Caelon opened his eyes and took a deep breath. He felt curiously lightened, as if he had somehow become a floating aura of consciousness surrounding his earthbound body. At the same time, he felt preternaturally alert and extraordinarily well-rested. Inhaling deeply once more, he finally focused his eyes upon his companion.
Phoeday returned his gaze calmly but with an approving twinkle in his eyes. Everything about Phoeday was round: eyes, face, belly and form. He did not exude the sort of unquenchable calm that Dia’s Phoebus did; Caelon got the impression that the serenity of the TimeKeepers was hard work for Phoeday. Trying times, Caelon thought irreverently, to be forced to maintain that iron calm in the face of such momentous events as the rise of a new Phoenix, the birth of a New Age and the incipient Gaerud.
“Trying times indeed, my lord,” Phoeday replied aloud. “I have found the meditation technique you have just practiced to be invaluable recently.”
“I wonder how long it will take for me to grow used to having my companions reply to statements which I do not utter,” Caelon rather pointedly mused.
Phoeday’s eyes glinted. “Perhaps, when we have more leisure, I will show you how to shield your thoughts to guard your privacy,” he said. “For now, I expect it must be time to join your parents for endmeal.”
Caelon laughed. “And, of course, Phoeday never misses a meal.”
“Not when I can help it, Impertinence,” he replied with the assumed severity of a tutor, which fooled neither of them. “I cannot think what Lady Tamia can have been doing to have so neglected your education that you are freely disrespectful to the priesthood, my lord.”
“I fear I am a sad disappointment to her,” said my lord meekly as he sauntered to the door.
Phoeday chuckled. “I do not doubt that she did her best with you,” he said, “and cannot be faulted at the way you have turned out.”
Caelon grinned. He would have been astonished if anyone had suggested to him that he could become so entirely comfortable with the constant attendance of a TimeKeeper that they could wile away idle moments exchanging affectionate insults, but so it had been. “There is something I had been meaning to ask you, good Phoeday,” he said as they walked together toward his mother’s sitting room.
“Well, and what might that be, my lord?”
“Septha referred to Dia as Muphoen,” Caelon recalled. “Is that a title or an insult or some other obscure name?”
Phoeday smiled absently. “It is a title, my lord. Loosely translated and summarized for brevity, it refers to her position as the mother of the Phoenix.”
Caelon grunted in response. He was still unsettled by that vicarious encounter with the God of Chaos. It had given him quite a start to suddenly hear that roaring, rasping voice in his mind as he had been soberly attending his father in Giseth’s sitting room. There had been so much unbridled fury in His voice that Caelon had experienced an instant of raw terror for her — followed (very naturally) by an overwhelming desire to throttle the girl for giving him such a fright.
“There is not much point in brooding over the incident, my lord,” Phoeday told him gruffly. “No doubt you will have ample opportunity to make her very sorry for her foolishness when, once this business is over with, you have settled into wedded bliss and can torture her in private.” After Caelon laughed delightedly at this sally, Phoeday continued, “Indeed, my lord, I should prefer not to intrude upon your mental meandering, but you do not have the leisure to walk about with your head in the clouds just at this present.”
“As if I should be so rude to my parents,” Caelon murmured reproachfully.
“No,” Phoeday muttered, “you save such rudeness for me. I believe we have arrived, sir.”
Shoulders shaking with suppressed mirth, Caelon knocked politely and then entered the room.
His Grace, the Grand Duke of Aerandos, along with the Grand Duchess, were in the room, preparing to go down to endmeal, as expected. What Caelon had not expected was that they would be entertaining a very welcome visitor in the person of Colonel Braeden, one of the top officers in his father’s army. As Phoeday effaced himself with deceptive meekness, Caelon entered the room and said, “Braeden, you are a sight for sore eyes!”
Colonel Braeden, ramrod stiff and very proper as always, smiled faintly and bowed. “It is my pleasure to be of service to Aerandos, as always,” he said politely.
Caelon shook his head as he lounged over to his mother’s chair to bow over her hand. “One of these days, I really must get the good colonel inebriated,” he said to no one in particular. “Either that, or I will have to do something really desperate, like slip a toad into his trousers.”
“Caelon,” Lady Tamia said, mildly chiding him as she batted at his hand playfully, “do leave the colonel’s trousers alone, I pray you.”
Since he knew that Lady Tamia found the colonel daunting for the very reason that he was always so extremely correct, he did not take her admonitions too seriously. “Well, but surely there must be some way to relax that barge pole he calls a back,” Caelon said, lowering his voice.
Her Grace stifled a giggle behind one elegant hand. “You are very naughty, sir!” she said, raising twinkling eyes to his.
“Indeed, I cannot think where I came by such an irreverent sense of humor,” he said with loving amusement.
“Braeden is a very good soldier, which is all your father requires of him,” Lady Tamia said firmly and with dignity. “You shall not tease him in this ridiculous way when Saeros has summoned him in his official capacity.”
“You are very right!” Caelon said, apparently much struck. “I shall have to wait until he is off duty to make him a present of that toad.”
“Caelon, your attention, if you please,” Lord Saeros interrupted them.
Automatically, Caelon straightened to attention and all softness faded from his face. “Sir?”
“It would appear that we have rather more than a two regiments at our disposal,” Lord Saeros told his son, “thanks to the kind offices of the newly risen Phoenix.”
For once thoroughly and completely amazed, Caelon’s jaw dropped.
Close your mouth, boy, Phoeday instructed him tersely.
Caelon’s jaw snapped shut.
Lord Saeros did not comment upon his son’s facial contortions, only the faint twitching of his lips betraying that he had remarked them. “Colonel Braeden tells me that, shortly before he arrived at the palace with the seventh and ninth infantry, a TimeKeeper visited him with another message — that we would have need of a show of force — and an additional three regiments, traveling through time windows.”
“Indeed?” Caelon said faintly.
“Judging from your reaction, I would surmise that you had no hand in this change of plans,” his Grace continued smoothly. “I had thought that you might have requested a favor of this new Phoenix who, I am led to infer, might view with favor one who was instrumental in bringing His rise about. And I cannot think,” Lord Saeros added with a hint of asperity, “why you are staring at me as if I had suddenly grown another head. If you perceive that some discretion should be exercised in this matter, I would not think of asking you to betray such a trust but that does not mean that a normally intelligent man might not surmise what has been left unsaid.”
Still dazed, and with Phoeday’s unsympathetic laughter echoing in the vaults of his mind, Caelon said, “Allow me a moment to pull myself together, sir. I am less surprised at your perspicacity than I am at a military initiative by the Phoenix. I wonder what He can mean by it?”
“I rather expect,” Lord Saeros said placidly, “that He knew we shall have need of them, my boy.”
Caelon frowned thoughtfully. So far as he knew, the entirety of the battle between Septha and the Phoenix would be decided by the simple choices of the Shae twins. One did not need armies for that sort of thing. “And what need do you expect we shall have of them?” he asked his needle-witted sire.
“As to that,” his Grace replied, unruffled, “I could not even venture a guess.”
Caelon gave a short laugh. “In that event, I have no need to feel quite such a simpleton as I did a moment ago,” he said ruefully. “Er … what do you mean to do with them — now, that is?” Caelon asked, beginning to smile.
“Do?” asked his Grace, eyeing his heir as if Caelon had lost his senses entirely. “I shall inspect them, of course … after next firstmeal.”
Caelon settled himself in a chair to await Dia feeling distinctly humbled. He had told her — by the Fires, it seemed an age ago! — that he was a soldier and so felt uncomfortable without a plan of battle. His father, who Caelon knew to be ten times the soldier that he was, apparently did not need such a plan. The Phoenix provided. It would be up to Lord Saeros to take advantage of that provision, should the need arise. That was all his Grace seemed to require. Caelon, having had no notion of the simple and profound faith which his father had always had, found it disquieting to meet with this wholly new facet of Lord Saeros’ complex personality. Of course, his Grace had no way of knowing it, but in that moment he showed more faith in the Phoenix than he who had sired Him. The thought made Caelon feel unutterably sad and shamefully unworthy.
Think you that faith can be demonstrated only by breast-beating and loud protestations? Phoeday asked him.
Do not mock me now, good Phoeday, he replied, subdued.
There was a brief pause before Phoeday spoke to him again, more gently than was his wont. Now, why do you think I would mock you? he said. We each serve in our different ways, after all. Do you not see that you have unthinkingly and unhesitatingly acted with much more faith than this simple and fairly easy gesture of Lord Saeros’?
Caelon did not reply but he could not help wondering what the TimeKeeper could possibly be thinking. He had not even believed in a Phoenix until he had met Him, and his religious thought was still unformed and not very profound.
Phoeday seemed to feel the instant and instinctive protests that remained unvoiced in Caelon’s mind. Recall, if you will, my lord, said the priest in a droll tone of “voice”, that you have done everything from mildly inconveniencing yourself to acting against the dictates of your own conscience — and suffering the consequences in unneeded guilt — to getting yourself killed. And, in the end, all was done to provide what aid you could in the rise of the new Phoenix and the birth of the New Age.
Nonsense, Phoeday, said Caelon brusquely. He had no wish to be credited with deeds of faith and martyrdom for which he had not earned such accolades. I did nothing to aid in the rise of the new Phoenix.
Indeed? Phoeday returned, clearly amused. And why are you involved in this business, then?
If we are to believe your prophesies, then my involvement was fated to be, Caelon reminded him. Or, if you prefer, you may take my word for it that I lent my aid to Dia of Shae and, while my motives for doing so are not precisely clear to me, they had nothing to do with the rise of the Phoenix. Even now, as we approach your Gaerud, I am less willing to enter into battle on behalf of the Phoenix than I am to fight for the life of my son.
You act, you tell me, of kindness for Dia of Shae and of a father’s love for his son. Given what you have already suffered on their behalf, did you never think perhaps that something more might have been at stake?
Mentally, Caelon sighed. Say what you mean, sir, if you please.
All you have done, Phoeday told him, you have done because it was right. Nothing Dia of Shae could have said to you would have moved you to assist her if you had not felt it was the right thing to do. And, whatever your motives may have been, my lord, it is results that matter.
Unconvinced, Caelon said nothing.
You are the most easy-going fellow in the world, are you not? Phoeday remarked with a resigned sigh. You are perfectly willing to tolerate or endure everyone else’s weaknesses except your own. You are a harsh taskmaster, my lord — and, if you mean to hold yourself to standards of such height that you spend your spare time wallowing in feelings of unworthiness, then you are a fool besides!
This speech, ending as it did on a note of considerable asperity, unaccountably raised Caelon’s spirits and he began to wonder if Dia meant to keep them waiting much longer. After all, Septha had as much as told them that this Gaerud was take place sometime within the next hour or so; Caelon would need to keep up his strength.
So engrossed was he in contemplating his upcoming victuals that he did not see Phoeday, standing in his inconspicuous corner of the room, with a great deal of affection in his glance and his entire pudgy form shaking with suppressed laughter.
Dia arrived in Lady Tamia’s sitting room in due course, accompanied by the faithful Phoebus, looking more stern and, at the same time, more queenly than he had ever seen her. She wore the silken leggings and overdress that was usual for young ladies of fashion and breeding, in a rich purple — the color of the archpriests of the Phoenix — and the deeply cowled overdress it boasted gave it the look of an ecclesiastical robe.
There was little conversation when she arrived. His parents gravely bid her welcome, and Caelon walked over to her and took her hand, bowing over it as he had so many times since the two had met. His eyes sought hers, their glances held, and he said, “Are you ready, my lady?”
She said nothing, replying with a solemn nod.
“Then, let us go and greet the Emperor,” he said to the room at large, nodding in his turn. “No doubt he is anxious for this game to begin.”
With Phoebus and Phoeday trailing a respectful distance behind, the two noble couples left the apartments.