From the moment she arrived at the palace, Ayalah could tell this was going to be nothing like her experiences in Miltinoth. A servant took her immediately to a dark-paneled sitting room, sat her down in a soft, cushioned chair near the fire with a mug of hot tea, and informed her that Their Royal Highnesses would be in momentarily. She wondered if she was dreaming: comfortable chairs, a fire, and no lengthy wait?
She continued to marvel as, just minutes later, the royal children began to file in, in order of birth: first Komma, the High Prince; next Princess Rinnah, who gave Ayalah a reassuring smile; and finally the lesser princes, Ayer, Shanka, Preslon, Nestor, and a short, scrawny man Ayalah did not recognize. She stood and bowed formally to each of the royal siblings, exchanging pleasantries with them until she got to the last man.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” she said, bowing.
“Lady Tarall,” he said, shaking her hand with both of his. His hands were small and cold, but firm. “I am Prince Roran. I suppose you’ve met my brothers and sister at the royal balls, but I don’t enjoy parties, and I make it a point to never attend.” He smiled and shrugged.
Ayalah laughed. She liked this prince already. “I understand completely. I don’t like parties much, either.”
“Why, Lady Tarall!” Rin said. She winked. “Whatever do you mean? We’ve seen the way you love to dance!”
Komma, Ayer, Shanka, Preslon, and Nestor chuckled. Roran cocked an eyebrow at Ayalah. “If you’re ever dying to get away from one of those dull balls, I’d be happy to show you around the library. That’s usually where I hide out.”
Ayalah bowed. “Thank you, Prince Roran. It would be an honor—and a welcome respite.”
The princes and princess sat around the large oak table that took up most of the sitting room, beckoning for Ayalah to do the same. Komma sat at the head of the table, with Rin on his right and the other princes scattered around the table at random. Ayalah noticed that none of the royal children had dressed up for the occasion: Rin was wearing a gown, as always, but a plain one, and her brothers’ vests and jackets were conspicuously absent. Ayalah supposed, then, that private meetings were considered to be informal affairs. Nonetheless, she let a servant point her to a chair on Komma’s left and sat on the edge of her seat, remembering her manners and waiting for Their Royal Highnesses to speak first.
Autumn was beginning to transition into winter, and it was indeed a bit drafty in the sitting room. With her mug of tea and the fire at her back, Ayalah was pleasantly cozy—but the gradual realization that the princes of Naraloth seemed genuinely concerned for her wellbeing gave Ayalah a feeling of comfort she had never experienced before. “I’m fine, thank you,” she said.
He nodded and beckoned to a servant, who brought mugs of tea for each of the royal children, as well as a fur shrug for the princess.
“So,” Prince Komma said once they were settled, “what can you tell us about Miltinoth and about King Mathais?”
Ayalah had thought that there wouldn’t be much to tell that the Naralian monarchy didn’t already know, but she found that she was parched and exhausted by the time she finished talking and answering questions. She’d explained everything she could think of, from the gate system and city layout to King Mathais’s claim to the throne and what his subjects thought of him. She’d also described Miltinoth’s military, with a gentle hint that perhaps the Naralian warriors might want to be more cautious, especially those patrolling the city gates. Prince Komma asked if she’d be interested in showing the Naralian chieftains some of her fighting techniques at a later date, and she agreed readily.
Komma and his siblings were particularly interested in the way King Mathais treated his people, from the long waits in the palace to the scores of homeless citizens lining the streets. Apparently, they had built public shelters in Naraloth, so that at least when someone needed a warm bed, even if they had no way of paying, one could be found. That Miltinoth had nothing of the sort appalled them—although, Ayalah noted, the notion of people too poor to buy or build a home in the first place didn’t seem to disturb them at all.
“People who have been forced from their homes and left to die on the streets wouldn’t be too loyal to their king, wouldn’t you say?” Roran mused.
Ayalah wasn’t sure if he was addressing her, so she sat in silence.
“No, I should say not,” said Komma.
Ayalah gasped. “You’re going to recruit the homeless people of Miltinoth to be part of your military?” She wondered if she should have mentioned how feeble these people were.
“Not the military,” Roran said.
“Spies,” Komma said, smiling. “Yes, Roran. Brilliant.”