Dia discovers an unexpected means of defense.

Dia came to herself with a shock. The lassitude which had overcome her had suddenly evaporated and she was alert once more. It almost seemed that she had been in some sort of trance and, unsure of what she had said in the last hour and to whom, she looked around her in some alarm. Daerus was nowhere to be seen and, now that she was really seeing the bawdy revelry all around her, she blushed a fiery red in mortification. The thought of what she might have said in her stupor made her feel vulnerable and even a little frightened.

Her companion watched her confusion and dismay for a moment and then, in what seemed to her to be the most profoundly understanding tones, said, “Permit me to make my mother known to you.”

Dia, trembling, laid her hand on the arm he offered and allowed herself to be led along the wall to where a few chairs had been set up for the older ladies. Her heart was racing and she had no desire to be presented to anyone or to do anything but return to her chambers to consider this strange turn of events.

Even now, she felt a sort of pressure in her mind, a heavy hand bearing down on everything in and around her. Indeed, it had not been particularly subtle but it had been terrifyingly irresistible. She could understand how the courtiers around her would have succumbed; that she, trained in the Secrets of the TimeKeepers, and well shielded, could also be helpless against this power left her feeling trapped.

And yet, whatever it was that had taken over her mind had vanished at a touch from this Caelon of Aerandos, who was somehow unscathed by that power, who was a single point of light amidst all this terrible darkness. That apparent immunity bore investigation. She took a deep, steadying breath. “Are you long at court, my lord?” she asked as they walked together down the room.

“Long enough to know that I have no wish to acquire what is politely referred to as ‘court polish’,” he replied, looking around him with unfeigned contempt. She looked inquiringly and he added, “My father has business with the Emperor. He required that I and my mother accompany him.”

Dia thought there was probably some reason for that and, at that moment, she did not care in the least what that reason could be. She was only glad that his Grace had insisted or Chaos alone knew what would have become of her! “And does he mean to make a long stay?” she asked, wincing at a shrill shriek of laughter.

He hesitated before replying, “To be completely frank, my lady, I hope not.” He looked around and added confidentially, “Indeed, I feel as if I had been here for a thousand suns already! But come, here is my esteemed mother, looking to be in need of some unexceptional company.”

The lady he was approaching was seated in a velvet cushioned chair, her expression a curious combination of boredom and pained resignation. She cheered visibly when she looked up and saw them approaching. “Caelon,” she said gaily, “have you found someone to rescue me? Oh, I do beg your pardon, my dear,” she went on to Dia, not waiting for an introduction, “it is very rag-mannered of me, but I can see that you are enjoying this melee as little as I am. Dreadful, is it not? If this affair were not taking place in the imperial palace, one would think this was a company of the lowest street peasants. But I should not be talking to you like this; one should always preserve at least the appearance of respect for the throne — however little the throne may deserve it! I can see that Caelon’s tongue has tied itself in knots, so I shall present myself. I am the Grand Duchess Tamia Aerandos, my dear … and I would wager that you must be one of the Shaes. You have a great look of your mother about you, you know.”

Dia, feeling the stirring of a sense of humor that had been dormant for most of the evening, glanced at Lord Caelon. He did not look to her at all as if he were having any trouble finding his tongue. His eyes were lit with unholy amusement but he had made no effort to stem the flow. “Lady Dia of Shae, Mama — if you would but let a fellow put in a word or two.”

“How very unhandsome of you!” that lady said with a fond smile for her son. “Now, here is what we shall do,” she went on to Dia, lowering her voice, “for I can see that you are feeling quite uncomfortable in the midst of all this. Really, I can’t think what your brother can be thinking of! But never mind that! I shall be feeling unwell (as we elderly ladies are wont to do) and you shall assist me to my rooms, my dear. It is very plain to me that things will soon get out of hand here, and you are likely to find these affairs quite mortifying, you know.”

Dia looked around. Things would soon get out of hand? “I beg your Grace’s pardon, but it seems to me that things got out of hand quite some time ago,” she said ruefully.

“A very proper spirit, my dear,” said her Grace approvingly. “Caelon, you shall come with us and if any should try to stop us from leaving … ”

“I shall slice them to ribbons with my dagger,” he supplied readily and with the utmost good cheer.

“Do hush, you ridiculous boy,” said Lady Tamia after choking back a laugh. “Much as I might enjoy such a scene, I am sure it would create a dreadful scandal.” She sighed. “Ever since our Phoenix completed his Time, the whole world seems to have run quite mad.”

“Except Aerandos, of course,” Lord Caelon said, grinning.

Dia glanced at the Grand Duchess curiously. That was the sort of remark that she and her brother had been taught to keep to themselves. “Do you say that all this,” and she waved her hand toward the dissipated revelry behind her, “comes about because we have no Phoenix?” She knew her teachings well enough but she was curious to know if Aerandos, too, maintained the ties of the Great Houses with the Temple of Fires.

Lady Tamia smiled at her. “Well, you are certainly better than most. The young people here in the palace seem to know nothing of the Phoenix or his priesthood or even what it all means.”

“Yes, yes, Mama,” Lord Caelon interjected, grinning wickedly, “but I believe the lady did ask a question.”

“Yes, I know that, Caelon, and I wish very much that you would stop interrupting me!” Lady Tamia told him severely. “Now where was I?” she went on, ignoring her son’s silently shaking shoulders. “Ah, yes. Well, as you know, my dear, we have not had a normal day, with a sunrise and a sunset I mean, since the Phoenix ended his Time. And it does seem such a little thing, to be sure, but there is no denying that it is very difficult to organize much of anything when there is no common time for going to sleep or getting out of bed or going out to business or … oh, all manner of simple things! Indeed, Saeros had the worst time imaginable with his men but, you know, you cannot have an army without uniform conduct.” She looked around and wrinkled her nose in distaste. “It is really too bad that something similar did not happen here. The Emperor’s court seems to have become so dreadfully — uncivilized. I can only hope that another Time will occur before this poor world falls apart.”

“Nonsense!” interjected Lord Caelon. “Only think of how dull the Emperor’s parties would be!”

“Oh, do be quiet, Caelon!” said her Grace. “I must look properly vaporish on my way to the doors and it would never do for you to make me laugh just now.”

Or me, Dia thought, sternly suppressing her own laughter and assuming a suitably attentive expression. She was more grateful to them than they could know, for their banter had stilled the quivering panic in her belly, further clearing her head. Now, all she needed was enough peace in which to think!

“You are retiring, my lady?”

The pressure in her mind increased as Dia turned to face the crown prince. “Lady Tamia is unwell, your Highness. I am escorting her to her chambers,” she replied. The Prince took her hand, rather possessively she thought, and bowed to her. Dia felt herself sinking once more.

“Nothing serious, I hope?” he inquired politely, with a bow to her Grace.

“Not at all, Highness” Lord Caelon replied with unabated cheer. “It is merely one of those mysterious female ailments that requires the presence of another female.”

Lady Tamia erupted into a terrible fit of coughing.

“In that case,” said the Prince, smiling at Lord Caelon in masculine sympathy, “I have nothing more to do than wish the ladies a pleasant rest.” He bowed again, adding to Dia, “I shall send a servant to inquire of you, my lady, after firstmeal is served. You have not forgotten, I hope, that you are promised to us then?”

“Of course not, your Highness,” Dia said as one in a trance, although she had no idea what they had planned to do together. Gropingly, she extended her hand.

“Excellent,” was his reply, which gave her no clue.

“Come, my lady,” Lord Caelon said, giving the prince an apologetic look and Dia a penetrating one. “I would not press you but if my mother should tumble to the floor in a faint, I fear it would be quite injurious to her dignity.” He took the searching hand she had extended, unwittingly clearing Dia’s mind once more.

Her Grace mumbled something appropriate and the small party finally got through the doors.

The Duchess enlivened the journey to her rooms with the ingenuous chatter that seemed natural to her. Dia, not required to keep up her end of the conversation since her Grace was in the habit of answering her own questions, gave herself over to some rapid, intense thought. It seemed that she had stumbled upon the answer to what was ailing Daerus and, if she were not very careful, she would fall victim to the same complaint. But what to do? Whoever it was seemed able to cut through the defenses of a well-trained mind as easily as a knife cuts through cheese. How was she to defend herself against such power? Nothing Phoebus had taught them seemed sufficient to deal with this situation.

And who could it be? Her first thought, that it must be Prince Maermat, she rejected. True, that trance-like state seemed to come over her as soon as he touched her hand and his eyes met hers — the same eyes that seemed to be looking at her from her brother’s face, she suddenly realized. Well, then, perhaps our good prince was indeed the culprit. He did not seem to emanate the same sort of Talent that she felt whenever she had been in Phoebus’ presence but, then, neither did whatever had come over her feel like any other mind touch she knew.

None of this solved her immediate problem. How was she to spend any time in the presence of the Prince, as it seemed she was pledged to do, and still retain her wits intact? On impulse, Dia inserted a question into one of Lady Tamia’s infrequent pauses. “I beg your pardon, your Grace, but are either of you acquainted with my brother?”

“Have you a brother, my dear? Yes, of course you do,” her Grace said, still answering her own questions. “Is he also in the palace?”

“Why, yes, ma’am,” Dia replied, affecting diffidence. “He has been here for some time and sent home to ask me to join him here.”

“I am not certain but what he might have done better than to invite you to such a place as this,” Lord Caelon said with surprising austerity. “You will give me leave to inform you that he must be a poor sort of a brother.”

“Oh, no, Caelon, how can you say so?” her Grace came to the absent Daerus’ rescue. “I expect he thought she might meet some unexceptional gentleman or some such thing.”

Here?” he asked, scornfully incredulous.

“Yes, here,” her Grace replied firmly. “Indeed, if he is well acquainted among the Emperor’s guests, he may very well have someone in mind. And if he is not very good at matchmaking, I am sure that is no fault of his, for he is only a man, you know.” She added in an aside to Dia, “Men should never attempt to play at making appropriate matches between young persons, for they are perfectly dismal at it, my dear. And yet, one can never seem to persuade them that this is so, for they are always meddling and always making a dreadful mull of it. In any event, I think it speaks greatly to his credit if he has given the matter any thought at all. Is he your elder brother, dear?”

“We are twins, your Grace,” she replied, unable to help smiling at the notion of the Daerus she thought she knew bothering his head with her matrimonial prospects.

“Twins? But how intriguing!” Lady Tamia said, looking quite delighted. “This is wonderful, indeed, and how extraordinary that we were just speaking of the next Phoenix! Here we are.”

“Your Grace?” Dia asked in some bewilderment. The three of them had come to a halt beside what must be the Ducal chambers.

“Now where was it?” Lady Tamia asked herself, with a charming frown of concentration. Lord Caelon, his lip curling, began to speak but she stopped him with a gesture. “No, no … don’t tell me … ”

“I could not tell you if I wanted to, Mama,” he said patiently. “And I do not think Lady Dia can be interested in the ancient sayings of mythical creatures when she is looking so tired.”

Dia, who would have very much liked to have heard which of the First Prophesies had caught the Duchess’s wandering attention, said with a smile, “It seems you have an unbeliever in your midst, ma’am. How would it be if I came to your sitting room for midmeal? No doubt you will have remembered the passage by that time and if Lord Caelon finds such matters so very tedious, he will be at liberty to amuse himself elsewhere.”

Lady Tamia beamed. “The very thing, my dear! I must confess, I will be very glad of your company and should dearly love to present you to my lord. Now, Caelon, do you take the child to her rooms, she looks to be quite out on her feet.”

“Yes, Mama,” said that dutiful young man in a suspiciously meek tone of voice, as he held the door for his mother. Once he had closed it again, he turned a quizzical glance upon Dia. “You cannot be serious.”

“My lord?”

“My lady?” he mocked her. “I fully appreciate your exquisite manners but you will be heartily bored by the time my mother has done reading to you from the sayings of this Phoenix of hers.”

“I do not fear it, my lord,” she said with calm certainty, adding with a faint smile, “It would be difficult to imagine finding her Grace boring under any circumstances.” She turned and slowly made her way back down the hall toward her own rooms. “You do not believe then?” she asked tentatively.

“I cannot bring myself to do so, my lady, despite my beloved Mama’s best efforts,” he told her.

How very odd, she thought.

“Is it not?” he replied smilingly, causing Dia to suffer another shock. Apparently unaware that she had not spoken aloud, he went on, “Clearly, I am the most undutiful son imaginable.”

“Not at all,” she said politely. “It is curious, though, that you harbor this disbelief when you have yourself witnessed the end of a Time and need not rely solely upon the teachings of priests. Have you never wondered what had happened?”

“I feel sure there must be some rational explanation that would satisfy a logical man better than the notion that one man died and the world stopped.” He added with a shrug, “I have met many men and even seen some die. It is not such a matter for wonder. And, in any event, who has ever even seen this mysterious Phoenix fellow? I do believe that someone must have made him up!”

She nodded without comment, but did not smile at the raillery in his voice. For all he seemed to possess some latent Talent, he did not believe. For some reason, she found that unutterably sad.

“You are troubled, my lady?” he asked into the silence.

“It is of no moment,” she replied, feeling subdued and not looking at him.

“Might I be of some assistance?”

“Thank you, my lord, it is very kind in you but it is not needful.”

He seemed to accept this rebuff meekly enough, yet, she could sense a certain diffidence about him, as if he were loathe to leave her, that she found oddly comforting. By this time, they had reached her door and he bowed politely. “Then I will bid you a pleasant rest, my lady,” he said.

She watched him turn away from her for the second time since she had arrived, only then remembering her dilemma. “Lord Caelon!” she said hurriedly.

He turned back to her readily enough. “Yes, my lady?”

“There is one thing that you can do for me,” she said, holding out her hand. She spoke tentatively, certain he would think her quite mad but unable to conceive of another remedy to her most pressing problem.

“How can I serve you, Lady Dia?” he asked her kindly.

“You can do this,” she said very seriously, indicating the hand he had unconsciously taken with a slight pressure of her fingers. “Any time you see me, anywhere in this palace, come and shake my hand. Indeed, if you can do no more than pause at my door before you retire in the evening, so that I can do this, I should be excessively grateful.”

During this speech, Dia, widening her considerable sensitivities, felt herself growing, expanding, strengthening somehow, with him and of herself, as their hands held. Indeed, she got the feeling that if only they could stand so for long enough, she could then withstand whatever that mysterious dark enemy threw at her. She held his eyes with her own and saw them assume a guarded, wary expression, although the smile did not leave his face. You feel this, too, but you do not know what it means, she said silently, still watching him.

His eyes widened. “My lady?”

“My lord?”

He blinked. “What is all this?” he demanded with a slight, puzzled frown. He looked as if he thought she was playing some trick on him and was fully prepared to give her a severe scold. The notion amused her.

So, she smiled kindly at him. “I doubt I could explain it to your satisfaction, my lord,” was all she said.

There was a distinct pause and Lord Caelon’s expression turned quizzical again. “Well, and that certainly puts me in my place, and serve me right, heretic that I am.” He paused and his voice softened. “Never mind. I think you could explain, if you would, but I will not press you. No doubt you have good reason to keep your own counsel just at this present.”

“And, will you … ?”

“I will most happily perform this small service for you, ma’am,” he said, so pompously that she chuckled. “Indeed,” he added with rueful candor, “I fancy the difficult part of this duty will be the letting go.”

Dia had also noticed an almost embarrassing unwillingness to release his hand, but she did not comment, merely sinking into a thankful curtsey.

Clearly reluctant but without further speech, Lord Caelon released her hand and bowed her into her room.

Dia made her way through the sitting room to the bedchamber, her body weary but her mind running around in the kind of circles that were likely to keep her from sleep until she had contrived some sort of plan of action. And the first step toward accomplishing that, she told herself severely, is to seek some sort of calm. She donned her nightdress, sat on her bed and closed her eyes.

Phoebus had taught her and Daerus this technique one day when they had asked him how he managed to retain his unruffled demeanor in the face of any manner of confusion swirling about him. Dia sent her mind on an inward journey, sinking deep into herself to find the essential core of her being. In its way, this method of meditation was the mental opposite of the reaching touch with which she and her brother communicated. Rather than expanding, growing outward to touch the mental energies of those around them, one must shrink, drawing inward to focus upon one’s central kernel of being. Nothing, Phoebus had told them, no matter how powerful, could touch that essence; as long as they could find it, and take all the time they needed to explore it and to draw as much of it as required to the surface, they could always retain their mental integrity against attack.

Dia had never had occasion to call this facet of her training into practice; living quietly on her father’s estate all her life, she had found little that she could not handle without needing to draw upon these deep reserves. Now, sinking further and further into herself, she was astonished at just how profound those reserves were. How little I have known myself, she thought in wonder. Breathing slowly and deeply, she could not have said how long she sat so, for she was determined that nothing should hurry her through this first encounter with herself. Really, it was rather too bad she had never done this before; the longer she spent experiencing herself in this new way, the more peaceful, yet joyous, she became. Phoebus had never mentioned this powerful, exalted feeling. Little wonder that the archpriest was always so calm.

Finally, almost reluctantly, Dia opened her eyes and set about considering her situation. She wasted no time wondering whether her brother was under the influence of the same dark fog that overtook her mind during endmeal; that Daerus was in thrall to that mental sludge must be obvious to one who knew him as well as his twin. But, before she could address her brother’s mental captivity, she needed to know just what that cloying blackness was and who or what wielded it. Her initial assumption, that someone in the Imperial family was to blame, was based merely on the fact that she had first noticed that darkened aura within the boundaries of Ormaer, and that she herself had succumbed to it as soon as she had come into close contact with Prince Maermat. Yet, for aught she knew, it might as easily be someone else or even some sort of disease of Talent that was spread by proximity or contact.

In spite of her father’s consistent accusations of unremitting featherheadedness on the part of his twin children, Dia was not unaware of the political difficulties of the situation. She could not imagine what either the Emperor or his heirs could desire of them that required either subterfuge or mental coercion, for Shae was a loyal and honorable House. Indeed, she realized, his Imperial Majesty had nothing to do but issue an imperial command to acquire whatever object or deed he craved. Well, she corrected herself, almost. The Great Houses did have rights, even in the face of imperial displeasure. If the Emperor, or his heirs, was using some sort of mental power in order to control the children of Shae and, ultimately, the House of Shae, she needed to know the full extent of their plans.

On the other hand, if some outside agency sought control of the Imperial family of Ormaeranda, it could only be for the purpose of some sort of mischief or treason. As distasteful as she had found Kaerkas the Beast — and she had little difficulty in perceiving why her father had no use for the Emperor and his sycophants — she had no notion of sitting idly by while someone, powerfully schooled in Secrets of their own, caused their ruler to commit some dreadful blunder or worse.

Yes, she thought once more, this matter bears investigation.

Precisely how she was to initiate such an investigation presented her with another problem. The simplest way of learning more about that dense, dark mental blanket was to allow it to overtake her again. Very likely, there would be no difficulty about that, since she was pledged to the imperial party immediately after firstmeal. Yet, the notion of spending any time with her mind numbed by murky shadows filled her with trepidation. How could she learn anything of the phenomenon if her wits were dulled to all whenever she came into contact with it? And, more importantly to her, how was she to drag herself free of it?

That dilemma, and the solution she had found for it in the person of Lord Caelon, reminded her of the party from Aerandos. Dia wondered why this aura of darkness seemed to have left both Lady Tamia and Lord Caelon unscathed. Could it be simply that they had not been in the palace for long enough to succumb to it? That did not seem likely, for only think of the terrifying swiftness with which she herself, fully shielded, had surrendered to it. Could they be somehow invulnerable to it? She could readily believe it of Caelon of Aerandos, who stalked about the palace blazing light, when a simple clasp of his hand could chase the darkness from her mind. But what of her Grace? And the Grand Duke? Dia saw that she would do well to cultivate their acquaintance.

And what was she to do about Daerus? Was he really as besotted with the Princess Kera as he said, or was that merely another manipulation of the mysterious wielder of darkness? She had only the vaguest recollections of the fair lady with reddish-blonde hair to whom her brother had presented her; try as she might, Dia could recall no distinguishing characteristics of mind or manner that would make the girl stand out in a crowded room. Considering her stupor at endmeal, she could not judge whether or not her brother’s tastes truly ran in that direction. She had no difficulty with the notion of Daerus marrying an imperial princess, but she thought it might be a very good thing to get him away from the palace for a time. Long enough, at least, for him to come to himself and learn whether this betrothal was indeed what he wished. She sighed. He would never leave the palace willingly, as matters now stood.

Would it make any difference to her ability to persuade him, she wondered, if she were to attempt to renew their mind-touch? Dia recalled how her twin had flinched away from that touch when she had tried earlier to strengthen it. Almost, she mused, as if he found it painful. Well, she would postpone such a mind-touch, she decided. Until she better understood what she was up against, it would serve no purpose to inflict herself upon him in such a fashion.

That brought her back to her first decision, to take a better look at the darkness. But how to maintain her own mental integrity? Dia reviewed the experience just passed, the joyous calm of her contact with her inner being, closing her eyes and savoring it once more. Could she carry that untouchable kernel of self with her, holding it in her mental hand and allowing it to observed the thing? Perhaps she could retain enough awareness to make her observations in spite of the enveloping, enervating blackness. Likewise, emerging from the fog presented little difficulty if she could keep her wits about her enough to make her way to Lord Caelon’s presence once she was quit of the Imperial family.

How fortunate that Grand Duke Saeros had business with the Emperor that had brought him to the palace just at this time! she thought with considerable relief.

Having settled on a course of action, Dia stretched out on the bed. Her last thought before she drifted off to sleep was again of Lord Caelon, and she wondered what he had made of her strange request. Perhaps, she thought drowsily, when they were better acquainted, she would explain the matter to him. Who knows? He might even believe her.

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