Her new uniform was, she thought giddily, simply splendid. It was snug in all the right places, yet still loose enough to allow movement, and it was just as comfortable as she’d thought it would be. She wondered if the added comfort would improve the Naralian warriors’ performance in battle. A part of her felt terribly guilty for considering tactics to fight her former home—after all, many of the warriors in Miltinoth were her friends, regardless of the animosity she felt toward their king. Sure, they’d teased her relentlessly and scoffed at her more than once for no reason other than her being a woman, but that didn’t mean she wanted to kill them. Not really. Still, she must and would fight them.
She strapped her shoulder armor on awkwardly and slipped on her knee braces and gauntlets. She tried moving through a few swordfighting forms carefully. The armor didn’t inhibit her movement, but it did make her slightly heavier, so her movements were slowed a bit. No matter. She’d just get used to the weight and learn how much added force she needed to use.
The princess had tried unsuccessfully to give Ayalah the day off, and finally they had compromised by deciding to meet in the afternoon. Nonetheless, Ayalah set out for their training room right away. She practiced her own forms for a few hours, twisting and thrusting, dodging imaginary weapons. She faked left, cut to the right, smashed her invisible opponent in the ribs. She pivoted, sidestepped, swung around to parry an imaginary blow. She tucked and rolled, jumped up from the ground, grabbed another sword, and swung both swords in a graceful arc, slicing off the head of an invisible attacker. She ducked, turned, and struck out simultaneously before and behind herself, dropping her swords into imaginary bodies and reaching for and throwing her knife in one swift movement.
Her swords hit the floor with an echoing clatter, and as her knife lodged itself in the wall, she heard a gasp. She whipped her head around.
“C-Commander,” Rin said, eyeing the knife hilt that stuck out from the wall a hand’s length from her face. “You frightened me.”
Ayalah loosened her stance and let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “Sorry, Rin. I didn’t hear you come in.” Had the morning passed already? She was dripping sweat, and her muscles ached wonderfully.
Rin smiled. “I snuck in so I could watch. I hope you don’t mind.” She grabbed a towel from the stack in the corner and brought it to Ayalah. “You know,” she said while Ayalah mopped off her face, “you’re really very graceful.”
Ayalah shrugged. “Thanks.”
“You say you don’t like dancing,” Rin continued, “but that’s what you were just doing. It was lovely to watch. Your footwork was elegant, and you practically moved to a beat.”
“Oh,” Ayalah said, for lack of anything better to say. “I was just testing out the new uniform,” she added lamely.
“Yes? How is it?” Was Ayalah imagining it, or was that a sly grin on the princess’s face?
“Wonderful.” She smiled. “Though rolling is significantly more painful with these shoulder and knee guards.”
Rin chuckled. “I can imagine.”
They stood in silence for a few moments.
“Listen, Rin,” Ayalah said finally. “Princess Rinnah,” she corrected herself.
“I’m not good at putting my feelings into words—I mean, I don’t know how to properly—”
“Oh, Ayalah. You’re welcome. It was the least I could do for you after you’ve spent every day teaching me to use a sword.” The princess wrapped her arms around Ayalah in a hug but then jumped back abruptly in dismay, nose wrinkled.
Ayalah snorted. “The punishment for hugging a sweaty warrior.”
But in truth, the gesture surprised her; she couldn’t remember the last time someone had (successfully) hugged her. The last person who had tried to hug her was a fellow warrior-in-training in Miltinoth who’d had quite the wrong idea of what he liked to call “lady warriors.” She’d cured him of that notion with a quick slice to the gut and then rid his friends of the same moronic idea with a few deftly handled knives and punches. The rest of the recruits had watched as she’d flattened the handful of men single-handedly, and since then she’d received neither inappropriate offers nor sentimental gestures of friendship. But then, she supposed, men were different from women. A violent outburst would earn neither respect nor understanding from the princess; words were more likely to have an impact.
She realized she’d been contemplating this new feeling in dumbfounded silence. The princess had used mere smiles and touches, and yet she’d still rendered Ayalah defenseless.
She snapped to attention.
“What are you still doing in that dress?” she barked. “Change into your practice outfit, don your protective gear, and assume starting position in the center of the room. You have thirty seconds!”