I heard the words of Lin Fal the Prophet, and I believed. But I knew his days were numbered—Semsem II, Temu ruler, year 1230 of the Age of Onja.

The prisoners squinted when they were led into the morning sun. The grime of Taischek’s prison had smeared their blue robes and they plodded down the castle road to the city under heavy guard. Prime Rysmavda Arshen was the foremost prisoner, and the warding crystal on a silver chain around his neck had been replaced by manacles and iron chains on his wrists. Thirty rysmavda and acolytes trailed behind Arshen, but few expressions matched the fury on Arshen’s face.

Astride a chestnut horse with a white mane and tail, King Taischek led the procession and Arshen hurled condemnations at the back of his monarch. He warned of Onja’s killing fire falling from the sky and he told the Temu warriors that surrounded him that they were as good as Deamedron already. Arshen called for the other rysmavda to join him in haranguing their captors, but only a few added their voices to the threats of the Prime Rysmavda. Over a week in prison with no sign of Onja’s magic to save them had worn on the faith of some, and others were too afraid to speak and draw attention to themselves. 

Crowds overflowed onto the castle road, and people packed the streets leading to the city square. Some people started throwing rocks at the rysmavda, but Taischek quickly ordered a few warriors to stop them before those who liked to throw rocks encouraged those who had not thought of it.

In the city square Baydek Hall stood across from the rysmavda temple of Dengar Nor. Named after the Temu monarch who founded the bureaucracy, Baydek Hall housed the offices of government officials. The steps of Baydek Hall were broad and designed as a platform for public announcements, parade observation, and sometimes trials. The steps would be crowded today with the thirty-one prisoners on display.

Warriors held back the crowd, and Taischek watched as the prisoners were lined up in their chains. The name of the King flew off the lips of many in the crowd as they hollered their support. The rysmavda had been in prison for over a week now, everyone had heard about the looting of the Dursalene temple, and people were beginning to believe that they had a chance to defeat Onja. No righteous firestorm descended to punish the tribe, Taischek seemed as healthy as ever, and the report was circulating that he had actually killed rysmavda.

Shan waited with Dreibrand and Miranda just inside Baydek Hall. Warriors and bureaucrats milled around the lobby, taking turns looking out the doors and windows. The sound of the crowd outside filled the three story high lobby like a strong wind in a hollow tree. Shan and his friends were tucked in an alcove beside the main doors, and beyond the glossy pillars, they could see the backs of the heads of the rysmavda lining up on the steps.

Miranda wet her lips and noticed that she was breathing faster.

“Are you all right?” Dreibrand asked.

She nodded but looked afraid. Dreibrand understood her fear. Taischek and Shan had asked him to give his testimony about the Atrophane Empire in the east where Onja had no control. He had addressed large groups of soldiers on countless occasions but he had never spoken to the public. Under the Darmar’s censure, all Vetas were excluded from pursuing a political career.

Dreibrand clasped her hand and told her not to worry.

“I hope no one has to be killed,” Miranda said.

“They serve Onja; just remember that,” Dreibrand reminded her sternly.

A commotion broke out on the steps. Dreibrand strained to see what the yelling was about as a couple warriors pushed past him to assist the situation.

As the yelling dwindled, Shan explained, “They had to gag Arshen. Taischek will speak now.”

King Taischek mounted the steps to stand beside his prisoners. He wore his official crown and all of his courtly finery. A winged serpent of gold circled his head, complementing his skin that was the color of polished oak. A long tailed coat of brilliant red draped his body and the sleeves of his coat were constructed entirely of thick strings of amber beads. Beneath his coat he wore a knee length white robe trimmed with golden bells and impossibly white boots covered his feet, fitted with golden spurs. He was as much the lord of the palace as the master of the battlefield.

Banners rose on each side of the King, and the purple fields of fabric with their yellow serpents cast shadows over the prisoners. The thousands cheered for Taischek until horn blasts insisted on quiet. Gradually a suitable hush crept over the city square, and Taischek scanned the faces of his tribe.

The King addressed his people.

He officially announced that the Temu Tribe would offer no tribute to Jingten and that they were the ally of Lord Shan in his battle to overthrow Onja. Although this news had been a fact to a few and a rumor to most, hearing it confirmed by the King finally made it reality, and cries of dismay erupted from the crowd.

Taischek continued, projecting his voice even farther from his stocky body. Of course not everyone could hear him, but it would be enough that some heard him.

“The wealth and hard work of generations of Temu have been wasted on Onja. Not even a rys can rule forever. It has been twenty-two centuries and Onja is old. Look, I take her temples and her priests and nothing happens.” Taischek gestured contemptuously to the sky. “In Dursalene I looked directly into a temple orb and the Queen did not strike! The Temu are done with Onja. The Temu will no longer obey an evil rys who claims her powers make her a Goddess. The Temu are not afraid to let Onja know what we think of her. We have taken her temples and we will disband her priests!”

Taischek pivoted to view his prisoners. Chomping on his gag, Arshen glared at the King. They had hated each other for years, and the Prime Rysmavda still did not quite believe that Taischek dared to treat him so. The faces of the other rysmavda ranged from terror to resignation. The younger faces of their acolytes appeared convinced already.

“Rysmavda of Dengar Nor, I, King Taischek, ask you to return your full loyalty to your tribe and renounce your service to Onja. Do not contribute to her evil tyranny. Help your tribe to be free,” Taischek said.

His invitation met with murmurs of approval from the crowd. As always the King was fair with any Temu.

Arshen growled through his gag and struggled violently against the two warriors who kept him in place.

“Prime Rysmavda Arshen wishes to speak,” Taischek said and signaled for the gag to be removed. “Let Arshen be first to set the example and recant his belief in Onja as the Goddess.”

Arshen gasped when the gag was pulled away, but he had no intention of accepting Taischek’s offer.

“The King of the Temu brings death and damnation to the whole tribe!” Arshen immediately cried. “Remember the false prophet Lin Fal. He burst into flaming cinders in front of a thousand of his worshippers during the kingship of Semsem II. Onja tolerates no blasphemy.”

“That was a thousand years ago,” Taischek scoffed.

“Now the King of the Temu would be the puppet of a pretender rys who has already failed once against Onja. The tribe will die as did Lin Fal,” Arshen predicted.

Taischek hated to let him go on like this, but he knew he had to let the Prime Rysmavda plead his case. The King did not want his tribe to think he had gone mad. He wanted to prove to his tribe that Onja had grown weak and her theocracy could be ended. 

“You know nothing of the powers of Lord Shan,” Taischek countered. “You call him a failure, but I see a rys who challenged Onja and lived! No one in history can make this claim.”

“The Goddess will consume the foolish rys and all who serve him,” Arshen insisted.

“Onja is no Goddess!” Taischek thundered. “If she were a goddess, I would have been punished already. If you will not listen to me, listen to Lord Shan.”

The rys emerged onto the platform and Arshen recoiled into the grip of his guards. The Prime Rysmavda did not want the presence of Shan to taint him.

“Do not fear me, Arshen,” Shan said. “My quarrel is not with you. Onja no longer needs priests to serve her. Her time comes to an end.”

“The Goddess is forever,” Arshen hissed.

Shan shook his head and, as he argued with the priest, he addressed the crowd as well. “Magic does not make a Goddess. Onja was very powerful and humans and rys had to bow down to her. But she is not eternal. Like all rys, Onja was born of the Rysamand that were born of the world—not the other way around. Onja cannot create life or make the weather. The true power of the divine cannot be grasped by any mortal creature.”

Turning directly to the people, Shan proclaimed, “When I am King of Jingten, I will not be called God and I will not demand tribute. The human kingdoms will be free of rys tyranny.”

People gasped in wonder and some cheered. Shan’s dream of a new world was tempting even when compared to their ingrained fear of Onja.

Shan continued, “Arshen, I do not blame you for serving Onja. It is a fact that her power was great and we all have had to obey her. But as a rys, I know that her power fades. Already it is apparent to any who would open their eyes. Onja does not strike at the Temu or me because she cannot reach this far. Her magic will let her see me, but her impotence strangles her as we speak. Her killing magic has receded into the Rysamand. The human kingdoms have no need to obey her now.”

Taischek spoke. “Even now human kingdoms exist that Onja does not rule. A new warrior has entered my household. He is from a distant land east of the Rysamand, where humans know nothing of Onja. If she was a Goddess, would there be kingdoms she did not control?”

The King beckoned to the building where Dreibrand waited, and the foreign warrior walked out. Dreibrand bowed to Taischek, but his eyes roved the faces of the priests and the spectators. The morning had turned hot and the drama of Taischek’s show trial was ripening. Dreibrand wondered how deeply the populace cared for Onja’s religion. He knew in his country priests could be very powerful and they would not be likely to recant their beliefs because that was the source of their power.

But the Temu seemed willing to give up Onja’ religion. Dreibrand attributed this to the fact that Onja was not a Goddess, and people knew that in their hearts, even if they had never dared to say it. 

Taischek proceeded to carefully question Dreibrand, who explained the large human civilization that existed beyond the rule of Onja. He answered that before he traveled west, he had never even heard of rys.

Then the King had Dreibrand relate the events that took place while he was in Jingten, describing the confrontation between Shan and Onja in which Onja had relented and Shan had been unharmed. Dreibrand added without prompting that Shan had saved his life when Onja assailed him with her magic.

The King whirled on Arshen. “Tell me priest of Onja, why does your Goddess only rule here? Is she not jealous of the many Gods and Goddesses who are worshipped in the east? We are allowed no idol or belief outside of her.”

“The mind of the Goddess cannot be known,” Arshen responded dogmatically but the conviction was ebbing from his voice.

“I’ll tell you why—because it is far away,” Taischek cried. “If Onja was a human, she would be no greater than the ruler of the Empire where Dreibrand Veta is from. But instead she is an evil and corrupt rys who would make us worship her.”

Arshen’s mind scrambled a defense and he regained his venom. “You would let a stranger fill your head with lies. All humans must do Onja’s will or pay for their disobedience with their souls,” he said.

“I doubt she has that threat over you,” Taischek hissed so that the crowd could not hear. “Stay stubborn, Arshen. It would not ruin my day to execute you.”

“Kill me and your domain will rise against you,” Arshen warned.

“I don’t think so. Nobody complained while you were in prison,” Taischek said.

Shan cut them off. He knew that Taischek and Arshen would degenerate into bitter name-calling if left to do it. “Arshen, there is no question what Onja has been capable of, but her power no longer reaches the lowlands. She demonstrates this by placing a bounty on my head. Why would Onja have to pay humans to hunt me?”

“The bounty is to warn humans that you are the enemy,” Arshen answered.

“It is because she cannot hurt me here. She cannot hurt any of us,” Shan persisted.

“Arshen, recant your belief in Onja as Goddess. Set the example for the rest of the rysmavda of the Temu Tribe. Deny Onja and declare your only loyalty is for your tribe,” Taischek ordered.

“No,” Arshen said.

“You know what the stakes are,” Taischek warned.

“Never!” Arshen shouted and the other rysmavda jingled in their chains with agitation.

Taischek had predicted that Arshen would refuse, but the King would not relent. He glanced meaningfully to Shan before he continued, “Arshen, do not throw away your life for an evil sorceress. Come back to your tribe that wants you. You can’t expect the people to worship evil.”

“The Goddess is not evil. Onja protects all of Gyhwen. The Temu Tribe must not turn from her. Has the story of the Deamedron grown so old?” Arshen pleaded, trying to get the people to believe. It was hard for the Prime Rysmavda when no supporters cried out from the sea of people. He knew they believed in Onja’s power. It was a fact. But the tribe was on the side of Taischek and Shan.

Will I have to die to make them believe? Will we all have to die? he thought.

As Arshen’s hungry eyes looked for support, Shan went to get Miranda. She saw him coming toward the doorway and she knew it was time. All of her nerves buzzed like hummingbird wings.

Before Dreibrand had left her, he had tenderly put his lips close to her ear and whispered that she should pretend like she was mad at him so everyone could hear. She loved how he encouraged her and his little joke helped her in this moment of terror.

Miranda followed Shan outside. She had tried to prepare herself for the crowd, but being the center of its attention was much more intense than looking at it through a door. The crowd seemed to become especially attentive, and Miranda’s mouth felt especially dry. Luckily, she did not have to speak right away as Shan introduced her.

“Tell us what Onja did to you, Miranda,” Shan prompted.

Miranda cleared her throat. Everyone was looking at her. The King, Shan, Dreibrand, General Xander, countless Temu warriors, the spectators, and the prisoners. She looked at the grizzled priests and remembered that Shan had said she must help convince them to recant. If they did not, the executions would start.

With a deep breath she found her voice. The words were halting and soft at first, but they quickly became stronger. Suddenly Miranda wanted everyone to hear her.

“I came west with my children. I have a six-year-old daughter and an infant son. Onja took them from me and said I had to be her slave. I said I would not do this, and she tortured me and left me to die on the icy mountains. Lord Shan saved me from freezing with his magic. My children still are in Jingten. I will help Lord Shan become King in his home because he will give my children back.”

Her nervousness caused her emotions to surge and she directed her anger at Arshen. “Why do you tell your people to worship Onja? She steals children and tortures people.”

Arshen had no answer, but Taischek pressed him. “Arshen, how do you expect the Temu to tolerate this behavior from Onja. Will she start to demand our children with the tribute?”

“I do not know the mind of Queen Onja,” Arshen defended.

“Do you think we can have no better Goddess than a rys sorceress who steals children?” Taischek asked.

“I cannot judge the actions of the Goddess. It is our place to obey,” Arshen said.

“Enough of this, Arshen. Onja is old, and the Temu must join with Shan to get rid of her. You cannot tell us it is to our benefit to stay subservient to her. Recant!” Taischek yelled.

“I told you no! If the Temu do not turn back to Onja, she will kill us all. Rysmavda, do not recant. We must show our people our faith,” Arshen ordered.

The prisoners stirred with mixed feelings. Taischek stomped past Arshen and addressed the prisoners at random, asking them to recant. Arshen continually yelled for the rysmavda to stand by their beliefs, until Taischek ordered him regagged.

The King reached a young acolyte. An earnest youth in the midst of his indoctrination who looked fearfully at his King.

“Recant and join your tribe,” Taischek said.

The wide eyes of the acolyte rolled toward the Prime Rysmavda, seeking guidance. He feared Onja most, but he feared Arshen first and he wanted to obey his high priest. Part of him believed he must not recant in order to show his tribe that they must not rebel against Onja. He believed that Arshen was right.

“This is your last chance,” Taischek warned. He had not anticipated that the acolyte would stand so firm.

“No, my King,” the acolyte blurted.

Taischek paused and looked at the face of the teenage Temu. This moment was as hard as he had thought it would be, but the boy could be a fanatic just like Arshen if he let him live.

“Executioner!” Taischek ordered.

The youth gasped as reality assaulted him and he grabbed for the warding crystal that no longer hung around his neck. Four warriors hustled out with the chopping block followed by an axe man who began to warm up his shoulders for the swing.

Miranda watched two guards start to drag the youth toward his sharp edged doom. She turned to Shan and then Dreibrand, but she could see that they believed this had to happen. Before it was too late to act, she rushed to intercept the acolyte and stopped his advancement toward the executioner.

Clasping his hands, Miranda implored, “You are too young to be so stubborn. Would you die for a Queen who tortured me? Your death will not change my mind. I have to fight Onja. Now tell your King that you are loyal to him.”

Her action truly stunned Taischek, but he said nothing. He saw that the acolyte could be on the verge of recanting. Taischek would never be sure if it was the truth of her words or her pretty face that worked on the youth.

The acolyte gaped at Miranda, absorbing her words. He looked at the executioner and the warrior waiting to put a bag over his head. Then he looked to Arshen, but Miranda grabbed his cheek and turned him toward Taischek.

“Look to your King,” Miranda said.

The acolyte blinked with confusion, but he was grateful for his second chance.

“I am loyal to the Temu Tribe and King Taischek,” the acolyte said.

“Say Onja is not a Goddess,” Taischek ordered.

“Onja is not a Goddess,” the youth whispered.

“Louder,” Taischek barked.

“Onja is not a Goddess!” the acolyte wailed and fearful tears filled his eyes. He dropped to his knees, falling out of Miranda’s grasp. “My King, protect me. Onja will kill us all.”

With relieved tenderness, the King comforted him. “No. She cannot hurt us. See, we are fine.”

Filled with confidence from her success, Miranda turned to the nearest prisoner and pleaded for him to recant. He was a full-fledged rysmavda and he capitulated. Miranda moved up and down the row of prisoners asking them to recant. Her sweet invitation to live was hard to resist, and all but six priests refused with Arshen.

Speaking to Arshen, Miranda tried to convince him one last time, so the other six priests could change their minds. “Do not die for Onja. She does not even care about you.”

Arshen’s gag had been removed again so he could recant, but he said, “Stop lying to me you wandering strumpet. Onja has your children because you cannot take care of them.”

Although his harsh tone allowed Miranda to guess that he had insulted her, she did not understand every word, but Dreibrand did.

“I’ll kill you myself,” Dreibrand cried and his ivory handled dagger appeared in his hand.

Shan restrained him. “He is dead already,” he whispered.

Taischek stepped close to Miranda and said, “I thank you, but there is nothing you can do for him. Go stand by Shan.”

Miranda wanted to do more. She wanted to argue with the rysmavda all day. She could not understand their loyalty to Onja, but she obeyed the King and returned to her place. Dreibrand glared at Arshen one last time before joining Miranda with a kinder gaze.

Slipping his dagger back in place, Dreibrand said quietly, “You were wonderful.”

“You saved many lives, Miranda,” Shan added.

The rysmavda who recanted were released from their chains and their blue robes were stripped away. In their plain under tunics, the rysmavda kneeled to their King, and Taischek told them to watch closely the fate of their former brethren because all followers of Onja were the enemy of the Temu.

Taischek returned his attention to the expectant crowd. “Temu, you have seen twenty four rysmavda recant their belief in Onja as Goddess and return their loyalty to their tribe. Unfortunately, the Prime Rysmavda and six foolish priests refuse to join us even though I have clearly shown that Onja has grown weak and that Onja is evil. It grieves me to put this sentence on men who were born Temu, but the tribe cannot suffer enemies to live among us. They are sentenced to death.”

Excitement rippled through the crowd and people pressed against the ring of warriors who held back the spectators. General Xander hollered orders for more warriors to reinforce the barrier and he hollered to the civilians to stop pushing.

Taischek leaned close to Arshen and said, “I should have done this to you a long time ago.”

“Your soul will serve the Queen for eternity in harsh bondage,” Arshen snarled.

“At least I get to see you die first,” Taischek retorted with satisfaction. “Enjoy watching your men die, Arshen. You go last,”

With a victorious flourish Taischek left the condemned rysmavda and stood by Shan. A warrior beat a slow and solitary rhythm on a drum and one rysmavda was dragged toward the executioner.

“Your faith honors the Goddess,” Arshen shouted.

Miranda watched the rysmavda facing his executioner. When she had pleaded for him to recant, his eyes had not even looked at her, but he lost his composure when a warrior pulled the bag over his head. The rysmavda struggled in terror as insistent hands pushed him toward death.

A simple basket that might have been used to collect long stemmed flowers or even carry a baby was placed by the chopping block. Miranda fought the urge to turn away, knowing she must watch to show how much she believed in Shan’s cause.

The blind prisoner was bent over the block now and the axe was raised. The entire throng of people seemed to hold its breath, then the axe fell, and a great roar rose from the throats of the Temu. The head fell cleanly into the waiting basket, but the body jerked with alarming animation before flopping away from the axe man. Blood spurted in quantity and two warriors immediately wrapped the body in a shroud and tossed the head in the package. The corpse was dragged to the foot of the steps, leaving a red trail on the polished stone.

The axe took the life of the second rysmavda with all efficiency, but the third rysmavda collapsed in the grip of his captors, shrieking for mercy. He recanted his belief in Onja as goddess and begged the King to accept him back into the tribe. Taischek had to be merciful but he ordered the rysmavda put back in prison because he had taken too long to recant.

Three more rysmavda died, leaving only Arshen. As the warriors took the Prime Rysmavda to the block, he again warned Taischek of his doom.

“Enough of your empty words. You have always been against me, Arshen,” Taischek said.

Prime Rysmavda Arshen, master of all Temu temples and servant of Onja died on the block. The axe fell with a meaty thud. The crowd no longer cheered, exhausted by the violence. The drummer stopped and an eerie silence held the city as if the people waited for Onja’s reply.

The bloody remains of Arshen were tossed onto the pile of bodies.

Taischek signaled to General Xander to proceed with their planned finale. The temple on the opposite side of the square was heavily guarded in case the crowd became frenzied and decided to loot the temple themselves. The doors of the temple opened and a squad of workers hauled out a cart bearing the temple statue of Onja. Warriors parted the crowd so the statue could be brought before the King.

Taischek placed his hands on his hips and surveyed his people, waiting for the perfect moment to speak.

“Temu Tribe, this was an easy day. Harder days lie ahead. Like the fools executed today, some people in other tribes will stay loyal to Onja. Enemies will gather against us, but with the power of Lord Shan, we will prevail. The Temu will help Lord Shan return to his home and end the Age of Onja!”

The workers pulled the statue off the cart. It crashed onto the pavement and one blue stone arm broke away. Sledgehammers had been loaded on the cart as well, and the workers each seized one and began to demolish the statue. The heavy hammers soon bludgeoned the lovely face of the Queen of Jingten into chunks and dust. 

When the King left, the crowd took a long time to disperse. The spectators who wanted souvenirs from the historic day gleaned every shattered scrap of the statue from the pavement.

Upon returning to the castle, Miranda could not relax. She paced alone in her apartment while Dreibrand had lunch with the King and Shan. It bothered her somewhat that she had not been invited, but other things bothered her more at the moment. The bloody images of the executions played through her mind over and over.

A sharp pain started in her temple and she had to lean on the mantle of the fireplace. A headache had not struck her for many days, and she wondered if the stress of the morning had caused her to relapse. Next a couple drops of blood came from her nose and she hurried to wipe it away. Perhaps the power of Onja could not punish the rebellious Temu, but Miranda still felt the touch of Onja’s wrath.

The nosebleed ended and she was cleaned up just as Dreibrand returned. He carried a covered plate of food and Miranda greeted him with a forced smile.

“Here, I brought something for you to try. The Temu call it palalai. It is just great. You have to try it,” Dreibrand said. He removed the cover, revealing a crispy fruity pastry but Miranda quickly turned away.

“I cannot eat,” she said.

Dreibrand reconsidered the dessert and set it down. He moved close to her and massaged her shoulders.

“Everything went very well today. Taischek is very pleased,” Dreibrand reported. “He is a popular king and after today his tribe will not doubt his decisions. And most of the tribute had already been collected by the temples for this year and that will more than finance Shan’s war.”

Miranda heard the good news but she could not forget the men who had just died.

“Why didn’t they listen to me, Dreibrand? Why did they choose death when they could have lived?” Miranda asked.

“They are priests. It is their job to be faithful. Nothing you could have said to Arshen would have changed his mind. Taischek and him have been feuding for many years I am told. Arshen would not have sided with Taischek for any reason. He preferred to die thinking he had won,” Dreibrand explained. “Miranda, just think about the rysmavda you saved. Some of them would not have recanted if you had not asked them as you did.”

Miranda sighed, knowing she must see this day as a victory. “I just cannot believe I saw six men get killed,” she murmured.

Dreibrand moved his hands around her body and kissed the side of her face. “You really impressed me today. The most powerful Atrophaney lady could not have done better,” Dreibrand praised.

Miranda remembered her experience in front of the crowd. She had worried about her foreign accent, but Shan had coached her carefully and she had spoken with success. It had been good to feel important.

“Now do that again at the Confederate Council and we shall have many allies,” Dreibrand predicted.

“I will have to speak at the council?” Miranda asked with a share of excitement and surprise. She turned in Dreibrand’s arms to face him, waiting for the answer.

“Yes, Shan told me so. But he said we should not talk about that. He has some details to work out with Taischek,” Dreibrand said.

“When do we leave?”

“The day after next,” he replied. “Now you must stop moping about those executions. They were servants of Onja and you must think only of that. Pleasant things remain to be done today. We need to go shopping.”

“Shopping?” Miranda said, confused by the frivolous proposal.

“Yes. You need more clothes and I need more clothes. And I want to buy us two new horses before we leave,” Dreibrand said.

She looked at him skeptically.

“Dengar Nor is a fine and beautiful city. You must want to see some of it,” Dreibrand urged. 

Dreibrand always made everything sound like a good idea and she did not protest. She had only seen the city from the main road or the city square, and it would be a marvelous thing to walk the streets of a real city. Hoping her headache would fade, she agreed to go because she needed the distraction.