“To begin with,” Ayalah said, “tardiness henceforth will not be tolerated.”
She and Princess Rinnah were standing in what appeared to have been, at various times, a stable, a shed, and an old man’s home. On one wall was a wide, swinging door, tall enough for a man on horseback to fit through; the stalls had been torn down, all but one, which contained an empty, sagging cot and a chamber pot. The former tenant, Princess Rinnah explained, had died childless, so her “contacts” (she was vague as to the details) had been able to buy it discreetly for their use. Ayalah was impressed that it had taken the princess mere days to find a place for their practice and that an assortment of weapons and padding waited for them inside the building.
Nonetheless, the princess had shown up leisurely, in the middle of the afternoon, and had smiled blithely as if nothing was amiss. The first thing a warrior needed to learn was discipline; punctuality had been drilled into Ayalah at an early age.
“If a warrior is late to a battle,” Ayalah said, ignoring the princess’s curled upper lip, “do you know what happens?” She waited a moment, then looked the princess in the eye. “People die.”
The princess opened and closed her mouth wordlessly.
“I apologize, Lady Tarall,” she said. “It won’t happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t. Another rule: while we are training, we will not be ourselves. You will be simply Rin, and I will be called Swordsmaster Tarall, or Master if you prefer.”
The princess’s eyebrows shot up so high, they disappeared under her perfectly curled hair. “Rin?”
“It’s for your own protection, Princess. It will give you some anonymity. Even here in the poorest part of town, someone might recognize you. Put these on.” She handed the princess a tunic and a pair of pants she’d bought secondhand that morning.
“You can and you will. Good swordsmanship relies on proper footwork, and if you’re constantly tripping over your dresses, you won’t get very far.”
Rin sighed and began changing into the musty clothing. She held her arms out from her sides when she was done and looked down at her new outfit. “Well?”
Ayalah smiled. In this outfit, the princess could have been any commoner walking down the street, albeit with nicer hair. “Better. Now grab one of those swords over there—doesn’t matter which one, for now—and stand in front of me. Do you know how to hold a sword? Try lunging at me.”
The princess spiritedly aimed her practice sword at Ayalah, but it was clear that she didn’t know what she was doing. Her feet were too close together, and when she lunged she twisted her arm awkwardly.
Ayalah shook her head. “Let’s start with proper foot placement.”
The going was slow, but Ayalah took great pride in the princess’s gradual improvement at wielding a sword. She had been worried at first that the royal entourage might disturb them, or that passersby on the street might take notice and wonder why a band of well-dressed servants lounged around a decrepit old stable, but her fears proved to be unfounded. For the most part, she and Rin were alone in the training room, although Greyson stopped by a few times to fit the princess for a decorative suit of armor she insisted on having. Once, toward the beginning of their partnership, Ayalah had demonstrated the importance of a strong stance by knocking Rin off of her feet, and the princess had shouted and cursed as she fell to the ground. Her servants, who always waited just outside, charged in importantly, but she waved them off angrily and redoubled her efforts—and her cursing. Since then, her entourage had learned to ignore her outbursts and the frequent alarming noises coming from the building, and the women were able to work together in comfortable privacy.
Ayalah still went wandering around the city on the days she and Rin didn’t meet, but her quest to find any local family began to feel like a waste of time. She didn’t know what she was hoping to discover, exactly: she didn’t know her mother’s maiden name, she had no idea which part of Naraloth her mother had lived in, and she was unwilling to ask Monty, her only Naralian friend, to help her find clues. Nonetheless, she embraced Naraloth as her new home and began to grow accustomed to the bustling streets, local fashions, and city layout. Each neighborhood had its own distinct scent, and Ayalah began to recognize the different uniforms of the fishermen, the farmers, the equine herders, the miners, and the warriors. Her neighbors began to remember her name and to ask how her day was going, and she began to feel as if she was part of a community.
Her discreet relationship with the princess had its benefits. By day she was Rin’s swordsmaster, barking instructions and showing no mercy in their sparring sessions. They weren’t friends, exactly, but they found that they had similar beliefs and enjoyed many of the same things. By night, at Rin’s request, Ayalah frequently attended the royal balls as Lady Tarall, friend of Lord Steedemont. Ayalah had no idea how Rin was able to keep her daily activities a secret from her family and friends, but keep it she did, and if one or two of the nobles noticed the princess’s muscular arms or more balanced stance, they kept it to themselves. Rin introduced Ayalah to her closest friends; although Ayalah still found the balls tiresome, at least now she was received with more grace and respect.
One day, Rin arrived at what she liked to call “warrior training” and informed Ayalah that she had arranged a private meeting with her father and brothers so that Ayalah could relate to them her knowledge of Miltinoth and help further their efforts at preparing for the war King Mathais was trying to start. Ayalah was skeptical. “A private meeting? How can it be private with so many people involved?”
“It means,” Rin said with a flip of her hair, “that only family will be in the room. No advisors. No scribes.”
Ayalah stared at her. “But why?” She was used to other people being around; in Miltinoth, which was her only real experience with monarchy, King Mathais always had a few scribes or lackeys around. She’d grown to enjoy the presence of the cowering onlookers as a kind of ironic commentary on the king himself.
Rin shimmied out of her dress and began pulling on her sparring suit. “Well, you said that Mathais tried to have you killed. I thought it would be more prudent if word didn’t get around that you were not only alive, but also sharing Miltinian secrets with the Naralian monarchy.”
Ayalah was pleasantly surprised. “Thank you, Rin.”
“You’ll need an escort, of course.”
“A what? Why would I need an escort?”
“It’s only proper.” Rin shrugged and grabbed her favorite practice sword. “I’ll have to be your escort. Family only, you see.”
Ayalah grinned. “Of course.” How else could the princess make sure she was involved in political and strategic planning? She was a shrewd woman, that much was certain; and she was thinking like a warrior already.