The smithy put his anger to good use, and by the time they spotted the gates of Miltinoth the king’s staff had been completed. Ayalah held it before her as they approached the gates.
“Hail, Warrior Tarall,” came the intonation. She couldn’t see the face of the warrior who greeted her.
“Hail, Warrior,” she responded. “I come bearing the king’s commission, as well as a prisoner.”
“The prisoner’s name?”
“Retnik Greyson.” It was protocol to find out a prisoner’s full name when bringing him in for questioning; her misstep was no longer a concern.
“Proceed.” The gates opened before her.
The city of Miltinoth was laid out in such a way that the palace sat at the center of the city, with four cobblestone roads leading straight away from it in different compass directions to the four city gates. The rest of the city, made up of predominantly dirt roads and narrow homes, connected to these main roads arbitrarily, and it was along this main road, leading directly to the palace, that Ayalah led Greyson.
The usual band of raggedy beggars lined the street, some of them still sleeping, others hurling insults at Ayalah as she passed. When she was still a new recruit, she had argued back with them, insisting that it wasn’t the king she supported by becoming a warrior, but rather the people of the city: she was there to protect them. But, they would counter, if she was there to protect them, why didn’t she stop the king from tearing down their homes to put up these new roads? She’d tried a variety of answers—she didn’t have the authority, the roads were a necessary inconvenience, they’d been completed before she finished training—but none of them satisfied the beggars, whose protestations, though frequently nothing more than slurs and ignorance, sometimes pierced a place in her thoughts and stuck there permanently. Eventually she’d learned to tune them out; it was with a degree of stoicism, therefore, that she moved past them now, ignoring their pleas and shouts.
Greyson was taken from her at the palace gates by the pair of towering warriors with clean-shaven heads the king kept around to frighten away commoners, and she was instructed to return for the trial the following day. She was used to such proceedings; she nodded, thanked the guards, and went off in search of a bath and a bed for the night.
She was received at the palace gates early the next day, ushered in to the trial chamber, and instructed to wait for the king. Greyson was already in the room. She stood calmly, staff in hand, waiting for the king to appear; Greyson, however, was still sulking over his puffy cheek. He paced the small room, back and forth, forth and back, until Ayalah felt almost dizzy from watching him. Finally, after close to two hours, a murmur of voices from beyond the door alerted them that the king was coming. Greyson stopped his pacing and prostrated himself on the floor, as required of a commoner. Ayalah stood behind him.
“All hail the mighty King Mathais,” announced a servant in a booming voice.
“Hum,” the king said as he took his seat. “And what’s all this about?”
“Your Majesty,” said Ayalah, “I present to you the prisoner, Smithy Retnik Greyson, for your judgment and deliberation. As you know, Smithy Greyson was commissioned to make for you this staff that I hold here. However, the smithy refused to complete the staff in the time allotted for it, in direct violation of your policy—decree number fifty-two, I believe.”
“Yes, yes,” the king rolled his eyes. “I know my own laws. Continue, Warrior Tarall, but get to the point.”
“Well, Majesty, as I said, the smithy refused to comply with the allotted deadline, and so I have brought him to you for judgment. He did, however, complete the staff along the road, for fear of harsher punishment.”
The king beckoned her forward, and she placed the golden staff in his outstretched hands and bowed. “Hum hum,” the king mused. “The smithy does good work, I see. The staff is exactly what I asked for.” He admired it for a moment longer before looking up. “And what happened to your face, Warrior Tarall?”
“The smithy attacked me on the road,” she said. She raised her face but kept her eyes on the ground, letting the king see the extent of the damage.
“Thank you, Warrior Tarall,” the king said. It was a dismissal, and she retreated to the back of the small room. Was that a smirk she caught on his face?
“Rise, smithy,” he said. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
Greyson rose and bowed. “I do not agree with the charges, Your Majesty. I was given two weeks to make the staff, and Warrior Tarall returned before the two weeks had passed. Had I been given the correct amount of—”
“Do you call one of my warriors a liar, smithy?” the king interrupted.
“I—well, that is—no, of course not, Majesty.”
The king laced his fingers together. “I see.”
“But, Majesty, I believe Warrior Tarall was mistaken—it must have been an accident. If I—”
The king held up a hand for silence. “I’ve heard all I need to. You disobeyed a direct order to finish a royal commission in time. Is that correct, Warrior Tarall?”
The king may not have liked her, but Ayalah knew he had to take the side of one of his warriors, especially in front of witnesses. If his other warriors found out that their king didn’t completely protect their interests, they would never pledge their allegiance to him. Her word here, therefore, was truth. “Yes, Majesty.”
“But, Majesty—” Greyson began.
“And you attacked a warrior of the Crown. Is that correct, Warrior Tarall?”
“Now, just a moment, Your Majesty—”
“Silence, smithy!” the king snapped. “Speak only when spoken to.”
Greyson was silent.
“Better. These are serious accusations, Warrior Tarall.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. This prisoner should be spared no punishment—he has purposely and willfully disobeyed you.”
The king nodded thoughtfully. “And yet, he did complete the staff along the way.”
“Yes, Majesty,” Ayalah conceded, with an edge—she hoped—of reluctance in her voice.
“Hum,” mused the king aloud. “Well, we must pardon him the death sentence for finishing the staff—and it seems there would be no point in sentencing the smithy to the labor yards, for such a pair of strong arms would not be sorely taxed in such places.”
“Majesty,” Ayalah said, “surely the brute will be punished for attacking me?”
“Of course, Warrior Tarall. What would you suggest?”
“The dungeons, Majesty. A few months in the dark should sort out the smithy’s priorities. Perhaps,” she sniffed, “it will also turn him into a more tolerable traveling companion. I, in the meantime, will continue to serve the Crown.”
The king looked at Greyson for a long moment. “Does your face hurt, smithy?” he inquired. It was obvious he was aiming for a sympathetic note to his voice, but all Ayalah could detect was scorn and boredom.
“It is bearable, Your Majesty.”
“I have an idea,” said the king. He twisted his moustache with a forefinger. “The smithy shall indeed be punished to the utmost of our ability. And it seems to me that far worse than the dungeons would be the wrath of your own hand, Warrior Tarall.”
“It’s settled, then.” He cleared his throat and turned to his scribes. “Let it be known that the smithy Retnik Greyson will be punished by being placed in the service of Warrior Tarall for the next month. He will help her carry out my wishes and learn to respect and worship his king, the mighty King Mathais.”
Ayalah gaped at him. “Your Majesty, you cannot really think—but he has already attacked me once—what if he should do so again? And suffering his presence was intolerable, truly, Majesty.” The more she argued, she knew, the more the king would like this plan, especially the thought of the smithy attacking her again.
The king shrugged. “If the smithy does not obey your every wish, you are free to punish him however you see fit, so long as his arms and eyes are intact so he may continue his work as a smithy when the month is up. I intend to commission another item from him in the future.” He paused. “In the meantime, your next assignment is to retrieve, by force if necessary, a large, valuable stone from a so-called wizard living in the woods to the north. I trust this assignment won’t be too difficult for you?”
“Well, no, but Majesty, I really must insist that you rethink this punishment. The smithy will be a burden on me, and his—”
The king held up his hand for silence again. “I think the punishment a perfect one,” he said softly, smirking. “You leave immediately.”
With that, he rose from his chair and swept from the room, the scribes hurrying after him at his heels.
They were alone in the room for a moment. Greyson turned and regarded Ayalah in silence.