Dia stood slightly to one side of the Imperial Throne of Ormaeranda, her eyes upon the man who had been her child — the Phoenix. The various exertions of the past half hour had bedewed her with sweat, causing the various cuts and abrasions which Maermat had inflicted to burn and sting, and she was so tired that she could hardly stand upright. But none of that mattered. They had won through, despite the great strength Septha had gathered upon himself during the Interval. Daerus had been retrieved from the abyss of darkness into which he had fallen, and the Phoenix was restored.
She could not but be glad, but she ruefully admitted to herself that a tiny seed of regret still lived in her heart. Gone was the infant whose tiny fist had curled around her finger while he nursed; gone was the innocent man-child she had petted and teased and grown to love. This man — the Phoenix — was fully grown and his powers were now in full flower. He had no further need of her, and that was as it should be. But their ways lay apart and the fact that the world called to her child meant that he would have little time to humor Dia’s maternal longings. There would be other children, of that Dia was certain, but the Phoenix had been her first and it seemed that, no sooner had she come to know him than she was forced by circumstance to say farewell.
The Phoenix, having delivered himself of that extremely familiar gesture, stepped around the throne, upon which the Emperor of Ormaeranda was screaming insanely, and said to the hideous apparition behind it, “The contest is done, Septha — twice done.”
“You tricked me!” Septha howled, infuriated.
“Nonsense,” the Phoenix said, mildly chiding. “There was no trick involved; you were so determined to destroy me before I acquired enough strength to defend myself that you neglected to consider what happens every time I die.” He smiled, then. “You would have been better served had you left matters as they stood, you know. As weak as I was, I could not have kept you out of this world, and you would have been very well placed indeed to challenge the next Phoenix for mastery over the Next Age.”
“I will be avenged, petty godling,” snarled Septha. “I will punish you and your chosen for my downfall this day.”
“Yes,” the Phoenix replied, managing to sound both faintly amused and slightly bored, “that is what you always say. Perhaps, during some Age or another, you will be able to carry out those threats. At least, it will give you something to consider during this Time.” He straightened and drew back his shoulders. “And now, begone,” He commanded, almost negligently. “Return to your throne in the House of Chaos and take with you the ones who served you here.”
And, as simply as that (for One who has the power), Septha fled, howling, into some unimaginable void. The Princess Kera shrank back, but she had only the time to shriek one long, despairing “NOOOO!” before she, too, vanished, along with the body of Prince Maermat.
Dia, curious, glanced over at Daerus and surprised a sorrowful expression on his face. Do you mind very much, dearest? she asked him tenderly.
A melancholy sigh echoed in the vaults of her mind. Almost shy, he replied, I really did love her, you know.
Was that before she was subverted by Septha?
Yes. Again, the sigh. She was a lovely, spritely girl, full of mischief, full of strength — like your charming self in many ways. He paused. It was only later that …
Never mind, love, she said, not quite knowing what to say. She perceived that her relationship with her brother had changed subtlely; it would take some time for them to regain their former level of mutual comfort. There will be others.
The Phoenix was now looking over his shoulder at the throne. Then, he said sympathetically, “Someone really ought to do something about that poor fellow.”
“What shall we do, dread Phoenix?” asked one of the courtiers, going down on one knee before him.
“The first thing you must do,” said that demi-god, “is to remember never to call me ‘dread’ anything. Indeed, I very much hope that I shall be no such thing!”
“Sorry, sir,” the gentleman muttered hastily.
“Very well,” the Phoenix nodded, satisfied. “Now, then. I expect you shall have to confine Kaerkas and perhaps request that Lord Thraetor of Ormaer find someone to care for him. He is hopelessly insane now.” He shook his head sadly. “That is a part of what Septha and His minions did to him.”
“Can you not reverse it?” asked Lord Saeros.
“There is no need.”
“No need?” repeated his Grace in mild protest. “Now we shall be ruled by a madman?”
“Trust me, good Saeros,” said the Phoenix soothingly. “All shall be well.” Then he strolled forward into the center of the room.
“Very well done, young Phoenix,” said the watching God, proud approbation vivid in His rolling tones.
The young man bowed in the general direction of that resplendent voice. “Thank you.”
A feminine chuckle sounded. “Yes, this was very well played out, indeed,” she said, evidently much amused. “Your predecessor would seem to have chosen your instruments without much thought; they served you surprisingly well.”
“Not so very surprising,” the Phoenix disagreed blandly, shrugging.
“I am surprised,” the Goddess said, the laugh still in her voice. “It certainly took a great deal of contrivance to persuade them to fulfill their destiny.”
At that, the Phoenix grinned over at Dia and Caelon. “They are stubborn. That is one of the reasons why they were chosen.”
Dismayed, Dia blushed furiously and knew not where to look — but she did catch the grinning glance exchanged by her brother and her lord. She gave them both to understand that she was not amused, with imagery that was as vivid as it was macabre, but that only seemed to add to their amusement.
“Is it all over then?” asked Lord Oshaed, sounding almost respectful for once, and looking more wizened than ever after the compound shocks of that day.
“Not quite yet,” replied the Phoenix, looking meaningfully into that empty space in the middle of the throne room which evidently held Beings that He alone could see.
“Ah, well … yes,” said the unseen God with a great deal of throat-clearing.
“Come, Father,” chided the gentle Goddess, “You gave Your word.”
“I know that!” He snapped testily. “I simply do not see … “ He began in a blustering sort of way.
“Trust me,” the Phoenix intervened, “it will be much easier this way.”
There as a brief, exasperated silence. “Oh, very well, then,” said the God, giving in. “Stand forth, Saeros of Aerandos.”
They all turned to look at Lord Saeros, who surprised Dia by flushing with self-consciousness as he stepped forward to take his place beside the Phoenix.
“Know that I am Rei, Father to the Gods of this world, and I speak for Them in concert,” He went on. “It is Our will that Ormaeranda shall be no more. Henceforth, this land shall be known as the Empire of Tamaeranda, and thou shalt be its ruler. Thus shall the House of Aerandos sit upon the throne during this the Sixth Age, as was intended.”
Dia smiled gleefully at this pronouncement. How Papa would be pleased! She exchanged a single, long glance with her twin. As one, they moved to stand forth and, shoulder to shoulder, went down on one knee before the new Emperor. “Hail Saeros, Emperor of Tamaeranda,” they said in unison.
“Hail Emperor Saeros!” the former members of Kaerkas’ court intoned dutifully.
“Know further,” Daerus continued, standing and turning to face the assembled company, “that, on behalf of the Grand Duke Loraed, the House of Shae pledges its unswerving fealty to the Imperial House of Tamaeranda, as its loyal servant and defender. Let all of Tamaeranda know that he who plots treason against Aerandos shall face, as well, the wrath of Shae.”
A wave of deep bows and curtseys swept around the room. And then, Rei spoke further.
“Caelon of Aerandos, stand forth and take thy place at thy father’s side, as heir to the imperial throne of Tamaeranda,” Rei commanded.
Caelon did as he was told, pausing to drop to one knee and, grasping his father’s right hand, to kiss the ring bearing the Great Seal of the House of Aerandos.
“Caelon,” said Emperor Saeros, deeply moved.
“Sir?” replied Caelon, smiling affectionately at his sire.
The newly-appointed Emperor returned that smile. “I am more proud than I can say,” he said softly, “for the privilege of calling you son.”
“And We share thy pride in thine heir,” said the gentle voice of the Goddess. “I am Istha, Goddess of earth and fertility, patron to thy neighbors in Lemantia. Giseth, my daughter, stand forth.”
At that command, a fair young woman in a deeply cowled white robe stepped forward, her face radiant at this divine visitation. “I hear Thee, Divine Istha,” she said in a throbbing voice.
“Thy sisters in far-off Lemantia have sorely missed the quiet strength of thy presence, my daughter,” Istha went on, “but they have held the Throk and, now that my Brother is once again banished, I can lend them mine aid. Thy work here is almost done, gentle Giseth. Know that I am pleased with thee.”
Sudden tears streamed down Giseth’s face at these words of approval. Dia clearly heard the woman’s thought: I am not worthy.
“One last task awaits thee here, Giseth. By thy hand shall Prince Caelon of Tamaeranda be joined with Lady Dia of Shae, and with thy hand shall I bless them and their increase. Dia of Shae,” She continued as Giseth drew Dia forward, “I have watched thee at thy task since first the Princess Kera’s deceptions set thy feet upon the path that brought thee to this place. Truly, thou and thy companion-in-arms, Caelon of Aerandos, have earned the honor of the titles of Muphoen and Tiphaen for this Age. Know that We stand in thy debt.”
Dia sank into a deep curtsey of acknowledgement. “It is an honor to have been among the chosen of the Phoenix,” she said demurely, disconcerted but too well-bred to show it. Then she turned her head to meet Caelon’s smiling eyes and forgot about embarrassment and Goddesses and imperial politics. Here was her lord, as she had considered him since she had first welcomed him into her bed, and there was nothing coy or ambiguous in the completely honest glance they shared. Her heart was full.
“There is nothing quite like being declared man and wife by a Goddess to make the whole thing feel quite definite and final,” murmured the Phoenix with considerable satisfaction.
That statement unmercifully broke the solemn mood. Caelon choked. Dia looked around the room wildly, trying desperately to still her twitching lips.
Emperor Saeros and his Empress exchanged a startled glance before they both fell to laughing. “Indeed, I expect that must be very true,” chuckled the Emperor.
“Aye,” agreed her Majesty, “and I expect our new Phoenix will require some growing accustomed to.” She gazed at Him in considerable amusement. “I had been wondering how to persuade these two to stop huffling about and finish the business. My compliments on so easily accomplishing the feat for, as you said, good Phoenix, they are both stubborn.”
Dia’s eyes widened and she blushed rosily. “Your Majesty!” she cried indignantly. The echo of Daerus’ laughter in her mind did not help to ease matters, either.
“I believe the proper form of address for your marriage-mother would be ‘Mother Tamia’, dear,” smiled that lady, not in the least apologetic.
“Now, then, good Phoenix,” said mighty Rei, “if all these matters are arranged to your satisfaction, We will be on Our way.”
“Indeed, this will all do splendidly,” said the Phoenix warmly, “and I thank You both.”
“No thanks are needful, young sir,” Istha told him blandly. “I expect my Father found the experience quite educational.”
“That will be enough of that, young lady,” said the Father of the Gods.
“Well, but, Father … “
“In private, miss!”
A vast silence followed that testy order.
“Well, that conversation certainly had a familiar ring to it,” commented Daerus to his twin.
“Indeed,” she agreed.
That made them all laugh. Then Caelon turned to the Phoenix and, looking a bit melancholy, said, “What now, sir?”
The man who had been their child looked at them both, and His eyes were also a little sad and regretful. Know that you and my mother will always be in my heart, he told them privately. I wish there were some words I could offer to adequately express my thanks … and my love. I shall miss you.
Dia felt her eyes stinging again, and she blinked rapidly as Caelon placed a comforting arm about her shoulders. I love you, my darling, she whispered in her heart to her baby.
Be well, Caerad, added Caelon softly.
The name made Him smile. Then He turned to the rest of the company. “I shall leave you now, for I know that you must have found all this quite exhausting — and none moreso than my … er, than the Prince and Princess here. Phoeday will inform me of whatever arrangements you have made, and I shall return to perform the coronation myself.” With these words, He opened another time window. “Rest now, my children, and live well always,” He added.
And then, he was gone.