room,” he said, looking critically at her.
After a brief silence, the servant spoke. “A good many of the things her Highness left are still there and I think she and my lady are much of a size,” he said, voicing Daerus’ unspoken thought. “A very good idea, if I may say so, sir.”
At that, Daerus chuckled but the glance he bent upon the servant was penetrating. However, he only said, “Be so good as to take my guests to their quarters and, when you have done, return to me here.” Turning to his guests, he then added, “I am sure you are fatigued after your journey. My servant will show you to your rooms where you can refresh yourselves. I hope you will both join me for endmeal.”
“If your Lordship and your Ladyship will come with me?” the servant said with a polite bow.
Lord Tomasadin began to move toward the door after bowing slightly to Lord Daerus but Lady Rischa hesitated, fixing troubled eyes on her host.
“I don’t take to makin’ m’self out to be sumthin’ I ain’t,” she said gruffly.
“Ah, but you know, I do not set about to make more of you than you are, either,” Daerus replied promptly and with the utmost good cheer. When he could see that Rischa would continue to protest, he took her hand again and added, “Do please make use of my sister’s things, Lady Rischa. She has no further need of them and, really, it will not do for you to be inadequately garbed.”
She stood irresolute, while both the servant and Lord Tomasadin awaited her pleasure.
“Humor me in this,” Daerus added gently.
It was very clear that Lady Rischa was uncomfortable with the evident change in her social status that had been conferred upon her simply by virtue of her arrival at the Grand Duchy of Shae. But before she could say more, the servant spoke again. “There, now, my Lady, come along of me,” he said. Lady Rischa turned to regard him warily and he continued, “His Grace don’t offer ye no more than yer due, you know, and if we was t’ stand here till endmeal is on the table, the missus will be a mite peeved.”
For a long moment after this dire prediction, she continued to look at the servant. There was that in her gaze that bespoke of a greater degree of comfort, for she clearly saw him as someone closer to an equal. That being the case, Daerus was not surprised when she finally turned back to him and spoke.
“Very well, sir,” she said, bobbing a slight curtsey. And then she and Tomasadin followed his Grace’s new doorman from the room.
Still feeling mildly bemused by the encounter, Daerus returned to the table and refilled his wine glass. For all the sorrow and bitterness he had felt when he had believed the last of his companions, Phoebus, had deserted him, he was now inexplicably cheered. There was that in Lady Rischa’s demeanor that led him to believe she was as lonely and bereft as he felt himself to be and instantly perceived that they might comfort one another in that. He remembered what his former mentor had said before returning to the Temple and considered that perhaps he need not be so alone after all.
His reflections were interrupted by the return of the servant. “All settled?” Daerus asked as he turned to face the man who had just joined him.
“Ay, sir,” the servant replied. “I had to do a bit more fast talking once I got her there but I think that the Lady Rischa will be so glad to wash the dirt of the road from herself that she’ll stop fussing and use what’s there for her.”
Daerus grinned. “I shall hope that your are right,” he said. “I did not want to have to order her to make use of Dia’s things.” With that, he paused to regard his companion for a few thoughtful moments. “What is your name?”
“I am called Berdaen, your Grace,” he answered readily. “I worked in the stable until I heard that the last of the house servants was gone. Me ‘n the wife moved into the serving quarters in the house then, us thinking it wouldn’t do for a Grand Duke to have to cook his own meals and dust the furniture and whatnot.”
“I see,” Daerus said, eyes twinkling. “I suppose I should thank you both for preserving my waning dignity … but never mind that. No doubt you have guessed that I shall be entertaining more guests in the days ahead. I fancy I shall have need of a few more housemaids and footmen and something tells me they should be of a sort who are not easily shocked. Do you number among your acquaintance any young men or women who are in need of honest work and would be able to tolerate a place at Shae?”
“Tolerate?” Berdaen repeated incredulously. “Tolerate? I don’t know as you have to put it so, sir. And I’m thinking yer likely to find as many housemaids and footmen as ye’d like from among yer farmers’ sons and daughters … especially among some of them farmers as is planning to move on.” And he nodded his head emphatically. “You just leave it with me, Your Grace. I know how to get the word about.”