“Their Grace, Lord Saeros and Lady Tamia of Aerandos,” the herald announced, sounding very formal for some reason. “Colonel Lord Caelon of Aerandos and Lady Dia of Shae.”

Aware that he was making more of an entrance than was his wont, Caelon took a deep breath and followed his parents into the throne room. And, as soon as he had crossed the threshold, he knew, for a wave of cold darkness swept over him and chilled him to the marrow of his bones. It is now, he thought.

Prepare yourself, advised Phoeday.

Lord Saeros was bowing before the throne, as Lady Tamia and Dia sank into deep curtseys. Caelon performed his duty to the Emperor, his eyes taking careful inventory of the three people standing behind the throne.

Daerus of Shae was suffering from some sort of intense perturbation, and Caelon would have given a great deal to known what was going through his mind. The young man’s skin had assumed a greenish cast, he was breathing as hard as if he had just run a few miles during the height of HighSun, and his upper lip was faintly dewed with sweat. His nervous eyes — so like Dia’s, Caelon realized unwillingly — darted around the room and over its occupants, restlessly searching for something he clearly could not find.

Prince Maermat stood erect, wearing an expression so prideful that he appeared smug. But when Caelon looked at the Princess Kera, he was forced to suppress a gasp of revulsion.

Like her brother, she stood tall and proud, the tilt of her chin proclaiming absolute arrogance. Her arms and face — all the skin on her body that was exposed to his sight, in fact — was almost black, for the darkness of Septha had consumed her utterly, so that there was nothing left of the young girl she had been not so long ago. Black and, yes, shiny, as if her skin had been transformed to scales or some such thing. The expression in her eyes almost defied description; there was smug superiority, inhuman cruelty and a touch of insanity there. She turned those eyes on him and smiled and Caelon’s spine rattled. Once more, he was forced to sternly control his reactions.

There was an peculiar stillness about the courtiers scattered about the cavernous room that suggested to Caelon that he and his parents had arrived on the heels of a startling pronouncement and he wondered what had happened. Had Septha somehow decided to begin this battle without awaiting the arrival of his adversaries? Had they somehow made a crucial first move that he and Dia would have to counter, placing them in the sort of defensive posture from which few wars were ever won?

All these questions of yours will be answered soon enough, my lord, Phoeday told him in trenchant accents. You must be very calm now; let nothing disturb your inner sanctum of tranquility.

“In a good hour, Saeros,” the Emperor declared with a terrifying geniality. “I am told that your troops have arrived, in good order and more than you had give Us to understand you would be able to spare. Indeed, you are commended for your willingness to serve your Emperor.”

Lord Saeros bowed again in acknowledge of that imperial approbation. “I am happy to know that you are pleased, your Majesty,” he said smoothly. Then he looked around appraisingly. “Can it be that we have interrupted your Majesty by our arrival? If that is so, then I can only ask your pardon and express the hope that we are not too late to receive whatever tidings have startled your entire court into immobility.”

“Not tidings for you, Saeros, for you were briefed on this day’s work along with the rest of the General Staff.” Emperor Kaerkas then lifted his eyes to the remainder of the occupants of the room. Grimly, he smiled. “It is gratifying, however, to note how eagerly my subjects welcome the embrace of their new God.”

An uncomfortable shuffling filled the room, stating louder than any words that the courtiers, who gave little thought to any form of religion in any event, were not yet ready to change their allegiance to the God of Chaos — even if their allegiance to the Phoenix was more the product of habit than of faith.

“Remains but one small formality in order to deliver us into the hands of our God,” his Majesty continued, seeming to derive some obscure pleasure in the discomfort all around him. He turned then and, very solemn and oddly respectful, nodded to his daughter.

The hideously altered Imperial Princess bowed in a curiously ceremonial way and began to chant, weaving her hands in a series of curious gestures. After a few moments, the room darkened further as the candles in the wall sconces and candelabras flickered and dimmed, and a deadly chill that seemed to consist of fear and confusion and uncertainty filled the room.

An inky blackness appeared near the vaulted ceiling of the throne room, circling the dome, slowly at first and then with increasing speed. And then, as the princess’ chant seemed to reach its climax, the swirling shadow hurled itself to the ground, coalescing into a creature such as Caelon had never even imagined before. It had the body of a powerfully muscled man, but its head was that of a beast of nightmare: horned, fanged, with slitted eyes that glowed red and chilled the blood of anyone unfortunate enough to catch its eye.

Septha the Destroyer had arrived. The battle was upon them.

“Bow down to Dark Septha,” the Emperor ordered. “Fall to your knees in awe and gratitude, and worship the new God of Ormaeranda!”

There was neither awe nor gratitude apparent in the terrified faces of the courtiers standing before the “New God”, Caelon thought with a flicker of amusement. No one moved.

“Kneel!” said Kaerkas the Beast ominously.

Slowly, hesitantly, the men and women of the court sank to the floor, bowing their heads as they did so — perhaps in respect, perhaps in an effort to avoid looking upon the hideous being that, they had been told, was to be their God — except the party from Aerandos and Dia of Shae.

Affronted, the Emperor stared at them as if he could not believe his eyes. “Kneel!” he screamed at the four of them, as if they could be subjugated by the power of his voice alone. Phoebus and Phoeday, standing quietly behind them, seemed to have escaped his Majesty’s notice.

Lord Saeros stepped forward with all his usual aplomb. “I am afraid I cannot, in good conscience, bow to your new God, Sire,” he said blandly.

“You — what?!” demanded the Emperor in apparent astonishment.

I wonder if Lord Septha really thought that we should all instantly drop to our knees in adoration, should Kaerkas the Beast only snarled at us? Caelon heard Dia mutter in his head in disgust.

I cannot make any guesses about Septha, Caelon answered her, but snarling has been working for Kaerkas for years.

“We of Aerandos will not worship the God of Chaos, my liege,” his father was saying firmly.

“Indeed?” the Emperor said in threatening tones. “You stand before me in mine own throne room and throw your treason in my teeth?”

“Treason? No, sire,” Lord Saeros disagreed. “I have no wish to usurp your throne and wish you not the least harm in the world. But Aerandos does not pray to any God upon the orders of the throne, although we willingly grant you all worldly allegiance and respect.”

“So you say,” Kaerkas uttered, eyeing them through narrowed eyes. “But, if you will not bow to my God, you will not defend Him in this realm, either, in open despite of my orders, is that not so.”

“That is so,” Lord Saeros agreed with calm audacity, “but since you have the Imperial Army to serve you in this way, my army is free to serve you in other ways — such as dispatching the Throk, who may be poised on your northeast border even as we speak. Each to his own craft, your Majesty.”

But the Emperor did not seem to be appeased, and a tense silence filled the room. “Very pretty words, Saeros,” his Majesty grated out, “but what you tell me, in effect, is that I have given an imperial command that you choose to ignore.” Again, there was a brief silence. Softly, into that silence, the Emperor said, “Tell me, your Grace, do you know the penalty for treason?”

For an instant, this gentle question hung amidst an appalled silence. The courtiers glanced from one to the other, still frightened but watchful. Caelon remained as outwardly impassive as his sire, while silently giving vent to a wide-ranging sample of the less genteel expressions in his vocabulary. He might have continued in that pastime indefinitely, and derived considerable relief from it, but that he recalled that those colorful descriptions of the Emperor and his likely genealogy were being overheard.

Picturesque, my lord, commented Phoebus after a particularly scurrilous metaphor.

A bit inaccurate, though, wouldn’t you say? added Phoeday to his brother TimeKeeper.

Yes, certainly it is inaccurate, acknowledged Phoebus, but you must admit that it was evocative of some rather extraordinary imagery.

Oh, stop it, the pair of you! snapped Dia, apparently every bit as incensed as was Caelon.

“Indeed, I know it well, your Majesty,” Lord Saeros replied, his voice as gentle but his eyes glinting. “I have even carried out that penalty on behalf of your Majesty upon occasion.” Boldly, but still in tones as gentle as the Emperor had used, he added, “One wonders whether your Majesty has considered the penalty for forcing an issue in flagrant despite of the established rights and privileges of the Great Houses of the Empire?”

It is as well that someone remind the madman of the realities of his situation, Caelon thought savagely.

Softly, my lord, Phoeday warned. Remember, you must remain calm.

There was another lengthy silence and the tension in the room swirled about the company like a thick, milky fog that is disturbed by a fast moving steed. “Aye,” the Emperor finally growled, menace in every line of his face, “in that you are no doubt quite right. I can see that I must look to defend myself, for like the treacherous cur that you are, you have been busily creating alliances with the other Great Houses these many years. Gedbaen is in your pocket since you married your sister into that House, and now, it seems, you seek to breach the friendship between Ormaer and Shae by marrying your son to a daughter of that House — also in defiance of my wishes.”

Given the fact that his alleged betrothal to Dia had originally come about because of his Majesty’s insistence on wedding her ladyship to the crown prince against her wishes, it was difficult for Caelon to hear his father dishonored by it. Heated protests formed on his lips but he was not given a chance to speak.

Calmly, my lord, Phoeday reminded him. Caelon wondered irritably if this was the archpriest’s task, of the Phoenix had spoken. One of them, replied Phoeday, amused. If you are weary of hearing the admonition, my lord, then you would do well to make it unnecessary for me to make it.

“Unjust, sire!” To Caelon’s surprise, Dia was moved to come to his father’s defense. “His Grace had no hand in bringing about my pledge to Caelon of Aerandos! No doubt,” and here, she cast a bitter glance at her brother, “we should not have felt it necessary to make an announcement until after we had leisure to consult my parents, were it not for the fact that my hand was forced and my rights ignored.”

“Your rights ignored?” purred his Majesty, pinning her with his glance. “Indeed? As I recall, you made your announcement a refusal to wed my heir. Your own foolish choice and now, child, you speak of rights.” Dia scowled and he continued sympathetically, “I know how difficult it must be for you to admit, my lady, but it would seem that you have contracted a most ineligible alliance into a dishonorable House. There can be no doubt that it would have been much better had you accepted Maermat, rather than refusing him in order to promise herself to the heir of the serpent Aerandos.”

These words, uttered in paternal accents, had much the effect of a flame applied to dry kindling. “Oh, indeed, how much better for me it would have been!” the lady exploded, seeming to completely forget the respect due the Emperor. She hurled herself forward to plant herself at the foot of the dais with angry defiance. “I wonder I did not immediately see the advantages of such a match? Had I accepted him at the outset, no doubt Maermat would have found it unnecessary to then inveigle his way into my chambers for the purpose of assault and rape. I expect I am incorrigible, for I fear I have failed to learn my lesson and still would not wed Maermat were he the last man on earth!” Sarcasm dripped from her voice, vying with the bitterness she made no attempt to disguise.

“How dare you!” roared Prince Maermat with as much wounded, innocent outrage as if Caelon had not himself ousted the fellow from her ladyship’s chambers. “You come to this palace, behave like the most unrepentant whore with this guttersnipe from Aerandos, and refer to my attempts at persuasion as rape and assault? As well for me that you refused me, caethera, for I was quite in error. You are most unworthy to wed into Ormaer!”

“You are still in error, Highness,” said Dia sweetly, rage narrowing her eyes and pride lifting her chin. “It is Ormaer who has proved unworthy to marry a daughter of Shae.”

No one spoke or moved. The entire court knew what must follow such deadly blood insults. Caelon, locked in a stasis over which he had no control, fought against it, struggling to speak.

Finally, Prince Maermat, who had appeared on the verge of an apoplectic fit, uttered an inarticulate snarl of pure fury and said, “Choose your champion, Dia of Shae!”

She stood tall and proud and unafraid — and every bit as angry as the prince. “I fight my own battles, pathaed!” she snapped, profound contempt in her voice.

As guards were dispatched for short swords — Dia’s choice — Caelon fought even harder against the unknown power that held him immobile in its grip. Let me go! grated Caelon, coldly furious.

No! All trace of amusement had left Phoeday’s “voice”. Don’t interfere. This is not your fight. If you go blundering into this now, you will only succeed in getting her, and yourself, and your son, killed.

And, to Caelon’s considerable astonishment, gruffly kind Phoeday suddenly gripped his mind with a strength and ruthlessness that bespoke of unshakable resolve. The archpriest dragged him down, down, deep into himself, down to that incorruptibly calm kernel of himself, where he existed in pure and untouchable integrity, where nothing could harm him or even reach him.

When Phoeday had introduced Caelon to that part of himself after midmeal, Caelon had wondered what the purpose of the exercise had been. While he was fully prepared to admit that contact with that profound and innocent part of himself was reassuring and refreshing, it had seemed to serve no useful purpose. Now, he saw that Phoeday had wanted him to know, practically, what steps to take when he needed to calm himself. And it seemed terribly important — at least, to Phoeday — that he remain calm.

Dia had divested herself of her overdress while she waited for the delivery of the dueling swords, and now paced the stone floors wearing only leggings and her undertunic. The garb was starkly utilitarian but also left no doubt in anyone’s mind that its wearer was splendidly female.

Not even that, my lord, said Phoeday, laughter marring the sternness he tried to inject into his tones.

Spoilsport. He felt a certain sort of wistfulness as he watch the girl furiously stalking about the throne room, awaiting the arrival of sharp-bladed steel. May I not even touch her mind? he asked, realizing suddenly that her presence had faded from his thoughts.

Certainly, you may, Phoeday promptly assured him, if you wish to utterly destroy her concentration and give Maermat an easy opening. You would do well rather to focus upon yourself, my lord, for when the time for your task comes, you must be ready.

That was plain enough and the thought that Dia might prevail in this duel and win through for the Phoenix, only to have him fail in his task for lack of preparation, was not to be thought of.

The swords arrived then and neither Dia nor the Prince wasted any time in choosing their weapons. In that moment, they were really very much alike, mused Caelon; both exuding an aura of crisp purposefulness that was powered by the energy of fiercely controlled fury. Once they were armed, they faced each other in the center of the room and, after the briefest of salutes, engaged in dueling combat.

Prince Maermat was a better-than-competent fencer, displaying the precision and control that bespoke the well-trained swordsman. Certainly he was not a master but, Caelon saw with some misgiving, he was an opponent to be reckoned with. He had the advantage of strength and reach, it was true, but as the fight progressed, it began to be apparent that those advantages were only of marginal use to him.

For my lady of Shae did not favor the gentlemanly style of the crown prince; Dia was a trench fighter, Caelon saw immediately, perfectly willing to throw a leaping kick or a glancing blow when she saw an opportunity to do so. After the first few times she had surprised him with her astonishing agility, Maermat apparently decided that he needed to stay out of range of her blows, which effectively extended the length of her reach to almost equal his.

Dia fought like a wildcat, taking enough recklessness chances that Caelon’s breath caught more than once in fear for her. She felt the lash of Maermat’s blade more than once glancing across arm or shoulder — cuts not serious enough to incapacitate her but he drew her blood nevertheless. And, while Maermat seemed to derive considerable satisfaction every time her skin felt the bite of his blade, she did not seem to care. Watching her, Caelon thought he understood why.

For all that she seemed crazed, darting here and there, moving constantly in a way that might serve to convince one that she was needlessly tiring herself, her eyes were not the eyes of a berserker. She was watching her opponent very carefully, he realized, measuring his every move, testing his reactions, gauging his reflexes. Her experiments cost her a few drops of blood but she seemed perfectly willing to pay that price. Let Maermat have his petty interim victories, he could almost hear her thinking, since he is so easily amused. She did not want his blood; she wanted his life.

And the sheer unpredictability of her swordsmanship was, indeed, taking its toll. Maermat, coldly correct, found her style wholly baffling. He began to grow frustrated and, as she continued to almost easily thwart his efforts to inflict more telling injuries, his detachment began to suffer. He was tiring, Caelon could see, getting sloppy with his parries, taking longer to recover from his thrusts.

And then Dia, still with that tireless, darting agility, combined a spinning kick to his kneecap with a backhanded slash across that beautiful, imperial face. For the first time since the fight had begun, the Prince’s skin tasted the kiss of her blade. He had seemed to believe that he would pass the entire duel without a single nick, and his misplaced contempt for her warlike skills betrayed him into carelessness.

For now, he gave a bellow of pure rage and began to swing wildly, so infuriated by her unexpected proficiency that he stopped fencing altogether.   Dia, her eyes narrowed measuringly, danced clear of his flailing sword and, as soon as she had given herself the room, loosed the light dueling sword she wielded with a smooth, underhand cast. It spun, whistling through the air, penetrating the rhythm of thrashing arms, until it met its target, punching through Maermat’s breastbone with a sickening thud. The crown prince never knew what hit him.

Maermat stared stupidly at the woman whose sword hilt protruded from his chest. Blood suddenly belched from his mouth. And then he swayed, and then he fell.

Dread Kaerkas the Beast, Emperor of Ormaeranda, started to his feet with an incredulous gasp. Caelon looked at him sharply. For just a few moments, Kaerkas was no longer the barely sane ruler who struck terror into the hearts of all who lived between here and the Sea of Akkad. For now, he was just a man who had watched his son fall to the sword of another.

“Maermat!” he cried, and his voice resounded with anguish and loss.

The herald uttered the cruelly necessary epilogue to the duel. “The honor of Shae is won,” he intoned.

Silence fell.

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