Dia enjoys a meal with the party from Aerandos

When Dia, accompanied by Lord Caelon, entered the Grand Duchess’s sitting room a few moments later, she found that lady bent almost double over a sizable trunk, rummaging about and muttering to herself distractedly. “Oh, no … no … it cannot be that I left it at Aerandos … I was sure … oh, here it … no, that is not it …,” her Grace mumbled.

“Oh, Mama,” Lord Caelon sang to her agitated Grace, casting a wicked glance at Dia and causing that young lady to choke on a laugh.

“Oh, Caelon,” wailed Lady Tamia in tones of the greatest distress, still without emerging from her trunk, “do not be teasing and infuriating. Help me to find it. She will be here at any moment.”

“I am afraid she is here now, Mama,” his lordship said apologetically to his agitated parent.

“Oh!” With somewhat surprising agility that was only slightly marred by the flowing draperies currently fashionable among older ladies, Lady Tamia started, straightened and turned, all in one movement. “Oh, Caelon, you wretch!” she said, recovering quickly with a rueful laugh.

Dia chuckled. “He is very unchivalrous, is he not?”

“I make no doubt that it is entirely my own fault for indulging him shamelessly when he was a child,” Lady Tamia owned handsomely.

“If that is so, your Grace, I feel sure you must be right,” Dia agreed instantly. “I expect, if my father were here, he would say that Lord Caelon would have benefitted enormously from being spanked as a child — hard and often.”

“As he has perhaps said of his twin children?” asked Lord Caelon, looking sly.

“Caelon!” Lady Tamia said, with a worried glance at her young guest.

But Dia only laughed again. “Never fear, ma’am. My lord is perfectly right, scorch him!” she said in unimpaired good humor.

“Well, but, even so, my dear,” Lady Tamia said gravely, “however cleverly he may have guessed the truth, and however much you and your brother may have made nuisances of yourselves as children, it is not at all the thing for him to be saying so! Now, what have I said to send the pair of you into whoops?” she asked, bewildered. “I must say, I wonder at Lord Loraed, really I do! To be saying such things of his children, and right in front of them, too! I confess, I am thankful that my lord has never had occasion to speak so ill of his heir.”

“At least, not to my face,” Lord Caelon added, still grinning.

“There has not been the least need,” said a new voice, a deep, rumbling voice that seemed used to commanding attention. “I placed my heir in the ranks of the army and allowed my drill sergeants teach him the realities of his situation.”

Lord Saeros stood just inside the threshold, seeming to fill a great deal of space as he did so. He was an imposing tree trunk of a man, yet he moved quietly and with the precision that came naturally to a lifelong military man. Like his son, everything about him was crisp and soldierly. Dia imagined that he would have as little use for the hedonistic excesses that occupied the minds of the Emperor’s courtiers as had her own father; idly, she wondered again what business this no-nonsense gentleman could have with Kaerkas the Beast.

“And this, I fancy, must be my Lady Dia of Shae,” he said, bowing to her with great dignity before strolling toward her in a leisurely fashion. “How do you do, my dear? Her Grace has been rather full of the prospect of entertaining you to midmeal, you know.”

“Has she, your Grace?” Dia said, her smile almost shy. This Grand Duke of Aerandos reminded her forcibly of Lord Loraed, and she rather absurdly found herself wanting to win his approval. “I am very happy to meet you, sir.”

His Grace paused by Lady Tamia. “Do give over rummaging about the trunks, my lady. Midmeal shall arrive at any time now, and you would not wish to sit down to table with all the dust of Aerandos on your hands,” he said, perfectly seriously but with a teasing twinkle in his eye. Dia had a sudden conviction that Lord Caelon very much favored his sire. She looked over at him and was surprised to find herself the object of a sympathetically enquiring gaze.

They are much like my own parents, she told him silently, not knowing quite why she fell impelled to say anything at all. It must be lovely to be so happily mated.

But why sound so wistful, my lady? he replied, once more surprising her. Surely, you expect to be as content in your choice, once you have made it.

She smiled faintly, but prefaced her response with a sigh. If I look wistfully, it is because I am surprised to find that I miss Lord Loraed and his lady rather more than I had thought to. Then, shaking off her brief melancholy, she added. You are a quick study, my lord. It took Phoebus quite some time to teach Daerus and I to direct our thoughts so precisely.

I doubt there is any precision involved, my lady … much as I hate to contradict such a flattering assessment of myself, he replied somewhat ruefully. I would imagine I could not speak in this fashion with anyone else. I certainly have never done so before.

“Well, in that case,” Lady Tamia was saying in response her husband’s admonition, “I shall just run to my room and wash my hands. I shall return directly.” And, with that, she bustled away.

Lord Saeros continued on his languid way across the room toward Dia, as Caelon said to him, “I am instructed to advise you, sir, that his Majesty desires you to attend him directly after midmeal.”

“Indeed?” said his Grace, rather absently, taking Dia’s hand. “Will you not be seated, my lady?” he asked politely, guiding her toward a chair.

Lord Caelon seemed to think this disinterested reply was amusing, for he grinned, adding, “He would know your decision, he says.”

“Yes, I expect he would” said Lord Saeros pensively. Then he went on, to Dia, “You have a great look of your mother about you, my dear, as I expect my lady has already pointed out to you.”

Dia could see that Lord Caelon wanted to further discuss his Grace’s mysterious business with the Emperor, but was aware of a need for discretion. She could also see that the younger man was hard put to it to keep from bursting into laughter, but what his father was doing that tickled him so she could not guess. To his Grace, she replied with a saucy grin, “Indeed, she has. It is quite gratifying, you know, sir, because I have always thought my mother very beautiful. I hope I shall not grow quite conceited.”

Lord Saeros chuckled. Lord Caelon, apparently unable to contain himself another instant, said, “I beg your pardon, sir, but I was rather wondering myself how you meant to answer his Imperial Majesty.”

Lord Saeros bent a sardonic eye upon his heir. “Yes, I expect you were,” he said, “although I cannot imagine how it comes about that you thought to beguile our midmeal with such a dreary subject when we are entertaining a guest. I wonder where you can have learned your manners, boy.”

This last proved too much for Lord Caelon’s self control, and a laugh escaped him. “It would seem that I owe my lady an apology, although,” and here he gave her such a wickedly quizzing look that she chuckled, “she already knows me for a churlish knave and surely cannot be surprised.”

“To be sure, there is not the least need to beg my pardon, my lord,” Dia said, grinning back at him, “and only think how such handsome behavior would spoil your image.” Loftily ignoring Lord Caelon’s shout of laughter, she added to his Grace, “I am only sorry that my presence prevents you from discussing such an important matter as your business with the Emperor. I wonder if I should excuse myself to her Grace so that you may speak freely?”

“Indeed, and you shall do no such thing!” said Lady Tamia, sailing back into the sitting room at that moment. “What have the pair of you been saying to the child that she is ready to fly so soon?” she scolded the two gentlemen impartially.

“Why, nothing, my dear,” replied Lord Saeros, mild as ever.

“Indeed?” her Grace retorted with heavy skepticism. “I leave her happily in your company for a mere two minutes, and when I return … ”

“As much as I hesitate to interrupt you, my lady,” Lord Saeros interjected, “I wondered if you mean to scold us very severely?” Lady Tamia did not immediately reply, merely regarding him with a smoldering, laughing eye. He continued, “If so, do you suppose you might feed us at the same time? For I perceive that our midmeal has arrived.”

Instantly distracted, Lady Tamia hurried to the sitting room door and busily directed the Emperor’s servants in the disposition of an appetizing meal, talking all the time. Considerably amused by the spousal exchange she had just witnessed, Dia watched her fondly. There was so much love and laughter in this apartment, among this family, that Dia felt both homesick and yet more comfortable than at any other time since she had set forth to join her brother here. She was certainly glad to have met the members of House Aerandos, feeling that they were much more her peers than the minor nobility that made up most of the Emperor’s court. (Daerus’ comment still rankled; her ‘peers’ indeed!) But, by the fires of the Phoenix, she would be ever so much happier when she could leave this place and go home!

“Well, my dear,” Lady Tamia said, turning to Dia as the servants bowed themselves out of the room, “here is a tidy midmeal, to be sure. Will you take a little wine first?”

Dia accepted the wine with a smile and a mumbled word of thanks.

“I am so very disappointed that I have not been able to find that volume, dear,” Lady Tamia went on. “I know that I promised to show it to you, and I am sure I had just been reading from it during the very tedious journey here. I have not the least doubt that I shall find it again just as soon as I no longer want it, for that is always the way of things, is it not?”

Dia grinned. “Indeed, I should not be at all surprised if you locate the wretched book in the instant I leave this room.” Then her grin faded as she grew thoughtful. “I confess, I have some passing familiarity with the First Prophesies, you know, your Grace. I have been trying to remember if I have read the passage you mentioned, but I fear I cannot call it to mind just at this present.”

“Do you know them?” said her Grace, looking surprised.

“My brother and I were tutored by the archpriest of the Phoenix who serves my father’s estate, your Grace,” Dia demurely explained, earning her an astonished glance from Lord Caelon and a wide smile from the Duchess.

“Your father keeps to the old ways, then? I have been trying to persuade my lord that we really should have an archpriest of the purple to serve us, but he does not bother his head with such foolishness.” Lady Tamia looked over at her spouse with a roguish smile as she spoke.

Lord Saeros smiled back but, refusing the bait, he remained silent.

“But if you know the Prophesies, you must surely have read the passage I have in mind,” her Grace continued. “Now let me see … how did it begin? ‘Two children shall be born in the same time …’ No … that is not quite right … ”

Into the thoughtful pause that followed, as Dia wondered briefly why she could not seem to recall the passage in question — there was a time when Phoebus had insisted that both she and her brother be able to recite the whole of the First Prophesy from memory — and awaited her Grace’s pleasure, a rolling, booming voice broke the silence.

“Behold!” It was Lord Caelon who spoke — would he never cease to amaze her? — his voice unnaturally loud, and with a strangely choral quality that did not sound at all like his usual quizzical tones. “Two children, born of a single Sun in a single House, shall command the Secrets from the instant of their births, for they shall be Our instrument in the confrontation between order and chaos. And when these two children shall come into their own, let this be a sign unto ye that the Gaerud approaches; gird ye well for the first battle of the New Age. Keep truth in thy heart and be steadfast in friendship and enmity, for this battle shall not be fought on any field on this world, but shall instead wage in the minds and hearts of those same children of Our hopes. And if the one does drown in darkness, shall this world perish and be no more. But, if the other does surrender to the light, then shall the fullness of Time be returned to its own and so shall the New Age be born.”

Dia could do no more than gape at him. She knew his parents were staring as well. No one said anything.

Then, as he stood gazing into nothing, it seemed to Dia that he slowly became surrounded by a swirling cloud of light that seemed to fill her heart with hope and awe. Who are you? she asked into the silent vaults of her mind as she looked into his face, seeming to see it through a panorama of years, and feeling, without knowing why, that she was seeing her own future.

Lord Caelon, after a few more moments of staring wide-eyed at nothing, blinked as the mysterious light faded. Then he looked at them, amusement slowly replacing bemusement, and said, “Now, why are you all staring at me so?”

No one seemed to feel equal to answering that question. If the Duchess’ suspicions about the Shae twins were correct, then it was no matter for wonder that Dia should somehow be reminded of that Prophesy when the time came. But, she wondered, what had Lord Caelon to do with any of this? She supposed it ought not to matter who actually spoke the words; of much greater import was the fact that she should hear them. Yet, she could not rid herself of a strong presentiment that it was as important that she hear them from Lord Caelon. She thrust that thought aside, to be considered later, and focused her attention on her present society.

Before anyone spoke, however, a new and much less friendly presence entered the room. Dia heard an angry wailing roar, as from a great distance, and the room was filled with that darkening chill that she was coming to recognize. All three Aerandosians felt it, too, she realized; they were looking around warily, seemingly acutely uncomfortable. Lord Saeros had automatically clapped a hand to his belt knife, Lord Caelon searched the room with narrowed, intent eyes, and Lady Tamia hugged herself and actually shivered. The presence grew stronger, moaning its hate and bearing its waves of cold despair. The room seemed to grow still darker, until Dia could “see” almost nothing. Blinded and feeling almost ill with dread, she unconsciously stepped closer to Lord Caelon. She hardly noticed that he had also taken a step in her direction, as if, all unknowing, they were closing ranks against the malevolent intruder. The enraged howl reached its zenith in a single, shrill scream before it began to fade, as if into some unimaginable distance.

And then, it was gone.

The four of them looked at each other cautiously. Finally, Lady Tamia spoke. “Caelon?” she said, placing a beseeching hand on his arm.

He ignored her, scowling at Dia. “What was it?” he demanded.

Dia shook her head, still bemused. “I do not know, Lord Caelon,” she replied shakily. She wondered why he had asked her.

Lady Tamia seemed to wonder the same thing. “Indeed, Caelon, how could she know?”

“I have only felt that thing twice,” he said angrily, still staring at Dia, “and only in my lady’s presence.”

Lady Tamia gasped and Lord Saeros glowered at his son. But Dia only smiled. “I could, with perfect truthfulness, say the very same of you, my lord,” she told him placidly.

“And that puts you in your place, my boy,” said Lord Saeros. Then he turned to Dia. “My compliments, my lady. I beg you will forgive my son, who appears to be quite unnerved. Jesting aside, he is not usually so rag-mannered.”

“Indeed, I do not mind, your Grace,” said Dia, recovering and grinning with mischief. “I am much more interested in Lord Caelon’s hitherto unsuspected reading habits. It would appear that he has been keeping secrets.”

“Really, Caelon,” agreed Lady Tamia warmly, “I had no notion you were so well acquainted with the First Prophesies! I wonder when you can have had a chance to study them, for I am sure you never asked to borrow mine?”

“Of course I have never read those curst prophesies,” replied Lord Caelon furiously, “and I would thank my lady to stop trying to change the subject. I am sure she knows more of that strange visitation than she has seen fit to divulge.”

“Enough, Caelon!” said Lord Saeros sternly. “I will not suffer any guest of mine, and particularly a daughter of Shae, to be insulted by your persistent suspicions.”

There was a moment of tense silence. Dia wished she were a hundred leagues off, for she knew from experience just how mortifying such a public parental reprimand could be. Lord Caelon seemed to master his temper with an understandable degree of difficulty before he bowed an apology to her. Dia, feeling uncomfortably that she had disturbed the affectionate tranquility of this little family, nodded her acceptance and was prepared to let the matter drop.

But Lord Caelon had not said all he had to say on the subject. You are not being very forthcoming, my lady, he complained to her silently, his mental tone as grim as his expression.

Dia hesitated. Truly, my lord, there is very little for me to tell you. This evil darkness threatens us both, I think, she said, as the notion occurred to her.

There was a distinct pause. I see, he said, and she could sense that he was little more satisfied with that reply. I can also see that you and I will need to have a very long talk sometime soon.

I shall place myself at your disposal, my lord, she retorted primly.

A slightly skeptical laugh echoed in her head, and the sense of his presence was gone.

Midmeal was a rather subdued affair, for the strange visitation and the squabble in its aftermath had cast a pall over the company. Lord Caelon, who seemed to remember nothing of his foray into prophesy, ate in brooding silence and did not appear to see either the oddly smug glance of his mother or the speculative eyes of his sire. Dia thought perhaps they would feel more comfortable discussing the incident among themselves in private, and wondered again if she ought to make some excuse to return to her own rooms. Honesty compelled her to admit to herself that she did not want to leave and, before she could convince herself that it would be the honorable thing to do, the gentlemen had excused themselves and gone off to attend the Emperor.

Once the door had closed gently behind them, Lady Tamia cast a single, uncertain glance at Dia. What she saw evidently satisfied her, for she suddenly grinned, eyes twinkling. “I had feared that you would make some excuse to hurry off to your own chambers, my dear,” she said.

Dia smiled. “Not at all,” she replied politely. “Rather, I was regretting that I should have disrupted the harmony of your family, however briefly.”

“Nonsense, my dear. Surely, you must know that these little spats are so common in one’s family as to be almost unnoticeable. I own, I could wish that Saeros — well, never mind that,” she interrupted herself hurriedly. “I had much rather ask you about that peculiar interlude just before midmeal. What did you make of it, my dear? I am very sure that Caelon spoke nothing but the truth when he declared that he had never read the Prophesies.”

“From what I have seen of him,” Dia replied, laughing lightly, “I am much inclined to agree, your Grace. It would seem, for reasons unknown to us both, that Lord Caelon was chosen to reveal the Words to us at that Time.”

“One is lead to infer that the Lord of Chaos was displeased about it, as well,” Lady Tamia murmured thoughtfully. Then she glanced at her young guest, her eyes suddenly shrewd and the chattering, fluttery manner she had adopted gone. “I’ve a notion that there is a great deal going on beneath the surface of this palace, and that there is much you could share with us if you chose,” she went on. “Caelon’s manners may have left much to be desired, child, but I fancy he had reason to think he could look to you for an explanation.”

Dia thought in some amusement that almost no one in this blighted palace was what they seemed.

“I will not press you, my dear,” her Grace continued when Dia hesitated, “for the matter seems to be one of some delicacy. Indeed, I ought rather to be wondering how my Caelon comes to be involved in the matter.” She paused, watching her young guest. “Is he in danger?” she asked suddenly.

“Oh, I do not think he can be, your Grace,” Dia replied, with as much sincerity as she could muster. Merciful Phoenix, what must Lady Tamia be thinking of her?

“Are you?” her Grace asked with uncharacteristic bluntness.

“I do not think so,” she replied with almost as much truth. She certainly did not seem to be in any physical danger, in any event.

“Very well, my dear,” Lady Tamia said, apparently satisfied. “No doubt we will speak of it another time. I must confess, I have been longing to get you alone since I remembered that passage from the First Prophesies, to ask you if you and your brother are those twin children.”

Dia chuckled. “Now, how could I know that, Lady Tamia?” she asked.

The Duchess laughed with her. “Yes, a rather odd question to put to you, now I come to think on it. But are you skilled in the Secrets?” After a moment’s hesitation, Dia nodded slowly. “I can understand why you would not wish to publish that news abroad and you may rely upon my discretion, my dear. I hope very much that you are and I think you must be. Your twin brother, if you do not mind my saying so, certainly seems to me to be quite as drowned in darkness as any priest could wish. And you … ”

Dia waited.

“Yes, indeed, you must be,” Lady Tamia said with slow thoughtfulness, although Dia was convinced that her Grace had caught herself on the brink of unwise speech, “for only consider what has happened just this midmeal. If Caelon has sustained a visitation from the Prophesy, it must certainly be for the purpose of giving instruction to you. And shall we ever forget Lord Septha’s anger, once you had received that message?” Lady Tamia paused to take Dia’s hand in hers. “Remains now only to learn if you are prepared for whatever your task may be. You will not face it alone, you know. I am a true daughter of the Ages and I will stand by you if you find yourself in need of aid.”

Dia’s eyes widened in unfeigned astonishment. A daughter of the Ages? “It is you?” Lady Tamia merely smiled and did not reply. “It is you! But how does it come about that an archpriestess of the purple is Grand Duchess of Aerandos?”

“I was not yet an archpriestess,” her Grace replied, “although I expect I would have been by now. Ageless Phoenix foresaw that I would best serve my Time by leaving the Temple and returning to my family. No doubt He foresaw as well that I should fall in love with Saeros and marry. I never knew why that should be necessary — until now.”

“So you have been protecting your husband and your son from this awful darkness that is everywhere in the palace?” Dia did not even bother to ask if Lady Tamia had perceived that darkness; as a former TimeKeeper, it must be easily apparent to her.

“Well, that is another interesting thing,” she said, eying Dia consideringly. “I have certainly been able to shield Saeros, but for Caelon, my aid was not needed. No, my dear, I do not know why that should be. I own, I was rather hoping you would be able to tell me. Well, never mind. I expect we shall find out all about it in its own Time. It bodes well for my ambitions for the upcoming Gaerud.” Another of her impish smiles curved the Duchess’ lips as she added, “Indeed, I hope very much that I shall be able to participate, for the coming of a New Age does not happen every day, you know.”

Dia smiled rather absently, hesitating. When she spoke, it was with some difficulty. “I do not know if Daerus and I are the Chosen of that Prophesy, your Grace. The notion had never occurred to me. I will confess that I am concerned about my brother. He seems … changed somehow. He is my twin and we have always been so very close, but now he seems a stranger.” Her voice shook as, for the first time, she allowed herself to consider the possibility that Daerus might be lost to her forever. Lady Tamia patted her hand. “I think there is someone or something of great power tampering with his mind. Indeed, I know it, for I have been coming under attack from that same source since I came here.”

Here Dia paused to consider sharing the remedy she had discovered but she rapidly decided to keep that knowledge to herself for now. Instead, she merely shook her head, adding, “It would seem that this mysterious wielder of darkness whom I have been trying to unmask is none other than Septha Himself but, in truth, I have no notion of what any of this may have to do with the return of the Phoenix.”

“Very likely not, for these things never happen in the way one expects,” the Duchess said comfortingly. “I was used to think, you know, that Prophesy was designed to make life dreadfully dull, for if one knows the future then there are none of the surprises that often make things interesting. But I have come to see, as I have studied the Gaeruds, that the Prophesies tell what will happen but they do not tell how. That discovery relieved my mind enormously, you know.”

Dia laughed shakily. “Now, I wonder why that should be?” she mused, eager to direct their talk into less personal channels.

“It is because of the Gaeruds, my dear,” Lady Tamia explained, her eyes wise. “Septha the Destroyer and Ageless Phoenix always choose instruments from among the people of this world, you know, and the instruments of the Destroyer are forever cheating. Considering what is at stake, it is really quite shocking!”

“Considering what is at stake, it would be even more shocking if the Destroyer’s minions did not cheat, would it not?” Dia ventured.

“Perhaps, my dear, but really, for all his faults, Septha is a God. You would think he would at least be a gentleman. Now,” and with that, Lady Tamia briskly changed the subject, “we shall leave such dismal subjects for another time and you shall give me your opinion of Caelon.”

Dia blinked. “My opinion of him?” she repeated in some confusion.

“Yes, I know what you are thinking, and it is terrible but true that when a young lady reaches a certain age, everyone she meets will want to talk to her about some young gentleman or another.”

For everything she held dear, Dia could not have contained the laugh that escaped her. “I beg your pardon, your Grace,” she apologized. “I am very little acquainted with Lord Caelon, but I think I could like him very well. It is a very great pity that he seems predisposed to regard me with suspicion.”

“Oh, dear!” said her Grace, looking stricken. “I had wondered if you had taken that amiss but you answered his questions so very calmly that I supposed you never gave the matter a thought. He does have a rather cynical streak, my dear, and I cannot imagine where he came by it. Unless … Do you suppose it is a result of his military endeavors?”

This was the first time that Dia had heard that army life engendered skepticism in young men, but she did not point that out. “Well, ma’am, as to that I could not say, but I am sure I have only to continue to behave in my usual, irreproachable fashion and Lord Caelon’s suspicions will soon be laid to rest,” was Dia’s cheerful reply.

Lady Tamia giggled. “Yes, and that is precisely the right tone to take with the boy. I must say it is a great relief to know that you have a sense of humor. Otherwise, I would think you must find him quite unbearable.”

That set Dia off again but, once she had had her laugh out, she prudently turned their talk to other matters.

Dia’s conversation with her Grace was refreshingly merry, at times riotous, and the time seemed to fly. When the gentlemen returned from their imperial audience, Dia excused herself to change for endmeal which, Lady Tamia informed her firmly, she would take with them. “You will be much more comfortable with me, my dear,” the Duchess said kindly, “for, if you will forgive me for saying so, your brother does not seem to give much thought to either your safety or your virtue .”

“Indeed, he has proved completely useless, your Grace,” said Dia, who was not in the least bit worried about either her safety or her virtue, but had her own reasons for wanting to stay close to the party from Aerandos, “and I shall be thankful for your escort.”

“Excellent, my dear,” said the Duchess, looking so smug about these arrangements that Dia began to regard her with acute, if good humored, suspicion.

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