Ayalah’s cheeks ached. She’d been displaying a fake how-do-you-do smile for so long, she wondered if the expression would be permanently etched onto her face. Monty had introduced her to everyone he knew—and, as far as she could tell, that included every single person in attendance.
She had agreed to accompany him to the royal ball that evening on two conditions. The first, that she would not wear a gown, he agreed to reluctantly—but the second, that she would not be forced to dance, he had argued heatedly, citing reasons of impropriety, court society, refinement, and so on. She stood her ground until he finally gave in, and then she sent a courier to Greyson to let him know where she was. She was happy enough to spend some time away from him after their argument, and she had enjoyed regaling Monty on the way to the palace with stories of her horse, from the time she’d received her war horse assignment years before to when she’d had to sell her mare in Naraloth just a few weeks earlier. Monty listened sympathetically and then expounded in a solemn voice the merits of a good steed or mare and the importance of breeding from such stock.
Now, however, she was beginning to regret her decision to come. She retreated to the back of the room, found a chair, and sank into it gratefully. She’d come with the understanding that Monty would introduce her to the princess and to as many of the princes as were in attendance. But so far none had deigned to appear in the ballroom, and Ayalah was growing irritated.
“There you are!” Monty sauntered over. “The princes have arrived. Would you still like to be introduced?”
She stood hastily, smoothing the front of the outfit Monty had insisted she wear: a soft pantsuit not unlike the one she’d seen the Narlad in the market wearing. “Of course. Thank you, Monty.”
She took his arm, and he led her around the room. “Here we have Prince Shanka. Prince Shanka, this is Lady Tarall, formerly of Miltinoth.”
The prince nodded at her. “How do you do?”
“Next is Prince Preslon. Prince Preslon, Lady Tarall, formerly of Miltinoth.”
“Pleased to meet you, Lady Tarall.”
“Charmed to make your acquaintance, Lady.”
Each prince, in his turn, bowed to her politely and then turned back to whoever he’d been speaking to; none seemed particularly interested in her, other than to quizzically note her title and her apparently conflicting dress, though all were too polite to question it. The princes, she noted, looked so similar, they could have been clones of one another. They were all tall, with narrow shoulders and large, pointy noses, their hair the same dark chestnut color as hers. She wondered if they’d all look so boring if they didn’t also look so bored.
“Now we come to Prince Ayer. Prince Ayer, this is the Lady Tarall, formerly of Miltinoth.”
“How do you do? Miltinoth, you say?” This prince was nearly identical to his brothers, but his nose, instead of being large and pointy, was wide and flat.
“That’s correct,” Ayalah said.
He eyed her appraisingly. “Well, well. Very good. Enjoy the ball, Lady.”
“Hm,” Monty muttered as they glided away. “Ah! Here we are. The High Prince, Prince Komma. Your Highness, this is Lady Tarall, formerly of Miltinoth. She just moved here a few weeks ago.”
The High Prince was shorter than his brothers, with broader shoulders and a beard to take the edge off of his prominent nose. He bowed and smiled. “Welcome to Naraloth, Lady Tarall. I trust you’re enjoying your stay?”
“Your Highness,” she said, “I think you misunderstand. I have relocated here permanently.”
“Lady Tarall was a warrior of Miltinoth,” Monty put in.
“Who is a warrior?” A tall woman, with a nose akin to the princes’ but with otherwise elegant features, had joined them.
“Lady Tarall was, it seems,” Prince Komma said. “In Miltinoth.”
Ayalah waited for Monty to introduce her to the woman, but he’d gone silent and awkward. She cleared her throat. “Lady Tarall, formerly of Miltinoth,” she said, bowing. “Do I have the honor of speaking to Princess Rinnah?”
“Indeed you do.” The princess inclined her head. “A pleasure to meet you, Lady Tarall. Were you really a warrior? I didn’t know women could be warriors.”
“Any woman willing to put up with a lifetime of teasing, mockery, and the company of brutish men can be a warrior, Princess.” Ayalah smiled wanly.
“Why,” the princess said with a wink, “that sounds no different than being part of the Naralian royal family! Lady Tarall, I quite like you. Would you care to take a walk with me around the palace grounds?”
“I’d be delighted to. Monty, would you mind—?”
He gaped at her for a moment before blinking and standing up straight. “No, no, not at all, not at all!” He gave a toothy smile and bowed awkwardly before walking away.
The princess took Ayalah’s arm and led her from the ballroom through a long, grandiose hallway and out through a sliding door into the cool night air. A gaggle of servants trailed behind them at a respectful distance.
They were strolling down a cobblestone path through the palace garden. Shrubs and rosebushes lined the path, and a light breeze ruffled the leaves in the trees dotting the perimeter. Ayalah smiled at the princess. “I couldn’t agree more.”
“So, Lady Tarall, tell me more about being a warrior. Was it difficult, being the only woman?” Without letting Ayalah respond, the princess continued. “Being the only girl in such a large family of boys wasn’t easy, as I’m sure you can imagine. They were rotten to me when we were younger, of course. But then, perhaps little boys are all rotten, princes or not. What was Miltinoth like? My brothers have all been to visit, of course, but I was never allowed. The dangers of the road or some such. You don’t say very much, do you?” She stopped and looked at Ayalah expectantly.
“You may have noticed that my leg is in a splint, Princess.”
“Yes,” the princess said, “and it’s wonderful that it doesn’t seem to inhibit you. I think your hobbling around is quite adorable.”
Ayalah suppressed a sarcastic retort. “Adorable or not, my leg is in a splint because I was attacked on my way to Naraloth. So yes, the road can be dangerous for anyone, not only for women—not only for princesses. I can’t see any reason you should have been prohibited from visiting, especially with a royal entourage to protect you.”
“Lady Tarall,” the princess said after a long silence. “What do you think of my learning to fight? That way I wouldn’t need an entourage to protect me—I could protect myself, like you do. Now, don’t dismiss the idea so quickly! You may have noticed that I have quite a lot of brothers, and each of them will surely have at least a handful of children.”
Ayalah stopped and stared at the princess. Was she suggesting what Ayalah thought she was suggesting? And they’d only just met!
“It’s just that I have no interest in becoming a baby-making machine,” the princess said quietly, so quietly Ayalah could barely hear her. She began walking briskly, and Ayalah hurried to keep up with her. “For the first time—it’s just that I didn’t know what other options were available to me until now, Lady Tarall. Why should I languish forever in the palace when I could be a warrior like yourself?”
“Princess Rinnah,” Ayalah said slowly, “aren’t you second in line for the throne?”
The princess shrugged. “Certainly, if something happens to both my father and Komma.”
“Your father, I hear,” Ayalah said gently, “is very advanced in years, is he not?”
“Yes, yes. I see your point, Lady Tarall, but I hardly think it worth worrying about. Komma is strong and healthy and smart, and he’s been training his whole life to be king. He will make a wonderful, thoughtful king. But I want to do something for my people, too. Bearing children is not what I was meant to do. It feels wrong. I’m meant to fight, I think, Lady Tarall. If I had a teacher—if you would help me to train—”
The princess spoke urgently. “Nobody would need to know. You could just teach me the basics and I could practice on my own in my free time—I have a lot of free time—and then, if you think I’m a worthy student, you could continue training me once your leg has healed.”
Ayalah looked at the princess appraisingly. It was clear that she was earnest and determined to learn, and Ayalah couldn’t deny that there was a strong appeal to turning a princess into a warrior: curse the traditions, curse peoples’ expectations, a woman should have the opportunity to become a warrior if she so chose. And what better way to further this goal than by training the princess herself to fight? She would be an excellent role model for young Naralian girls.
“I’ll do it.”
The princess burst into tears. “You will? Thank you, Lady Tarall, thank you!”
“Your first lesson will be to cease crying immediately, Princess,” Ayalah said sternly, taken aback by the sudden hysterics. “Warriors must not betray emotion. Especially not female warriors.”