Heavy thoughts weighted the steps of Taf Ila as he made his way slowly to the throne room. Being Captain of the Jingten Guard was usually an effortless assignment. He had responsibilities, of course, but except in the autumn when the humans brought their tribute, there was rarely anything of consequence to do—until this summer.

When the Tatatook had abruptly appeared bearing the human girl, Taf Ila had actually been sent east to collect the other humans. Never before had Onja allowed humans to approach Jingten from the east, and, at the time, Taf Ila had worried that her unprecedented mercy signaled changing times.

Changing times?

The concept caused Taf Ila difficulty. Even by a rys’s reckoning things never changed in Jingten, but the arrival of the easterners had quickly altered the timeless quality of daily life in Jingten. The festering stalemate between Onja and Shan had finally collapsed, resulting in Shan’s expulsion from the bosom of the Rysamand. And the humans had been badly treated, except for the children. Although Taf Ila had not personally harmed Miranda, he still felt linked to her murder.

Taf Ila winced, upset that he had actually let such thoughts form. He should not consider Onja’s commands with criticism or guilt. The woman had defied the Queen’s will and suffered the consequences. That was all.

Nearing the throne room, Taf Ila concentrated on his duty. He did not know why Onja had summoned him. The door wardens let him enter and the rich magical light of the throne room bathed him. No guards attended Onja, who waited on her dais. She always addressed her captain from her throne. The centuries could never diminish her love of lording over others. Respectfully Taf Ila bowed to her, holding his gaze down until she spoke.

“You lack punctuality today,” Onja observed.

To Taf Ila, this was a scathing criticism, but he mustered an apology. “Forgive me, my Queen. I have many concerns these days. You have made a busy rys of me.”

“I shall make a busier rys of you,” she responded.

He noticed a stack of parchment scrolls on a table near the dais.

“What do you will of me?” Taf Ila inquired humbly.

Onja wore a dark blue high-collared gown heavily embroidered with gold, and her haughty gaze held her loyal captain. When he looked upon his Queen, Taf Ila felt renewed reverence as the depth of her powers went beyond his senses. He believed a more regal sight than Queen Onja could not exist.

“I am expecting more visitors from the east,” Onja announced.

Surprise lifted Taf Ila’s features.

Onja continued, “You will ride out to meet them and escort them to Jingten. It is a large force of five hundred soldiers, so take an appropriate number of rys with you. Your intention is not to make battle. Just display our strength and intimidate them mildly, if they need it. I have every confidence that you will perform this task well, Captain.”

It took Taf Ila a moment to absorb the information. More people in the east? An army! He needed more details.

Collecting his thoughts, he asked, “My Queen, have you put them under a spell?”

“Their leader is Kwan and I have contacted him. He is compelled to come to me. He will accept your invitation to escort him to Jingten,” Onja explained.

Taf Ila relaxed now that he knew his Queen had the foreign leader under her influence. His errand would be somewhat difficult, but with a little care, he could manage it.

“My Queen, please forgive me, but I must ask. Why do you want to see these humans from the east? You have never wanted them before,” Taf Ila said.

Onja indulged her captain’s curiosity. “There are great realms in the east now. An empire of humans, if you can imagine such a thing. The eastern world has an impressive civilization, by human standards of course. Therefore, I would speak with this Kwan. Our contact will begin the expansion of my dominion to the far east. It is time the rest of Rystavalla accepted me as their Goddess.”

A rare and mysterious smile graced the Queen’s face as she considered the servitude of the east and pictured more proud humans submitting to her out of fear. Claiming a new land would make her feel young again. She had no particular purpose in mind for her future subjects, beyond enjoying them bowing to her supremacy.

Her plan stunned Taf Ila, who had never thought much about the east. 

When he said nothing, Onja continued, “But this will take time. My first step is to meet this eastern general and perhaps find a use for his army. They approach the Rysamand as we speak, but you need not leave on your mission until morning. I have another task for you today.”

As if this was not enough? he thought with exasperation, then instantly regretted it.

Directing his attention to the table full of scrolls, Onja said, “You must arrange for these dispatches to be sent before you leave tomorrow.”

Taf Ila regarded the pile. He had handled dispatches countless times, but he had never seen so many. Some bore the blue seal for the rysmavda, others had the gold seal for delivery to kings, and one had the black seal.

 “There must be two for every kingdom,” Taf Ila said.

“Note the special one for the Kezanada,” Onja instructed.

Taf Ila looked at the black seal and nodded.

Onja continued, “In the drawer is a copy I had made for you to read. You need to know about this situation. Read it now.”

Her voice trembled with anger on the last word, and Taf Ila now sensed that his Queen was upset. He obeyed instantly and removed the parchment from the drawer. The flowing script of the official Jingten scribe stated the Queen’s decree in the common human language. Taf Ila considered the scribe’s beautiful hand better suited to the rys language, but few humans could read that.

Onja expected that her captain would want to speak freely once he had read the scroll. With a lock of white hair sliding over her shoulder, she leaned forward like a curious cobra.

“Any questions, Captain?”

Taf Ila’s black eyes fell to the marble floor as he considered discarding his concerns, but the issue was too important. He glanced at the parchment again, hoping the words would change.

Forcing his voice not to falter, he said, “My Queen, this bounty you offer the humans for Shan’s head troubles me.”

Onja’s upper lip twitched with displeasure as she sat back against her solid and reassuring throne.

“Why does this trouble you?” she asked.

Onja obviously wanted him to talk to her about the dispatches, and he raised his gaze cautiously and answered, “By rewarding the humans for his death, it could be interpreted that you caused his death…thereby breaking Dacian’s Last Law.”

Onja kept her face neutral but she scowled inside. Dacian had really inconvenienced her with his last decree and she wished that she had shut him away only one day sooner.

“Does the Captain of the Guard presume to tell his Queen the law?” Onja snarled.

“No, no,” he answered quickly. “But my Queen, is it really necessary to arrange his murder? Is not banishment from Jingten enough?”

“He would kill me!” she hissed defensively. “Do you know what he has done just this morning?”

Taf Ila shook his head, but her accusation surprised him. It was true that Shan desired to be King, but no one took him seriously anymore. Shan was known for his generous heart and non-violent disposition, and Taf Ila did not want to believe his Queen’s claim.

“This morning Shan led a Temu war party on the Sabuto town of Dursalene. He used his magic against the Sabuto, and the Temu looted my temple! The flames have consumed it already!” Onja shouted in rage. “The noble Shan would throw away your precious rys law, and you accuse me of his crimes.”

Taf Ila gaped at her news. He could not imagine that the humans would be so bold, even with Shan’s encouragement.

He apologized, “I am sorry, my Queen. I was ignorant of the looting of a temple. But I meant only to inform you that this bounty would upset many citizens. Could you talk to Shan and make him see reason? I cannot imagine that he really wants to make war on you. No one wants to see a rys die. For over two thousand years we have lived in peace and unity, and it has been good. We must not lapse into the darkness that consumed our cousins in Nufal.”

Revealing her fury, Onja stormed down the dais and Taf Ila felt energy crackle around his body. He was a brave rys, but he wavered at the approach of his wrathful Queen, raising his hands and falling back a step. The parchment fluttered in his grasp as a puny barrier to her anger.

With blue light flaring in her obsidian eyes, Onja screamed, “Speak not to me of history. I was there. My magic ended the killing, and my magic will guard the rys forever.” She bent over the cringing Taf Ila and added, “Shan would bring back the dark days you and the others fear. He is no longer a citizen of Jingten and does not deserve the protection of our law. His lust for my throne is unjustified, and his greed will get many rys killed if I do not stop him. So, do not whine to me, Captain, about Shan’s rights, because he does not have any! Tell that to the citizens of Jingten when they complain about the bounty I offer the humans.”

Receding into a bitter calm, Onja said, “He knew his place among us, but he would not stay in it. Shan is a dangerous renegade, and I will deal with him. And if I choose to use my human servants, that is my concern. Your concern is this Kwan in the east and those dispatches.”

The blue light withdrew from Onja’s eyes. Turning from her captain, she decided not to punish him. She had wanted to hear his opinion. Taf Ila was a capable and loyal rys and she should not have treated him so badly.

“You have your assignment. Leave Shan to me. The interests of Jingten are ever close to my heart. Dismissed,” she said.

With rattled nerves Taf Ila saluted somewhat ridiculously with the parchment then bowed to his Queen. He had always accepted Onja as the supreme rys, but today she had truly terrified him. For a moment he had thought she would strike him dead and the experience left him visibly shaken. Scooping up the scrolls, he left the throne room. He was so disturbed that he dumped the dispatches at his office and walked straight home to his fine stone house. A couple hours of meditation in the comforting surroundings of the house that had been his home for almost seven hundred years would soothe him.

Unbuttoning his suede jacket, Taf Ila strode through the entry hall and did not notice his daughter rush to meet him.

“Father! You are home early,” she cried happily.

Her voice startled him and he jumped back with uncharacteristic nervousness, but the sight of his daughter pleased him. He immediately reached out and hugged her close.

“Quylan.” He said her name as if it was a spell that would calm him. Stroking her glossy black hair, he gave her another squeeze.

“Something is wrong,” Quylan stated.

“I was upset, but I am better now,” Taf Ila said.

She looked at her father quizzically.

“I came home to have some tea,” he said tiredly.

“I am glad to have your company, Father,” Quylan said and tugged at his hand.

His lovely daughter renewed him and he followed Quylan, whose steps skipped lightly down the hall to the kitchen. Although Taf Ila and her mother had separated, their union had been blessed. He also had an older son, but his daughter was his joy. The largest heap of treasure in the Keep could not rival her in his heart.

Dropping heavily into a kitchen chair, he watched Quylan pour the tea. Afternoon sunlight streamed through the windows, filling the room with pure warmth. A blue aura flared briefly around Quylan when the sun hit her just right. Although still a rysling, she had begun to show potential as a magic user—a lot of potential. Taf Ila was suddenly glad that she would have this strength to help her through life.

Quylan sipped her tea while her father did not touch his cup. Patiently she waited for him to explain his obvious distress, but he only stared moodily at the kitchen table.

Finally she asked, “Father, what has happened?”

Sighing, he took a drink of tea and looked at her warmly. “Nothing to concern you, my treasure. You are still free of the problems of your elders and should enjoy the remainder of your ryslinghood,” he replied.

Quylan ignored his paternal evasion and whispered, “Is there bad news about Shan?”

His expression turned instantly hard and Taf Ila demanded, “Why do you ask about him?”

He had never used such a harsh tone with her, and Quylan looked away with guilt. Softly she confessed, “I tried to find him the other day. I saw him with human warriors, but I could not see much else. It is hard to see beyond the Rysamand.”

“Why would you do such a thing?” Taf Ila asked with horror.

Quylan defended herself in a bolder tone and looked straight at her father now. “No one has ever been banished from Jingten before. I wanted to see what he was doing. I was worried.”

“Do not worry yourself about him,” Taf Ila ordered.

“There has been bad news about him,” Quylan surmised again, hoping to coax the news from her father.

Taf Ila buried his face in his hands and regretted yelling at his sweet daughter. He had to gain control of his emotions. Many rys depended on him, most especially Quylan. Sitting up, he tried to rub the tension out of his temple. He did not want to share the terrible news with Quylan, but she would hear about it anyway.

In a soft voice, he said, “Shan has led an attack on a temple and it has been looted and burned. Queen Onja has issued a bounty to the humans for his head.”

“What?” Quylan cried. “She cannot.”

“The Queen can do this because it is necessary. Shan cannot defile temples. The Queen will not excuse his behavior. I have already discussed this with her, and asked her not to call for his death,” Taf Ila explained quickly, reaching out to Quylan.

“No, no. They have quarreled before. Shan always comes back,” Quylan insisted.

Taf Ila set a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “Not this time, Quylan. Shan has gone mad. He is banished and does not have the protection of law.”

“Father, a rys cannot say that a rys must die. Just because Onja asks the humans to do it does not get around our sacred law,” Quylan protested.

“And I told her so,” Taf Ila soothed. “But Queen Onja made it very clear that other rys should not get between her and Shan.”

“But you taught me yourself that Dacian’s Last Law was more important than any other law. You cannot stand by while that law is ignored,” Quylan argued.

“I must, and you must, Daughter,” Taf Ila said firmly. “Rys have another law and that is a challenge for the throne is between the monarch and the challenger. Only in that way can the strongest truly prevail and lead us. Onja and Shan will never relent in this battle, and this can only end with one of their deaths. Leave the guilty to the guilty.”

“Oh, it is so horrible,” Quylan whimpered with tears now clinging to her lashes.

Her father hated to see her upset and wished Shan had never caused this evil conflict that marred the beauteous peace of Jingten. Taf Ila vowed to do his best to protect Quylan from the coming turmoil that he felt building like a bad blizzard.

He said, “Now forget Shan. I doubt the humans could kill the likes of him. I have more important news that concerns us more directly. An army of humans is in the Wilderness, and I must leave tomorrow to meet them.”

“An army in the Wilderness!” Quylan cried with dismay.

Still coping with the shock himself, Taf Ila continued, “I know it is hard to imagine, but Queen Onja wants to speak with these people from the east.”

“An army. But Father, it will be so dangerous,” Quylan worried.

“Onja has everything under control. They are only humans, and I need only to escort them to Jingten. But I do not want you to go anywhere near these humans. And stay away from the Keep. I insist that you obey me in this,” Taf Ila decided.

Quylan nodded absently, trying to imagine an army approaching Jingten from any direction, let alone the east. The overwhelming news frightened her young mind. Suddenly the world had stopped following the rules she had been raised to believe it would always follow.

After finishing his tea, Taf Ila attempted to console his daughter. “Quylan, you are not of age yet and need not let the troubles of your elders bother you. As a rysling you have the privilege of ignoring these ugly days. Go to your friends’ parties in the forest and sing and dance. Let your soul soak up the glory of the Rysamand and enjoy the sweetness of youth. You will be old most of your life.”

“Yes, I will try,” Quylan sighed, actually wishing she could turn her mind from the disturbing events.

Trying to end on a lighter note, Taf Ila added, “But do not make promises to any young males. You are too young for that.”

Quylan indulged her father’s attempt to treat her like a rysling, and she giggled shyly. “Father, you talk like you were never eighty nine.”

“Well I certainly was once, and that is why I said that. A female should not have a mate until she is at least one hundred and fifty,” he said.

“At least!” she agreed jokingly, glad that his dark mood had improved.

Taf Ila rose and kissed her lightly on the forehead. “Thank you for the tea and the talk, Daughter. I shall meditate upstairs for a while, then I will be gone for a couple days.”

“Be careful Father,” she said sincerely.

“You would be surprised how well I manage,” he said.

After Taf Ila went upstairs, Quylan wandered into the backyard and sat on a bench next to the lakeshore. Some swans drifted silently over the water. Outwardly Jingten seemed as beautiful and tranquil as ever, but Quylan could only think of the troubled future. Humans were in the Wilderness, and Onja and Shan would throw away the law to battle with each other. And she had never seen her father so disturbed.

He was frightened, she admitted. What did Onja say to him?

She raised her eyes from the lake and stared westward into the mountains—the direction Shan had taken in his exile. She wanted to look for him again, but her heart ached with illogical young love and she could not focus.

 Over the years, Quylan had accompanied her father to the Keep many times, and she had shyly watched Shan whenever she dared. Twice she had noticed Shan observing her and dreamed that he was interested. Two years ago Shan had come to Taf Ila’s office when she had happened to be there, and Shan had smiled to her before her father shooed her out. She had wanted to say something to Shan, but the aura of his great power had kept her silent.

But it was his power that attracted her and now that Shan was banished, her dream of knowing him could never happen. 

Quylan wiped a lonely tear from her cheek and scolded herself for breaking her own heart. Any male rys would gladly accept her devotion, and she wanted only the outcast.

I should take Father’s advice, she concluded miserably.