Shan was kind to visit me as my days come to their end. He listened patiently as I recalled the adventures of my youth. He was at my side then, but he does not seem a day older now. I know that he has changed but the changes have taken a lifetime to see, like watching a tree grow or noticing the course of a river shifting after many seasons. He is becoming powerful and some day he will stop the evil that festers in the mountains. I can die believing this—Chendoaser, Nuram ruler, year 1882 of the Age of Onja.

The fuzzy blackness emerged into a painful grayness. Dreibrand opened his eyes slightly, but even the overcast day provided a vengeful glare. His skull felt like a year old walnut shell, and he ached like a teenager after his first bender. Close dark shapes hovered him, and Dreibrand squinted at them. Several smiling Temu children kneeled around him, closely examining the immobile foreigner. His arrival into hurtful consciousness made them all comment with excitement, and their chatter pierced his eardrums like breaking dishes. He implored them to hush, but his furry tongue and dry lips hindered his speech and made them laugh harder.

Escape would be the only chance for relief.

A cool drizzle started and the merciful wet soothed him slightly. Groaning, he sat up. His vision swam and a wave of nausea passed lazily. Apparently he had dropped on the field in a stupor and been left on the ground. The only people present besides the curious children were a few villagers, who were cleaning up the mess from the banquet.

Willpower helped Dreibrand to his feet, and he shuffled to his gear that had been set under the table. He buckled his sword back on and was vaguely pleased to see that his dagger remained in its place. After a brief rest, he reached for his armor. The chestplate slid from his fumbling hands and banged on the table on the way back to the ground. The resulting clang assaulted his abused head and made him shudder. Thoroughly reminded of why he avoided heavy drinking, Dreibrand grabbed his armor and plodded into Fata Nor, searching for a well.

Shan found him kneeling at a basin by a village well literally soaking his head. After drinking and washing, Dreibrand had dozed off with the injured half of his head lying in the shallow water.

“There you are,” Shan declared, easing his friend’s head out of the basin. “I thought I better get you when we heard children were poking you with sticks.”

“Were they?” Dreibrand muttered.

“Get up, Dreibrand. It is time for us to have our talk with Taischek,” Shan said.

Trying not to actually move his head, Dreibrand carefully climbed the basin until he stood up. Smoothing back his wet hair, he moaned, “I think I should throw myself on my sword.”

Shan scolded, “Nonsense. This will pass. We will get you some food—”

“No,” Dreibrand cut him off with an adamant whisper. “I—I am not hungry.”

“Perhaps not,” Shan reconsidered. “But you know how important our business is. Can you make it?”

“Of course,” Dreibrand replied. “But can we walk slowly?”

The rys smiled. “I assumed that.”

As they headed for the King’s tent, Dreibrand was painfully aware of his shabby appearance. His shirt had long since ceased to be anything worthy of pride, and he was rumpled, battered and dirty. But he had not looked much better before the banquet, and Taischek had been impressed with him then.

Is he still impressed with me? Dreibrand wondered nervously. The last half of the evening laughed at his attempts to remember it.

“Where did you go last night?” Dreibrand asked.

Waving a blue hand, Shan answered, “I did not notice.”

“What was that smoke?” Dreibrand said.

Shan explained, “It is a flower that grows in the lowlands. Humans use it for medicine and pleasure. But its effect on rys goes beyond the human experience. It makes me unable to entirely control my awareness. My mind is set adrift. It is very pleasurable, but it leaves me very vulnerable. I rarely indulge, and I suspect last night was my last opportunity to be so frivolous.”

Rubbing his head, Dreibrand said, “I could use some right now.”

“I am sure you could,” Shan agreed. “But your mind must be clear. This will be my first council of war.”

Dreibrand reflected on the task ahead, realizing that it had not been that long since his last war council, but much had happened in between. He was not even the same person anymore.

“Where is Miranda?” he said.

“At the guest house. Taischek went to speak with her earlier,” Shan answered.

What did she tell him? Dreibrand worried, which made his head throb. But he had no way to ask Shan without seeming suspicious.

Shan interrupted his secret fretting. “This will not be pleasant.”

Dreibrand lifted his aching eyes and saw Rysmavda Nebeck and the two younger priests waiting between them and the King’s tent at the edge of the village.

“Lord Shan, we must speak,” Nebeck announced with authority.

“What makes you so bold with me, rysmavda?” Shan demanded.

Nebeck’s narrow lips twitched as the intimidation washed over him, but his purpose did not diminish from his eyes. A pale warding crystal hung over his chest on a silver chain, but there seemed to be no heart behind it. His stringent expression advertised his cold outlook, and his white skullcap made his thin face look even hungrier.

“What is your purpose in Fata Nor?” Nebeck said.

“How dare you ask my business?” Shan hissed.

“I no longer have to show you respect. I know you are cast out of Jingten,” Nebeck said. “Now I demand to know your business among these good subjects of the Queen, our Goddess.”

“Go hide in your temple,” Shan snapped.

Nebeck did not waver and his temerity surprised Shan. “You are an enemy of the Queen. I will not let you be in my templesphere. I will not let your blasphemous treachery put the citizens of Fata Nor at risk.”

“The only risk is that these people will soon see that you have no power to back up your greedy and controlling ways,” Shan said.

The younger rysmavda gasped, and Nebeck gaped in shock.

Villagers had gathered a modest distance from the rys and the rysmavda, and they hung on every hot word.

“Onja has no power here. She cannot strike us down from Jingten as in days of old,” Shan announced. “If Onja is a Goddess, I invite her to strike me down because I say she is not.” He raised his arms as if beckoning the legendary wrath of the Queen.

Dreibrand sensed the tension from all of the nearby Temu, and he shared some himself. But dealing with Onja was Shan’s role, and he focused on those things he could cope with. Through his hangover, he monitored the three rysmavda as Shan had told him to do.

“Well, Rysmavda Nebeck, where is the power of Onja?” Shan demanded impatiently.

Nebeck cringed, convinced that a killing spell from his Goddess was surely on its way. Clutching his warding crystal, he retreated with his associates.

“Onja, take this rogue from us!” he pleaded.

Shan laughed as if a fool had irritated him for too long. Blue light flared in his eyes and he pointed at Nebeck. The rysmavda cried out in pain and released the warding crystal that now blazed on the end of its chain. The charm then burst into pieces that fell to the path like plain broken glass.

Nebeck wailed in dismay. “You are cursed!”

The crowd had thickened quickly, and the King and General Xander emerged from the tent. If Shan’s confrontation with the rysmavda distressed Taischek, it did not show. Taischek stormed through the crowd that parted for him automatically.

“Rysmavda Nebeck, why do you anger my guest?” Taischek rumbled.

“Temu King, Shan has been banished by the Queen, our Goddess, and we must not harbor him. She commanded me so last night,” Nebeck answered with extra emphasis on the last sentence for the benefit of the crowd.

“Shan is my friend and is permanently welcome among our tribe—no matter what. Why don’t you go count our gold and leave us alone,” Taischek sneered, referring to the tribute collecting function of the temple.

“Temu King, I warn you. Shan will bring Onja’s wrath to our tribe,” Nebeck insisted.

“You act like Onja treats us well now,” the King countered. “Now leave us. I wish to visit with my friends.”

“Prime Rysmavda Arshen in Dengar Nor will hear of this,” Nebeck warned, but the King was already ignoring him. Taischek signaled for the crowd to be dispersed and waved Shan and Dreibrand into the tent.

Once inside the tent, Taischek showed his emotion. “By the great Tartarlan, you have really gone and done it, Shan.”

The rys made no reply. Shan knew that Taischek would fuss until he accepted things. Shan had told him this day could come.

Taischek flopped into his place and brooded deeply. Xander motioned for them to sit and they waited in silence, not wishing to intrude upon the King’s thoughts.

Dreibrand tried to interpret what had just happened. He had not expected the confrontation with the rysmavda or Shan to be so aggressive. He had not caught all of the words, but he had gathered that Shan had just publicly declared Onja’s religion false.

The King heaved a great sigh and his eyes rounded the gathering. He seemed to take some comfort from those present.

On a tremendously light note that dismissed his heavy mood, Taischek said, “Don’t I have a fine crew. My General is the first to pass out, and my new warrior, Dreibrand, is the last to wake up.”

Everybody chuckled and felt a little relieved.

Turning exclusively to Dreibrand, the King continued, “I spoke with your companion, Miranda. Her news was hard to hear.”

Dreibrand’s stomach tightened.

“The captivity of her children breaks my heart. I have never heard of Onja doing such a thing. This strange behavior from the Queen does not please the Temu,” Taischek said.

His sincerity was apparent. Taischek also knew the horror of torture and he sympathized with the foreign woman who had endured the hateful touch of the Queen. Most of all, Onja’s sudden desire to possess children worried him.

Will she begin to demand children from us? he wondered.

“You see that we must tolerate Onja no longer,” Shan said. “The time has come for me to put aside my fear, and free the world from her tyranny and claim the throne of my kind. Taischek, King of the Temu Tribe, on this day I ask you to fulfill your promise. Help me overthrow Onja.” When Shan spoke her name, his voice was almost a snarl.

Xander cast anxious eyes upon his lord. He would do and die by his King’s orders, but would his King really commit to this mad venture? Every human knew rys were superior, and Onja was invincible.

Finally, Taischek said with a resigned tone, “Shan, you are the prince of favors. You pull a boy from the fire and he would say anything out of gratitude. But Shan, I have come to know you well, and I know you act first out of compassion, not ambition. Still, you control your generosity, recognizing the value of your good deeds.

“The years did pass though, and I came to think you would not defy the Queen in my lifetime. Your plots could easily outlive one man. Now in my old age you ask me to help change the world.”

Shan frowned. “Do not plead old age with me Taischek. You could kill an ox.”

Taischek raised a hand to prevent Shan from lecturing him. “I only meant that you waited so long to ask your favor, I had come to hope I was free of the obligation. Shan, my sword is at your service as I promised it would be long ago. My ancestors bowed to Onja, and it became our way.” The King gestured to Dreibrand. “He comes from a place where Onja has no dominion. If she truly were a Goddess, every person in Gyhwen would serve her as we have. Therefore, I, Taischek, have the courage to free my people, so that my heirs will prosper even more than I.

“I understand that humans can only hope to defeat Onja with the aid of a rys, and we must not miss our opportunity. Perhaps together we can prevail.”

“Yes we shall!” Shan cried with excitement. Setting his plans in motion bolstered his confidence. It was one thing to plot and whisper, but there was power in the freedom of actually moving toward his goal. He could not convey the depth of his hate for Onja to his friends. No human could quite understand how she had wronged him by lingering in this world, continually denying him his rightful place as leader of the rys. She kept him forever in a voiceless limbo, and he could only have a furtive respect from his own kind.

With an eerie potency in his voice, Shan continued, “Onja is old, very old. Older than any rys has ever been. Since my last challenge, I have grown into the prime of my life, whereas Onja has only aged more beyond a natural life. I can feel the strain inside her mind and body, and she will not withstand my second challenge. With your help, we will aggravate that strain, until I can strike her down.”

“What part could the Temu possibly play in this rys thing?” Xander suddenly demanded.

“Please, Xander do not become upset,” Taischek soothed his general. “Shan will explain.”

Respectfully, Shan nodded to Xander, reading the reluctance on the Temu’s face. “Good General, many humans will unfortunately remain loyal to Onja—out of fear. Onja knows well that I wish to cast her down, and it is only a matter of time before she sends her allies to kill me. Threats from rysmavda are only the beginning. Therefore, I will need protection. I will need an army to return to Jingten because she will set her allies to protect her. And of equal importance, the fact that an entire army has risen in opposition to her will devastate her confidence. The defiance of so many humans will make her nervous because it will demonstrate that her power cannot reach the lowlands anymore.”

“Has she really become so weak? Are we actually safe from her in the lowlands?” Taischek asked eagerly.

Shan nodded. “Her magic can still reach us, but it has become limited. She can see and hear us, and communicate with the rysmavda of course, and other minor things, but she cannot kill. Onja is no longer the Queen that your ancestors had to bow to.”

Although Xander accepted the Temu were now committed to this cause, he would still voice his concerns in council. “And when we face rys soldiers, what can you do for us?” he asked.

“The rys forces are the least of my concern,” Shan responded. “They will stand aside when we reach Jingten. I have a right to challenge Onja, and it is not the way of rys to interfere in the challenges of others. If combat does occur with rys soldiers, my magic will even the odds for you. The soldiers of Jingten know how powerful I am and they will not be willing to confront me.”

“It is true,” Dreibrand supported. “I have seen it. The soldiers have no power over Shan.”

The rys restrained Dreibrand’s eagerness. Humbly he said, “Do not say that. I am flesh, and anyone, rys or human, could conceivable hurt me. That is why I need my friends to guard me from those that would try. I regret that I involve you in war, but Onja has wronged the humans even more than her own kind. I suggest that the Temu not pay their tribute to Jingten this year. It will reveal Onja’s weakness to the other tribes, and the rys have no need for your treasures. We are brilliant and gifted on our own, except Onja has made the rys into lazy overlords. When I am King, there will be no tribute. Humans and rys can trade and do business as it pleases them, but I need no dominance over humans. The Rysamand will be for the rys, but that is all.”

These words appealed to Taischek and even placated Xander. The King knew his trust in Shan’s goodness had not been misguided, and he imagined the glory of marching on Jingten. Onja’s seemingly eternal tyranny had become a part of the short lives of men, but Taischek realized that Shan had watched generations of Temu bow to Onja and give up the labors of the tribe. Now Shan offered a chance to stop the exploitation, if only they had the courage to oppose Jingten’s ruthless Queen.

Taischek was no longer reluctant to say the words, and when he did, it felt good. But he knew that in all of his days of war and intrigue he had never done such a dangerous thing. “You are right. The Temu will not pay tribute,” he said.

Shan continued, “You know that I am not a hasty being, but too many centuries have given themselves to history, and the time for action has arrived. Taischek take me before the Confederation when it convenes next month so that I may invite your allies to join us in the denial of tribute. The more tribes that oppose her, the better. For once Onja will feel insecurity. Let her hear the voice of rebellion across the icy peaks all winter long!”

Thinking of Onja, Shan’s ebony eyes became unfocused, and the others wondered what far off place he looked upon. No one spoke, and the air quivered as if some power quickened around the rys. A brilliant blue flared from the rys’s eyes before Shan shut them and drew a shuddering breath.

Tentatively, Dreibrand said, “Shan…what is it?”

Shan opened his eyes and seemed himself again. Slowly he replied, “I suddenly felt so confident and great power surged inside me.” Sweeping his gaze over the three men, he added, “I will not fail you my friends.”

Taischek nodded solemnly. “Of course, Shan. I would never doubt you. But I cannot guarantee that the other four tribes of the Confederation will follow the example of the Temu. An end to tribute is very appealing, but people will be afraid. Shan, it is hard for some to change. Not everyone is a Temu.”

“When we meet with the Confederates, your influence will guide their decisions,” Shan said. “And I once advised King Ejan of the Tacus when the wild Zandas harassed his kingdom. He will heed my call for support.”

“I will make sure you address the Confederation,” Taischek promised. “But Shan, please understand that I cannot neglect the Sabuto. My warriors are counting on the plunder from the raids I have planned. And well, this is me. I attack the Sabuto every year. They would lose track of the calendar if I didn’t show up.”

Shan laughed. “Taischek, I would never deny you your annual revenge on the Sabuto. In fact, this year I intend to join you on the warpath, if you will have me.”

Taischek blinked with surprise. He knew Shan abhorred the wanton violence of war. “Of course you are welcome, Shan,” he said while imagining the fear of the Sabuto when they saw that the powerful rys lord accompanied him.

“And if I could indulge your generosity in one more thing, Taischek. I need a sword,” Shan said.

“A sword?” Taischek laughed. “Do you intend to fight like a man?”

Shan’s face became drawn with regret and he inwardly reproached himself for what he had chosen to do. He had tried in his life to do the right thing. He had tried to foster peace, but the world seemed to resist his efforts as if they were contrary to Nature.

“As you know, my hand has never been used in violence. But such a trait only makes me weak before Onja. I must learn the strength of a warrior, and I can no longer hide from this fact. Therefore, I request to fight with the Temu. I will fight, and I will kill,” Shan said.

A bit flustered by these words from his kindly friend, Taischek said, “Shan, do you even know how to use a sword?”

Shan smiled. “I have never bragged about that skill, but I do possess it. I will admit I have not picked up a weapon in three hundred years. Do you recall the great warrior king of the Nuram Tribe, Chendoaser?”

Begrudgingly, Taischek said that he did, although it was not his habit to consider the kings of other tribes as great warriors.

Shan continued, “Chendoaser and I were friends as we are, and he taught me the use of swords so that I might spar with him. Chendoaser reasoned that if he could match a rys, no man could best him. And I suppose he was right. The Nuram were never greater than when he was king, and Chendoaser never lost. He died old and at home. I assumed you would have heard the story, Taischek. Back then we made quite a spectacle of ourselves.”

Taischek shrugged. “Chendoaser was a great king, but only of a little tribe. The Temu do not concern themselves with old stories about the Nuram.”

“Well, the Nuram still talk about it,” Shan muttered. “But at any rate, I am sure my use of the sword will be quite satisfactory.”

“I look forward to seeing it,” Taischek said. “Until the meeting of the Confederation, let us enjoy the pleasure of a simple warpath against the Sabuto. Then we will tackle Jingten.”

Much to Dreibrand’s distress, the King immediately called for wine to toast his agreement with Shan. Politely, Dreibrand sipped the wine. His stomach lurched when the wine hit it, but its protests dwindled as the alcohol eased his hangover. Sternly he ordered himself not to get caught up in another bout of drinking so soon after the last.

“King Taischek, may I be excused?” he asked, hoping it was not too rude. “I would like to see Miranda and inform her I go to war in two days.”

“Have to tell your woman you are going to war, eh?” Taischek slapped Xander on the shoulder and joked, “You know what that means.”

Xander made no comment.

Guessing Dreibrand wanted to dodge the drinking, which would probably continue for most of the day, Shan supported his friend’s request. “Let him go, Taischek,” he said with a kindly glance toward Dreibrand.

Taischek waved one hand while his other hand lifted his wine cup. Smacking his lips, the King said, “Do as you please for the next two days, Dreibrand Veta. Those Sabuto bastards will occupy you soon enough.”

“Thank you, King Taischek,” Dreibrand said.

When he bowed his way out of the tent, he was pleased that his head did not start spinning. Outside the rain had increased, and he hurried into the village. He did not know where the guesthouse was, but he assumed a building fit to house the Temu Queen would not be too difficult to spot.

He found a large timber building, painted red and gold, with guards outside. A warrior stepped forward, barring Dreibrand from standing on the sheltered steps to the door, and the rain tumbled from the eaves onto his head. Dreibrand was informed that access to Queen Vua’s residence was not easy, and the King’s personal permission was required.

Frustrated and soaked by the rain, Dreibrand stared at the unobliging warrior and did not appreciate the inconvenience. He was about to slosh back to Taischek’s tent and let the King enjoy his little joke, when a Temu woman stuck her head out a window and contradicted the warrior with an abrupt tone.

“Aren’t you special,” the warrior grumbled but stepped aside.

A little smugly Dreibrand smiled to the surly Temu and passed inside out of the wet. A servant girl handed him a towel to dry his hair and promptly conveyed him to the great room. Three sets of doors opened from the great room to an inner courtyard where the summer rain pattered. Women filled the room, seated at looms, spinning wheels or over embroidery hoops, but no needles pierced fabric and the clacking of looms had stopped. All of the women stared at him and exchanged hushed comments and a few giggles. Dreibrand felt thoroughly appreciated.

He scanned the room for Miranda, but she was not there. He did see Queen Vua surrounded by her co-wives and daughters, and he bowed to the Queen.

“Thank you for admitting me, Queen of the Temu, and please forgive my intrusion. I wish only to see how Miranda fares. She left the party early.”

“And you stayed late,” Vua stated sarcastically.

“I could not refuse Temu hospitality,” he explained and added a charming smile.

“No. Of course not,” Vua agreed. “Now Dreibrand Veta, I would not normally allow a strange man into my home, but Miranda has asked for you all day. So I indulge my guest…and maybe myself because you are an especially strange man. Still, do not make a habit of coming to my door. It is not the Temu way.”

He nodded respectfully and tried not to glance at all of the women staring at him. “Yes, Queen Vua. I meant no insult, and I thank you for your patience.”

Vua studied him a moment longer. He believed she wanted to ask him many questions and talk with him as the King had, but she refrained.

“The King has told me of your arrangement, and I am pleased to have Miranda in my household while she recuperates,” Vua said. “As the Queen of the Temu, I assure you of her comfort and safety.”

Dreibrand bowed deeply. He was truly grateful to the Queen, and he was glad Miranda would be cared for. He thanked the Queen again.

“Show him upstairs,” Vua ordered the servant.

Dismissed, Dreibrand followed his guide onto the second level, where he was shown into a small room. Miranda slept peacefully on a bed in the warm light of an oil lamp. Her freshly bound arm lay across her bosom, and Dreibrand sat on the edge of the bed as the servant closed the door.

Her eyes opened promptly. “I heard you come in,” she whispered.

He leaned over and kissed her passionately. When his lips were slightly satisfied, he said, “I hated not being able to sit with you. To talk with you.”

“I disliked it too, but they are nice people,” she said.

“Nice to you,” he joked, fingering the lump on his head.

Miranda scolded playfully, “King Taischek told me you asked for that.”

“He talked to you this morning,” Dreibrand said uncomfortably.

“Oh, he did. Dreibrand, he is a real king. I can just tell. I don’t know how, but I can just tell. He has this way about him. Like no one can tell him what to do,” Miranda commented with excitement.

“No one can,” Dreibrand noted, but his worries pressed on his mind. “Miranda, did you tell him about—about how I left the military?”

After shaking her head, she said, “Did you tell him I was a slave?”

“No, no, I told him nothing,” Dreibrand assured her. “I don’t know that much to tell.”

Looking away, Miranda said, “What I have told you is enough. The rest is not pleasant.”

He took her hand. “Thanks for keeping my secret. No one must know that I left the military so inappropriately. It is very important.”

“And no one must know that I was a slave,” Miranda added.

They embraced, pleased that they had automatically known what the other did not want revealed.

“What did you tell him?” Dreibrand asked.

Miranda shrugged and explained that she had recollected for the King events pretty much as they had happened. Miranda paused thoughtfully before she added, “Shan was with him, so he knows the same, but do you suppose Shan can tell if someone does not say everything?”

“Maybe,” Dreibrand replied, wrinkling his brow, but then he changed the subject. “How do you feel?” he inquired.

“Better. Their medicine woman put a fresh cast on my arm, but she said I needed more rest,” Miranda reported.

“And you will have it. I have arranged your lodging with King Taischek. I will go fight for him while you recover,” Dreibrand said.

Miranda sat up quickly. “Go fight? Where?” she demanded.

“The Temu are raiding a tribe called the Sabuto. I will only be gone two or three weeks, I think,” Dreibrand explained.

“You’re leaving!” she cried.

“Miranda, I am trying to take care of us. I need to make money. And Shan is going, and I need to stay with him. He is our chance to get your children back and I said I would serve him,” Dreibrand said, perplexed by her attitude.

“You will not come back,” she moaned and pushed him away. Miranda struggled with her depression. Dreibrand’s companionship helped her tolerate the absence of her children, and the news of his departure filled her with fearful desolation. The attachment she felt for him suddenly seemed a wasted emotion.

Pausing to see things her way, Dreibrand soothed her. “I am sorry. I know you must be scared to be alone with these strange people. It is hard for me too. But I promise to come back. There is no other way. I have to do this. I need to earn our way, and I need Taischek’s favor. I know what I am doing. I will come back with a share of plunder and I will give it to you.”

Miranda studied his sincere face, still amazed that he cared for her. As always his generosity moved her, but she felt troubled.

“Dreibrand, you talk like it is right to kill people and steal from them.”

Her words sounded strange to his Atrophaney educated mind, and his mouth hung open without a reply. Dreibrand contemplated her statement, knowing that he had not led the most virtuous life. Even if his family was censured, he had grown up in a privileged class and it was a ruthless world that had bred him.

He tried to explain himself. “Miranda, is it right that your father sold you into slavery? Is it right that a beautiful woman like you wore rags? A few more years in the fields and you would have started to turn into a wizened peasant that nobody would notice. You say that you will not be a slave again. Well, this is what it takes. There are rewards in this life for those who are stronger than others.” Seeing the weakness of his argument, he finally admitted, “Maybe it is not right, like you say, but it is what I must do. I believe a lot of people will die before Shan is King in Jingten. Would you kill to get your children back?”

“That is different,” Miranda protested.

Emphatically, Dreibrand shook his head. “No! Killing is killing. Just think of my joining the war with the Temu as part of our greater goal. By serving Taischek I can gain a home for us. When the children are back with us, we will need a home, right? I admit that not all things I do are good, but I will always do good by you. That I can promise.”

He took her hand and she no longer pushed him away.

“You are right,” she conceded with forced pragmatism. “I should not have judged you. Now tell me what you and Shan plotted in your meeting with the King.”

Dreibrand related the few plans that had been settled. Shan’s confident declaration to defeat the Queen gave Miranda hope.

She considered what she had heard and said, “You must promise to come get me before you go to the Confederate gathering. This war is as much mine as anyone else’s, and I will not be kept separate from it. I have told Shan I wish to play a part in his plans, and he has accepted me.”

Dreibrand suggested, “When the time comes, we will see how your arm is.”

“My arm should be out of the splint before a month has passed. The medicine woman said so. I will be ready and fit to ride to this meeting where Shan will seek allies.” Miranda would not be deterred.

“And what of your headaches that you try so hard to hide from me?” he persisted.

“I get a little better every day,” she defended. “I will not let you ride off and forget me. I intend to go.”

“I would not forget you,” Dreibrand relented with a smile. “If I can, I will come get you.”

“You must promise,” she insisted.

“I promise. I will want to see you anyway,” he said and kissed her again.

She lingered in his embrace, but wondered if it would infringe on Queen Vua’s hospitality to let herself get carried away with her man.

“Where are you staying?” she asked breathlessly, pulling away from him.

“Can I stay here?” Dreibrand asked, not terribly concerned about it at that moment.

Miranda laughed, realizing he probably had not been issued any guest quarters yet. “That’s right. You slept outside,” she teased. “Well, I do not think you can stay here. I will ask Queen Vua to get you a place to stay.”

“She seems to like you,” Dreibrand commented.

Miranda tilted her head thoughtfully. “She is probably just being polite.”

“No. I think she likes you. And you should make sure she likes you. That would be a good thing,” Dreibrand suggested.

It was still a little hard for Miranda to believe that she associated with kings and queens, but she would try to do as he said. Miranda liked Vua and she did need a friend.

“I leave in two days,” Dreibrand said.

Her face fell with disappointment. She did not want to accept that he would really leave her.

Dreibrand coiled his strong arms around her body. “Let us enjoy these two days as much as we can,” he proposed hungrily, and she was distracted by his passion.

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