Technically, according to the borders laid down long ago by the ancients, Ayalah and Greyson had been hiding out in Naraloth the entire time. But only the gates of the city proper were patrolled and guarded, and it was to these gates that they came toward evening on a breezy autumn day, past the outlying farms that sprawled all the way to the horizon. Where Miltinoth had four city gates, one in each compass direction, Naraloth had only two: one long one overlooking the harbor on the west, and one long one facing the plain to the east. Ayalah and Greyson approached the east gate warily. It was an impressive-looking structure, made of smooth stones and jutting spikes, built to last through sieges and armored attacks. Most of it had been built long ago, judging by the weatherworn stones and overgrown moss, but some parts looked like they’d been refortified recently. The gate was flanked on either side by tall, equally menacing towers.
“Ho!” called one of the guards in the tower to the right. “State your purpose, travelers.”
“We come seeking refuge,” Ayalah shouted up to the guard.
There was a long pause before the guard responded. “Those horses look like they come from Miltinoth. Impressive stock, at that. Is that where you hail from?”
“What are your names?”
“This is Smithy Greyson, and I am W—Lady Tarall.” Her cheeks burned at the acknowledgment of her new title.
“My apologies, Lady,” the guard said after another long pause. “I can see that you’ve traveled a long way, but unless you can get someone here to vouch for you, you’ll have to turn around. New restrictions on travelers from Miltinoth, I’m afraid.”
Ayalah and Greyson exchanged a look. He shrugged.
“My mother was from here,” Ayalah said finally. “If I could just find some of her family—”
“You say your mother was Naralian?”
She hesitated. There was a definite tone of suspicion in the guard’s voice. “Yes?” She realized belatedly that she didn’t sound very sure of herself.
A series of clanks sounded, and slowly the gate creaked open just enough to let out one man, garbed in a full suit of armor with only his head exposed. He walked right up to her without raising a weapon and stared intently into her face.
“She looks Naralian!” he shouted up to the guard tower. “What was your mother’s family name?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “I’m not sure. She died when I was very young.” The answer pained her to admit, but it was the truth. If her mother had ever told her about her family, Ayalah had been too young to remember it.
His eyes bore into her for a few minutes longer, and then he gestured to Greyson. “And who’s this?”
“A friend,” she said. Might as well tell the truth, she thought—it could only help her case: “He saved my life after King Mathais sent paid assassins to kill me.”
She held her head high and tried not to feel the man’s eyes assessing every part of her, from her strange outfit—she now wore her warrior leathers, which she had awkwardly patched together, inside-out so as to hide the red stripes—to her leg in its splint, dangling uselessly from her saddle. He seemed to accept her story. He nodded and asked her to wait a moment while he retreated back inside the gates to confer with his fellow guardsmen. When he returned, he was smiling.
“We accept you as one of our own, Lady Tarall,” he said. “Your friend may enter only if you will swear to his character and motives.”
“And do you renounce your former home of Miltinoth and embrace Naraloth as your new home?”
These proceedings were baffling to her. To be a citizen of Miltinoth, a person had to have been born within its borders; there was no alternative. Marrying outsiders, like her father had done, was frowned upon—but even when it happened, noncitizens were not granted citizenship, though they were allowed to live within Miltinoth’s borders so long as the marriage lasted, or so long as they had Miltinian children still living. Were these people really offering her citizenship based on nothing more than her family ties and her word?
Apparently she had taken too long to respond. The man’s smile faded; his face turned stony. “I see.”
“No, no, I didn’t mean—”
He held up a hand. “You may enter the city instead as a pending citizen. Within three months’ time, you must appear in the palace to inform us of your decision.” He turned to Greyson. “You may enter for one weeks’ time. A guard will accompany you at all times. Should you prove to be a spy, you will be hanged at court.” Ayalah and Greyson stared. The man turned on his heel, clanked back to the gate, and then returned to them. “Put your weapons in here.” He handed Ayalah a linen sack. “We will hold them at the palace for you until you’ve made your decision. Your friend’s will be confiscated permanently.”
Greyson huffed. “Just as well that I don’t carry any weapons, then.”
Ayalah shoved the empty bag back at the man. “Absolutely not. I am not turning over my weapons to you, he must be allowed to remain with me for more than a week, and we are not spies. Did you not hear me when I said my own king tried to have me killed? Why would you think I would remain loyal to him?”
The man shrugged. “I do not pretend to understand the ways of that backward city.”
She stared at him. The Naralian idea of hospitality, if this man was any indication, was apparently to be open and friendly right away and then resort to hostility if the friendliness was not immediately returned. In Miltinoth they tended to operate in the opposite way: wariness first, friendliness later. It seemed much more prudent, as far as she was concerned. But if geniality was what this man wanted, she was determined to give it to him.
“Pardon me, friend,” she said, flashing a toothy smile. “It seems we have misunderstood each other. It’s just that I was so overwhelmed by the grandeur of your walls and the sheen of your armor, I didn’t understand that you were truly welcoming me to your city so readily. In Miltinoth, they would never welcome a stranger so forthright.”
“Well, that is the truth,” the guard mused.
“I would prefer to keep my weapons,” she said, lowering her voice conspiratorially, “so that if King Mathais somehow does get a spy within your walls—for I believe that he will come after me—I can defend myself. But rest assured that I do not intend to use them on any of the good people of Naraloth, for I consider you all to be my kin. Besides which,” she raised her voice again for all to hear, “surely I could not best such an impressive warrior in a fight.”
Greyson’s jaw practically touched the ground. She pretended not to see him and instead continued smiling at the guard.
The guard, for his part, seemed to soften under her flattery. “Tell me, Lady, why would your king want to kill you? Have you committed some treasonous crime?”
She shook her head sadly. “I don’t know.”
“I think, my lord,” Greyson chimed in, sounding grave, “that it is because of her Naralian blood. Truly, the king has never felt safe around Lady Tarall because of it.”
Now it was her turn to look at Greyson in surprise. She hadn’t thought he was capable of lying—although, come to think of it, he might have been telling the truth.
The guard was nodding sympathetically. “Well, Lady Tarall, a guard will still follow your friend around, but I suppose we could extend his stay a bit longer—for added protection, I suppose, though I assure you that you’ll have nothing to fear within our walls.”
She smiled. “That’s wonderful to hear.”