The rain drummed incessantly outside the open balcony doors of Shan’s apartment, making his weariness feel worse. Casting his heat spell on such specific points at such a distance had been a strain, but Shan was proud of the accomplishment. The greater precision he could attain at a distance meant the greater potency he could achieve at close range.
During his meditations that morning, Shan had checked on Dreibrand, and he immediately regretted waiting so long to do so. The battle with the Kezanada had just ended and Shan saw the devastation at Dreibrand’s camp with dead Kezanada and dead Yentay. When he learned that prisoners had been taken, Shan had quickly sought the location of the Kezanada because the prisoners would need his help even with Dreibrand on his way to save them.
It took Shan an excessive amount of time to find the Kezanada and when he did the images repeatedly fogged up or simply disappeared. Although observing from a significant distance, Shan should not have had such difficulties. Finally the prisoners appeared to him, and it was almost too late. Shan saw the Kezanada bending over Redan with the knife and he barely had time to react by heating the weapon until the Kezanada dropped it. Then he burned Redan free and admired how the Zenglawa immediately helped the injured Hirqua.
Shan puzzled over the lack of clarity he had experienced while viewing the Kezanada. His only logical guess was that a warding crystal had worked against him, but it had not been of Onja’s magic. All his life he had studied Onja’s wardings, and with mild effort, he could penetrate them, but the blindspots he had just encountered did not possess any trademarks of her spells.
The unsettling possibility that Onja had devised entirely new warding crystals with unfamiliar spells occurred to Shan. Although Onja would be capable of this, he decided it was out of character. After living for so long and being so secure in her power, Onja, to his knowledge, never created new spells because her old spells had always served so well. Supreme power and great age had made her lazy.
The events of this day warned him that he had much more to learn. During his meditations he sometimes sent his awareness far and wide, or sometimes looked deep within himself. His powers were naturally great and he was mastering them, but not all masters were equal. Shan had to hone his skills, spells and speed into blinding perfection. He had to be able to hurl a destructive spell like a great bolt of lightning while defending himself from the same onslaught.
Onja had become adept at this over two thousand years ago, and he had a lot of catching up to do. He had to believe that his youth would prevail over her aging experience, but doubt clung to his mind even as he tried to banish its insidious influence. Onja’s works of old were sinister and strong. She had helped to create the Deamedron out of tens of thousands of rys and humans, and Shan accepted how difficult it was to match that might.
For encouragement, he reminded himself that Onja had only been half of the force behind the terrible spell and the legendary might of Dacian had been needed to create the Deamedron as well. With Dacian long gone, Onja was only one ancient and corrupt rys who Shan had to defeat for the sake of all rys and humans. The desire to end her tyranny and become King burned as hot as ever in Shan’s heart, and he forced himself to reflect on his past failure again. The defeat he had suffered when he had first challenged Onja had taught him a great deal. Shan’s flesh remembered the forced hibernation inside the stone while his mind lingered in wrathful awareness. But in his stone prison, he had learned every detail of the magic that held him, and he knew that Onja would not be able to trap him like that again.
After evaluating the lessons of their past confrontation, Shan renewed his confidence that he would defeat her the next time. By spring his mind would be disciplined enough to thwart even her great skill, but he needed to find out what had caused the blindspots he had experienced that morning.
Reluctantly he decided that he had sequestered himself overlong, and he stood up with a sigh. He needed a break so he could approach his problems with a fresh mind. Even a rys needed to relax sometimes.
He would visit with his host, King Taischek, who was a master of business but a high priest of pleasure. Among humans, Shan could find relief from his stress. Their light appreciation of a day of peace would clear his mind to think later of war.
After four pleasant days spent in Taischek’s company, Shan finally started to unwind. The King did not resent the time Shan spent shut away in his apartment because he knew his life and the future of his tribe depended on Shan perfecting his magic, but he was glad to see his rys friend all the same.
While Shan had been preoccupied with his extensive meditations, the Princes Kalek, Doschai, and Meetan had returned to Dengar Nor. Kalek was the last surviving son of Queen Vua and the heir, and the other slightly younger princes were the sons of other wives. They had spent the summer in the western part of the Temu Domain near the Tacus border. An old weaponmaster had a school in the small town of Selsha Nor where the princes received training. Although the education of the princes was not neglected, they enjoyed their freedom away from their parents and spent most of their time on lighter things like parties, hunting, sports, and Taischek privately hoped they were chasing girls. By his own admission, Taischek indulged his sons too much, allowing them to pursue their own sport more than the business of their rank. Having been fruitful with his nine wives over many years, Taischek took pleasure in seeing his children happy in their youth.
The three eldest princes had perhaps never paused to appreciate how their father spoiled them, but they began to realize that their easy days were over when hundreds of extra warriors showed up in Selsha Nor for their protection. Then came the unexpected news that their father had cast aside their stable world of privilege to challenge Onja. The rysmavda were swept out of the Temu Domain and some were executed. Upon reaching Dengar Nor, they learned that the alliances of the Confederation were weak, and, in the case of the Zenglawa, gone. When Taischek welcomed his princes home, he informed them that all three of them would ride to war with him in the spring. They were pleased and excited to serve their father, but each boy realized that their lives would become much more serious.
Although assaulting Jingten was a staggering concept, Taischek’s sons supported their father’s war completely and had faith in Shan’s ability. The rys had been a fixture in the royal household since before any of their births, and the boys had grown up trusting in Shan’s friendship.
In his typical fashion, Taischek, after making his momentous announcement to his sons, bade them to put aside their worries until a later time. Winter was coming and they were all safe in Dengar Nor and life was still good. Knowing well their father, the boys complied with his wishes, but they discussed the war among themselves all the time.
With no pause in the rain, the royal household entertained itself inside. Stripped to their waists, the sons of Taischek practiced wrestling with Xander, who in his youth had been a champion. From the side of the mat in the exercise room, Taischek cheered while holding his permanent prop—the wine cup. Shan listened to Taischek brag about his offspring as they occasionally bested Xander with their youth or were sometimes bested by the General’s craft.
“They remind me of you when you were that age,” Shan commented.
“They have not my scars,” Taischek said on a rare note of sadness.
“Your suffering made you strong,” Shan reminded softly.
Taischek nodded, remembering the strength he had needed to overcome the crippling wounds of his adolescence. “Shan, it is my sincere prayer that my children never need the strength that I had to find.”
Shan sipped his wine and said, “No children ever had a better example of strength.”
Taischek brightened under the compliment and hollered at Xander, “Are you going to let those puppies drag you down?”
Xander, who had been giving lessons on technique, succumbed under the good-natured crush of all three young princes. Glowing with sweat, he replied, “Sire, I am too old. They are children no more!”
Everyone laughed as Xander squirmed out from under the pile.
Sighing happily, Taischek said, “It is good to hear you laugh, Shan. I have missed that good sound.”
“I would not spend so much time alone and in silence if what I did was not so important,” Shan explained.
“I know, but you must not forget to appreciate the moment. Simply by being pleasant, you have Onja beat right there,” Taischek joked.
“That is why I am here, my Temu friend,” Shan said and took a liberal drink of his wine to prove to Taischek his sincere interest in relaxation. “Now, Taischek, tell me what I have missed. Have you seen Miranda?”
Hearing her name made Taischek feel like grumbling, but he answered, “I saw her with Vua twice. She asked about you.”
“Perhaps I should go see her,” Shan said.
“She directly asked me about you, forgetting to ask if she could talk to me,” Taischek went on, deciding to grumble. “Vua said she talked to her about her manners, but now I have to wonder what she said. And when is Dreibrand coming back? That’s what the problem is. That woman is the type. When the cat is away the mice will play type, I tell you she is. She needs someone around to keep her in line, eh? Or she just does whatever pops into her mind. Like bothering kings with important things on their mind—”
“Father, you must like her if you talk about her so much.” It was Kalek who had interrupted. A towel was draped around his neck and he dabbed sweat from his face as he left the wrestling mat. “It is a good thing Shan is a rys, so he can live long enough to listen to you.”
“Ah, what a smart boy,” Taischek growled and smacked his son on the shoulder. “Now be good before I talk to you about your manners.”
Kalek laughed, knowing his father was not mad.
Shan said, “Do excuse me while I go see her. I checked in on her children during my meditations, and I would like to tell her they are well.”
“Can I count on your company for dinner?” Taischek asked and Shan said that he could.
When Shan reached Miranda’s apartment, a servant girl answered the door and curtsied to the rys. She had the look of awe and wariness that most people had when near a rys, especially Shan. He asked for Miranda
“The lady rests,” the girl answered.
“May I see her?”
The girl did not know what to say. She had no wish to disturb the King’s guest who she had been assigned to serve, nor did she want to say no to Shan.
Miranda spared her the decision. “Shan!” she cried happily from the arched doorway to the bedchamber. Leaning against the woodwork, she wore a robe over her nightgown, having not dressed for the day.
“Forgive me, Miranda. I will come back another time,” Shan apologized.
But Miranda insisted he stay and ordered the servant out. She just could not get used to having servants around when she had a conversation. Settling onto a couch, Miranda rubbed her eyes sleepily then patted a nearby cushion to invite Shan to sit.
“Sometimes I feel as if I never slept before in my whole life,” Miranda explained with a yawn. “Toil and hardship were all I ever knew.”
“That is a shame,” Shan offered.
“It is behind me. I have new problems now,” Miranda said and there was a lightness in her voice that Shan had not heard before. If he had not known the grief in her heart, Shan might have guessed that she sounded happy.
“Miranda, it is not like you not to visit me. I had hoped to see you,” he said.
She shrugged. “I did not want to bother you. What you do is important to both of us. Anyway, I have been sleeping a lot.”
“You are well I hope?” Shan asked.
Miranda looked at him almost suspiciously and insisted she felt fine.
Shan delivered his news that Elendra and Esseldan were healthy and treated well. “Would you like to see them again?” Shan suggested, reaching for a warding crystal in his jacket.
“No!” Miranda decided quickly then thanked him for his vigilant concern. In a much softer voice she offered an explanation. “I trust you that they are fine. It only hurts more when I see them. Can you tell me any news of Dreibrand?”
Shan nodded. “I think that he will be home soon. Maybe tomorrow. Last night I took a moment to find him, and he was in Fata Nor.”
“He is fine then,” Miranda said with obvious relief.
“Well, he had some trouble. They had an encounter with the Kezanada. Some men were lost.”
Miranda cried out with alarm.
“It is unfortunate,” Shan agreed. “But I believe Dreibrand has accomplished his goals. He has proved his command over the Yentay, and they have proved strong in battle.”
“I am glad to hear these volunteers are good warriors. We could use them,” Miranda said.
Shan concurred, “Yes, they are of great value and it is a shame that some were lost already. Once the wounded are patched up in Fata Nor, I am sure Dreibrand will come here. The weather is turning and I hope he has the sense to come home.”
“I cannot wait to see him,” Miranda said.
Watching her face soften affectionately as she contemplated her lover, Shan was reminded of his own loneliness. Hard decisions in his earlier days had resulted in his solitude. He did not regret his choices but sometimes considered them with longing.
Shan lay a hand on Miranda’s shoulder, assuring her, “Dreibrand rushes back to you even as we speak.”
In fact, Dreibrand rushed back to Dengar Nor at a greater pace than Shan had estimated. The relentless and ever colder downpour motivated the Yentay with misery. There was no rest on the road, and the group of volunteers entered Dengar Nor in the blackness of the wet night. The watchers at the gate were surprised by their unexpected arrival, but they easily recognized Dreibrand and knew that it was not an attack.
The Yentay poured gratefully inside the barracks. Although cold and empty, the barracks seemed cozy and homelike after the exposure they had all endured. The stable hands were not thrilled to be roused on the cold wet night to attend to three dozen tired horses, but Dreibrand decided his men deserved the service.
The hearths soon crackled with fires and lamps were lit. Dreibrand pulled a chair up to a fire, trying to warm up, but he knew he would never succeed until he got some dry clothes. That had to wait a little longer because he needed just a few minutes out of the rain and he wanted to see that his men got settled in all right.
The door banged open and a squad of Temu warriors hurried in out of the rain, escorting Shan and a young man dressed as if he held a high rank. The appearance of the rys startled the Yentay to their feet, but Shan quickly bade them to return to their resting positions.
Dreibrand jumped up to meet Shan, and they clasped hands happily.
“I am pleased that you are back,” Shan declared.
“It is good to be back. I only wish my outing had been more useful,” Dreibrand confessed.
“You did battle with the Kezanada. I want to hear all of the details. I did not see the battle itself,” Shan said.
Rolling his eyes, Dreibrand thought about Pelafan and Sutah’s meddling. “We have much to talk about.”
“Yes, but we will speak privately,” Shan said.
Now Dreibrand looked at Shan’s young companion, wondering who he was and why he was with Shan.
The rys noticed Dreibrand’s shift in attention and quickly introduced the young man, “This is Prince Kalek, King Taischek’s eldest son.”
The young Kalek stepped up and examined Dreibrand carefully. Dreibrand understood Kalek’s curiosity about his foreign appearance. At first everyone west of the Rysamand had looked strange to Dreibrand, although he hardly noticed now, but he realized that he was one among many and would always be an oddity in this place where he made a new life.
Shan continued, “Prince Kalek, this is Dreibrand Veta. He serves me as a general in the war on Jingten. These warriors are volunteers from other tribes, who will help us overthrow Onja.”
Kalek noted that Dreibrand did not bow to him and that irritated him. Normally Kalek was haughty and demanding, but he restrained his cockiness for the moment while looking at Dreibrand’s tall strong frame and bandaged arm.
Dreibrand sized up the Prince quickly. Kalek appeared five or six years younger than himself with a thick shock of Temu braids raining around his soft face. He had intense brown eyes but they were not friendly. Even on the other side of the Wilderness, Dreibrand could recognize the spoiled heir of a great man. They did not really look so different in Atrophane.
“King Taischek has much to be proud of,” Dreibrand said, finally dipping his head a little.
“Prince Kalek just had to see the foreign warrior who has so impressed his father,” Shan explained.
“Is that a Zenglawa?” Kalek demanded while scanning the barracks.
“Yes, Dreibrand has been assessing his loyalty,” Shan explained.
“Does the King know?” Kalek asked doubtfully.
“Yes, and your father is happy to leave my affairs to my judgment,” Shan scolded mildly.
Dreibrand watched the Prince for his reaction, but Kalek kept his opinion to himself and only frowned in the direction of the Zenglawa.
“Actually I think he is going to work out,” Dreibrand said. “When we fought the Kezanada, he took a bow from one of their archers and killed many of them. It made the difference in a tight spot. I told him he could have a bow again when we got back to Dengar Nor.”
Shan pondered the Zenglawa a moment. “Perhaps,” he murmured reluctantly.
“You of course will make the final decision,” Dreibrand added.
“Later. Let us go to the castle,” Shan said.
Despite Kalek’s nearby disapproving scowl, Redan had shyly approached his general. “Sir, may I speak to Lord Shan?”
After glancing at Shan’s inscrutable face, Dreibrand gave his permission. The rys did not protest because he had seen Redan act with bravery and honor and he was almost convinced that the Zenglawa was sincere in his wish to serve.
Almost reverently, Redan said, “Was it you that set me free, Lord Shan?”
“Yes. It was me,” Shan confirmed.
Impressed murmurs circulated the Yentay. They had all heard Redan’s belief that Shan’s magic had burned away his bindings all the way from Dengar Nor, but it meant a lot more when Shan agreed with the Zenglawa.
Shan took advantage of the moment and added, “In the spring I will ride at your sides and my magic will serve all of you.”
For a moment the Yentay forgot their exhaustion and their hearts surged with excitement. They had already held their own against the Kezanada, and when Shan went to war with them, they would be unstoppable. Even without a demonstration of his power, the men felt the aura of his power and cheered because they were a part of it.
“Rest now good warriors,” Shan instructed.
“Thank you, Lord Shan,” Redan said hastily before the rys departed.
Shan regarded him thoughtfully but made no reply. The Temu warriors escorted the prestigious persons back into the rain. They hurried through the city and up the switchbacked road to the splendid complex that was Taischek’s castle on the mesa. Knowing that Miranda was in the castle made Dreibrand feel like he had come home, a sensation that he had not known for a long time.
Kalek had many questions for Dreibrand and his pestering broke the sleepy silence of the castle. Dreibrand answered the Prince with a learned patience.
Finally, Shan scolded the young man with the security of someone who is the King’s dearest friend and ally. “Hush, Kalek. Dreibrand can tell you his stories of the world at another time.”
Annoyed at the rys’s lack of respect, Kalek pressed on. “Dreibrand Veta, my father—the King—says you defeated three Temu warriors when he tested you in non-lethal combat.”
“I defended myself and I showed myself to be a warrior,” Dreibrand responded modestly.
“You would not have done so well if I had been there to test you,” Kalek boasted.
Dreibrand tried not to sigh with indignation, but failed. He hoped a day later when he was fed and rested that the Prince would not seem so tiresome.
“Kalek.” Shan purposefully did not use the heir’s title again. “I need to speak with my general—privately.”
Kalek would not cross Shan but he disliked the dismissal. “We will speak later,” he announced but no one was interested. Shan and Dreibrand continued to the rys’s apartment.
Entering Shan’s private chambers, Dreibrand said, “Thank you for getting rid of him, Shan. I am in no mood for princely puppies.”
The rys chuckled at the criticism. “He really did want to meet you, but his attitude is usually not very endearing. I have often hoped that he would out grow it, but he only seems to grow into it.”
“It does not matter,” Dreibrand muttered, throwing off his wet fur lined cloak.
Shan easily started a good fire in the fireplace, quicker than a man could have done it. Dreibrand stripped away his gear and wrapped a wool blanket around his shoulders. Sitting gratefully near the soothing flames, he noticed that the soggy bloody bandage on his arm was staining through the blanket.
“Sorry about this,” he apologized.
“Have you had that looked at?” Shan worried.
“Yeah, I got stitched up in Fata Nor. The bandage is the worst part now. I was lucky to only get this. The Kezanada Overlord almost killed me,” Dreibrand explained.
“The Overlord!” Shan cried. “When?”
“When we fought the Kezanada,” Dreibrand replied.
Shan looked perplexed. “I know the Overlord. I have met the Overlord many times. I would have noticed him. Are you sure?”
“Everyone said it had to be the Overlord. He was a large man, brightly dressed unlike the others. If anybody could be a king of mercenaries, he could,” Dreibrand said.
Shan sat down heavily without his usual quiet grace. “Tell me everything about this clash with the Kezanada. Tell me everything,” Shan instructed greedily.
Starting with Pelafan and Sutah, Dreibrand made a full report to the rys, who listened raptly as if comparing details to his record. An uncharacteristic agitation crept into Shan’s mannerisms, which Dreibrand noticed.
When he finished, Shan confessed, “I never saw the Overlord.”
Dreibrand tried to soothe him, figuring the strain of the bounty caused Shan to be nervous. “Shan, you said you looked in on me after the battle. The Overlord was gone so of course you did not see him,” he reasoned.
Shan disregarded the idea and explained, “I knew something was wrong even at the time. I had trouble locating the Kezanada. And when I did perceive them, it was hard to focus. I barely found the prisoners in time to help.”
“It was far away. You did not know where the Kezanada were and it took you a while to find them. You still succeeded Shan. You still worked magic. Do not judge yourself so harshly for overlooking a few details,” Dreibrand advised.
Shan frowned and corrected, “I can see clearly much farther than that, and I would not have overlooked the Overlord. His presence should have immediately attracted my attention.”
Discarding his optimistic view, Dreibrand asked, “So what are you saying?”
Clearly not pleased by the notion and still reluctant to accept it, Shan answered, “A warding crystal must protect the Overlord from my perception. Onja must have given it to him, but I long ago acquired the ability to pierce any of her wardings. It must be something new. Something different.”
“Maybe Pelafan and Sutah gave him something,” Dreibrand suggested. “Those two were up to something.”
Waving a blue hand dismissively, Shan scoffed, “Those idiots! They have average abilities and could not even make a warding crystal. The answer must be that Onja has a new warding unfamiliar to me, and now it protects the Overlord. I must learn to see through this new fog she has made, and do it quickly.”
“And you can learn this?” Dreibrand asked.
“Eventually. I learned to penetrate all of her other wardings, and so I will unlock the secret of this spell. Hopefully it will not take too long. The trouble now is finding the warding again and keeping track of the blindspot so I can study it,” Shan said. For a moment, his concern with this challenge distracted him, but then he stood up and briskly apologized, “I have kept you up with too many questions and worries, my friend. Go now to Miranda. She misses you.”
Tiredly Dreibrand agreed, and his eyes were drooping as Shan showed him to the door. A dreary dawn had arrived by the time Dreibrand dragged himself to his apartment. His weariness overwhelmed him and he remembered little past that point.
The day was almost gone by the time he woke up in his bed. His arm was freshly dressed and he vaguely recalled falling asleep while Miranda cut away his nasty old bandage. Seeing her had been a joy to him and he found it difficult to believe he had actually collapsed upon reuniting with her.
He sat up, relishing the soft warm bed and pillows, feeling refreshed. Miranda, who had been patiently waiting for him to stir, entered and sat on the edge of the bed. Dreibrand coiled his arms around her.
“Forgive my sleepiness, my love,” he purred apologetically.
“You said you had been up for days, so I wanted to let you sleep,” Miranda said.
“And now what do you want me to do?” he asked, feeling suddenly energetic.
She smiled and kissed him. They immediately strengthened their embrace and made love with more than their usual intoxication for each other.
Resting in his arms, Miranda cherished the security she felt when they were alone. Purposefully she sat up and looked down on Dreibrand’s reclining body. Still unshaven, he looked rugged. His hair spread around him on the pillow, and he gazed at her appreciatively from under his heavy brow. Miranda wondered if all men from Atrophane were so good and strong.
Dreibrand enjoyed the sight of her naked body and laid a squeezing hand on her curving hip. He smiled at her round full breasts that were at eyelevel; then followed her curling hair up to her pretty face. He knew she had been a peasant girl, a slave even, but Dreibrand never saw her that way. There had been other lovers back in the east. Some had been wealthy women, so called well-bred women, but Miranda seemed so much finer to him. He admired her strength and her courage, and he loved possessing her. Dreibrand never wanted her to go away.
Miranda wet her lips and took a deep breath. Without knowing what else to do she blurted, “I carry your child.”
Dreibrand’s face slackened and his jaw dropped all the way. At length he said stupidly, “How?”
This made Miranda laugh. It was a relief to finally tell him. “What do you think happens when a man and a woman are together like us?” she chided.
Dreibrand actually looked embarrassed. “I know, but I never thought about it,” he confessed.
“Well think about it because we shall have a child in the spring,” she said.
“In the spring? Then you cannot go to Jingten,” he said.
“Yes I will.”
“No Miranda. Be reasonable,” he said firmly, recognizing the defiant look in her eyes.
She insisted, “I have to go. The pass will not thaw until late spring and I should give birth in time to go. I have to get Elendra and Esseldan back.”
Dreibrand clutched his head, which now felt totally muddled. Too many things were occurring to him at once. He might have to go to war without seeing his child, or at best he would see the infant, then go to war. Either way it would be a torment to him. He had only begun to get used to facing battle with Miranda in his life and now he would have a…family?
He shook the thought from his mind before the weight of responsibility took root.
Hugging Miranda gently, he decided, “We will save this quarrel for the spring. Let us just be happy for now.”
“You are happy?” she asked cautiously.
“Oh, very happy!” he exclaimed with honesty but not understanding.
“I am happy too,” Miranda said and it made Dreibrand feel good to hear it. But her face became serious and she whispered, “I know what it is to bear a child I do not want.” Her voice was shy as if she spoke of a taboo subject. “I know the resentment of having the children of a man I hate. As much as I love my children, I did not want them.”
Dreibrand listened apprehensively, uncertain of what she would say.
With a vulnerability that she had never let him see before, she continued, “But now I will know the joy of bearing the child of a man I love.”
Speaking these words made Miranda feel exposed. She had no experience to guide her interpretation of her emotions for Dreibrand, but she knew she wanted him and did not just need him.
Dreibrand held her gratefully, murmuring his own loving words. To know she really cared for him overwhelmed him with happiness. He shared a close trust with Miranda that he had not known with another woman, and he prized their relationship. With Miranda’s declaration of love, Dreibrand would find a way to cope with his impending fatherhood. Even in his confusion, he was already excited to see his child.
After one more long deep kiss, Dreibrand bounded out of bed and started dressing. “Can we go tell everybody?” he urged.
Pleased by his enthusiasm, Miranda got up, but quickly sat down. Dreibrand dropped his shirt and took her hand. “What is wrong?” The normal concern he had for her well being would now be doubled.
“I got up too fast and I felt a little sick,” Miranda explained, but when she saw his stricken look, she added, “Do not worry. It is normal.”
“Do you want to stay here?” he suggested.
Rubbing her temple, she accepted, “Yes, I am tired.”
Delicately he helped her back to bed and offered to stay, but Miranda would rather he enjoy himself instead of fussing over her.
“Go tell our news. I have kept it to myself long enough,” she encouraged.
For a moment he was indecisive, then rationalized, “I have business to attend to. I must speak with the King and Shan anyway.”
“Go,” she insisted.
The news elated Taischek, and he jumped out of his chair and even danced a couple steps. He sent a meaningful look heavenward as if a prayer had been answered, and then threw his arms around Dreibrand in congratulations.
“This is wonderful. Wonderful!” the King declared joyously.
Taischek’s exuberance stunned Dreibrand somewhat. He had imagined that Taischek would be happy for him but not thrilled. Shan shook his hand while Taischek still slapped his back.
“You and Miranda deserve this blessing,” Shan said.
General Xander congratulated him stiffly while Taischek signaled to a servant. The servant automatically went to get more wine.
Prince Kalek lounged indolently in his chair, seeing little reason for his father’s jubilation. So the foreign mercenary will have a bastard, he thought with annoyance.
Taischek kicked his son in the foot and scolded, “Where are your manners? A man in our household is expecting his firstborn and you do not congratulate him?”
Dreibrand could not help but enjoy Taischek criticizing his son on his behalf, and he looked at Kalek with an expression of irritating expectancy.
Kalek’s bored face rested on his fingers. Without standing he gestured sarcastically with his fingers and forced a smile, then returned his fingers to their propping position. Taischek frowned but knew how his son could be. He made a mental note to make sure Kalek recognized Dreibrand’s qualities.
The servant returned and replenished everyone’s wine. Taischek made a flattering toast complimenting Dreibrand’s virility, and Dreibrand tossed back his entire cup of wine. The warm rush of alcohol greeted him kindly, and Dreibrand realized he actually needed a drink. Sitting back down, he gestured for a refill, which made Taischek grin.
“Welcome home, Dreibrand Veta. May it be a long and pleasant winter,” Taischek decreed.
“Well said,” Shan cheered. “May we all enjoy our friendship in this easy season before the difficult tasks of the spring.”
“I see our General Veta has finally accepted that the war season is over,” Taischek observed with amusement. “Perhaps in the east they fight in this weather, but we do not.”
Taischek clapped his hands and called for musicians. He had noted Dreibrand’s mood for intoxication and intended to enjoy the company of the normally reserved foreigner now that he had the chance.
After a few more rounds of wine, Xander rose and said, “Sire, I can’t stay tonight. With your permission I would like to retire from the party.”
“Have some more drinks and you won’t need my permission,” Taischek joked and laughed loudly, but he quieted when he noticed Xander’s depressed expression. He realized he had been doting over Dreibrand, but he liked the brave young man who was so fascinating.
Surely, Xander knows nothing could diminish my opinion of him, Taischek thought. He considered making Xander stay so he could cheer him up, but if Xander wanted some solitude for once, Taischek could not deny his friend.
Taischek said, “Yes, yes, our company is much too dull. Go to your wives.”
“Thank you, Sire,” Xander said appreciatively. The General bowed to his King and Prince before leaving.
Dreibrand considered Xander’s departure out of character, but took no offense at the General’s lack of enthusiasm over his good news. Taischek’s company was easy to like and Dreibrand settled in and recounted his battle with the Overlord.
Knowing well the rightful reputation of the Overlord, Taischek marveled that Dreibrand had survived once his sword had been broken. When Dreibrand explained that he had saved himself by sho darting the Overlord, Taischek had to laugh but warned that the Overlord would want revenge.
“Because we are enemies anyway, I do not think I will notice,” Dreibrand said.
Once Taischek got Dreibrand drunk enough, Dreibrand happily answered the many questions that came from Kalek. The Prince paid close attention as Dreibrand described far off Atrophane and the many lands that the Horde had conquered. As Kalek questioned his father’s favored warrior, he restrained himself from any challenging comments although he had meant to goad Dreibrand into a fight that night.
With Kalek’s troublesome schemes on hold, the evening passed festively. Taischek continually teased Dreibrand about his approaching fatherhood, which in a way helped Dreibrand adjust to the fact.