The days passed quickly in Naraloth. They’d reluctantly sold their horses to a merchant in the city center their first day there, but they found that even with their new fortune, very few inns in that area would be affordable for more than a few weeks—and only citizens of Naraloth could rent or buy a home. So they took the advice of the guard following them and headed for the south part of town, farthest from the mountains and closest to the trees, where they were able to find cheaper accommodations to last them a few months. The nobles of Naraloth, the guard explained, much preferred the view of the mountains to the north, and consequently the rich lived in the north part of the city and the poor in the south. The guard, they discovered, was from the poorest neighborhood in the city; as soon as they headed southward, he became chatty, smiling and gesturing as they walked. He was so much at ease, in fact, that Ayalah began to think of him as more of a tour guide than a guard sent to watch their every move. She did not approve of such a sloppy warrior ethic; these Naralian guards, she thought, needed to be toughened up. They weren’t nearly wary enough.
The innkeeper, upon seeing Greyson’s bulging arms and inquiring if he was, in fact, a smithy, crowed with joy: it appeared their local blacksmith was laid up in bed with an aching back, and the people of the area sorely needed someone to fix their fishing gear and mining axes. Greyson was happy to help, and that left Ayalah with a good amount of time to wander around the city alone.
For her part, Ayalah was happy to have Greyson busy and distracted in the remote part of town. She’d found in the first handful of days that although she blended in with the locals perfectly, with her dark hair and tanned skin, Greyson stood out awkwardly, a white pillar in a sea of brown. The sensation of standing out in a crowd was one Ayalah was accustomed to, at first because she was an unwanted orphan in a city filled with happy families, and later because she was the only female warrior in all of Miltinoth. But perhaps, she realized now, it was also because of her skin color: she didn’t blend in back in Miltinoth, and she never would. Greyson didn’t seem to mind how he stuck out, but she felt safer knowing that he wasn’t nearby, drawing attention to himself simply by virtue of having skin as pale as the moon.
Her first task once she set out on her own was to find a leatherworker who could transform her sun-faded warrior leathers into something more suitable for the local style. The custom in Miltinoth was to use buttons to fasten clothing, but Naralians used crisscrossed ties; warriors in Miltinoth wore long-sleeved leathers that buttoned slightly off-center, but warriors here wore sleeveless leathers that tied straight down the front. The ties down the front looked more symmetrical and pleasing to the eye, Ayalah thought; she was more than happy to switch to these Naralian fashions. Gone now were the stripes on her pants, replaced instead with plain black thread, crisscrossing down the sides of her legs. Gone, too, were her red-striped sleeves, always so oppressive in the heat. Her leathers, after so many hours in the sun this summer, were now more grey than black, and she told the leatherworker not to bother redyeing them.
So it was that she walked down the streets of Naraloth feeling like a new woman, clad in grey and black Naralian-style leathers. She still felt the eyes of passersby on her as she moved around, but then, that was probably because, unlike the other women, she insisted on wearing pants. The local skirts, she thought with disdain, looked uncomfortable and impossible to maneuver in, should she need to defend herself. No: if she was going to live here, to adopt this city as her home, she must be comfortable and confident—and if that meant once again standing out in a crowd, so be it. She left her sword at the inn and carried only her knife, but so far, despite her misgivings about the vulnerability of limping around town with a splinted leg, she hadn’t even had to use her knife once—not even as a threat. She began to like this city more and more.
She spent the bulk of her time in those first weeks trying to find information about her mother’s family—her family. Her father’s family had died before she was born; that much she knew for sure, because if her father had had any living family, she would have automatically been entrusted to their care in Miltinoth and wouldn’t have grown up an orphan. She wasn’t sure whether her mother had any family in Naraloth, but for some reason when she thought of her mother’s life before she’d met her father, Ayalah didn’t imagine a solitary existence or an orphaned one.
She wondered whether her mental images were informed by a memory so faded she couldn’t grasp at it anymore, or whether they really were total fantasy. As a child, she’d yearned to visit Naraloth. She’d been convinced—and she’d told Gavin so time and time again—that she had family there who would welcome her with open arms. Gavin, in his usual pragmatic way, had promised to send inquiries to Naraloth by the time she reached a suitable age—by which he meant once she’d grown enough to be considered a valuable asset to a family that had never known her, which was typically around age fifteen or sixteen in Miltinoth. No family, he’d told her, would want a lanky little girl with no skills. So he’d taught her to wait on the fine ladies who visited him and to hold her tongue about their identities; he’d paid for her fencing lessons and let her pick out the most beautiful dagger she could find upon reaching her fifteenth year. But by then she had changed her mind about writing to Naraloth: if her family really wanted to know her, wouldn’t they have come looking for her long ago? And besides, Gavin was her family now. He was all she needed.
She wondered now what would have happened if Gavin had tried to find out about her family back then. Would she have become a warrior? Certainly not for Miltinoth, if she had family living in Naraloth. But then, if she hadn’t been running King Mathais’s silly errands, she wouldn’t have met Greyson, keeper of the second piece of the prophecy. Unless, she mused, the king of Naraloth had sent her on similarly mundane errands and she’d come across Greyson through those assignments. Was she meant to find him either way?
While deep in thought, she’d wandered into a new area of town. She was heading northwest, in the direction of the sea, but she was still far enough south that the overwhelming stench of fish drowned out any fresh ocean breeze she might have otherwise enjoyed. There was a small market here in the little square between homes, and she limped through leisurely, admiring a pair of boots in one stall and a vest in another. She was turning to walk farther up the road when she noticed something strange: another woman wearing trousers instead of a dress. She stared. It wasn’t just that there was another woman wearing pants—it was also that the woman’s trousers appeared to be made out of some soft, flowy material. They swayed slightly when she walked and didn’t look practical or protective at all. Ayalah was baffled: what was the point of such pants?
The woman seemed to have noticed her, too, though she avoided eye contact. But when Ayalah moved out of the square and limped ahead a few blocks, the woman caught up with her.
“Pardon me,” the woman said.
Ayalah turned. “Yes?” From up close, she could see that the woman’s clothing appeared to be made of a very thin linen fabric. Her tunic and trousers matched, both hanging off of her loosely and hiding her curves. It was also apparent that the woman was no warrior. Her stance was too relaxed, and her muscles weren’t firm enough.
The woman blushed under Ayalah’s scrutiny. “I’ve never seen that kind of outfit before. Which district are you from?”
“Oh—I’m not from here.”
The woman looked at her strangely. “Your accent—” She stepped back suddenly, as if Ayalah had struck her in the face. “You don’t know.”
Ayalah stared. “Don’t know what?”
The woman crossed her arms and looked Ayalah up and down. “Are you or are you not one of us?”
“One of whom?”
The woman glared at her. “One of the Narlads.”
“I’m sorry, the what?”
“You really don’t know.”
Before Ayalah could react, the woman spun on her heel and hurried away.