Lady Dia of Shae reined in her sweating horse at the top of a long rise, halting her small entourage to allow their mounts a few moments of rest. She looked around with eyes narrowed against the glare of the relentless sun, still only a reddish golden ball low on the eastern horizon. Now that the Great Dark had receded for the year, the world would gradually change from a frigid wasteland to a bright and brutal inferno. Already, the air was very warm and a slightly damp breeze blew steadily out of the north, gently rustling the budding grass under the horses' hooves. HighSun was still some months away, but Dia would be glad to reach her destination and the respite it offered.
The valiant animals that had carried them for mile after weary mile were also beginning to give way to the cumulative stresses of endless heat and light. Dia slapped her stallion's neck affectionately. "You shall have the coolest and most ill-lit stall I can find for you presently, old friend," she murmured to him gently, adding with a smile, "and so shall I."
Dia had graciously declined when her father had suggested to her that she might like to accompany her brother, Daerus, to Ormaerand to make their courtesy to the Emperor. She had said very simply that she did not think life at court would suit her. Since her father was inclined to agree, he had let the matter rest, but they both knew that eventually she would have to take herself off to court, whether she would or no. Dia had a duty to perform as a child of Shae. It had become the custom for the children of the Great Houses to present themselves to His Imperial Majesty upon attaining their maturity. Privately, Lord Loraed had little use for Emperor Kaerkas but it would not do to offend him. The Emperor's likely response to the insult implied by a failure to perform that duty would be both decisive and excessive.
Of course, nothing would have persuaded the Grand Duke and Duchess to part with their only daughter during the Season of the Great Dark, when the world was plunged into half a year of darkness and the snow piled as high as the second floor windows of Shae Manor. But, now that another year had dawned, the snow had melted, the air had warmed, and his Grace had no excuse to offer should the Emperor take it into his head to wonder what had become of Lord Daerus' twin sister.
Lord Loraed had reached the stage of beginning to consider and discard various ultimatums for the most likely means of getting the girl out of the house. Thus it was that, when Dia had entered the dining hall of her ancestral home a fortnight since, and surprised her sire with the news that she intended to join her brother at court at last, his relief was so great that he did not even pause to wonder what had prompted this sudden capitulation. Nor did he waste his time arguing with her about her proposed style of dress. She set off, adorned in light leggings, with a loose-fitting tunic rather than a decent overdress -- and of linen, rather than silk or even satin, Dia's mother had thought despairingly -- such as she often wore about the estate. His grace, in spite of some inevitable misgivings, was too well pleased that he would not be obliged to order her to Ormaerand to balk at piddling things like her wardrobe. So, he had waved his only daughter on her way, charging her with graceful messages of his duty to the Emperor, and her grace the Duchess with loving ones of her pride in the Grand Duke's heir.
"At least she has covered her head," said her Grace, adding with a shake of her head and a regretful sigh, "She looks like the veriest peasant."
"I expect she knows that very well, my dear," was the Duke's gruff reply. "No doubt she finds it amusing."
His Grace could not have known, of course, that her brother was responsible for Dia's abrupt decision. She had awakened very suddenly from a sound sleep the day before her departure, with the sense of his familiar presence in her mind. Awake at last, are you? Daerus had said to her. You are still a mighty sound sleeper, my girl. It is to be hoped that you do not snore, as well.
They had been able to do this for as long as she remembered. Being twins, they had been closer perhaps that most siblings, but their many schemes and bouts of mischief were often aided by the Talent they shared. It had certainly kept them quiescent on many occasions when they might, they felt, have otherwise died of boredom.
When they had been ten years old, Phoebus, the priest of the Phoenix who served her father's estate, had informed their father that these twin children of Shae were possessed of the Talents of the TimeKeepers. Lord Loraed was somewhat alarmed by this revelation, but Phoebus had serenely informed his Grace that there was naught to fear.
"Why?" Lord Loraed had asked suspiciously.
"Because the priesthood of the Phoenix is a passel of withered, pious fools, paying homage to a dead religion," Phoebus had replied with the unearthly calm that was habitual to him. "Is that not the common opinion, your Grace? Of all the Great Houses, only Shae retains its hereditary ties to the TimeKeepers." He had smiled faintly, then. "I do not suggest that either your heir or his sister enter the priesthood, your Grace. That is not needful. Indeed, there have been no new TimeKeepers since the death of the last age, and there will be none for a hundred generations or more, if need be, until once more a Phoenix rises from the ashes of Chaos to guide us to peace and order."
Lord Loraed, who had been bred to regard the TimeKeepers with deep respect but disliked being lectured as much as the next fellow, sighed. "In that case, good Phoebus, one wonders why you bring the matter to my attention?" he ventured.
"It were best, I think, to give them some training, if we are to prevent them from becoming nuisances to themselves, each other and everyone around them," Phoebus had replied with uncharacteristic bluntness.
"They already are," his Grace muttered feelingly.
Phoebus had actually chuckled. In anyone else, Lord Loraed would have called the priest's glance sly. "All the more reason to begin their instruction as early as may be convenient, my lord -- with your permission, of course," was all he said.
Lord Loraed having no further objection to make, Daerus and Dia were taught many of the Secret Ways of the TimeKeepers. They were strictly enjoined to reserve their talents for those circumstances when such abilities were truly needed, lest they rouse the mistrust of their fellows -- a caution that the feisty twins heeded scrupulously, for they knew that the priesthood had fallen into disrepute. That did not, however, keep the them from maintaining their close mental contact, even when Lord Daerus left the Shae estate to attend the Emperor's court.
Well, brother? she had replied.
Never better, sister, he had said.
So. You wake me from a sound sleep simply for the pleasure of my conversation?
And still she is a shrew when she wakes. Really, my dear, you should try to do something about that. Only think of your poor, as-yet-unknown husband ...
His chuckle echoed in her mind. Make ready to travel, my dear, he said. You are needed in the palace.
The matter is urgent?
Why else would I wake you at this hour? he asked, managing to sound injured. Then, laughing again, his presence faded. Trust Daerus to tell her nothing more than that. Still, Dia was not fooled by his lighthearted manner. She knew from that brief contact that something momentous was afoot and she did trust him -- enough that she had set forth almost immediately to join him at court.
As tired as she was, it was difficult for Dia to pause even long enough for her horse to catch his breath now that the end of her journey was in sight. She was in no particular hurry to attend the Emperor's court but she was eager to get inside the thick palace walls and away from the unremitting sunlight. Wistfully, she recalled the last age, ended these two years, when the world had not stood still, when day had followed night in hours instead of months, and the world had been fair and friendly under the gentle hand of Ageless Phoenix.
That first HighSun had been most difficult, filled with fear and famine and madness. Now, the people seemed to be adjusting and seemed perfectly resigned to blizzards, floods, droughts, scarce food supplies and only about four months of the year when it was neither too hot nor too cold to accomplish anything. There was even a sort of brooding gloom that abode among them, as if the Great Dark continued to stalk the land and its people even after it had receded. She had first noticed it when she had left the Grand Duchy of Shae and began to ride through neighboring Ormaer, and she had wondered if the capital and its denizens trailed those same shadows about like worn cloaks. If there was such a thing as a mood of the land, it seemed as if the mood had become one of dark anticipation; yet, no one else seemed affected, as was Dia, by this sense of some great beast about to pounce.
Shaking off such somber reflections, she nudged her tired horse into a canter, for she had spied a lone horseman emerging from unguarded gates of the capital. How kind of you to ride out to meet me, dearest, she sent the thought with a humorous inflection.
As well for you that I do, he replied, surprising her with his grumbling. Garbed as you are, you would likely suffer any number of insults from his Imperial Majesty's servants.
Why, Daerus, one might think you were ashamed of the odd appearance your sister presents, she said in wholly feigned astonishment.
I suppose I should have known better than to imagine that you would give the matter a thought, he replied, sounding so bitter that she thought she must have misunderstood him.
After a moment's pause, she sent him a gently reproachful thought. I do beg your pardon, dearest, but you would have me join you here.
There was an even longer pause. Then her brother said, Indeed, my dear, I do not mean to snap at you so. In truth, I would not have inflicted the Emperor's court upon you at any time were it not for the fact that I am desperate.
And that puts me in my place, she said, laughter rocking her "voice". I might have known this was not a mere case of my brother pining for my company.
Oh, surely, you must have known better than that! he instantly replied in an attempt at his usual bantering manner.
Dia grinned at him as she crossed the intervening space between them, but she was both baffled and concerned. Her normally lighthearted brother was haggard and there was a haunted look in his eyes that she had never seen before. Even more alarming, their mind-link, which should have grown stronger with physical proximity, had thinned and dimmed as she rode closer to him. She was not completely closed off from him but she was being held at a distance, something Daerus had never done to her before.
"What ails you, Daerus?" she asked as soon as she was within hailing distance. "You look dreadful."
"Too much revelry, no doubt," he tossed off negligently, regarding her intently and searchingly.
"You do not look as if you have been enjoying it, my love," Dia said with a wry half-grin.
As she returned his gaze, she found herself moving rapidly from concern to alarm. There was a darkness about her brother that filled her with foreboding. She had been wondering if the city of Ormaerand bore the same gloom as the countryside, and could not imagine how Daerus could stand being there. Now, it seemed she had her answer. Would she, too, grow dark and tired and empty if she remained in this place for very long? At that moment, it seemed that her brother was almost a stranger.
"Now, for the love of Chaos, Dia, don't nag at me," he snapped irritably.
Dia said nothing. This was not her brother, this peevish, dissipated-looking fellow. Something was very wrong here. "I beg your pardon," she said at last, and a bit stiffly.
He did not seem to notice. "Yes, well, never mind that. I will have to present you to his Imperial Majesty as soon after we arrive as may be and, Dia, as you love me, let me have none of your odd ways. It is of the greatest importance that the Emperor be pleased with you."
She digested that for a moment in silence. "I suppose I should be gratified that my reputation precedes me," she said lightly. When Daerus said nothing, only tossing her a disgusted look, she exclaimed, "Daerus, what is the matter with you?!"
"Nothing!" he almost shouted at her. "Do as you will! No doubt it matters not at all to you how you may shame the House of Shae. I must have been mad to imagine I could look to you for aid in this pass."
"Mad, indeed, my dear, to imagine you could look to me for aid when you will not even divulge what the problem is," she told him, restored to calm. "Our mother sends you her dearest love, by the bye. I must hope that you will not return to Shae until you have recovered your misplaced manners, for I fear she will be sadly grieved." Daerus did not respond. "Come, twin, surely you did not inveigle me into making this tedious and uncomfortable journey for the sole purpose of picking a fight with me. Fire and ashes, you could have done that from the comfort of your chair and saved me the trip!"
"Indeed, sister, I have no wish to quarrel with you," he muttered, his irritation disappearing in an instant, to be replaced by that vague desperation she had seen before.
Dia sighed, finding it surprisingly difficult to converse with her brother for the first time in her life. Really, she ought to be able to talk to Daerus even if she did not have access to their habitual mind-link. "It is also to be hoped that, when you locate your manners you will also find your sense of humor. No doubt you packed them both away in your trunk, finding that you would need neither while you were at court."
A reluctant chuckle reassured her. Whatever was amiss, Daerus was still Daerus. She supposed some misfortune had befallen just before he'd set out to meet her, for he had certainly seemed his usual happy-go-lucky self when he had called her here. Dia was sure he would tell her all when he had recovered his composure. In the meantime, they had passed through the gates of Ormaerand and Dia looked about her with interest.
The capital city was neither a large city nor an attractive one. She had often thought as she rode north that House Ormaer had some obscure affection for ugliness, but she'd expected better of the Emperor's home. The houses were plain and unadorned, built closely together of a dark grey stone with slate roofs. None of the homes or businesses was very large, for the Great Houses of the empire preferred their own lands to residing in close proximity to court. That was only practical; Dia knew, for example, that it would have been most difficult for Lord Loraed to administer to the needs of Shae from the confines of this city.
Dia could only be thankful for that expediency. She had thought she was used to seeing people trailing the darkness about like a forgotten garment but the aura was much worse in the streets of the capital. Back in the Grand Duchy of Shae, her own people took advantage of this time of relative comfort to conduct business, repair their homes and farms after the ravages of the Great Dark and prepare for the exigencies of HighSun. Here, all was noise and confusion as the townsmen reeled about in what seemed to her to be an endless, desperate gala of gambling, drinking and wenching, with the occasional brawl erupting for a change of pace, and none of it appearing to afford the participants much pleasure. Embarrassed, she averted her eyes from a pair of townsmen enthusiastically coupling before an abandoned tanner's stall. There were even a few bodies sprawled in corners and alleys, grey and stiff in death and contributing a rancid, nauseating stench to the bright darkness.
Perhaps, she thought, I have been too much shielded from such things. Curious, she cast a sidelong glance at her brother. The aura did not seem to be affecting him any more than the wild gallivanting of the people, and he rode on oblivious. Are the denizens of the capital always like this? Is he used to this dreadful darkness or has he even noticed it? she wondered. It certainly looked ominous but it felt much worse.
"I suppose I have grown accustomed to it," Daerus answered her unspoken thought with a shrug. Dia took some comfort in this proof that their mind-link might be seriously weakened but it was still there. "It does not disturb me, in any event."
"I envy you that insensitivity, brother," she told him. "If the honor of Shae were not resting upon my shoulders, I confess, I would turn tail and run from this place as fast as poor Coer could carry me. Tell me, is the palace any better?"
Someone else's eyes glinted at her from her brother's familiar face. "I will leave you to judge that for yourself," he said, pulling his mount to a stop. "We have arrived."
As soon as she looked at the palace, she had her answer. It was much worse. Dia had not even noticed it as they approached, so occupied with her fascinated horror at the chaos in the streets as she had been. Now, she looked upon her Emperor's palace and her sense of foreboding expanded another notch. Great Phoenix, she thought, I cannot even see it! Indeed, the place appeared to her less as the massively imposing structure that it was than as a gaping, hungry black maw. She felt a profound reluctance to enter the building, for surely such a place would suck her mind and soul out of her body so that it would seem as if she had never been.
Dia had a notion she now knew what ailed Daerus. Convulsively, she shivered.
"Really, my dear, such fanciful notions as you have!" Daerus said to her mockingly. "When did you become such a romantic? Your reputation will be sadly tarnished if this becomes known at Shae."
Dia grinned, burying her misgivings deep in her mind. "'Tis a wonder if my brains are not baked out of my skull. No doubt an hour or two in the coolness of the palace will restore me to my perfectly ordinary self," was her retort.
Pausing only long enough to give her servants instructions on the care and disposition of her horses, Dia joined her brother at the entrance. He was talking to a wizened little man with elaborately coifed curls and an unpleasantly knowing leer. "Really, Lord Daerus, you should know not to bring your whores into the palace by way of the front door!"
Dia stiffened. I did warn you, Dia, her brother reminded her gently.
Aloud, he remarked, "One wonders how you can have become the Emperor's chamberlain, Oshaed. It cannot have been because of your keen mind or your exquisite manners." He paused, while the little man drew himself up, offended. "This is my sister, my lord fleawit. See to it that she is properly housed and that her quarters are close to mine."
Oshaed's leer became more pronounced as he raked Dia with his glance. "Are you a protective brother, my lord? I would never have thought it. That will certainly present his Imperial Majesty's guests with a bit of a challenge."
Dia, who had had almost as much of this style of conversation as she cared to tolerate, lifted her chin and fixed this offensive lord with the stare she usually reserved for impudent maidservants and overly-familiar guardsmen. How dared this shriveled little creature so address a daughter of Shae! As Oshaed returned her gaze, the impudence slowly drained from his expression, to be replaced with a look of sullen chagrin and a flush.
"Never mind exercising what passes for you wit, sir. Just see to my sister's quarters," Daerus retorted, smiling grimly as he observed that silent exchange. Gesturing, he added, "We will wait in that antechamber."
Feeling as if she had just stepped into a cesspool, Dia allowed her brother to guide her past the chamberlain and his knowing leer. She asked mildly, "Is the Emperor very fond of his chamberlain?"
"Nobody is fond of his chamberlain," Daerus replied shortly.
"Then, you do not think his Imperial Majesty would be terribly upset if my lord was found some morning with his throat slit?"
Daerus smiled faintly. "Very likely not."
Dia nodded with a satisfied smile. "That is good to know," she said as she entered the chamber through the door her brother held open. Once inside, she fixed him with a keen, worried glance and said without preamble, "Very well, Daerus, tell me of this urgent matter that required my instant presence in this elegant brothel."
"Determined to get yourself a lodging in His Majesty's dungeon, my dear?" he ask mildly. "That is hardly a respectful way to refer to the imperial abode."
"Never mind my manners, my dear," she replied sweetly. "You know I have none. What's afoot?"
Daerus took a turn about the room as, to Dia's further dismay, their mental link grew still weaker. The silence between them continued as the young man paced restlessly. Dia waited.
Finally, he said, not looking at her, "Sister, I would be wed."
Involved as she had been in imagining all sorts of potential disasters that might have been about to befall him -- an imminent duel, a lady-in-waiting with child by him, the prospect of imperial displeasure due to some indiscretion -- these tidings made her laugh aloud. "Well, really, Daerus! It is as well that your future bride is not here to listen to your dismal way of bearing such glad news! The prospect of being a husband would appear to afford you little pleasure."
Daerus tried to smile at her teasing but it was a wan effort. "Do I sound so dreary? I must take care!" he replied.
"Why?" she asked, her grin fading. "Is this betrothal not of your seeking?"
"Of course it is! Really, Dia, why must you forever be looking for ogres and curses?"
"Why, indeed? It surely could not be because you summon me to the palace in such a bang and then deliver yourself of this news as if you were announcing that you were bound for the headsman's block!" He did not reply and Dia went on to ask, "Who is she?"
"Princess Kera," he replied shortly.
"The Emperor's daughter? Your aim is high, my love," she said. "Is the lady agreeable?"
"She does not dislike my suit but will heed the decision of the Emperor."
"A dutiful young lady," she remarked and then paused, waiting. When her brother said nothing, she exclaimed, "Fire and ashes, Daerus, but it is difficult to get this tale from you! What has the Emperor to say? Shall I wish you happy?"
"The Emperor would have me present my sister before he makes his decision," Daerus told her, looking at her at last. Again, the thought struck her that it was not Daerus who gazed at her so speculatively, but someone she had never met.
"The Emperor wishes to make my acquaintance? How very odd. I would have thought he would wish to meet Lord Loraed and his lady. What have I to say to this matter?" she asked guilelessly, thinking but not saying that she had likely arrived at the crux of the matter.
"Now, how should I know? Mayhap he has heard tales of Lady Dia of Shae and wishes for an excuse to withhold his permission."
She was silent for a moment, trying mightily to bring herself to believe what he was telling her and failing utterly. "Naturally, you would have no way of learning his motives," she uttered sardonically. "You did not touch his thoughts?"
"Would I so use my emperor?"
"Why not? It would not harm him and your motives are not treasonous. Besides, he would never know a thing about it." He opened his mouth to argue with her but she did not give him the chance. There was more in the wind than Daerus seemed willing to divulge and Dia suspected it involved a favor he was reluctant to ask. "Well, never mind. I expect I will learn for myself whatever the fell tidings may be."
"You are very suspicious, are you not?" he asked her, his voice silky.
"Have I not reason to be suspicious?" Once again, she had that sense that she spoke to someone she did not know. On an impulse, she deliberately sought to strengthen the mental link that had dwindled to a nadir.
He flinched away from her mental touch, saying, "None of that, my dear."
She stared at him, hurt and not bothering to hide it. "You have never objected before."
Daerus returned her glance, clearly hesitating and searching for something to say. He was rescued by the arrival of a liveried servant, who asked my lady to please come with him so that he could show her to her rooms. Indeed, his obvious relief at being spared the need to fabricate some further explanation that would satisfy her was even more hurtful than his rejection of her mind-touch.
So, Dia unhesitatingly allowed the conversation to come to a close, uncomfortable with her brother for the first time in her life. He dutifully accompanied her to her door, saying before he left her, "We dine shortly. My rooms are three doors further down this hall. Join me there when you have rested and changed."
"What? You mean I cannot sit down to endmeal with the Emperor as I am?" she asked in mock astonishment.
She chuckled and entered her apartment.