Daerus reined in at the top of a long rise, halting his entourage to allow their mounts a few moments of rest, wholly unaware that he was following an unnerving precedent. Great, shambling Zhedthik strode beside him on his left hand and Lueg the Wise rode on his right. Behind them came the Children of Chaos, riding within the protective circle formed by the other five Brethren of Luegtha.

They had gathered after the handfasting of Daerus and Kera to consider the probable hazards of their journey. All of them expected to encounter hostility; none of them had forgot the various forms of ill will with which they’d had to contend before their particular companion of Luegtha had arrived, from the intrigues of the Royal Court of Pym to that interrupted hanging in a nameless village square in Ychindacht. Once again, the Children of Chaos had looked to the Brethren of Luegtha for protection and, once again, the Brethren rode with them prepared to provide it.

As matters evolved, though, their protection was not needed. The entire first half of the journey saw them riding through the lands of Shae and none of the Grand Duke’s tenants cared to offer him violence upon his own road. And by the time they had reached neighboring Gedbaen, every able-bodied man who might have objected to the oddly-assorted group was sailing with the fleet or marching north to join the forces of Aerandos against the Throk.

In short, the journey to the Imperial Palace turned out to be something of an anti-climax.

Daerus, however, had never been seriously worried about their reception on the road to Tamaerand. On the other hand, he would readily own that he was concerned about their likely reception at the Imperial Palace. He sat his horse, gazing at the walled city of the Emperor and considered how best to approach the chore of conveying a Throk into the Imperial Throne Room unscathed. Ordinarily, he would simply reach out to Dia and enlist her aid but, after their last conversation, he had a feeling she would be of little use. Chaos take the girl, he thought irritably. Who would have thought her residence at court would have turned her so missish?

“Why do you stop, Daerus?” Zhedthik asked him in his abrupt way.

He smiled ruefully. Daerus did not worry often but, upon those rare occasions when he did, he could never seem to hide it from Zhedthik.

“I am thinking of the best way to ensure that the High Priest of Septha is accorded the proper respect upon his arrival at the Imperial Palace,” he replied. “Our journey to this place has been wonderfully dull and I should like our entry into the Palace to be equally uneventful.”

“Do you fear for the Children of Chaos?”

“No, Zhedthik,” Daerus answered with a short laugh. “I do not want my Emperor’s guards to get hurt.”

“Then I will not hurt them,” Zhedthik at once announced. “You had only to ask, Daerus. Now why do you laugh?”

“It is of no consequence,” said his Grace, still chuckling as he nudged Nasaeth into a brisk trot.

As much as he believed Zhedthik intended to avoid hurting the Imperial Guard, Daerus had an idea that would likely prove a better way to reduce the casualties. Caelon, he called out to his marriage-brother.

There was a startled pause. Who … is that Daerus? his Imperial Highness asked.

Why, yes, it is, your Highness, said Daerus, inserting a grin into his mental voice. I wondered if I might trouble you for a bit of assistance?

Daerus had always felt a little awkward with Prince Caelon, but his Highness did not seem in the least to have held a grudge against him, even though Daerus had once run a small sword through his heart. Daerus supposed, since Caelon had not stayed dead, that it had turned out to be an easy infraction to forgive. Certainly I will do what I may, your Grace, but one wonders whether you might not do better to appeal to my lady?

On no account! Daerus cut that suggestion short without hesitation and so forcefully that Prince Caelon’s laughter instantly echoed through his head. To give you a round tale, your Highness, I am approaching the south gate of Tamaerand. My forces number some dozen or so.

A dozen? the crown prince repeated quizzically. I fancy my father will be rather underwhelmed by such a show of force from the noble House of Shae, he continued.

Possibly but I promise you that Shae alone will disperse these northern armies without risk to a single soldier of Aerandos, Daerus retorted.

With only twelve soldiers? came the skeptical reply.

I am my sister’s twin. Daerus pointed out.

A point I feel sure I should keep in mind, Caelon mused. But if these few extraordinary fellows can rid us of all the clans of the Throk without assistance, I cannot think why you would have any difficulties breaching our defenses here in the Palace.

I would not want to frighten anyone and my group is an unusual one.

That is only to be expected.

To own the truth, Caelon, confessed Daerus, one among us is a Throk.

Great Phoenix!

I should like to present my forces to His Imperial Majesty without bloodshed. And now I come to consider the matter, I should have known better than to imagine I could get this close to the Palace without Dia perceiving my presence, Daerus added in some chagrin.

I thank you for the warning, Caelon said in a droll tone of “voice.” My lady and I will greet you at the main gate. Otherwise, the guards will surely try to stop you.

Very well, Caelon, Daerus said, and my thanks. And with that, Daerus pulled his thought out of contact with his sister’s mate.

“Ah, that was wise of your Grace,” Lueg told him.

At that, Daerus shrugged. “I do not know that it was so very wise, good Lueg. It is merely that I do not wish to send the Imperial Palace into a frenzy when we arrive. I’ll own, I could wish that Dia was not so curst sensitive to my presence. She already knows that I am here and is no doubt wondering why I have not touched her mind.”

“It is of no moment, your Grace,” Lueg said with the infinite patience that seemed to characterize him. “I expect she will soon see why.”

Daerus grinned.

His small group had by this time entered the Imperial city and were riding at a walk through its streets. They had reformed to accommodate the narrow streets, with each of the Brethren riding alongside the one he had escorted to Shae, his mien still watchful and protective. Lueg and Zhedthik had fallen back to take their places directly behind him as Kera nudged her horse up to ride at his right hand.

Tamaeranda was not a large city, having no function other than to serve as the home of the Imperial family. One could ride from one end to the other in a matter of perhaps half an hour. The townsmen all served the Palace in some capacity, either as servants of varying degree within its walls or as artisans of the goods used there. When Septha had held sway in the city, the entire place had been one large orgy of drinking and wenching and brawling. It had looked filthy and smelled worse.

The ravages of those times had been severely repaired and the streets of the capital city were filled with scenes of sobriety and industry. Everyone he saw looked so very serious and business-like that he wondered suddenly what the average burgher did for amusement. Of course, the enforced, long-term revel-rout imposed by Septha had very soon ceased to be entertaining to those condemned to live within it and there had been so little work done that whole families had perished for want of food and drink. He wondered why it seemed the only choices offered to the men of this world were to abide by one extreme or another.

As they rode deeper into the Imperial city, Daerus absently twitched his shoulders, conscious of a growing discomfort. It came as no surprise that his group should attract attention, particularly with Zhedthik ambling along with them, but the tense, almost fearful hostility was not directed specifically at him. He had never encountered anything like it and he wondered if perhaps his senses were playing him false. He had been prepared for fear but it was not quite fear he saw in the eyes of the rapidly disappearing townsmen.

“How quickly the streets have emptied!” observed Kera in a bemused tone of voice.

“Yes, I had noticed and very unnerving I found it, too,” he agreed.

“Are they so frightened of us, then?” she asked.

“Perhaps a little,” he said, keeping his tone light to avoid frightening her. “A very little. Much more than that, they do not like us, I fear.”

She shook her head, looking around them once more. “No, this is more than mere dislike, Daerus. I do believe they would all join together to chase us back out of the city if they thought they could do it! Even at the height of the Master’s grip on this city, it never felt like this,” she said.

Daerus looked around him again, growing ever more aware of a sullen, brooding, fearful hostility that was growing in intensity. Unbidden, he was reminded of the small delegation of elderly tenants who had taken it upon themselves to object to the presence of Zhedthik at Shae. He sensed that the feelings of the townsmen that were nearly overwhelming him were just the same as what he had contended with that day, only multiplied a thousand-fold. This, then, is the mood of a mob, he thought. For all that this city was the home of the Muphoen and Tiphoen of the current Age, there was still a great deal of darkness of a certain sort to be found in its streets.

“As my brothers advise me,” Lueg interrupted them. He voice was deep and penetrating enough to make him heard without seeming to raise his voice. “This is a common reaction when people encounter the Chosen of Septha. No doubt it seems even worse than usual because there are so many of them together at once. Perhaps we should increase our pace a trifle, your Grace, if it is your desire to reach the Palace without bloodshed.”

Kera smiled her mischievous smile. “Surely you do not suggest that we gallop through the streets, my lord?” she said demurely.

“A sedate trot would get us to the Imperial Palace faster, and without injuring your dignity, your Grace,” Lueg suggested, bowing to her in his saddle.

Kera suddenly blushed, which successfully distracted Daerus for an instant. Considering the matter, he thought perhaps that was the first time anyone had called her by her new title since their handfasting and the notion that such a thing would embarrass a former Imperial Princess made him grin. However, he refrained from teasing her, merely saying, “Very well then, let us trot. We are very nearly there at all events.” With that, he shook his reins and nudged Nasaeth with his heel and the horse at once increased its gait.

As uncomfortable as they were finding this ride through the town, it seemed that none of the townsmen was brave enough to actually step forward and offer violence to their small party – no doubt they had the hulking figure of Zhedthik to thank for that – and so they reached the Palace without incident. As they rode into the courtyard before the imposing doors of the imperial abode, he saw that they were expected for, even as they were dismounting, those doors swung open to reveal a welcoming party that included the Imperial Prince and Princess and some dozen members of what looked to Daerus to be the ceremonial guard.

Daerus, who had seen both his sister’s and her mate’s eyes widen at the sight of the High Priest of Septha, prepared himself in some amusement for the scene in which he could see he was about to take part. Very much in the grand manner, he held out his arm to Kera and led her up the shallow steps to the door.

There, he executed a deep bow. “Your Highness,” he said formally.

Oh, for the love of the Phoenix, Daerus! Dia laughed into his head.

“Your Grace,” Caelon responded, nodding in acknowledgment.

“May I have the honor to present my Duchess?” he asked, drawing Kera forward and presenting her as if neither Caelon nor Dia had ever seen her before. He would have deliberately avoided her eye but he saw that she was making her curtsy to her hosts, eyes demurely downcast. If he had not already adored her, he would have been ready to become her slave on the instant. Kera, my love, you are perfect, he told her silently.

You forget, I have some experience of these rituals, your Grace, she replied in kind, her mental voice as laughingly demure as her expression.

“Shall we continue these introductions indoors, your Highness?” he asked his marriage-brother.

“One can only admire your discretion, your Grace,” Caelon murmurred, quizzing Daerus with his eyes. “Let us repair to an antechamber while the servants prepare your apartments,” he continued with a gesture inviting him to fall into step beside the crown prince.

Dia, who seemed to be in rather dire straits in the midst of all this formality, fell into step beside Kera. “I trust you did not find the journey too fatiguing, your Grace,” Daerus heard his twin say to his mate.

“I hope I am not such a poor creature as to be prostrated by such a thing, your Highness,” Kera returned, “but I will own that I will be glad to be quit of the saddle for a day or two.”

“Indeed, I hope you will not run off so soon after you have arrived! At the very least, you will have to impart to me the secret of being mated with my brother without succumbing to the temptation to murder him,” Dia concluded, rather more loudly, as she and Kera passed through the door

“And here I thought you would be pleased to see us,” Daerus said to Dia, feigning hurt.

“Trust me, twin, I will be pleased to favor you with my opinion of that – and several other matters as well – after you have made the rest of your company known to us,” Dia said ominously.

“Yes, Daerus, you cannot be surprised to learn that we are eager to make their acquaintance,” Caelon added, with a significant glance at Zhedthik.

“Well, yes, your Highness, I would be happy to present them to you both,” Daerus replied with another bow.

“In other words, you know that your twin intends to give you a rare trimming and you prefer to put it off as soon as possible,” Dia said.

“Nonsense,” he returned. “I do not fear you, sister. But come, let us not be rude. Before you stand the Chosen of Luegtha and the Chosen of Septha. You will see, if you observe carefully, that they come in pairs.”

Then Daerus strolled across the room.”Here we have Loasdin, who accompanies the smith Faendun of Gedbaen.”

Loasdin executed a florid bow, while Faendun also bowed and smiled nervously.

Ambling along a few more steps, Daerus clapped another of the Brethren on the shoulder. “This is Pandfer, who has had the good fortune to serve as companion to the Princess Tohra of Pym.”

Pandfer did not bow to Caelon and Dia but took Tohra’s hand and drew her forward toward the Imperial pair. They exchanged an amused glance before turning to the Princess.

“Your Imperial Highnesses,” she said, her curtsy a little more shallow than the others, for she was very nearly their equal.

“Your Highness,” Caelon nodded in acknowledgment.

Meanwhile, Daerus had continued his stroll around the room. “Now here, Dia, are a set of individuals in whom I feel sure you will be especially interested. Meet Brasdin and Brandis, of the Brethren, companions to Sholeck and Sheloch of Ychindacht.” He bent a particularly fraternal gaze upon his sister and added, “If they can, they will do their utmost to convince you that they do not understand a word of our language. Do not let them impose upon you, my dear.” And he walked away from them, loftily ignoring her laughter.

“This is Tomasidin,” Daerus continued. “His has been the honor of serving as companion to the Seeress Rischa of Akkam.”

Dia gasped.

Tomasidin sauntered toward the two of them and smiled charmingly. “Lovely … er … empire you have here,” he said.

Caelon’s eyes danced. “Thank you but I feel you give me too much credit, my lord. It is not my empire just yet,” he replied.

“No but I feel sure you are fully prepared to carry on the tradition.” He then turned to his silent companion and took her hand. “Please do me the kindness of greeting my Lady Rischa. She is not much in the way of putting herself forward.”

Daerus never knew exactly when Lady Rischa would speak normally or when she would speak in the voice of her vision … although, now he came to think on it, he could not immediately recall the last time she had spoken like the poor fisherwoman she once was. Her response to the presentation was not terribly surprising, all things considered.

Tiphoen and Mufoen,” she intoned, “we greet you in affection and thank you for accepting the Children of Septha into your dwelling, painful to you though it may come to be. Know that you and we, who seem to serve two different Masters, are not enemies. Nay, we are one in spirit, even now and most surely after the Choice.” And with that, she gracefully curtsied so low as to almost genuflect before them.

“As always, Lady Rischa renders us all speechless,” Daerus murmured before making his way to the last pair. “I have finally to present to you Lueg of the Brethren, first disciple of Lord Luegtha, who serves as companion to the Throk Zhedthik” and he paused, enjoying a moment of anticipation, “the High Priest of Septha.”

Dia’s jaw dropped. A few seconds later, it snapped shut and her eyes narrowed. “Daerus,” she began, her voice taking on a speculative note, “why is the High Priest of Septha a Throk? And how do you propose to convince the Emperor that you are not guilty of treason in bringing it here?”

“But why would it be treasonous of me to bring my friend Zhedthik to the Palace with me?” Daerus asked, grinning.

“We are at war with the Throk,” she pointed out.

“There is only one of him, Dia,” he pointed out in return. “It is not as if I had somehow paved the way for the entire Throk army to lay seige to the Imperial Palace unopposed.”

“This is all beside the point,” she said crisply. “I have no notion of why you are traveling with this animal but I cannot think why you would imagine it would be acceptable for you to bring it here as his Imperial Majesty’s guest.”

“Does this mean that you will insist that he leave?” Daerus asked her, curious.

“Of course it must leave!” she replied impatiently.

He stared at her for a few moments, feeling sad. He had never realized before that his twin was every bit as narrow-minded and prejudiced as everyone else seemed to be who followed the way of the Phoenix. He’d had a better opinion of her than that and he owned privately that he was keenly disappointed in her. “I am sorry,” he said sincerely. “I had hoped for a chance to visit with you but I suppose if we must leave, then we must.”

Dia’s eyes widened in dismay. “Daerus, what are you saying? Do you mean to tell me that you will not stay if … if that thing is made to leave?”

He shook his head. “Do you even hear yourself, sister?” he asked her. “He is the High Priest of Septha. How is it that you do not even perceive that he is worthy of even your respect? Or perhaps you heard nothing of what Lady Rischa just said to you?”

“Daerus,” Zhedthik said, suddenly entering the conversation.

This time, Caelon’s jaw dropped, while Dia visibly paled for an instant before a painfully embarrassed flush turned her face a fiery red.

Daerus turned to him. “Yes?”

“Why do you not answer her first question?”

“Her first question?”

“She asked why the High Priest of Septha is a Throk. If you tell her why, she may understand the rest,” Zhedthik suggested.

Daerus sighed. “To own the truth,” and he turned to face his sister once more, “I had hoped that she would set aside her prejudices long enough to allow herself to understand. Perhaps it was too much to expect.” He could see that she was covered with mortification now that Zhedthik had demonstrated that he could understand every rude utterance she had made about him. He did not feel inclined to rescue her. “The High Priest of Septha is a Throk because Lord Septha is the god of the Throk,” he went on. “I told you when you first gave me tidings of the mobilization of the Throk that my few companions would be able to disperse this army without the help of one single soldier of Aerandos. Do you think perhaps Zhedthik might be instrumental in that task?”

“Oh, be quiet, Daerus!” Dia said, trying to cool her burning cheeks with her hands. “Can you not see that I am embarrassed to death? There is no need for you to humiliate me further!” She took a deep breath to gather herself and then raised her eyes to the Throk. “You have understood everything I have said about you?”

“Yes,” Zhedthik answered simply.

“I am ashamed to have spoken so rudely,” she said stiffly. “I beg your pardon.”

“It does not matter,” the Throk answered, his eyes wise. “You cannot know me if you do not know me.”

“Er … excuse me,” Caelon interrupted, having spent the last few moments watching the scene in fascination. “Do all the Throk speak our language?” he asked.

Zhedthik smiled his careful smile, surprising his hosts still further. “No,” he answered. “The learning of your language was a gift from the Master. I suppose he thought it would help me to do what I must do.”

“And what is it that you must do?” the Crown Prince asked.

“I must save my people,” Zhedthik replied, calmly and without hesitation, “so that I can save the Master.”

“And is that your task as well, Daerus?” his sister asked, turning a penetrating glance upon him. “Will you also save the Throk so that you can save … ,” and she hesitated in some distaste.

“My Master?” he asked her, curious that she did not resort to their habitual mind-touch. “That is one of my tasks, yes.”

“Perhaps you will explain to me how this is not treasonous?” she asked sweetly.

“Why should it be treasonous?” he returned. “We do not propose to allow the Throk to either overrun Tamaeranda or usurp Aerandos and replace him with Zhedthik here. In fact, if we are successful, we will save the lives of his soldiers and arrange for the Throk to come no more against Tamaeranda … ever. I cannot think that the Emperor would complain against such a gift.”

Still wondering whether she was somehow avoiding the heightened intimacy of their mind link, he deliberately reached out to touch her mind before she had the chance to answer. Do you know, I have a strong feeling that we should do better if we spoke privately, he suggested to her.

He thought perhaps she had tried to keep him from noticing but he was certain that she had winced. An instant later, she was considering him through narrowed eyes. “It is difficult to believe that your tasks do not include the subjugation of Tamaeranda when you can stand here before me, pleased to call Septha the Destroyer your Master,” she said, evidently refusing to answer his silent remarks.

“Will you take my word for it that they do not?” he asked her.

“Not until I know more about your tasks,” she responded instantly.

He smiled. “I doubt I could satisfy you, my dear. I know as much about my tasks as you knew about yours before they were upon you.”

She did not return his smile but before she could speak, another voice entered the conversation. “Do not interfere with that which you do not understand, Dia of Shae,” intoned Lady Rischa, stepping suddenly to his side.”Do not set yourself against that to which your twin is destined to set his hand.”

Her gaze was stern and he felt a curious sense of being protected. He glanced around quickly and realized that they had all gathered around him. Perhaps he was being protected. He addressed himself once more to Dia. “It distresses me to discover that you no longer trust me. I had thought I was forgiven for what took place between us during the late Interval.”

“Of course you are forgiven for that, Daerus,” she assured him. “But you come to us in this emergency with a dozen persons when we need an army. You bring with you one who is an enemy of the Empire, you tell me that you share with him One who you call your Master, and yet you want me to believe that you mean no harm to this land, that you and these dozen companions alone will drive off the Throk.” After this lengthy recital, she paused and took a breath. “The darkness that plagued you when last you visited this palace is upon you once more and it pains me to say that you seem much more comfortable with it than you did then. I fear you have wholly turned your back on the Phoenix and the Way of Order.”

Daerus had begun to see that she was truly frightened. “Is this then why you reject my mind touch? Does it pain you as one for whom everything of Chaos distresses?” he asked her.

She did not speak but neither could she hold his gaze. Her silence told its own tale. He thought it was odd that the children of Order should be rendered so vastly uncomfortable when faced with the children of Chaos, while the children of Chaos knew no such discomfort. He wondered why that should be.

“I see,” he said gently to his twin. Kera came to his side and laid a hand on his shoulder and he took comfort from the gesture. “Perhaps it would be best for me to present myself and my companions to the Emperor at once, rather than compounding your discomfort with our presence for longer than need be.”

But Dia was shaking her head. “I am not entirely certain that I will permit you to see the Emperor at all, Daerus” she told him.

“Permit?” he repeated with a frown, the pride of Shae falling upon him like a mantle. “And when were you appointed gatekeeper, that you would keep a Grand Duke of the Empire from his hereditary access to the Emperor?”

She opened her lips to answer him but was cut short by her mate. “No, Dia,” Caelon said with quiet authority. “You will not keep Daerus away from the Emperor’s audience chamber. My father is well guarded and I do not believe he has aught to fear from my marriage-brother.”

Daerus bowed. “I thank you, brother,” he said.

At that moment, the door opened to admit a servant with the message that chambers had been prepared and if Their Grace of Shae and their guests would be pleased to come with him, he would show them where they could rest themselves until endmeal.

“A timely interruption, I think” said Caelon, glancing from twin to twin. “Perhaps we will continue this conversation on the morrow. At all events, you shall present yourself and your companions to his Imperial Majesty after firstmeal.” He went on, speaking to the servant, “Be so good as to direct my Lord Chamberlain to see his Grace and his companions are served their meals privately.”

“As you say,” Daerus replied with great dignity. “We will leave you for now, your Highness Prince Caelon, Princess Dia.” And, with Kera on his arm and only the briefest, searing glance at his sister, he turned and lead his company toward the door.

All of the Chosen of Septha and their Brethren companions followed him but, halfway there, Lady Rischa turned back into the room with Tomasadin hovering at her side. She turned a penetrating eye upon the Imperial Princes and spoke softly. “Be tranquil, sister,” she said gently. “Your brother’s tasks will complete that which you and your good mate have begun. Like yourself, he is an instrument of the Destinies. Would you set yourself up in defiance of such as they? Be at ease, and accept.”

*    *    *

As soon as the door had closed behind these most unusual Imperial guests, Caelon turned to face his mate with his habitual quizzical smile lighting his blue eyes. “Never did I think the time would come when you, of all damsels, would put me to the blush!” he teased her. “Such a want of conduct, my love … !”

“Oh, do be quiet!” she responded, evidently in no mood for teasing. “Caelon, did you not feel that dreadful cold darkness that lay upon him once again?”

He grinned. “Why, yes, my love, I did.”

“Then how can you stand there grinning at me, just as if it were a matter of no particular importance?” she asked him, beginning to pace. “What can have happened to him?”

Prince Caelon had never been what one might call a ladies’ man but he was not wholly without experience of the fairer sex. Then, too, he had been handfast to Dia for more than a year by this time. Thus, he knew better than to attempt to answer either of those heartfelt questions. Instead, he watched her fondly as she perambulated about the room and considered the astounding scene he had just witnessed. How many times had he heard his father wish for a way to overcome their inability to communicate with the Throk? Perhaps, Saeros of Aerandos had theorized, if they could but find out what the Throk wanted, they might arrive at some negotiated peace. Caelon felt certain that his father was much more likely to be intrigued than alarmed by this Throk who spoke their language.

“Caelon,” Dia had stopped pacing and was staring at him appealingly.

“What is it, my love?”

“What are we going to do?” she wailed.

He strolled over to her. “About what, my dear?” he asked, lifting his fingers to gently stroke her cheek.

“Caelon, do not be teasing and provoking!” she said impatiently. “What are we to do about Daerus?”

“Must we do something about him?” he asked her with a gentle smile, fully aware that the question and the lack of urgency he conveyed with it would tempt his life mate to do him a great mischief.

“Do you not think we should?” she asked mildly in her turn, fixing him with a smoldering eye and filling his mind with a variety of violent injuries visited upon his person.

Caelon laughed delightedly and decided to leave off teasing her. “To own the truth, my love,” he returned to his usual habit of speech, “I wonder whether it is needful. What would we be trying to do about him precisely?”

“Great Phoenix, Caelon, we can no more leave him mired in this darkness now than we could when last he visited this palace!” she replied.

“Do you not think the situations are quite a bit different?”

“No! What can you mean?”

“Now, you must not think that I do not perceive the darkness surrounding him just as well as you do,” he began. “But I can also perceive that Daerus is entirely master of himself, where neither his thoughts nor his actions were his own during the late Interval. Do you not agree?”

Dia nodded warily and he smiled encouragingly at her. She probably had never realized that her inclination to shield her twin from every ill wind would seem to a man grown to be rather oppressive, if not a curst nuisance. Caelon rather fancied he understood his marriage-brother very well.

“I see, too, that he has somehow managed to rescue Lady Kera from whatever imprisonment she suffered in the wake of the Gaerud. Indeed,” Caelon added thoughtfully, “I would give much to hear that tale. But you must surely perceive, my love, how very happy they are together. Were you not lately bemoaning how unfair it all seemed that the Gaerud had left you so happy and him so sorrowful? That is all over now. Can you not be happy for him?”

He had taken both her hands in his as he ended this speech and she squeezed the fingers that held hers so firmly. “Of course I am happy for him,” she acknowledged somewhat mistily. “It is just … It is just …” She could not seem to bring herself to go on.

“It is just … what? His companions?” She nodded, eyes on the floor stones, and Caelon smiled as he continued. “You heard what they said. This is all a part of his task, that he step forward and lead this rag-tag group of misfits into some sort of confrontation with the Throk. Think of it, Dia!” he released her hands and turned from her, excitedly stalking across the room as he considered the matter. “The dozen of them alone to somehow engage all the clans of the Throk, with no help from any paltry army and not a vestige of fear among them! By the Fires, I’ve a fancy to ride north with them, simply to witness this encounter!”

“I feel sure Daerus would be gratified if he knew that he had provided you with the prospect of so much entertainment,” came the dry as dust voice of his mate from over his shoulder, “but I pray you will not ride off to bask in vicarious glory without a word of warning, my lord .”

Caelon laughed. She certainly knew how to take the wind out of a fellow’s eye! “You know, it is not so very long since that you did not disdain a bit of adventure, your Highness,” he said. “I never said that you must needs stay here, you know.”

Their eyes caught and held, as they had so many times during their life together, and he watched Dia finally give up the struggle and surrender to laughter. “You are perfectly ridiculous, my dear,” she told him.

“No, why?” he asked, mock-injured. “Can it be that you do not wish to go?”

“Caelon! Do stop it, “ she begged. “You cannot seriously mean to travel to the front lines with my brother and his rag-tag little band of chaos worshipers.”

He eyed her speculatively for a few moments, until the humor in her eyes sobered. “If you are seriously worried about your brother’s task,” he challenged her, “I cannot think why you were hesitate. After all, you were prepared to deny him access to my father as if you feared the High Priest of Septha would offer violence to the Emperor in his own throne room.”

“For aught I know of these mysterious tasks, he very well might,” she retorted.

“Dia!” he said, conscious of shock. “Do you really trust your twin so little? I had thought you said you had forgiven him for what passed between you during the late Interval.”

She drew a breath as if to speak and then held it as she hesitated. Her eyes fell. Caelon waited.

Finally, she said with some difficulty, “I have forgiven him for that, my love. Truly, I have. But … well, I suppose that you have the right of it when you say that I no longer trust him.” She raised her eyes to his to add passionately, “I cannot, Caelon, not when he still sports that cloak of darkness as if he had grown to enjoy it, not when I know so little of his tasks.”

Caelon bent a stern gaze upon her, aware that she had disappointed him for the first time since they had met. “Do you know,” he said, “I think you no longer have any choice in the issue, my dear. We both will join my marriage-brother when he and his friends ride north. And I hope, my dear, when you watch them do precisely what they have said they would, that you will be heartily ashamed of yourself.”

“And if my mistrust proves justified?” she asked him defiantly.

As he considered that possibility, Caelon smiled grimly, “Why, in that case, I will promise you this, Dia, that they will none of them leave that battlefield alive.”

*     *     *

Kera sat comfortably in the sitting room that had been made available for her convenience, watching her mate prowl about their apartments. She had been pleased to give her approval to these rooms, although they were not as opulent as the rooms she had shared with her family when she had borne the title of Imperial Princess. But Kera prided herself on being reasonable rather than spoilt, and she could not bring herself to complain about the spacious apartments they had been awarded upon their arrival. At least she had no cause to worry that her chair would unexpectedly transform itself into a rock or a pile of feathers.

“What troubles you, love?” she asked Daerus, hoping she could force him to stop pacing if he felt himself obliged to talk to her. “Surely you were not expecting anything other than her Highness’ reaction to this motley crew you have brought to Tamaerand with you?”

“To own the truth, I was expecting something else,” Daerus said. “I expected that she would at least talk to me before passing judgment on me and my companions! She knows nothing of what we are doing here, nothing of what our tasks are or what we have learnt from the Master. All she knows is that the infant Daerus is embarked upon an adventure that she has not sanctioned! I wonder how much of my Time will have elapsed before she recognizes that I am a man full grown.”

“Well, really, Daerus, of what use are sisters if not to rescue their brothers from their scrapes?” she asked with saucy smile. “Then, too, there is also the minor matter of covering them up so that Papa never learns anything about it. I can perfectly understand how difficult it must be for your sister to allow that you have this task that she knows nothing about and cannot step in to keep you out of trouble.”

To her secret delight, she saw his reluctant smile. “Yes, if she thought that I was poised to get myself into some terrible trouble, she would no doubt make herself quite miserable trying to intercept me before I had ruined myself. But really, Kera, for her to suggest that she was prepared to keep me from seeing the Emperor … me, the Grand Duke of Shae! I never thought to get so stiff and starchy about the honors due to my exalted station …” and he loftily ignored Kera’s gurgle of laughter … “but I’ll tell you, I was mightily insulted by her attitude!”

“I expect you were also mightily hurt,” Kera observed gently. “After all, she is your twin, your erstwhile partner in arms, and suddenly it seems that she no longer trusts you.”

“It seems to me as though she no longer knows me, my love,” Daerus acknowledged. “And I will own that it stings. But all is not lost. I perceive that I might rely upon the good offices of my marriage-brother.”

“Prince Caelon?” Kera asked somewhat incredulously. She had not yet made up her mind what to think of Caelon of Aerandos. He seemed a likeable enough fellow but he had also seemed to take a slighting attitude toward her own father and his Imperial Court – which was, of course, difficult to forgive, even though she was fully aware of its shortcomings. She frowned.

But Daerus was answering her. “Oh, yes,” he assured her. “I have not had occasion to spend too much time with him but I am convinced that he is a capital fellow! If there is anyone who can hold my sister in check, it will be he. I have often wished I could outmaneuver my sister so smoothly but I suppose that is one of those offices that rightfully belong to a mate rather than a brother.”

“Do you indeed think so, your Grace?” Kera asked him, indignation rising in her breast. “I do hope that you will not seek to manipulate me in such an odious fashion!”

“Certainly not!” he instantly replied. “The tactics that are so effective with my sister would never do for me to imitate.”

“I am happy to hear you say so.”

“I shall have to find entirely different tactics to outmaneuver you, my love,”

“Daerus … !”

“But let us be serious, my dear,” said her mate, immediately changing the subject. “It was reassuring to me that we were conducted to these quarters and offered endmeal here in our own suites in such a respectful fashion. I wonder if it would be better for us to be on our way as soon as ever we swallow our firstmeal. I could not suffer any to insult my companions and most particularly not Zhedthik.”

But Kera was shaking her head. “No, that will never do, my lord,” she told him. “If you had wanted to avoid making your bow to the Emperor, then you should have avoided coming here at all. Since you are here, you must at least see his Imperial Majesty.”

“And how am I to avoid permitting his Imperial Majesty to insult the High Priest of Septha?” he asked, rather sarcastically.

“You and I shall present ourselves in the audience chamber alone,” she answered him most reasonably. “The rest of our party shall remain here in these apartments … well,” she paused to consider, “the Brethren may wish to make their bow to the Emperor. But Zhedthik and Rischa and Tohra and Faendun had better remain in our chambers.”

Daerus was nodding his agreement. “Yes, they have all had enough of unearned fear and rejection and … and stupidity,” he said. “I would not for the world expose them to more of the same here in the Imperial Palace.” He looked at her then with a peculiar smile before crossing the room to lift her hand to his lips. “You truly are my Wise Companion, are you not?”

Kera’s eyes gentled as they held his. “Pray do not be so silly, your Grace.”

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