“Rin,” Ayalah said as they sparred that afternoon. “Can I ask you something?”
Rin was trying to master a move that required pivoting while swinging her sword, keeping her face forward to watch her opponent. She followed through on her swing, bringing it up to where Ayalah indicated with a raised hand, before responding. “Sure.”
“I wondered if you could help me with something. I thought it might be nice to give Komma something—a gift, I mean, as a thank you for giving me the rank of commander.”
Rin brushed a stray lock of sweaty hair off of her forehead. “But I’m the one who did that for you, Ayalah.”
Ayalah smiled. “I know. But I thought it might be smart anyway. You know. Politics and all that.”
At this, Rin lit up. “Why, that’s a great idea!” She paused. “No, that won’t do. If you get him something, you’d have to get me something, since it was really me who fought for you, you know. But if you got gifts for both of us, it would be impolite to not also think of my younger brothers.”
Ayalah blanched. She didn’t think she or Greyson could afford so many gifts, even if they pooled their resources. “But Rin, as far as everyone else is concerned, I have no idea that you were the mastermind behind this.”
Rin nodded thoughtfully. “Good point. Why don’t you give Komma something that would also be appropriate for me? That way, you can give it to him, and he’ll acknowledge that I deserve it and pass it off to me.” She grinned.
“That way, I still get a gift, but you’ll have succeeded in impressing him.”
Ayalah laughed. “I can’t exactly give him a necklace, Rin. That wouldn’t be very subtle.”
Rin’s smile faltered.
“But,” Ayalah said quickly, “I did design your new armor myself, after all.”
Rin was silent.
At this, Rin’s smile came back. “I suppose you’re right.”
“But I wouldn’t know what to get him. You remember that servant you told me about, the older woman? What was her name?” She pretended to think. “Lumi?”
“She must have been with him since he was a child,” Ayalah guessed. “Is that right?” This seemed fairly plausible, she thought; it was rare for an adult prince to have any personal servants that weren’t men, unless it was one of his childhood caretakers that he’d grown attached to.
Rin nodded again. “That’s correct. She’s a dear old thing. She’s been with him since he was born. Probably since before he was born, come to think of it.”
“Then she probably knows his taste better than anyone else, wouldn’t you say?”
Rin caught on quickly. “Absolutely! Shall I arrange for her to meet you here, say, tomorrow? Oh, I forgot to mention, I can’t make it tomorrow anyway. A family function I can’t get out of.”
“Oh. Well, then meeting her here tomorrow sounds perfect.”
She was up the next day before dawn, pacing back and forth in her room. What would she say to Lumi? What would Lumi say to her? She realized belatedly that she and Rin hadn’t set a definite time, so she’d have to wait all day until Lumi showed up. She continued pacing. And what if Lumi really was her mother’s sister? Should she address her as Aunt Lumi? Should Lumi call her Commander Tarall, or should she call her Ayalah?
After what felt like ages, the sun rose; she headed downstairs for breakfast.
The morning passed quickly, despite her apprehensions. She cleaned the practice area a bit, practiced her forms, and performed the basic strength-training exercises she made the princess do each day. She was sharpening her sword when she heard a knock at the door.
“Oh!” said Lumi when Ayalah opened the door. “Begging your pardon, miss. I was told to meet someone here, but I didn’t know it would be you, Lady—er—Commander.”
Ayalah stood aside. “Please, come in. I’m afraid I can’t offer you a comfortable seat or a drink.”
Lumi looked around with wide eyes as Ayalah closed the door behind her. “This is quite a home, Commander.”
“Oh, it’s not my home. It’s strictly for training purposes.”
They stood awkwardly for a moment.
“Did you need something, Commander?” Lumi wore a thin sweater over a plain dress made of stiff-looking purple fabric that presumably indicated her status as a palace servant. Ayalah was suddenly keenly aware of her expensive uniform, the leather supple and soft, the armor drawing attention to itself with its reflective shine.
“Yes, I, uh—” For lack of anything better to do, she began to pace again. “Lumi, do you remember that when we met the other night, you said I reminded you of someone?”
Lumi nodded. “My sister, yes.”
“You said she ran off with a soldier from Miltinoth?”
Lumi nodded again. She fingered the hem of her sleeve nervously. “Am I in trouble, Commander? I meant no offense by the comparison—my sister was a lovely woman, really, it was meant as a compliment.”
“Oh, no, not at all, Lumi.” Ayalah stopped pacing and smiled reassuringly, though her entire body felt stiff and taut. “I was just wondering: what was her name?”
“My sister?” Lumi continued fidgeting with her sleeve as she spoke. “Crissa. But she went by Criss, mostly.”
“Crissa,” Ayalah repeated softly. Yes. She remembered that name. Mostly she remembered it being uttered as a strangled shout, her father begging her mother to come back to her body, not to leave him. It was a memory Ayalah tried to forget, one she occasionally still relived in her dreams. But when Lumi said it, there was no pain in the word, only love.
Lumi was staring at her. “Miss?”
Ayalah snapped back to the present. “The warrior she ran off with.” She had to be sure. “What was his name, Lumi?”
Lumi’s eyes were open so wide, Ayalah could see the red flesh rimming the whites of her eyes. “Tarall,” Lumi whispered. Then, more loudly: “Sethan Tarall.”