Miranda had to languish in Fata Nor for nine more days after the disturbing incident with the Kezanada before General Xander returned with most of the Temu war party.

People rushed out to greet the returning column of warriors. Miranda easily spotted Dreibrand among the Temu and her heart thudded with joy to see him alive and unhurt. His bangs had gotten long over the summer and now a couple small braids held them on each side of his face, put there recently by a Temu comrade. His beard had started again as well.

Seeing Miranda, he steered Starfield away from the ranks. Miranda rushed into his anxious arms as soon as he jumped from his horse. They simply hugged each other for a moment to affirm their physical reality.

“You look better,” he said happily.

“I am much better,” Miranda agreed then kissed him.

When their lips parted, Miranda grinned but Dreibrand stared at her thoughtfully. He remembered the woman he had seen killed at the first Sabuto village.

“What is it?” Miranda wondered.

His face brightened and he dismissed the memory. He could be happy now.

“I was worried about you, but that is over,” he replied. “I have something to show you.”

Dreibrand opened a saddlebag and removed the sack with gold coins in it. Miranda gasped lightly when he let her peek at the contents, but her awe quickly turned to caution and she glanced around nervously.

Dreibrand chuckled approvingly, but he dispelled her worries. “All the warriors have the same. This is my proper share. No one will take it. We raided a rysmavda temple in Dursalene and it was full of treasure.”

Recalling that the rysmavda were an omnipresent part of the western world, he looked over his shoulder to the temple. Nebeck and his junior rysmavda had not joined the people of Fata Nor in greeting the returning war party.

“Where is Shan?” Miranda asked.

“He and Taischek went with a few warriors to the capital city of Dengar Nor. Xander came here to escort the Queen’s household back to the capital. So of course I came here,” Dreibrand explained.

“Did King Taischek get the message about the Kezanada?” Miranda inquired urgently.

“Yes. One of Vua’s messengers reached us a few days ago before we split from the King,” Dreibrand said. “Miranda, are these Kezanada really as terrible as everyone makes them out to be?”

“Yes, they are frightening,” Miranda said, recalling the tension when the Kezanada had entered Fata Nor.

Dreibrand shrugged. His judgement of these infamous mercenaries would have to wait until he saw them for himself.

“Dreibrand, do you think Shan is all right?” Miranda whispered.

This question amused Dreibrand. He had come to have an even greater appreciation of Shan’s powers over the last couple weeks.

“Yes, I am sure Shan is fine,” he assured her. “He went on with Taischek instead of backtracking to Fata Nor with me so he would spend less time on the road and avoid the Kezanada.”

Gesturing with his eyes to the temple, Dreibrand inquired about Rysmavda Nebeck. Dreibrand had learned that Onja could communicate with her priests via the large orbs in the temples, and he very well expected the rysmavda in Fata Nor to know what had happened in Dursalene.

“The rysmavda have kept to themselves in the temple. That Nebeck talked to the Kezanada though. I saw it myself. I do not know what was said, but I am sure he told them everything he could,” Miranda said.

“Yes, but Nebeck will not matter much longer. Taischek is going to close the temples in the Temu Domain,” Dreibrand said very quietly.

“Really?” Miranda whispered.

“It is only a matter of days, but we will not get to see Nebeck lose his job. We are going to Dengar Nor,” Dreibrand said.

“I am told that is a fine city,” Miranda said with excitement.

~

Queen Vua’s household was packed and on the road early the next morning. With Kezanada in the area, Xander insisted upon a hasty departure. The residents of Fata Nor turned out to see off the Queen’s caravan. Silently some wished the warriors would not leave, but others did not worry so much. The Kezanada tended to trouble the upperclasses.

Most of the women rode in covered coaches and wagons, but Miranda rode her horse with the younger women and servants. Dreibrand conveniently chose to be among the warriors that flanked the female riders so he could chat with Miranda all day long.

He noticed Miranda had their old bow and quiver packed in her gear, but all the arrows were gone and she could not possibly draw the bow until her arm was better. At her waist she had tied her old knife—the one she had used to cut him loose when they met.

“I will have to see about getting you a new sword,” Dreibrand mentioned.

Her eyes lit up. “Oh please, could you? I just do not know how to ask the Queen, and I do not think she would approve. I think she would have said something about my knife but there was too much of a hurry this morning. But she gave me a look.”

“Oh, she probably has a dagger tucked in her sleeve,” Dreibrand joked quietly.

Before the day ended, Dreibrand heard more about Miranda’s sidearm than she did. At the midday break some of Dreibrand’s new Temu friends teased him because his woman carried a weapon, but he did not get angry. Although informed that an armed woman was unconventional in Temu society, he believed Miranda was safer with her knife and he knew that he was.

En route to Dengar Nor, Xander took every precaution, sending scouts in all directions around the caravan. The General did not want to be surprised by any Kezanada. The reported group of twenty warriors had evaporated into the countryside and Xander hoped fortune would keep it that way.

At sunset on their second day of travel the caravan reached Dengar Nor. The softened foothills gave way to a broad flat valley, heavily cultivated with green pastures, golden fields of ripening grains, orchards and vineyards. Rushing streams of snowmelt slowed into a system of creeks and rivers that watered the fertile valley. Rising out of the bounteous heartland of the Temu Tribe, Taischek’s castle claimed the top of a rocky mesa. A fine walled city clung to the base of the mesa, and a switchbacked road led from the city to the castle.

Stone towers flanked the main city gate and the yellow serpent standard flapped from both pinnacles. It was a splendorous city, and Taischek often employed artisans and workers to remodel and improve the city and castle.

The imposing castle and sophisticated city impressed Dreibrand. The Temu Tribe was far richer than the foothill town of Fata Nor had indicated.

Crowds cheered Xander when he entered Dengar Nor. Everyone at the capital knew about the sack of Dursalene, and they gave the returning war party the same adoration that Taischek had received four days earlier when he had returned. Xander enjoyed his glorious welcome, and Taischek descended from his castle to greet the General. The King proclaimed that the next day would be a holiday to celebrate the victory in Dursalene and the return of the royal court.

The caravan labored up to the castle and servants quickly began to unpack the Queen’s household. A steward sought out Dreibrand and informed him that the King had given him an apartment in the castle. This generosity pleased Dreibrand and he promptly requested that the steward take Miranda to his new apartment before she got shuttled off with Vua’s entourage. Dreibrand told Miranda to follow the steward, and then he took off in pursuit of Taischek so that he could immediately thank the King.

Miranda opened her mouth to ask him where he was going, but Dreibrand dashed through the crowd too quickly to be stopped. She scowled with frustration.

“Do you have any bags, lady?” the steward inquired.

Miranda turned to the Temu man. He asked his question again, and Miranda understood him the second time. She pointed to her saddlebags and the steward draped them over his shoulder.

“I need to take care of my horse,” Miranda said.

“It will be seen to. Please come,” the steward said.

He escorted her into the fine castle that towered many stories above. Graceful arches and high ceilings made the castle seem even bigger on the inside. Miranda had only experienced luxury once before in Jingten, but she found herself in it again. The steward took her to an apartment with a fire already blazing in a marble fireplace. Velvety furniture sat on thick carpets with octagon designs. In the bath, another servant was already heating water for her to wash.

Later as a girl washed her hair and sponged her back, Miranda actually had to laugh. Although her heart ached for the safe return of her children, she had to admit she liked the good treatment. While suffering through her dismal life, Miranda had dreamed of better things, but she had had no concept of how well some people lived.

I deserve this, she thought and reclined into the warm water.

 The servant was tying a robe around Miranda when Dreibrand returned with a wine cup still in his hand. Miranda promptly asked the girl to heat more water, and Dreibrand collapsed into a chair and set the wine on a table.

“Well, I managed to escape tonight’s drinking. I need to save my strength for tomorrow’s victory banquet,” he declared. “Gods! Taischek would rule the whole of Ektren if he stayed sober.”

Miranda sat on his lap despite his travel stained clothes. “You chose me instead of your party?” she said sweetly.

“Of course. I would rather be here. In Atrophane we say it is not much of a party if there are no girls,” Dreibrand explained.

Miranda laughed, a genuine laugh. She had missed Dreibrand’s sense of humor.

Unbuckling his chestplate, she whispered, “You must tell me more about how an Atrophane has a party.”

“As much as you want to hear,” he said feeling his lust build pleasantly. He had survived yet more battles and wanted the pleasures of life.

Politely Miranda thanked the servant and asked her to leave. She would attend her warrior herself.

The next morning Dreibrand rolled over in the empty feather bed. Sleepily he sat up and saw Miranda sitting at the window. Wrapped in a blanket, she rested her elbows on the windowsill and stared at the dawn over the Rysamand. The sun had just slipped over the peaks, lighting the snow-capped mountains in a fuchsia blaze.

Hearing Dreibrand stir, she murmured over her shoulder, “At least my children are in a beautiful place.”

Realizing the joys of the evening had faded into the realities of the day, Dreibrand walked over to her and put an arm around her shoulders.

“Miranda, we will get them back. Shan will help us. He just needs more time. In the Sabuto Domain I saw him fight and kill. He is doing as he said. I have seen his power and I know he will defeat Onja when he is ready,” Dreibrand said.

Despite her terrible grief, Miranda’s eyes stayed dry. “I know,” she whispered.

She continued to stare at the Rysamand, feeling her soul crack into sharp cold edges of determination.

My strength is returning, Onja, she thought spitefully.

“It is early. Come back to bed,” Dreibrand urged.

Miranda let him guide her back under the covers but she could not fall back asleep. Dreibrand returned to a deep slumber and Miranda realized that while she had been recuperating in Fata Nor he had known no rest on the warpath. Careful not to disturb him, she slipped away and quietly dressed. She wanted to see Shan.

When she left the apartment, the long empty hall looked like it went nowhere in the huge castle. Dreibrand had mentioned that he had seen Shan the day before, but Miranda had no idea where to find him. Wandering deeper into the building, she soon ran across a servant and inquired about the rys. The servant rattled off the directions and Miranda half understood them, but she gathered that Shan was quartered in the south wing. After questioning a few more servants after several wrong turns, she located his apartment. Two Temu warriors guarded Shan’s door.

“May I enter?” Miranda asked, sounding as confident as she could.

“That is the rys lord’s decision,” replied one of the Temu. “You are the woman from the east?”

“Yes. I am Miranda. Shan knows me,” she said.

“Then you may knock. Lord Shan will let you enter if he wants to see you,” the guard explained.

Trying to ignore the watchful Temu, Miranda knocked on the door. The presence of guards surprised her and made her think about the Kezanada who had been looking for Shan. The knock gained no response, and Miranda wondered if Shan was sleeping. Her patience soon eroded and she lifted her hand to knock again, but before her knuckles hit the wood, the bolt snapped back and the door opened slightly. Tentatively she pushed the door open but no one was there. She entered and slid the bolt back in place.

Shan had the best accommodations the Temu had to offer. A vast suite unfolded before her with many rooms connecting to the large entry hall. At the center of the foyer stood a beautiful vase taller than a person. Daylight streamed through a skylight and reflected marvelously on the many iridescent glazes. Miranda paused to admire the vase but saw no possible function for the oversized container.

She called out to Shan. His euphonious voice answered from the room farthest down the hall. Miranda found him on a divan apparently doing nothing.

With genuine warmth Shan rose to greet her. “Miranda. How wonderful to see you. Last night, Dreibrand told me you felt much better.”

She nodded, suddenly at a loss for words as she reacquainted herself with Shan’s features. After not seeing a rys for a few weeks, his appearance was slightly shocking, but his black eyes and the white streaks in his black hair quickly became familiar again.

“May I?” Shan said, gesturing to her arm.

With her consent he held her cast and concentrated briefly. Miranda saw his magic faintly flicker in his eyes.

“You can tell your medicine woman that your bone is healed and the cast can come off anytime. That is, if she is interested in my opinion,” Shan said.

“I will make sure that she is,” Miranda responded happily.

“Now sit with me. What did you come to talk about?” Shan invited.

Miranda did not waste time expressing her concerns. “Shan, I saw these Kezanada that pursue you. They look very dangerous. Can they harm you?”

Shan shrugged. “I accept the possibility that they could succeed…but they would have to get lucky.”

“You have guards on your door, I see,” she noted.

“A prudent precaution. Not all Kezanada are tall bold warriors. They have other agents, more discreet in appearance and possessing skills in stealth and murder,” Shan explained.

“And what happened to the warriors I saw in Fata Nor? No one has seen them since,” Miranda said.

Shan answered, “They are in the countryside, listening to their spies and reassessing the situation. I believe they hoped to catch me on the open road. I expect them to make their next move when I journey to the Confederate Council.”

Miranda pursed her lips in thought. She intended to go the Confederate Council with Shan and the possibility of a Kezanada attack disturbed her.

She continued, “I am told these Kezanada work for hire. Who do you think has hired them?”

“Anybody and everybody,” Shan chuckled mirthlessly, picking up a large parchment from the low table in front of him. “The Kezanada Overlord may have made me his own project, but I suspect that Onja has directly hired him. I would bet that other people have purchased the services of the Kezanada for information about my location.”

Presenting the document to Miranda, Shan added brightly, “Have you seen the details of my bounty?”

Miranda glanced briefly at the parchment then looked to Shan.

Politely Shan explained it to her. “This is the seal of Jingten at the bottom. And here it says that if a tribal leader presents my actual severed head to Onja, then his tribe shall be excused the payment of five year’s tribute. Or if a private party or individual is so fortunate as to acquire my head, then the payment will be one million gold pieces.”

Miranda’s eyes widened at the figure, which sounded very large.

“Cheap bitch!” Shan grumbled. “Jingten holds perhaps the greatest treasure in the world. A million gold pieces is a trifle. Onja flatters herself sending this offer to Taischek. I know he would not betray me.”

Miranda contemplated the parchment and the details Shan said it contained. Even though Shan scoffed at the reward Onja offered for his head, Miranda believed that it would encourage more people than the Kezanada to seek his death. The rys’s jeopardy would increase with every day.

“Shan, let us go to Jingten now, before the snows. Before more enemies gather around. There is no reason to go to the Confederate Council. The tribes there might try to kill you. This is between you and Onja. You do not need to recruit allies. For my children, let us leave for Jingten now,” she pleaded.

Emotion showed on Shan’s face. He truly cared for her. Her desire to return to Jingten and fight inspired him, but he needed caution as well as courage.

Slowly Shan responded, “For your children I must wait. My mind and body must be completely ready when I face Onja again. In the Sabuto Domain I did things that I have never done before and I learned much. I explored aspects of my power that I had hoped to never use, but it opened my mind to new directions. I can kill and destroy, and I can do it without hesitation, but I must not forget that Onja has two thousands years more experience than me. I cannot afford to overestimate my powers. If I launch my attack on Onja prematurely, then we all shall perish. Me, you, Dreibrand, Taischek, all the people who trust me.”

The rys sighed heavily. “Miranda, know that I desperately want to go now. I wanted to strike at Onja when she put you on the glacier to die, but if I had done that I might have failed and you would be dead for certain, probably Dreibrand too. But I cannot allow my rage to provoke me into a foolish move. Defeating Onja must be a perfectly calculated act.”

Miranda buried her face in her hands, physically holding her grief inside.

“Then tell me how to help you if we must wait. This idleness will kill me. Command me, Shan. Tell me how to keep your enemies away from you,” she insisted.

Shan considered her request, uncertain how to reply. He wanted to use her, and he cherished her loyalty, but she had already suffered so much. Shan hated to put her in harm’s way, but he had accepted her offer to serve him.

He decided, “Miranda, I do not know if you can keep my enemies away, but you can help me turn people away from Onja’s side. The more humans that rebel, the weaker Onja will become, and the sooner I can strike her down. She draws confidence from her domination of others just like I draw confidence from the support of my friends.”

“Yes, of course. What must I do?” Miranda said eagerly.

“It may not be easy for you. I want you to bring your story to the people. I want people to see the young woman, who Onja has wronged, the mother of the children who are captives in Jingten. Then humans will see that it is not just for a rys they fight,” Shan explained. “The Temu Tribe is loyal to the King, but defying Jingten is very stressful for them, and out of fear, people might look for reasons to go against Taischek. But this can be kept to a minimum if Taischek and I act quickly. Already we are taking the rysmavda from the people. We cannot have agents of Jingten insisting Onja is a Goddess when we seek to destroy her.”

“Dreibrand told me the temples would be closed,” Miranda said.

“More than closed. The rysmavda, including Prime Rysmavda Arshen of Dengar Nor, were put in prison two days ago. All rysmavda in the Temu Domain should be locked up by now. Next week the King plans a spectacle in the city with the prisoners here. Most of the rysmavda are of the Temu Tribe, so Taischek will give them a chance to recant their belief that Onja is a Goddess and their role as priests. Those rysmavda from other tribes are being deported. I want you to come to this. You can tell people about your children and you can confront the rysmavda with the wickedness of Onja,” Shan said.

“What of the priests who do not give up their belief?” Miranda asked.

“They will be summarily executed,” Shan stated.

Miranda gasped lightly. Resisting the possibility, she said, “But they will all give up their beliefs, right?”

“Most will,” Shan assured her. “Taischek will not kill members of his own tribe without giving them ample opportunity to choose their people over Onja.”

“If some stay loyal to Onja, can’t they just be left in prison?” Miranda suggested.

“It would not send a strong enough message. We are trying to show other tribes that Onja is not a Goddess and that she cannot do anything if her rysmavda are removed from power,” Shan said heavily.

“It is so terrible,” Miranda murmured.

Leaning closer, Shan gently added, “You can help convince them to recant. Most of the rysmavda are not bad men. Being a priest is an occupation passed down through their family or they became a priest because it suited their skills. It is not wrong for them to believe in Onja’s power, because she has great magic, but they must see that they can no longer promote her as a Goddess who demands tribute.”

Miranda nodded, trying to comprehend everything Shan had said. It seemed to make sense, but it was hard to think about so many things at once—the loyalty of the Temu, the imprisonment of priests, the impression other tribes would receive.

“Shan, how will I do as you ask? I am not good with the language. I do not always know the words to use,” Miranda said.

“I will help you. But the harder part will be speaking in front of so many people. Most of the city will turn out. Have you ever been in front of so many people?” Shan inquired.

Miranda stiffened. She had not thought about it that way. The only time she had ever been in front of a crowd of people had been her slave auction in Ciniva, and that had only been a small crowd. She shuddered and sent away the terrifying memory.

“It frightens most people, but you can get used to it,” Shan said.

Thinking of her children, Miranda said, “I can do it.”

“If you get afraid, just look to me. I will be there to help you. You have a week to improve your language skills and I will help you practice. Now, tonight think about what you want to say, and we will go over it in the morning.” Shan instructed.

With a deep breath Miranda tried to picture herself in front of so many people, people who were actually listening to her. “Thank you for letting me help. This sounds so important, I hope I can do it right,” she said.

Shan started to smile reassuringly but his sculpted lips failed in the attempt and he turned away from her. Miranda felt that something troubled him, and she took one of his hands and asked what it was.

His slender blue fingers squeezed her hand lightly. “Before you devote yourself to this cause as my enemies gather, I would confess something to you,” he cautioned softly.

“What?” she whispered, apprehensive.

“I should have acted quicker to help you when you arrived in Jingten. I should have known Onja would do something terrible. I had no doubt that she meant to keep your children, but I thought I would have time to get you and the children out of Jingten. It is my fault you are separated from your children. I did nothing when I might have,” Shan said.

This statement caused no anger in Miranda, and she immediately tried to soothe Shan. “Do not blame yourself. Although I was afraid of Onja, I chose to stay that first night. Dreibrand tried to get me to leave, but Esseldan was sick and I thought it was best for him to have the medicine and be inside. You could not have convinced me to leave, if Dreibrand could not.”

“I could have tried. I should have tried. Instead, I wasted time sneaking off to talk with Dreibrand,” Shan lamented.

“It is easy to find mistakes in the past,” Miranda admonished. “If you want to blame yourself for Onja’s wickedness, then I forgive you. I know you did not want this to happen to me, and I do not take back my wish to serve you. Shan, you are good.”

Shan snorted. “I no longer can claim to be good,” he muttered.

“None of us are perfect,” Miranda said.

Shan seemed to resist this notion, but finally conceded, “True enough. You are kind to me, Miranda. Let me say that I am sorry the rys have committed this crime. I feel responsible.”

“Most of my life has been very unpleasant. I stopped blaming anyone but myself a long time ago,” Miranda explained.

Shan studied her, wondering how bad Miranda’s life had been. It surprised him that Onja’s cruelties compared to others in her life.

“Any help you give to me will put you in danger,” Shan warned.

“I am not afraid. I have already been tortured by Onja. Not much else worries me,” Miranda said.

Although he did not show it, Shan’s heart ached when she mentioned the abuse the Queen had inflicted on her. “Know that I will protect you with my magic if anyone tries to hurt you while you serve me,” Shan promised.

Miranda remembered his magic keeping her warm and alive when she neared death, and it gave her courage knowing he would continue to protect her.

“Now go get that cast off,” Shan suggested pleasantly.

Miranda hugged him and Shan told her to come back early the next morning.

That night Miranda lay awake thinking about what Shan had assigned her. She wondered if she really could inspire people to fight a war like Shan said. She thought about how strange it was that she had run away from war in Droxy only to find herself plotting a war now. Although she had no experience in such complicated matters, she resolved to learn. Her heart steeled itself for the violence ahead.

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