They arrived in the city, waited until the king could see them, and then reported to the palace as required. Ayalah had just enough time before the summons came to send a one-word letter to Gavin: Olekoth. Once in the palace, they again waited for more than an hour before the king showed up, and again he entered looking bored.
“Well?” the king asked, once he’d seated himself at the front of the room.
“Warrior Tarall, Sire, reporting the status of my latest assignment,” Ayalah said formally.
“Yes, yes, get on with it.”
“Sire, we were unable to retrieve the stone you asked for. The forest was enchanted somehow: it was inhospitable, with no water, and the trees seemed to move so that we were going in circles. Finally, we were forced to return or else perish of thirst.”
The king stared at her with undisguised hate. “You dare return empty-handed, Warrior Tarall?”
With any other warrior, she knew, the king would have accepted this logical excuse and contented himself with a slap on the wrist for the warrior in question. When it came to her, however, he did not value her life enough to deem this a fit excuse for failure; she wondered how he would punish her.
“I did not return completely empty-handed, Your Majesty,” she said. She held up the cloth bag Swynn had given her.
“Well, bring it forward then,” he said.
She stepped forward, handed him the bag, and stepped back again. He glared at her for a moment before untying the knot and looking in the bag; then he recoiled and shoved the bag at one of his scribes, who took it reluctantly.
“Hum,” he said, tapping his fingers on his leg. “I see.” He turned to Greyson. “Smithy, do you attest to the truth of this story?”
Greyson nodded. “I do, Majesty.”
“Hum,” the king said again. “Smithy, you will continue assisting Warrior Tarall in her endeavors until the job is done. Warrior Tarall, you will return with that stone or die trying.” He smirked as the shock of this pronouncement registered in Ayalah’s mind and on her face.
“Your Majesty,” Ayalah said, trying to remain calm, “if you would give me a real warrior to go with, one who could actually—”
“The smithy will meet all your needs, I am sure,” the king drawled.
This time, Ayalah didn’t need to pretend to be annoyed with the assignment. Regardless of the impossibility of actually attaining the stone, the thought of spending another month with Greyson made her want to scream; still, she tried to control the rage that was building within her. “But Majesty, he is a hindrance and a liability. He slows me down. Surely you’ll see that if he puts me in more danger than—”
“Enough!” the king said. “This is not open for negotiation, Warrior Tarall.”
Ayalah opened her mouth to object once more, but suddenly the doors flew open.
“There you are, my love!” It was the woman Ayalah had seen coming out of Gavin’s room weeks ago—or was it months at this point?—only now she wore a dress made of black silk that made her look striking and regal. She strode to the king and kneeled before him. “Pardon my interruption, lord.”
The king flicked his hand irritably. “Of course, Tazarah. What could be so urgent?”
So she had been right, and it was one of the queens! Ayalah congratulated herself internally, without betraying so much as a smirk to the room full of people.
“Well,” said Queen Tazarah, rising gracefully and speaking so that everyone could hear, “it’s not urgent, per se, dearest; it’s just that I wanted to ask a favor.” She beamed at the king and opened her eyes wide, in what Ayalah supposed was meant to be an innocent look. “I’ve just received a letter from home—it seems that the last time I visited, I forgot to bring my favorite necklace and earrings back here with me. Do you remember which ones I mean, lord?”
The king nodded. “Yes yes, of course. Tazarah, can’t you see I’m the middle of official business?”
The queen looked around the room, as if seeing these witnesses for the first time. “Apologies, my lord. But do you think you could send someone to retrieve them for me? I really don’t know what else I could wear with this dress, do you?” She gestured to her chest, which lacked any ornament but the sheer silk she wore, and leaned in toward the king.
“You interrupted me because you want someone to go to Olekoth just to—” the king began heatedly. Then, slowly, a smile spread across his face. “Yes, of course, my love. I’ll see that it’s done right away.”
“Oh, thank you,” the queen purred. She curtseyed to him and sashayed across the room to the door; all eyes—including those of the king and Greyson, Ayalah noted—followed her until the door closed behind her.
“Well, Warrior Tarall,” the king said, returning his attention to her. “Perhaps a new assignment would be more to your liking. You will sail to Olekoth and retrieve my queen’s jewels for her.”
“Retrieve—! But Sire, this is no job for a trained warrior; why, a simple errand boy could retrieve them for you.”
The king smiled icily. “Or errand girl.”
Without waiting for a response, he rose from his chair—“That will be all.”—and swept from the room.