Monty’s estate proved to be quite impressive. Certainly, the mansion, when they got to it, was large and beautiful, and Ayalah supposed it might be nice to have servants to handle all the mundane housekeeping duties. But she was most impressed with the surrounding fields and hills, filled with a dozen horses of the most beautiful size and coloring she had ever seen, along with a handful of gangly foals. These horses, Monty explained, along with another couple dozen that were out working for the day, were bred to climb mountains; his family had been perfecting the stock for generations. They were stronger and wilier than the kind of horses bred in Miltinoth, but, he acknowledged, they’d be no match in a race next to Miltinian horses, which were bred for speed and distance.
He continued talking about the horses as they reached the house, entered it, and sat down to eat. It wasn’t until their food had been served—a veritable feast of pork roast and corn muffins—that he stopped talking long enough for Ayalah to ask him a question.
“And who uses these mountain horses of yours? Do you sell them? You can’t possibly take care of them all yourself?”
He chuckled. “No, of course not. That’s what the workers do.”
“You didn’t think the entire Naralian economy was based off of those poor fishermen down south, did you? The mountains are full of treasures. Gems, jewels, gold.”
“We split the mountains. When the borders were decided by the ancients, they divided the mountains evenly. So some of the people here fish, and others mine.”
“And what do you do?”
She chewed her pork roast thoughtfully. “So the people who work for you—do they live here?”
“Most of them live in the city. They get here at dawn and take the horses to the mines to work all day, and then they return after sundown, drop off the horses, and head home.” He caught her roving eye. “Oh, but I don’t live in this huge place by myself! There are plenty of servants who do live here. And my brothers and their families live here, too.”
“Your brothers!” Somehow it hadn’t occurred to her that this man could have siblings.
“And their families, yes. But enough about me. I’m so sorry—how impolite of me. Tell me about yourself. Do the ladies of Miltinoth wear pants these days? I’ve never been there, but I was under the impression they wore long, uncomfortable dresses.” He smiled impishly.
She laughed. “That’s the perfect way to describe the dresses they wear.” She shook her head. “All those layers of scratchy, unnecessary material would weigh me down and make it impossible to get around.”
“But you do know what pants signify here, don’t you?”
They ate in silence for a few moments.
“I’d be happy to give you a ride over to the palace once we’re done eating, if you’d like. It’s quite a walk from here.”
“Is it? How strange, to build a palace so far from the actual city.”
He cocked an eyebrow at her. “It’s not far from the city. Didn’t you see the signs on the street corners?”
She swallowed and stared at him. “Signs?”
“There are signs all around the city center that lead you straight to the palace! If you take the main road, it’s an easy walk.”
“Oh.” She was beginning to feel foolish. “Well, originally I was just wandering around. I didn’t set out to see the palace, but I thought that, as long as I was nearby….”
“Tell me, Lady Tarall,” Monty said, leaning one elbow on the table, “how would you feel about accompanying me to a royal ball?”
“Oh, come now,” he said. “What did you do back home for fun?”
“Well, I…” She blinked. “I guess I didn’t really have much occasion for fun. You see, I was a warrior in Miltinoth.”
He set down his fork. “A warrior?”
She nodded, wondering whether it had been a bad idea to confess this. He stared at her in silence for a few moments.
“Of course,” he finally said. “That would explain… so many things. And now you’ve defected to our side?”
“Of the war.”
“What war?” Had they declared war in the few weeks she’d been here?
“Well, you know,” he shrugged, “just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t.”
“Monty.” She pushed her plate a few inches away and leaned in toward him. “What do you know?”
“All the nobility are talking about it. Word has it that King Mathais is gearing up to try to attack us. Recruiting armies, bandits, anyone he can get—even a charlatan wizard.”
“A wizard?” she asked sharply.
“Oh, not a real wizard, surely. Just a crotchety old man who claims to be one. He came through here a couple of years ago offering his services—whatever those are—to the king and queen, may she rest in peace. Promises of ruling the world and some such. Fakery, the lot of it, of course.”
“Of course,” Ayalah echoed. Her mind raced. Promises of ruling the world? Swynn would never—but then, he couldn’t be described as crotchety, either. Or could he? He’d been the happiest old man Ayalah had ever met, but she wondered if he was simply putting on a show to make her believe his lies.
“Anyway,” Monty continued, “if the rumors are true, then we’ll need to start preparing to fight back. And with a former Miltinian warrior on our side—why, you would be invaluable: the information, the training, the insider’s knowledge!”
She stared at him. He was right, of course, but the thought of betraying her home had never occurred to her before. Yet Miltinoth was no longer her home; its king was no longer her king. Her loyalties had changed. These were her people now, and she must help them defeat the tyrant that ruled Miltinoth. Ultimately, she knew, she would be helping not only Naraloth, but Miltinoth, too. She hoped Gavin would approve. “Monty,” she said, “it would be an honor to protect and serve Naraloth. I will help in whatever way I can.”