“Red,” Ayalah said to the guard shadowing Greyson. “What is a Narlad?”
The sun had set, and with the darkness Greyson and Red had returned to the inn just in time for supper. Greyson was covered in soot and dirt from the day’s work; although the guard had done nothing but observe, he looked just as famished. Ayalah wasn’t hungry. She poked at her food, waited until the men had begun to devour theirs, and then finally interrupted them.
At her question, Red began choking on his ale. “What?” he sputtered.
“A Narlad,” she repeated. “Is it a member of a cult?”
He took another swig of ale in an effort to stop his coughing. He took a deep breath, and then another one, and then, apparently confident that he could breathe again, he looked at her. “You, er—you don’t already know, Lady Tarall?”
She shook her head. “I heard the term today for the first time while wandering around the city.”
He spooned a few mouthfuls of beef stew into his mouth before responding. “It, er—” He slurped from his mug. “It’s—it’s not a cult, really. More like a way of life.” He raised his eyebrows at her and held her gaze.
They sat in silence for a few moments. “I don’t understand,” she said finally.
“There’s nothing wrong with it, o’course,” he said. “Perfectly normal. Folks ’round here are pretty understanding.”
He was speaking to her in a placating way, as if worried she would get angry. For her part, though, she couldn’t even figure out what he was trying to say. “Out with it, man. What is a Narlad?”
He leaned forward and spoke in a hushed tone. “Why, it’s ladies, you see. Ladies who like other ladies. Romantically.”
She blinked. “That’s it?”
“Wait, wait,” Greyson said through a mouthful of stew. He swallowed. “You’re not suggesting you think Lady Tarall is—?”
Red shrugged. “Well, you can see how I might think so, with the way she dresses and all.”
“Now just a moment,” Greyson said. He set his spoon down forcefully. “Lady Tarall is not one of your woman-loving—” His voice was rising as he spoke, and an angry flush had swept over his face.
“Greyson,” Ayalah snapped. He looked at her. “In the first place, I don’t need you to defend me.” He took a breath, but before he could start again she continued. “In the second place, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with women who love women—or men who love men, for that matter.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Certainly not. I didn’t mean—”
“As for the suggestion,” she interrupted coolly, turning to Red, “maybe I’m one of your Narlads, and maybe I’m not. And what of it?”
Red had been watching their exchange with wide-eyed interest in between bites of stew. “Well, if you’re going to wear pants, Lady Tarall, people are going to think you’re one of them, even if you’re not.”
“And… and they might—well, that is, some of the more old-fashioned folk might treat you differently.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I have no intention of dressing to fit a certain expectation just so people know where my interests lie. If they treat me differently because I wear pants—because they think it signifies more than just comfort and because they think I should not be allowed to love who I want to love—I’ll simply have to educate them.” Red shifted uncomfortably, and she realized, looking around, that the room had gone silent and that everyone was watching her.
Greyson cleared his throat and spoke with a frown. “By educate, I hope you don’t mean maim.” He turned to Red to explain. “That’s what she usually means.”
She shrugged. “Perhaps.”
She tried to let it go, but she found that it still bothered her the next day, as she explored more of the city, that Greyson had been so close-minded and quick to judge. She supposed, she admitted to herself glumly, that she shouldn’t feel surprised. After all, he’d been so offended back in Olekoth when the barmaid had been a bit liberal with her attentions in public. But then again, hadn’t he committed a similar offense with her a few days later during the festivities?
She felt her pulse quickening and forced herself to focus on her current feelings, not her memories. She had to admit it: she’d begun to grow fond of Greyson, to respect him, and thus this revelation of his character bothered her in a way she didn’t understand and didn’t like. She felt slighted, personally insulted somehow, though his opinions didn’t affect her directly. She supposed it was possible that he was only defending her in particular, and that he didn’t disapprove of the entire concept—but that wasn’t the sense she’d gotten from him.
No, she wasn’t a Narlad. And surely it wasn’t only women in Naraloth who were attracted to women who would enjoy the comfort of pants; certainly other women would appreciate not having to deal with all those layers of dress fabric. She mused on this for a bit, not noticing where she wandered.
She bumped into a man and was brought abruptly out of her thoughts. But before she could apologize, a whole crowd of people was surging past her, and it was with a shock that she realized she was in the center of the city—a place she hadn’t visited since the day they arrived in Naraloth and sold their horses. She’d purposely tried to keep south of the square, mostly to avoid the crowds and noise. Back in Miltinoth, the crowds had always parted for her out of respect; they were required to by law, if nothing else. Here, however, deprived of her warrior status, she was just another potential customer for the merchant vultures to pounce on.
“Some jewels for the lady?” a vendor shouted. “Special price for you!”
“Bread!” shouted a plump woman. “Fresh bread!”
“Fattest pigs in Naraloth! Get ’em before winter!”
“Perhaps a new dagger?” suggested another vendor, looking pointedly at her belt. “We have a wide variety of lengths and some wonderful—”
“There you are!” said a woman, stepping in front of Ayalah to reach a child that sat on the ground, crying.
Ayalah needed to escape this chaos; she quickly stepped out of the way of another throng of people and then snaked through a series of alleyways to emerge from the northern side of the city center. The vendors here didn’t seem to be as aggressive; they looked at her wistfully, but none tried to get her attention. She breathed a sigh of relief and hurried up a few more streets until the buzz of voices died down.
The houses here were bigger than the ones she’d grown used to farther south. They were a little wider and a lot taller, and many of them had private wells in the front yards. The farther north she went, the larger and more spread out the houses became, as if the wealthier a person was, the less reason they might have to interact with other people. Soon she couldn’t even see the homes, but instead found herself walking past fields and pastures. She considered turning around and heading back to the inn, but if she’d already come this far, she figured, she might as well enjoy the scenery.
There was a man riding a horse in one of the pastures adjacent to the road. “Pardon me,” she called.
He rode over to her, stopped his horse a polite distance away, and dismounted. “Can I help you, lady—er, lad?”
She wondered if she should feel insulted; she wondered if he had judged her from the moment he saw that she wore pants. “Lady,” she said sternly.
He inclined his head. “Lady.”
“I was wondering if you could tell me where the palace is. I seem to have wandered into the farm country inadvertently.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You walked all the way here?”
At his question, she looked up at the sun. Had she really been walking all day? She’d left first thing in the morning, and it was midafternoon already. Her stomach growled loudly.
The man laughed. “I was just going to get something to eat, myself. Would you care to join me?” His smile lit up his face. She hadn’t noted his appearance at first, but now she saw that he was strikingly handsome. This man was all angles, lanky and thin where Greyson was broad and thick.
“I wouldn’t want to impose,” she said.
“Nonsense. If I let you leave now, you’ll starve to death before you even reach the next estate.” He grinned. “Besides, it’s not every day we have visitors get lost on our land! Where are you from?”
His question took her by surprise, but she supposed there was no harm in answering it honestly. “I grew up in Miltinoth—but my mother was Naralian.”
“Ah,” he nodded. “That explains the accent. Well, Lady—?”
“Well, Lady Tarall, formerly of Miltinoth, would you do me the honor of dining with me?” He bowed over-formally, as if they were in court.
She smiled despite herself. “If you insist…?”
“Lord Steedemont.” He grimaced. “My friends call me Monty.”
“Monty,” she repeated, smiling.