The fires of the five tribes burned late into the night in the hills around the Common Ground. The Temu had proposed a revolution and the Confederates debated it hotly. Some believed Shan could defeat Onja. He had disgraced the rysmavda by destroying their warding crystals like he was swatting at a bug. Rumors from the Sabuto Domain indicated that Shan had allowed the Temu to destroy a whole town in a morning, and they had looted a temple. And of course there were the recantations and executions of the Temu rysmavda. No matter how much the rysmavda attached to the various tribes condemned the act, it only brought attention to the facts that the Temu had defied Jingten and Onja had not struck with her killing magic.

No one could dispute that Shan was powerful, but some insisted that his power could not possibly match the power of Onja. Yes, Shan could make strong spells, but it did not mean he could defeat the Queen in a face-to-face battle in the Rysamand. Others argued that Onja’s great age had to be weakening her, as Shan said, and the time was right to rally behind a rys champion and free themselves of Onja’s domination.

Then Shan’s sincerity about revoking rys rule of humans came into question. Some believed in his good character, but other people would never trust a rys as a matter of principle.

Some counselors and warriors were practical and based their decisions on simple loyalty to the concept of the Confederation. King Taischek had asked for their assistance, and as allies, they should comply, at least in some way.

Final decisions varied from tribe to tribe.

At the Temu camp things were quiet because they had chosen their course weeks ago. Shan meditated, listening to the discussions of the other tribes, particularly the Zenglawa. When he was done spying, he let his mind drift, exploring new ways to express his magical abilities. Late in the night, Shan emerged from his trance and relaxed into his bedroll. The stars reflected in his black eyes, but he missed the view of the night from the clear high slopes of the Rysamand.

Shan heard Dreibrand wake up and shake off his grogginess, preparing for his watch. Miranda had fallen asleep hours ago and Dreibrand did not disturb her. Shan was thankful to have friends nearby. He almost pitied Onja, knowing that she existed bereft of any sincere companionship.

Maybe that is why she keeps those innocent little children, he speculated.

Sitting up on his elbows, Shan whispered for Dreibrand, who made only a faint rustle in the darkness when he moved closer. 

“Tomorrow may not go well,” Shan said.

“I know,” Dreibrand agreed. “I had doubts about even coming here. Do you think any of these people will join us?”

“The Tacus will. Ejan wants to join and he is convincing his tribe right now,” Shan reported.

Shan’s knowledge impressed Dreibrand, who thought it was incredible how the rys could monitor people far away. It was a tremendous advantage but Dreibrand worried that they might need it.

“Any other tribes?” Dreibrand inquired.

“The Nuram and Hirqua were still arguing when I stopped listening, but I do not expect them to cause us any harm. Now it is the Zenglawa who trouble me. They have many warriors in the area, and I know they will disregard the sanctity of the Common Ground. Tomorrow they will try to kill me,” Shan answered.

“What? We must tell Taischek. When are they coming?” Dreibrand cried urgently, but Shan quieted him.

“No need to wake anyone. I will talk to Taischek about it in the morning. The Zenglawa will not attack our position tonight. They plan to place assassins in the audience tomorrow. When I speak on the stage, they will try to shoot me with arrows,” Shan said, shaking his head at their folly. “They talked so openly as if I could not listen to them.”

“Maybe they did that on purpose to misguide you, and they plot something else,” Dreibrand suggested.

“Oh, I am sure they will plot many things, but I know the assassins will be there tomorrow. I read it in Atathol’s mind—may I never have to go there again,” Shan said.

Dreibrand paused. It was sometimes startling to consider the extent of Shan’s powers. “What will you do then?” he whispered.

“I will protect myself with my magic. I can prevent their weapons from hitting me. I shall try to neutralize the assassins without killing them. I do not want anyone to say a guest of the Temu violated the Common Ground. I will only defend myself,” Shan explained.

“Will that be enough? What should I do?” Dreibrand asked.

“Watch for trouble. I will have most of my focus on those assassins, and I might miss another threat. But hopefully after I thwart the Zenglawa that will be the end of it for a while. Do not be so distressed, Dreibrand. This will give me a chance to demonstrate my power to all of the Confederate tribes,” Shan said.

Dreibrand disliked the plan. “Shan, do not go tomorrow. I want you to avoid this danger,” he recommended.

“You flatter me with your worry,” Shan murmured.

“I need you to get to Jingten,” Dreibrand said.

“Yet I will go to the council tomorrow,” Shan insisted. “If I cannot be brave with humans, how can I be brave with Onja?”

Dreibrand stopped arguing and accepted that they would not gain allies by showing fear.

Shan continued, “I regret that I pull these tribes apart. The Confederacy has brought peace to the north.”

“It is best to draw the lines early in a battle. If they will not be allies now, they were worthless allies anyway,” Dreibrand stated.

“Tomorrow the Confederation may dissolve, and it will be the end of a good thing,” Shan lamented.

“As you like to say a new age is coming,” Dreibrand said. “Old alliances crumble and new ones will form. I suppose some bad days lie ahead, but once the war has started, you will get used to it.”

Shan chuckled darkly. “You always make things sound so simple. Even so, I regret the deaths I cause, so that I can set things right in Jingten.”

With a sigh, Dreibrand admitted, “Perhaps I just make things sound easy to soothe my own conscience. Maybe I am wrong to say you will get used to the dying, but the world is a beautiful place where people do ugly things. I entered the military life over two years ago and I have seen a lot of carnage, even directed a lot of it myself. After a while one does become numb to the killing. The true test to my soul was to let myself feel the pain around me. When you let yourself be numb, you will kill for no reason…”

Dreibrand trailed off, remembering Miranda close to death on the glacier. He tried to remember the last time he had played with Esseldan. He even missed Elendra although the little girl probably did not miss him. Looking up at the stars, he did not ask for redemption but the strength to win more battles. With the blood of so many on his hands, he could tolerate another war.

He continued, “But this war we make on Jingten must be done. It must be done for the humans, for the rys, and for Miranda.”

“You are right, Dreibrand. This war will be terrible like all wars, but I hope more good comes of it than evil. I have chosen my actions, and I must not moan about the consequences,” Shan decided. He then apologized to Dreibrand for making him late for his turn at watch.

Reluctantly Dreibrand went to his duty and watched carefully until dawn, expecting the Zenglawa to attack.

In the morning Taischek was not pleased with Shan’s news about assassins, and he complained at length about Atathol’s worthless character. No tribe had ever been so deviant as to plot a public assassination on the Common Ground. Like Dreibrand, the Temu King did not want Shan to attend the council, but Shan convinced him that he could handle the assassins. The rys emphasized that he did not want the Temu to raise arms while on the Common Ground, unless it was absolutely necessary.

“Let the other tribes see the evil Onja inspires in those loyal to her,” Shan concluded.

In the amphitheater, faces were grim and warriors fingered their weapons nervously, fearing the Confederacy might collapse at any moment.

As speaker, Atathol swaggered onto the stage and opened the council for the second day.

The Zenglawa King announced, “Before the tribes proclaim their decisions, I would remind my Confederates why our ancestors long ago acquiesced to the rule of Onja. She has been the Queen of Jingten for as long as we have history, and she deals with her enemies harshly. In life she demands loyalty and taxes, but our spirits are free. Her enemies she makes into Deamedron, shackling the soul with magic. And the Deamedron are not just humans, but rys too.” Looking directly at Shan, he added, “Even the rys long ago accepted the rule of Onja.”

Shan countered, “Long ago, long ago! You speak of centuries past. Then, Onja truly was supreme, but twenty-two centuries have passed since she made the Deamedron. Her time now fades, and it is my time of ascension. The strongest rys always rises to the throne. It is the natural course of our society. Onja is not immortal, and she is afraid. Why do you think she tries to pay humans to murder me? It is because she cannot do it herself.”

Atathol barked, “You have made your case, Shan the pretender. Now let me warn my human brothers against your dangerous ideas.”

“I can assume I will not have the friendship of the Zenglawa to rely upon,” Shan said with cold certainty.

“The Zenglawa will not participate in any revolt against Jingten,” Atathol proclaimed.

“Will you raise arms against the Temu if Onja commands it?” Taischek demanded bitterly.

Atathol cast his eyes down, answering no.

Taischek frowned. He had seen Atathol lie better, but at least Atathol had given him the courtesy of lying poorly. Shan and Taischek exchanged knowing glances.

King Ejan rose from the Tacus section and said, “The Zenglawa have made their decision and shared their opinion. The Tacus now wish to state their decision.”

Atathol begrudgingly yielded the stage, deeply suspecting the Tacus King had a greatly different opinion.

Solemnly Ejan announced to his Confederates, “The Tacus Tribe has decided to lend its full support to Lord Shan and the Temu. Shan’s vision of a world free of Onja’s tyranny appeals to us. I know Shan to be an honorable rys who will end taxation from Jingten, like he said. I would see my tribe inherit a free world, and I will join the Temu on their march to Jingten.”

Ejan crossed the stage and bowed to Shan.

“Lord Shan, I will commit half of my warriors, including myself to your campaign in the spring. And the Tacus will pay no tribute this year,” Ejan declared.

Shan stood up and returned the bow, gratefully accepting the pledge of the Tacus King.

The Hirqua and the Nuram announced their decisions next. Unfortunately they did not commit warriors like the Tacus, but the tribes did lend what support their courage would allow. The Hirqua agreed not to pay tribute, but they wanted to reserve their army for the defense of their homeland with rebellion sweeping the land. The Nuram would not directly enrage Jingten by withholding tribute, but King Volvat sincerely pledged not to raise arms against the Temu or any of its allies.

Militarily Shan had only gained half an army, and that not until spring, but much had been achieved. Two more tribes were withholding tribute, and this defiance would shock Onja. The snows would block the pass by the time she wholly accepted that three tribes were actually not sending tribute. Then it would be too late for her to send the rys soldiers that the humans feared.

Shan kept his mind tuned into the surrounding people, especially the Zenglawa. He could feel each body and every soul, and he vividly recalled his attack on the Kezanada. He disliked the memory but it gave him strength. Shan felt the edginess among the Zenglawa and he located three assassins in the top row of their section. He felt their lurking excitement. They believed that they could kill him and win Onja’s favor for their tribe.

It was important to Shan that Atathol betray himself in front of his Confederates. If the Zenglawa were to be his enemy, Shan wanted them isolated. He did not want Atathol to reconsider his plan, and Shan decided to present the assassins a better target and coax Atathol into attacking.

Better now than on the road back to Dengar Nor, Shan thought.

When Shan left the partial security of the Temu section, Dreibrand restrained himself from following.

Noticing the discomfort of his foreign warrior, which he shared, Taischek whispered, “They must see Shan’s strength.”

Taking the stage, Shan issued a rather bland and uninspiring thank you speech. His mind could not be spared to focus on elegant words. As Shan expressed his appreciation for the audience that they had allowed him, he casually faced Atathol several times. Atathol stared back at Shan with great intensity, and the rys could sense the Zenglawa’s courage coiling for the strike. Speaking while focusing on the assassins became more difficult and Shan realized what a gamble he had taken. If his concentration was flawed, he could get hurt.

Appearing to remove his attention from Atathol, Shan heightened his awareness around the King and the assassins while ending his speech. The rys no longer saw his audience with the sight of his eyes. With his mind, he saw only his enemies, and his magical perception provided him with the vivid details he needed.

He saw the subtle hand signal from Atathol. From the top row of the Zenglawa section, three bows swiftly rose with archers behind them. Arrows jumped onto the strings as the assassins took aim. Shan visualized his spell instantly. Not long ago wielding magic of this precision and power would have taken him a long period of mental preparation, but his skills were expanding rapidly.

Miranda and most of the other people saw the assassins raise their weapons as Shan turned his back on them. Except for a few gasps, there was no time for anyone to react.

“Shan!” Miranda cried in a strangled voice as her hands flapped excitedly for her bow, although she could not possibly make a shot in time.

With a vibrating snarl two arrows flew from their bows. Shan’s mind had locked onto all three minds of the archers and he knew the instant the men decided to release their shots. Shan’s eyes burned bright blue as his spell sheltered him. Instead of the arrows slamming into his exposed body, the missiles burst into hot flames and only sprinkled his rippling cloak with sparkling ashes.

The third assassin had yet to fire his shot, and he hesitated as he watched the other arrows wither in the impregnable magic around the rys. This assassin had been prepared to shoot, ordered to do so by his King and Prime Rysmavda, but in the final moment, he had been reluctant to murder. His fingers still tentatively held the string.

The other two assassins reached for their second arrows, but Shan ended the assault. His mind enveloped the bows in the hands of the three archers, and the weapons were incinerated in a superheated flash. The failed assassins cried out in pain and flung the glowing embers from their burned hands. Sparks rained onto the Zenglawa section, and warriors scrambled away from the assassins, fearing more retaliation from Shan.

The fiery spectacle of Shan’s defense convinced all who saw that Shan had reason to boast of his power, and the Tacus were further encouraged by the display. However, the Zenglawa paled with fear, and not a single warrior dared to draw a weapon. With a perturbed menace, Shan whirled on Atathol. Eyes still glowing with power, Shan approached the King, who cringed in a very unroyal posture.

“I am as powerful as Onja,” Shan snarled. “So if you lack the courage to strike at her, do not expect to succeed against me.”

“They—they did not have my consent. I would not—I would never condone such an action on the Common Ground,” Atathol stammered.

“Silence!” Shan roared. “Atathol of the Zenglawa has disappointed his Confederate brothers. Leave now before you cause more trouble.”

Thrilled to see that Shan had weathered the attack, Taischek sprang to his feet, followed by Dreibrand. Miranda left her seat as well, but a firm yet gentle hand took her arm. General Xander had halted her departure. The Temu opened his toothy mouth but issued no words. He really wanted to say just about anything to her, but a crushing shyness assailed the valiant Temu General.

“Let go of me,” Miranda insisted.

Xander finally managed some words, knowing he could not grab her and not say anything. “Stay. You should not go near the Zenglawa. It is not safe. Remember how you angered Atathol? He may be unpredictable, especially in this moment of shame.”

“Shan will not let the likes of him hurt me,” Miranda argued.

“Is there not enough trouble, Lady?” Xander whispered.

Miranda had not intended to give in, but the pleading look in Xander’s eyes made her relent. The council did teeter on the verge of a violent eruption, and she decided to go along with the General’s sincere wish to protect her.

Taischek and Dreibrand were at Shan’s side now, and Taischek yelled, “How dare you attack my guest and friend? Atathol, if I didn’t have greater things to accomplish, I would call this an act of war. But I won’t sunder the Confederacy because of a foolish Zenglawa. Atathol, you are never to enter the Temu Domain and may we never speak again.”

Atathol barely heeded Taischek’s tirade because he was so shocked that his plan had failed. The arrows had been in the air, and Atathol still had not fully accepted that Shan had not been hit. He had meant to swiftly kill the rys and end the mad rebellion that Taischek had infected the Confederation with. Once Shan was dead, the Zenglawa could have claimed the bounty and life would have continued without worry of Onja’s retribution. Now Atathol had enraged the renegade rys and disgraced his tribe in front of his allies.

Regaining some composure, Atathol stood despite Shan’s simmering proximity. Taischek glared at him with passionate offense, and the foreign mercenary seemed ready to kill him right now. The other tribes were yelling with outrage, and some Tacus warriors had tried to reach the assassins, but a line of Zenglawa warriors had formed to stop them.

Braving their hatred, Atathol announced his retreat. “The Zenglawa shall depart. But remember us when Onja enslaves your spirits.”

“Let them leave in peace,” Shan shouted, before anyone got hurt.

The Tacus warriors who had sought to seize the assassins relented, remembering that this was the Common Ground.

As the Zenglawa left their seats, Shan scanned their faces. They quaked in the sight of his ire, but Shan resisted the pleasure their fear offered him. He wondered why Onja’s bounty had tempted them so much more than his offer of freedom, but he did not hate them. Shan forced himself to forgive their greedy foolishness.

They are insignificant compared to my true enemy, he thought.

The Zenglawa section had almost cleared out when Shan noticed one of the assassins still standing on the top row. It was the archer who had not fired, and he was staring back at Shan. The archer’s scorched hands hung at his sides, and he was oblivious to the glares from the nearby Tacus. One of his comrades grabbed his arm and pulled him along with the last of the Zenglawa. For a moment Shan’s attention lingered on the archer, and he wondered why the Zenglawa had not fired his arrow. He had been about to do it. Shan had read it in his mind. Perhaps he had convinced one member of the Zenglawa not to serve Onja, but it was a small consolation.

As the last of the Zenglawa passed between the ancient statues on their way out, Taischek muttered a few Temu expletives.

Shan spent the rest of the day talking privately with the other kings. Ejan arranged to muster with the Temu in the spring and share information until then. The Kings of the Nuram and Hirqua further agreed to pass along any useful information to Dengar Nor, particularly if they noticed more Kezanada movements.

That evening, Shan returned to the Temu camp feeling encouraged and especially glad that no fatal violence had occurred at the council. Around Taischek’s fire the mood was relaxed now that the worrisome council had ended. Scouts had reported that the Zenglawa had broken camp and were leaving in the gathering dusk. Because it was not Taischek’s way to stay too serious for too long, he settled in after his meal for some drinking. A servant fetched a bulging wineskin from his cargo—an act Xander readily applauded.

“I brought this in case things went well,” Taischek explained, although everyone knew Taischek brought the wine in case of anything.

Dreibrand passed Miranda a cup of wine before accepting his own. Her closeness pleased him, and he wished they could slip away into the darkness, but the sentries kept a tight perimeter, and they would probably attract undesired attention.

The King raised his cup and all the others followed.

Taischek toasted, “We have lost the Zenglawa as our Confederate brother, but the Confederacy continues. This is a minor loss compared to the gains we will make. To the future King of Jingten!”

Shan allowed their cheers to please him.