The party was as dull as Ayalah had anticipated. There was music and dancing and a lot of mindless chatter, and she found herself, as always, standing on the outside of the crowd, despite being the guest of honor. She didn’t see Greyson anywhere; he had probably escaped the room while he could and retreated back to their inn for a nice, quiet night sitting by the fire. She sighed with longing. Her feet ached.
Her new uniform and armor were waiting somewhere on the other side of the door, and she itched to go see them, to try them on. But protocol, she knew, dictated that she stay and “enjoy” the entire party—if nothing else, she would have to sit through a number of long-winded speeches directed toward her near the end of the night, so there was no use trying to leave now.
A strong drink: that was what she needed. That would help her stifle her yawns just a bit better. The palace employed hundreds of servants, and somehow all of them seemed to be in this ballroom all at once; yet Ayalah was at a loss for how to flag one of them down. They all looked so focused, so busy.
“Pardon me,” she said finally, stepping in front of one of them. “I hate to be rude, but could—?”
The servant gasped and dropped the tray of bite-sized sandwiches she was carrying. She stared at Ayalah.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Ayalah said. She bent down and began to help the servant clean up the spilled food.
“Please, allow me,” the servant murmured. She worked quickly to assemble everything back on the tray, but her eyes kept flicking to Ayalah’s face.
“Is… everything all right?”
The servant’s short hair bobbed as she nodded. “Just fine, Lady. Please accept my apologies. For a moment you startled me: you looked like someone I used to know. Good evening.” She curtseyed and headed for a door at the back of the room.
Ayalah started after her. “Wait!”
But a dancing couple got in her way, and then another few servants, and the woman disappeared behind a swinging door before Ayalah could catch up with her. Presumably the door led to the servants’ hallway and then to the kitchen, a place she and the other guests were not meant to see. She hesitated a moment before pushing the door open and chasing the woman into the kitchen.
The kitchen, she discovered, was a massive room, as big as the ballroom, but split into sections. One section near her had stews simmering, and another had pastries being rolled. She stopped and stared for a few moments, noticing station after station: meats, sauces, vegetables, cheeses. Each had servants swarming all over the place, shouting orders or grabbing fresh platters to take out to the nobles.
Before she could notice much more, she spotted the servant she was looking for and caught up with her. She laid a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Let me pay for the damage. Please. It was my fault.”
The servant turned and gasped again at the sight of her. “Please, Lady—you are not allowed to be back here.”
“I know,” Ayalah said, shrugging. “But I also know that the cost of that food will come out of your pay.”
The woman looked around her, becoming conscious of the other servants slowing down to stare at them. She beckoned Ayalah into what seemed to be a massive pantry area, filled with spices and herbs. Ayalah’s nose itched from all the powerful scents. “You are very kind, Lady. But no—I dropped the platter entirely through my own negligence. I must face the consequences myself. Now, please return to the party, Lady, before we both get in trouble.”
The woman must have been at least twice Ayalah’s age, but her hair had only the merest hint of gray in it, and she carried her head high despite her status. Ayalah nodded reluctantly. Perhaps it was a source of pride for this woman, as it would be for Ayalah herself; perhaps it might be better if Ayalah appealed to Rin directly. She’d heard stories back in Miltinoth: that platter of food could mean a month’s or a year’s worth of food for this servant, depending on what was in those sandwiches she dropped. Ayalah could not let this woman or her family starve because of Ayalah’s boredom and desire for a drink. “Well,” she said to the woman, “then at least please accept my apologies for startling you.”
The woman smiled. The gesture lit up her face, the many crinkles around her eyes giving Ayalah the impression that this woman had lived a life filled with laughter. “Not at all. It was a very pleasant surprise. For a moment I was sure you were my sister.”
Ayalah had begun to turn away from the servant, to retrace her footsteps out of the kitchen. But this halted her in her tracks. “You have a sister my age?” She realized belatedly that this had come out wrong. “I didn’t mean—”
But the servant laughed. “No, no, she’d be much older by now. It must have been a trick of the lighting. She ran off with a warrior from Miltinoth when we were around your age, you see, and—”
“Lumi!” A rotund, red-faced man was standing behind Ayalah, hands on his hips. “What in the world is going on here? If you don’t have enough work to do, I’m sure I can find more for you.” He caught sight of Ayalah watching him and paled. “Oh, dear—pardon me, Your—er—Your Grace.”
“Oh!” Ayalah shook her head. “I’m not—”
Lumi ducked her head and hurried out of the pantry, murmuring apologies to the man as she went.
“Are you lost, Your Grace?” The man guided her to the door leading back to the ballroom. “The party is right this way, if you please.”
Ayalah obediently walked back through the door in a daze. The music, the dancing, the chatter—everything seemed like a blur to her now. Could it be? How many women in Naraloth had run off with warriors from Miltinoth? That servant, Lumi, certainly looked like she could be around Ayalah’s mother’s age, if her mother was still alive. Had her mother been a servant in the palace? Was this woman, then… her family?