With the mysterious visitors hidden from view, the Temu returned to their preparations for the evening’s celebration. In a recently harvested field many tables and benches were set up and laden with a bountiful variety of foods. Several pigs roasted nearby along with a whole steer and numerous kegs of beer and wine rolled out of storage, some of which got tapped ahead of schedule. Musicians tuned their instruments, and women gathered flowers to adorn their hair.

Inside the royal tent King Taischek listened to Dreibrand describe his distant homeland. Dreibrand spoke of his military career as if it had come to a normal completion. He regretted the necessity of the deceit, but he knew he could not forge a new name in a new land by admitting to his rash abandonment of his duty.

Instinctively, Taischek sensed the omissions in his guest’s story but forgave them, understanding a man that crossed the world would leave some things behind. And Shan seemed to sanction the young man, and that counted for much with Taischek.

“And Queen Onja has no say in this Atrophane Empire?” Taischek pressed, requiring clarification on this detail because it shook his perception of the world’s power structure.

Dreibrand nodded emphatically. “It is true, King Taischek. Onja is not known in the east.”

“It is good to know not all men have to tolerate her,” concluded the King.

Xander spoke. “May I see your sword?”

“Certainly,” Dreibrand said and unbuckled his swordbelt. He eased the blade partway out of the scabbard and handed the weapon over to the Temu General.

Taischek and Xander bent over the sharp heavy blade, admiring the workmanship in their own language. Although the King possessed many fine weapons, this sword did not lack in appeal. When Taischek returned the sword, he tapped Dreibrand’s armor, impressed by the metal plate.

“You must be a wealthy man in your world,” Taischek commented.

“No King,” Dreibrand said. “My gear may be of high quality, but it is all I own. I am not a wealthy man, especially in my country.”

“A poor man generally would not possess such a beautiful woman,” Xander noted in the Temu language.

By the responding expression on Taischek’s face, Dreibrand wondered what the General had said. Dreibrand glanced at Shan, hoping the rys would interpret if it had been important, but Shan was renowned for his tact.

Clearing his throat, Taischek said, “And where is your woman from? Is it the custom of your people to go exploring the Wilderness with a woman?”

“Her name is Miranda,” Dreibrand said while trying to conceal his discomfort. He worried information about Miranda might jeopardize his carefully edited story. His circumstances did look strange.

She knows the truth. I should have told her what not to talk about. Where is she? I need to see her, he thought.

“And what is her story?” the King prompted with as much patience as a king could offer.

“King Taischek, you declared that this day was for pleasure, and Miranda’s story is not a happy one—and perhaps hers to tell,” Dreibrand responded. When he actually thought about it, he did not know much about her.

Taischek chuckled at the way Dreibrand sidestepped the question. “Thank you for obeying my edict. Which reminds me, we should start the festivities. A fine feast and much drinking await us.”

Shan said, “If you would allow Dreibrand and me to wash up, we will join you shortly.”

Standing, Taischek summoned a servant and ordered a wash basin. “When you are ready, come out and sit with us,” Taischek instructed as he exited with Xander.

For the sake of privacy, Dreibrand used Miranda’s language. “Taischek showed little desire to talk about your business,” he commented.

Wiping his hands, Shan said, “Oh, he has his party, like he said. Taischek guesses what I will ask him, and he does not like it.”

“Then why are you so sure he will support you?” Dreibrand worried.

“He already agreed to support me against Onja whenever I asked, just as you have done,” the rys explained.

“You saved him too,” Dreibrand surmised and wondered if other people owed Shan allegiance.

Shan nodded. “I saved him from worse than a dungeon. In his youth Taischek was a hostage in the royal household of the Sabuto Tribe as part of a peace agreement with the Temu. But these tribes are traditional rivals and hostilities started after a season or two. I went to the Sabuto when the peace ended, but they had already tortured Taischek and meant to burn him alive, but I could not see the boy die. I cut him free of the stake before the flames went too far. Still, he was terribly injured and did not walk for a year. But he was young and grew to be a strong man.”

The gruesome story contrasted with the jovial king, but Dreibrand now understood better Taischek’s zest for life.

Before they left the tent, Dreibrand asked quietly, “What did the General say when Taischek gave him that look?”

“Nothing,” Shan said breezily.

“Come on, Shan,” Dreibrand urged.

“Really, it was nothing,” Shan insisted. “He just did not think you were poor.”

Dreibrand frowned but he dropped the subject. It probably was nothing, and he admitted that he often became annoyed when he did not know what was being said.

They exited the tent and found themselves in a festive atmosphere. Music played and torches were being lit in the approaching dusk. Although Dreibrand had been eager to start Shan’s business, he decided to follow Taischek’s order and enjoy himself.

While walking through the crowd, Dreibrand scanned over the heads of people trying to spot Miranda. Apparently a male/female segregation organized the seating with a broad length of field separating the ladies’ tables from the men’s tables. He strayed toward the women’s section but Shan grabbed his elbow and steered him back.

“Men and women do not mix at Temu social gatherings,” Shan informed him.

“I thought you said they threw good parties,” Dreibrand grumbled, still trying to locate Miranda.

Shan hushed him because they had reached Taischek’s table. Two seats had been saved to the right of the King, and Shan and Dreibrand sat in the honored place. Immediately servants poured wine for the newly arrived guests, while a musical performance in front of the table absorbed Taischek. When the harps and flutes concluded their rousing tune, Taischek applauded exuberantly, delighting his loyal musicians.

A clear note from a horn sounded, and the musicians withdrew, clearing the field before the King. An empty table in the women’s area was across from the King’s table and the horn signaled the entrance of the Temu Queen and her entourage.

“Vua is always late,” complained Taischek as he stood up.

All the men rose as Queen Vua flowed across the grass, leading her co-wives and daughters. Wreaths of flowers crowned all the women in the entourage, and they all wore fluttering red robes over soft white gowns. The spectacle of their beauty hushed the men respectfully as the King and Queen bowed to each other. With the simple formality completed, everyone sat down.

Beside the plump gray-haired Queen, Dreibrand finally saw Miranda. Dressed like the other women, her lovely raiment impressed him. She kept her bandaged arm hidden in the folds of her red robe, but in the flattering gown and crowned with flowers, she was easily the center of attention. Dreibrand had often dreamed of her adorned in fine clothes and the result pleased him greatly. Miranda looked directly at Dreibrand, and he hated the distance between them.

“What a treasure you have brought us from the east,” declared King Taischek after he saw Miranda.

“Eyes of pure jade,” Xander interjected fondly in the Temu language. “Sire, you should see her up close. She is a wonder.”

“Be careful of your manners, Xander,” warned the King softly and he checked to see if Dreibrand had understood.

Servants dished out the main courses of tender and savory meats and more wine flowed into cups. Taischek dug into his feast with abandon and bade the musicians to play again.

Between mouthfuls of food, the King said, “It is good to have you back, Shan. You have stayed away too long. And your visit gave me a wonderful opportunity to piss off Nebeck. I gave you his seat and put the rysmavda at that table.”

He pointed to an empty table behind him. “I don’t think they are going to come,” Taischek said with insincere disappointment.

“It will probably take Nebeck a day to work up his courage to actually confront me. He fears my presence will soil him in Onja’s eyes,” Shan said.

“He’d soil his presence in Onja’s eyes,” Taischek joked.

Shan ate sparingly, like any rys, and listened with pleasure to the reports of the Temu King. With increasing intoxication Taischek described every thing that had happened to him since Shan’s last visit. The Temu royal household had been blessed with two more daughters and one more son.

“Two more daughters!” Shan exclaimed. “Every man in the Confederation will end up married to a Temu.”

Taischek laughed and drained another goblet of wine. “I hope so. The other tribes will wish I made war on them instead of sending my daughters. Except the Sabuto scum. They get only my sword.”

Lifting his right hand, Taischek showed off a large emerald ring on his thumb. “Look at that Shan. I took that rock from the Sabuto last year and had my jeweler make this ring over the winter. He did a good job.”

Shan admired the wondrous green gem. The lands of the Sabuto Tribe possessed the best jewel mines.

An uncharacteristic grin broke Shan’s blue face as he said, “Shall you be wearing this to Jingten?”

Such a question made even in jest actually startled Taischek. With a frown the King withdrew the sparkling hand.

Shan tapped Dreibrand on the shoulder and said, “You should see our great King Taischek when he pays his tribute to Onja. He wears barely more than a hermit’s rag and only brings his skinny wives.”

Taischek now had to chuckle at the duplicity he shared with Shan. The King had put his act of poverty on for so long, he had almost taken offense when Shan joked about it.

“I do what I must so that the Temu prosper,” Taischek said humbly.

Dreibrand eased away his finished plate and decided to enter the conversation. “King Taischek, you say you go to war in three days against the Sabuto Tribe. I would like to join you.”

“Oh really?” Taischek rumbled. He shoved some pork into his mouth and chewed it thoughtfully.

“Looking for work are you, Dreibrand Veta?” the King finally determined. “What kind of pay do you think you are worth?”

Dreibrand smiled, encouraged by the question. He answered, “I think that I am worth quite a bit. But for now all I ask is that the Temu provide Miranda refuge. She has injuries and needs a home to rest in.”

The King cast a concerned look in Miranda’s direction. “She looks healthy to me,” he said gruffly.

“Onja hurt her more than it shows,” Shan explained softly.

“Onja hurt her…” the King trailed off. He did not want to know tonight. This news had to be connected to Shan’s business, which he wanted to live without for one more merry night.

Shan continued, “But Dreibrand does not need to work for her refuge. I ask this of you Taischek, as a favor.”

“This is my concern, Shan,” Dreibrand insisted.

Taischek studied the young man. He respected him for wanting to take care of his woman.

And if he wants to work for so little, I should defer to his pride, Taischek thought, but he said, “Of course she can stay. I would never turn out an injured woman. Now what pay do you want, Dreibrand?”

“Her safety is all that I require,” Dreibrand answered. “You may reward my efforts as you see fit, King Taischek.”

Taischek laughed. “He IS brave.” Nudging Xander with an elbow, he said, “What do you think, General? Should I take on this mercenary?”

“If he’s worthy, I have no objession,” Xander slurred.

“Yes, yes, of course. We will see to that,” the King agreed. “I would be glad to have you along, Dreibrand. Look at you! You will scare the balls off the Sabuto. They will think you are some rys demon.”

Dreibrand was not sure if the last comment was a compliment, but he was glad to have a king to fight for.

“But you must prove yourself, man from Atrophane,” Taischek added. He turned to Xander and gave instructions in the Temu language.

Obediently, Xander rose but swayed drunkenly. Remembering that he was a general, he plopped back into his seat and gave the orders to someone else.

Wary of the methods by which he would prove himself, Dreibrand looked questioningly at Shan. The rys sipped his wine and offered no details.

Finally, Dreibrand asked, “What will I have to do?”

Shan replied breezily, “Do not worry. They are not planning to kill you.”

Dreibrand frowned at the statement, but he did not have time to contemplate the meaning because several Temu warriors arrived behind him.

“Remove your armor and weapon,” a Temu commanded in the common tongue.

Reluctantly, Dreibrand complied. He would have to follow through on what he had started.

Across the field, Miranda noticed Dreibrand giving his gear to the warriors, and she feared the Temu had turned against them.

“What is happening?” she cried, looking at her hostess the Queen.

“It looks like our warriors wish to test him,” Vua replied, but then she saw her guest’s apprehension and added, “This will be fun.”

Miranda wanted to be reassured by the comment, but it looked like Dreibrand was going to fight someone. The servants and musicians cleared a wide space between the tables of the King and Queen, and the rest of the Temu, murmuring with excitement, crowded around on all sides. Warriors began lining up in front of the crowd, and they led Dreibrand into the ring. He was given a quarterstaff, and Miranda watched him test its weight and balance.

Now the Temu challenger came forward. His armor was also removed, and he wielded a quarterstaff. Grinning broadly and enjoying the cheers from his friends, the young warrior took off his shirt to display his supple physique. He bowed to an unmarried section of ladies, who appreciated his attention, and then held his staff high and pranced before the whole crowd.

Dreibrand examined the situation and relaxed. His test appeared to be a sporting competition on fair terms. Eyeing his opponent, he deemed the youth fast and clever, but perhaps overly proud to represent his tribe. With a confident grin, Dreibrand strode to the center of the impromptu arena and felt his heart quicken with excitement.

At this point King Taischek climbed on top of his table and addressed his tribe in the common tongue for the sake of his guests.

“Great Temu, I introduce Dreibrand Veta. He comes from a land called Atrophane in the distant east. He has asked for the honor of serving me and riding with Temu warriors. Now for all to see, the warriors shall test him and judge his worth.”

The Temu cheered, happy with the quality of the spectacle. Dreibrand took the opportunity to approach Miranda and regarded his opponent casually while he spoke to her.

“You look beautiful,” he whispered to her.

She had to smile, but her concern could not be suppressed. “Dreibrand! This looks dangerous.”

“I can handle him,” he answered as if her worry was absurd.

Drums began to pulse in a low rhythm to herald the combat. Dreibrand left her table and faced his opponent. Because it was their test Dreibrand decided to let the warrior make the first move. They circled each other cautiously and the torchlight gleamed on the metal tips of their staves.

“Are you finished saying goodbye to your woman?” the warrior taunted.

With the practiced superiority of an Atrophaney commander, Dreibrand said, “Actually, I told her you were nothing to worry about.”

The fight started.

With a battle cry the Temu planted his quarterstaff in the ground and vaulted into the air. Dreibrand blocked too high and too late and the man’s feet slammed into his stomach. The unexpected blow knocked Dreibrand onto the field. The Temu landed and swung his staff, but Dreibrand managed to roll aside from the strike and swing his own staff. The hard wood snapped across both shins of the warrior. Springing to his feet, Dreibrand got in another good blow across the jaw. The Temu now took his turn hitting the dirt, where he received a few more whacks to the ribs and thighs before he could raise his staff to block the relentless attack.

Taischek frowned and accepted that the young warrior was losing. The King signaled to another warrior, who gladly jumped into the ring. This tribal member grinned with eagerness to avenge his younger cousin, and a whip uncoiled from his expert hand.

Pleased by the contest’s approaching conclusion, Dreibrand did not see his new opponent. The whip cracked, and his staff flew from unsuspecting hands. He looked at his empty palms with puzzlement, but the urgency of battle could not allow him to ponder the rude disappearance of the weapon. Dreibrand whirled and met the gaze of his new attacker and saw that his staff had sailed far out of reach. The whip circled over the Temu’s head, winding for another strike.

Dreibrand accepted that he would have to take another lick and charged the warrior. The whip sang and wrapped around his ankles this time. His boots protected him from the whip’s bite, and he lunged for the warrior before the whip jerked his feet away. Tackling his opponent, Dreibrand was already punching him as he hit the ground. The Temu had to release the whip to defend his face with both hands, pushing and slapping and pulling hair.

Dreibrand grimaced through his efforts, but he kept the warrior pinned. With a brutal grasp Dreibrand seized his throat and began to slam the warrior’s head into the ground repeatedly.

As the choking abuse subdued the man, Dreibrand glanced back at his first opponent, who was rising painfully to resume the fight. Giving the second opponent’s head one more good bounce, Dreibrand kicked free of the tangling whip and scrambled after his distant quarterstaff. He retrieved his weapon and struck the whip-bearing warrior in the back of the head just as he sat up. The first warrior engaged Dreibrand again, and their staves cracked against each other furiously. Again Dreibrand beat him back.

Taischek gestured to a third warrior to join the fight. This time a glance from the young warrior warned Dreibrand that another attacker approached from behind, and he turned just in time to block the staff of the third warrior. Struggling between two opponents, Dreibrand recalled the day Hydax and Gennor had captured him, and the sting of that defeat filled him with a furious determination. The old familiar battle rage flowed through his veins, and he remembered the Dreibrand Veta that could kill a man defending his home and whose mercy had been slavery.

Dreibrand kept moving to prevent being pinned between two warriors. His senses were keen with adrenaline, and with his skill he blocked both of their attacks, and the metal-tipped ends of his staff danced inside their defenses.

The youngest Temu got some ribs cracked and sank to one knee. Without hesitation Dreibrand finished the original opponent with a blow upside the head that knocked him out. This victory had a price, and the third and freshest warrior hit Dreibrand in the head. His brow split and bleeding, Dreibrand staggered back in significant pain.

Now the warrior with the whip had recovered enough to regain his feet, and the whip hissed through the air. The heartless leather danced across Dreibrand’s back and he gasped. He continued to parry the attacks from the third warrior and the whip cut his flesh again. Dreibrand decided he really disliked the Temu with the whip and at any cost that man had to go. Roaring angrily, Dreibrand attacked his current opponent with enough force to drive him back, and then he turned to assault the whip-wielding warrior. The lash flew around his feet again, but Dreibrand swung his staff like a club and hit the hand holding the whip. The offending weapon slid from broken fingers. Dreibrand jumped closer and beat him down with several blows.

The third warrior leaped on Dreibrand’s back and got his staff under his chin. Dreibrand had to drop his own weapon to grab the choking pole. The Temu pulled him backward, bending him uncomfortably. Dripping blood and sweat from his face, Dreibrand hauled forward and raised the Temu slightly off his feet.

They struggled back and forth, entering a stalemate. Dreibrand could prevent himself from being choked but could not remove the warrior.

“Hold!” cried Taischek, deciding things had gone far enough.

The Temu warrior released Dreibrand. Turning to face his opponent, Dreibrand rested a moment and then sucker punched the Temu. The men resumed their fight, both grasping the remaining staff and swinging fists at each other. Taischek jumped down from his table and broke them up himself, actually laughing.

“Do we want Dreibrand Veta on our side, Temu?” the King bellowed.

The warriors roared with unanimous approval. The foreigner was worthy.

With a sigh of relief Miranda sat back. She hated seeing him get hurt but his skill and strength had thrilled her. To have the devotion of such a man was lucky, and Miranda wished she could go to him. However, his place tonight was with the Temu men, who now introduced themselves individually to Dreibrand and welcomed him into their warrior brotherhood. Miranda saw King Taischek guide his guest back to his table.

With the trial of combat over, Miranda realized her head throbbed. Fatigued and uncomfortable, she asked the Queen to excuse her. Vua agreed readily, knowing of Miranda’s injuries, and summoned a servant to escort her guest back to the guesthouse.

Even with a throng of warriors around him, Dreibrand noticed Miranda’s departure, but he was clearly expected to stay at the party. He returned to his seat, and Shan had a towel ready to clean his forehead.

“You fought very well,” Shan complimented as he dabbed his friend’s swollen cut.

“If I am not shot with a sho dart, I can be dangerous. How is my back?” Dreibrand asked.

Shan glanced at the welts bleeding through the fabric and said, “You needed a new shirt anyway.”

Dreibrand chuckled at Shan’s annoying answer. He watched the injured Temu warriors being helped away by their comrades, and it soothed his stinging back.

“Get him some wine, Shan!” King Taischek barked.

“I thought I would bandage his head first,” Shan said.

“Ah, it’s nothing for a strong warrior like him. Let’s drink!” Taischek poured Dreibrand a goblet.

Thirsty from his ordeal, Dreibrand gratefully quaffed the wine, refilled his cup and toasted the King.

“Good job, Atrophane warrior,” Taischek said. “Now save your battle lust for the Sabuto and we shall be good friends. Shan, thank you for bringing him to me.”

Shan inclined his head in acceptance of the gratitude.

Taischek continued, “I have just the thing that will make your head feel better, Dreibrand.” The King removed a pouch from his vest pocket. Out of it he retrieved a pipe and a bundle of dried plant material.

Shan saw this and shared a laugh with the King.

“What is that?” Dreibrand asked, truly intrigued.

“Don’t they smoke in your great eastern empire?” Taischek asked contemptuously.

“Smoke?” Dreibrand was honestly baffled.

His confusion made the King laugh harder and comment, “No wonder you left home. Xander, this man does not even…” Taischek stopped when he realized the General was unconscious. Quietly he added, “Xander is always the first to go.”

With genuine fascination, Dreibrand watched the King light the filled pipe and inhale the smoke. Completely accustomed to the activity, Taischek did not cough and exhaled with a slow sigh. He handed the pipe to Shan, who puffed happily.

“This will shut up our smart rys friend,” Taischek said. “He’ll think he is five hasas away.”

“Watching you drink is not the only thing that amuses me,” Shan countered while he handed the pipe to an empty area near Dreibrand.

“You probably can’t find your butt already,” Taischek joked, but Shan ignored him easily.

Now Dreibrand received the pipe and regarded it curiously, unsure how to proceed.

“Don’t let it go out,” Taischek ordered.

Curiosity and an aching skull made Dreibrand comply. His virgin lungs protested with much hacking and coughing, which entertained everybody thoroughly. Once his coughing subsided, Dreibrand gulped down the rest of his wine. Despite his burning chest, he began to feel an immediate pleasantness seep through his system. He nodded appreciatively, noticing the sweet smell of the smoke. His subsequent turns with the pipe caused him no discomfort, and his pain drifted away. He felt absolutely wonderful and thanked Taischek exuberantly with a slight slur.

Taischek lovingly tucked his pipe away and said, “Just a little Temu medicine.”

Shan stood and without a word wandered off.

The King chuckled and explained, “It affects Shan more than us. Sends him into some rys dreamland or something.”

This was interesting, but Dreibrand felt too good at the moment to give any thought to where Shan had gone. Dreibrand found himself sharing many toasts with the Temu King and the surrounding warriors. He had a wonderful time and consumed much more wine than was his habit. Despite repeatedly slipping into his native language, he made a few friends and, with a mildly comprehensible speech, personally forgave the warrior who had split his head. Taischek rallied his men late into the night, and being the true king of his tribe, saw them all pass out first.