The spirits of the clans lived in each descendant to some degree. Even those with only a tiny trace of power could sense energies, though usually only as far as recognizing the presence of an Avatar—the stronger the energy flow, the stronger the Avatar. The first thing that most Avatars learned was how to identify an individual’s clan by his aura alone; some were strong enough to actually perceive the form of the clan totem in the aura of another sufficiently powerful Avatar.
Even the weakest clan descendant would recognize Divaksina on sight now.
She had always been strong—stronger than her brother, strong enough to be the heir to her father’s throne. With his death, the full mantle of the Derkontom clan lay on her shoulders, the transfer of authority made unmistakable. The coronation would be no more than an earthly formality. At the moment the prince had released his last breath, the power had leapt free, following its ordained path from father to daughter; it had been sent forth from his body with the last stirring of an exhalation, and had passed into Diva with her next inhalation.
Kerza half-raised a hand as if to shield her eyes, though the light she saw was not of a sort that could truly blind her. Even Arjuna blinked in the radiance that surrounded the new Princess of the East.
To mortal eyes, she was as she had always been—a tall young woman with flame-red hair, moving with an easy grace. To the two Avatars, she blazed as brightly as the sun, haloed in brilliant golden light; coiled and draped around her like a fantastic scarf was the image of the Dragon, almost solid, almost real. Her hair seemed to ripple in a wind that touched nothing else, and she walked as if her feet barely touched the floor. The power that had lain almost dormant in its aged and weakened vessel was active and dynamic again, filling its new bearer with its might.
“It’s about time you got here,” Diva said, and her voice echoed slightly, the faint sound of blowing wind underscoring the words. With those so-ordinary words, Kerza blinked; the Dragon became translucent, the golden light dimming, but she could still see it, still feel it beating against her skin. Now, though, she could also see her friend’s face more clearly, and it startled her.
Diva looked tired. There were shadows under her eyes, a taut line to her lips. She sat down heavily in a chair, leaning against the arm of it as she looked from the silver-haired man to the white-haired woman. “What kept you?”
“We made the journey back in easy stages out of consideration for Lord Arjuna’s injuries,” Kerza replied.
The Princess looked at Arjuna. “How are you feeling?”
“Well enough, your Highness,” he answered, “thanks to Lady Kerzama’s aid and expertise.”
“Good. You’ll remain Minister of War, if you don’t mind.”
He bowed slightly. “I am honored.”
“You can swear to serve me as faithfully as you served my father, so on and so forth, tomorrow. Right now I’ve got something more important on my mind.” She looked at Kerza. “I’m glad you’re here, Kerza. I need your help.”
“You know I’ll do anything for you, Diva . . .”
“I know,” she said without a trace of arrogance. “I need you to come and look at my father’s body when it’s my turn to hold vigil. Arjuna will stand guard for us.”
“Of course, but why—”
“I need you to tell me that my father died of natural causes,” Diva said very quietly.
Kerza and Arjuna exchanged a glance. “What do you mean to imply, your Highness?” Arjuna asked carefully.
“The physicians assured me that his death was natural, but I want Kerza to confirm it. I think he might have been poisoned.”
A sudden silence fell, broken only by Kerza’s soft gasp.
“Poisoned?” Arjuna said in a near-whisper.
“If he really was poisoned, we’ll be going to war. I hope you’re recovered enough to handle it.” Diva pushed herself up out of her chair and began to pace restlessly.
“What makes you think he was poisoned?” Kerza didn’t take her eyes off her friend.
“It seemed . . . sudden. You both know that he’s been going downhill in recent years, but it was no more than a week ago that he went into his final seizures. One moment he was fine, the next he was unconscious. He woke early this morning, but he couldn’t speak and didn’t seem to be aware of his surroundings. I don’t even know if he saw me or Derka at his bedside, or if he could recognize us.” She stopped pacing, her hands clasped behind her back, staring abstractedly at the floor.
“I would need more detail, but that doesn’t sound like symptoms of any poison I know, Diva,” the Swan maiden said. “You know that your father wasn’t well. In his condition, it was only a matter of time before something else happened.”
“I know that,” Diva grated. “But I want you to confirm it. If someone really did arrange for my father to depart before his time, I want to know it for certain so that I can hunt down the one responsible.”
There was another silence, this one somehow eloquent, as Kerza and Arjuna looked steadily at the Princess. She finally turned around and glared at them both. “What?”
“Your . . . opinion of your father is well-known,” Arjuna said.
“It doesn’t matter whether or not I thought he was incompetent, Arjuna.” She began to pace again. “He was my father, my clan lord, and the prince of Derkarya. Honor and duty alone would command that I avenge him. Besides that, I would find it to be a very personal insult if I have ascended the throne thanks to a murderer.” She turned and looked at them again; the Dragon’s power flared restlessly, illuminating her eyes like a flash of lightning, making both Swan and Fox flinch a little. It was far stronger in her than it had ever been in her father, even when he had first ascended the throne.
“Understandable,” Arjuna murmured.
“It won’t be my turn to stand vigil for a while yet.” Diva dropped into her chair again. “Why don’t you two tell me exactly what happened? The messages I got weren’t exactly rich with detail.”
“Lord Arjuna was ambushed by Kaykolom during his yearly journey to the Lopayzom gravesite,” Kerza answered. “He was seriously wounded, but Lady Chaiya, the Raven Herald, was accused of treachery and killed by one of her own clansmen. It was Lord Arjuna’s decision to travel to the Kaykolom lands to return her body for proper burial, and deliver her murderer to Raven justice.” She sighed softly. “It was time to end the enmity between Lopayzom and Kaykolom.”
“Long past time,” Diva grunted. “I thought that Iryasitru had chosen to end the feud during the war?”
“Not in person,” Arjuna demurred. “A formal closure was appropriate, but there was little opportunity for it at the time.”
“I asked Hiranyu to make it a bit more definite,” the Dragon Princess complained. “I specifically asked him to be sure Iryasitru took it seriously.”
Arjuna stared at her. “You asked the Tiger to speak with Iryasitru?”
“Of course I did. You look surprised.” She studied the silver-haired general for a moment. “Let me be direct. Hiranyu is a shining example of nobility. He’s fair, generous, forthright, and brave. Unfortunately, he himself is so stupendous that it’s sometimes difficult for him to perceive negative traits in others. He hadn’t realized the problem until I pointed it out to him. He did, however, fully understand it once I’d laid out the details.” She scowled absently at the ceiling. “Even I didn’t think of it until after we ran across one pair of Kaykolom assassins following after you.”
Arjuna frowned. “You ran across what?”
“We were about three days behind you on that tour.”
“We? Who is ‘we’?”
“Kerza and myself.”
“And a guard, of course. I wanted to see for myself what was really going on, so we followed after your entourage.” She raised an eyebrow, seeing the look on his face. “What?”
“At the age of sixteen, you left the capital city and traveled through the war zone with only one guard to protect you?”
“Seventeen. And I had Kerza with me too, remember. She did try to talk me out of it.”
“Are you completely out of your mind?” he almost shouted at her. “You could have been killed!”
“So could you.” She glared at him. “I will not be a ruler like my father. I will not ask anyone to do anything that I myself would not do.”
“It’s in the past,” Kerza intervened, making small calming motions with her hands. “No harm, and some good, came of it.”
“Lady Kerzama, I would have thought that you had better sense than to let her do something so outrageous!”
The white-haired maiden flinched at Arjuna’s tone, dropping her gaze, her shoulders rising marginally in shame. Diva’s eyes flared. “Don’t speak like that to her, Arjuna. When she saw that I wouldn’t relent, she chose to come with me so that she could keep me safe.”
“She should have told your father!”
“She couldn’t betray my trust like that,” the Princess snapped back. “She’s utterly loyal. Haven’t you learned by now that that’s the way Kerza is? Haven’t you ever wondered why she’s not married?”
The Fox chieftain blinked, startled by the seeming nonsequitur. “I have, but—”
“It’s because she—”
“Diva,” Kerza whispered, looking almost mortified as she stared at her friend. Diva looked sharply at her for a moment, then looked back at Arjuna, some of the heat gone.
“It’s because she’s already made a choice. She will marry no one but the man she’s chosen, no matter how long it takes for him to realize her devotion—or return it.”
Arjuna turned his gaze away from Diva, looking directly at Kerza. The Swan held eye contact only for a moment, her pale cheeks flushed with embarrassment, then lowered her eyes. Her hands were clenched in her lap, and she looked as if she were about to cry. It was only confirmation for what he had come to realize during the journey to Zarya and back again, and he groaned inwardly at his own blindness. How could he have been so oblivious? True, he had rarely seen her away from Diva, and Kerza did not have the ferocious brilliance of the young Dragon. Gentle and modest, she had let herself fade into the background, becoming the pale moon to Diva’s radiant sun. Yet thinking back, Arjuna was coming to realize just how often those soft blue eyes had been upon him, always from a distance, whether she stood in the shadow of the princess or not. During the journey, she had tended him with such concern that it was as if . . . as if she watched anxiously over a wounded husband. Day and night, she had always been there to see to his slightest need; he had felt his body mending with the healing power of her song, the skill of her gentle hands. It had always been her nature to help those in need, but perhaps no healer had ever attended a patient with such intense devotion.
He had been such a fool.
“I apologize for my churlish words, Lady Kerzama,” he said. “It’s not your fault that her Highness is . . . headstrong.” Irritating Diva might be risky in and of itself, but Arjuna suddenly wanted to divert the conversation and ease Kerza’s obvious discomfort.
“Headstrong? You make it sound like a bad thing, Old Fox,” Diva snorted. “This is all beside the point. I’m glad that Iryasitru’s come to his senses at last, no matter how long it’s taken.”
“Indeed. Your Highness, are you certain of your suspicions?”
“Of course I’m not. That’s why I want Kerza’s help.”
“Surely the physicians—”
“They’re shining examples of their profession, Arjuna, but they’re not Avatars. Even more than that, they’re not Swan Avatars.”
“I gather you have not asked the Swan chieftain for aid?”
She looked at him as if he’d gone mad. “No. He’s a good man, but I’d rather keep this strictly within the family. Kerza’s like a sister to me. I trust her to do this without letting something slip.”
“Am I part of the family, then?” the silver-haired man asked wryly.
“Maybe,” she said with a mysterious little smile. “More to the point, you’re the Minister of War. You’ll need to be the second person to know about this, if my suspicions are right.”
Kerza made a face, plucking at the sleeve of her blouse. “Diva, as you commanded, we came directly here without stopping to clean up. May we withdraw?”
“Certainly. We have a few hours yet before it’s my turn to sit with Father’s body.”
The Swan looked at Arjuna. “I’ll see to the arrangements for your bath and clean dressings for your wounds as well, your Grace, and send a servant to inform you when it’s all ready.” With a little bow, she left the room.
“I notice she told you that she was going to do those things rather than asking if you’d like them done,” Diva remarked.
“She seems to have a tendency to take charge of a situation at times.”
“I imagine that made your trip interesting, seeing as how you’re naturally inclined to take charge of any given situation.”
“I was ill for a considerable part of the journey, and in no real condition to issue orders. Lady Kerzama is a skilled physician and has a great deal of common sense. Unlike other young women I might mention.” He gave her a pointed stare.
“Only if you wanted to run the risk of offending one of them,” the Dragon Princess murmured, clearly not offended in the slightest. She looked meditatively at the ceiling, toying with a lock of her fiery hair. “Isn’t it interesting that whenever you’re in residence here in the palace, Kerza is always in charge of seeing to your comforts?”
There was a short, slightly awkward pause. “I . . . had not thought much upon it,” Arjuna said finally.
“I was concerned to discover she’d left the palace so abruptly, right after your own departure. Normally she doesn’t leave me, especially not without talking to me about her travel plans, but she just left a note this time.” For a moment, it was not the Dragon that looked out of Diva’s golden eyes, but a very young and lonely girl. Arjuna had not seen that look since the Swan Chieftain had sent his youngest daughter to the palace as a companion for the child-princess.
“I did not know of her plans either, your Highness.”
“When you told me that you were going on your yearly pilgrimage, she was uneasy, if you’ll recall. She even asked you if it might be wise to bring a few soldiers along, didn’t she?”
“Yes,” he admitted quietly. “She did.”
“Her clan’s not known for its oracular abilities, but they are rarely wrong when they get a ‘feeling’ that something involving death is going to occur.”
“You told her no, you didn’t need any soldiers along.” Diva rested her chin on her hand, her elbow propped on the arm of her chair. “She said again that she thought it would be a good idea, and you brushed the suggestion aside. She was very worried, wasn’t she?”
Enough of this elaborate dance around the point, Arjuna thought. He looked the young woman directly in the eye. “You win, Divaksina.”
She arched her brows, apparently a little surprised by the nonsequitur. “I love winning. What did I just win, exactly?”
“This entire argument.”
“I didn’t know we were arguing.”
“Divaksina, ever since you were about twelve, you’ve been making certain remarks about my unmarried status. While you’ve been remarkably subtle in some ways, it appears that now you’ve decided to abandon subtlety and begin bashing me over the head with something I had been oblivious to.”
“Well, you do have a duty to the memory of the Lopayzom to ensure the clan blood continues to exist.”
“Kerzama said something along those lines, along with grinding my nose in the fact that I’ve made bad decisions in regards to Karavasu.”
Diva gave him a disbelieving look. “Kerza criticized you?”
“Not directly. You seem surprised she might criticize me at all.”
“A bit.” Diva’s expression was as guileless as a child’s, aside from the glint in her eyes.
“Enough games, Diva. I know that you have something to say. Just say it, so that I can get on with feeling like a thickheaded fool.”
“She’s loved you from the moment she saw you,” the princess said quietly and with utter sincerity, dropping the innocent act. “I was only seven, and it was the first time that she and I had been allowed to sit in at court. You brought Karavasu to the palace to have your adoption of him officially recognized. When you came forward, I heard her make a funny little sound, and I saw a look on her face I’d never seen before and have never seen since in anybody’s presence but yours.”
Arjuna found that he couldn’t meet that golden stare any longer; he let his gaze drop.
“I hated you for that,” Diva went on, her tone quite conversational. She caught the startled glance he darted at her, and gave a faint, almost tired smile. “I was only a child, Arjuna. I was too young to have any real knowledge of what was going on. I just knew that Kerza wasn’t there for me any more—not entirely. She was always finding excuses to watch you, to follow you around. You stole a little part of my friend, and it took me years to understand.” Her tone hardened slightly. “And when I did understand, it made me angry all over again. You weren’t married—as far as I knew, you’d never had any serious relationships with women except for Lady Chaiya, and the Raven-Fox war certainly broke that connection. Yet you never saw Kerza, Arjuna, not as a man sees a woman. You looked right through Kerza as if she weren’t there, and she never said a single word to put herself forward because that’s not the way she is. She even went to her father and got his word that he wouldn’t seek an alliance for her because she only wanted you.”
“You win, Divaksina!” he half-shouted the words again. “You win, she wins—I’ve been living like . . . like . . .”
“Like a man who doesn’t want to live,” Diva said softly.
“Yes,” he said heavily. “I didn’t want to live, Diva. I felt that I had abandoned my people when they most needed me, and they paid for my neglect with their lives. I didn’t deserve to go on living. I would have gone after the Kaykolom who slaughtered them and given up my life to kill as many of them as I could. But there was one Fox child alive, and I could not, could not, abandon that child.”
“You saved Karavasu’s life, and he saved yours,” she murmured.
“Yes, damn it, even though I didn’t want to be saved. I knew that I had a duty to raise him and train him in the sword-arts of our clan. I wanted to die, but I had to live because he needed what I could teach him. I knew that once he was grown and ready to go on in the world without me, I could die without guilt at abandoning the last of my clan as I did the rest of them.”
“You didn’t abandon them. You were obeying your oath to my father. And your death won’t bring any of them back, Arjuna.”
“I know that. I . . . my view has changed, now.”
She looked at him, not saying a word, but obviously curious.
“When I was wounded and fell unconscious at the gravesite,” he said slowly, “I dreamed—though perhaps it was less a dream than a true vision. I . . . was told that I had a choice to make, one that would determine if I lived or died.” He met her gaze again. “I was also told that there was a heart that yearned for me, and I felt a gentle presence that lifted the weight of the past from my soul. Even in the depths of fever and delirium, that presence remained with me and soothed me. But when I was awake and lucid, I still . . .” He shook his head. “I still did not let myself see. I focused on the moment, on giving the Kaykolom dead back to their clan and turning over the murderer to face the Raven’s justice, and then on the return journey.” His voice fell to a near-whisper. “But she was with me throughout.”
“She wouldn’t have left you even if it had meant her own death, Arjuna,” Diva answered softly.
“I understand that now. Without even knowing what I was doing, I have been hurting her terribly for years, haven’t I?” It was a painful thing to say, a stab of guilt aching in his chest.
“Yes,” Diva said bluntly. “You have. But it was never deliberate—if I’d thought for a moment that it was, I’d have skinned you alive. Her loyalty was divided by love; her father had given her over to the Derkontom, and she’s as close to me as any sister, but it was her woman’s heart that followed the Lopayzom chieftain wherever he went.” She half-scowled at him. “You’re lucky that I’m fond of you, Old Fox. I couldn’t stand it if she’d become so devoted to somebody I hated.”
“You are indeed a fierce one, aren’t you, Princess?” Arjuna said wryly.
“Did you ever doubt it?” She leaned back in her chair. “Now that we’ve gotten this out into the air, what are you going to do?”
“If I don’t give you the proper answer, you’ll have me marched to the altar at swordpoint, is that it?”
“Would I do such a thing?” she replied insincerely, fluttering her lashes at him.
“I would be surprised if you didn’t.” He smiled. “I will call upon the Swan Chieftain and ask for his permission to take his daughter to wife.”
“He’s going to drive a hard bargain, I imagine,” Diva said, leaning her head back and looking at the ceiling. “Now, he already gained a solid connection to the court when he gave Kerza to me, and that connection became even more valuable today. However, you’ve got a definite status as both a clan-chief and as Derkarya’s Minister of War. There’s also the fact that all the wealth of the Lopayzom belongs to you personally.”
“I will give him whatever he asks in exchange for Kerzama,” Arjuna replied simply.
“If you’re serious about that, it’s a good thing that he’s as much a hopeless romantic as the rest of his clan—and a reasonable man, when all’s said and done. I don’t think he’ll demand too much, but I’d still read the marriage agreement very carefully before signing it if I were you.”