Ayalah felt like she’d been punched in the stomach. She was having trouble gaining her breath; the room swam before her. She backed into the wall and slid down it until she was sitting on the floor. She hadn’t known what to expect if she ever found any living family, but nausea and feeling as if she might faint would not have been at the top of her list of expected reactions. Yet here she was, head between her legs, struggling to breathe. Why, if her mother had a sister, hadn’t anyone ever come looking for Ayalah when she was a child? Why had her family abandoned her to wander the streets of Miltinoth?
She became dimly aware that Lumi was hovering over her anxiously, fanning her with one of the towels from the corner.
“Are you all right, Lady?”
“Commander,” Ayalah whispered automatically.
Ayalah looked up. “Lumi, do you know my name? I am a commander. Do you know what they call me?” She paused. “Commander Tarall.”
Now it was Lumi’s turn to experience the shock; Ayalah watched as the color drained from her face.
“My father,” Ayalah continued in a voice that didn’t seem to be coming from her body, “was Sethan Tarall. My mother, as you have already guessed, was Crissa.”
“I think we are family.” Ayalah looked back down at her feet. She couldn’t bear to watch Lumi’s reaction. Why had she brought this woman here? To feel her cold rebuff, to have her suspicions confirmed that she was purposely abandoned and left to fend for herself on the rough city streets?
But to her surprise, a warm body slammed into her, and arms were grabbing her, squeezing her, holding her close. Lumi was rocking her back and forth, like a child, though Ayalah suspected the motion was more for Lumi’s comfort than for hers. Lumi pulled back for a moment. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. “I never knew,” she said. “I never received any letters; I didn’t know they had a child. But what a blessing this is, indeed! My sister gone, but her daughter here in her place, beautiful and full-grown. And—!” She gasped. “And a commander! My own niece!” She sobbed and pulled Ayalah into another fierce hug.
Ayalah allowed herself to be hugged, wondering in a detached way if she was dreaming. She, a commander? And a palace servant, her aunt, hugging her? Crying over her? She shook her head to try to clear it.
“Why, dear,” Lumi said, sniffing and wiping her eyes with her sleeve. “You’re shaking all over like a leaf. Are your parents—?”
“Dead,” Ayalah said flatly. “Since I was a child.”
Lumi sat next to her on the floor with a soft thump. “I see.”
“I didn’t know I had any family. I thought—” She couldn’t finish the sentence. A lump had formed in her throat, and she felt dangerously close to letting herself be vulnerable in front of someone else.
“There, now, dear.” Lumi rubbed her arm gently. “I think we have a lot of catching up to do.” She was quiet for a few moments, looking around the training room. “Well, what am I thinking? This is no place to have a reunion. Where are you staying? Nevermind—you must come stay with me. I insist.”
“In the palace?”
Lumi smiled. “I have my own cottage behind the palace. It’s not much, but I can find room for you.”
Ayalah didn’t understand. “You have your own cottage? But I thought palace servants lived in the palace itself.”
“Prince Komma has always been a bit sentimental. He gifted it to me a few years ago. I’m sort of like a mother to him, you know, the dear thing.”
“He gave you a cottage?” She tried not to feel resentful of the prince, who had apparently grown up with two mothers when she’d had none.
“Well, it’s more like a loan. Until I’m gone, you see. Then it will become someone else’s home.” Lumi pursed her lips. “I should be getting back. Why don’t you collect your things and meet me at the front gate of the palace at sunset?”
Lumi smiled. “To stay with me, of course.”
Ayalah was overwhelmed by Lumi’s immediate warmth and excitement. Was this what having family was like? “But,” she said. “But what about Greyson?” She regretted it the instant she said it.
She had no choice but to explain. “My friend, Greyson. He’s been staying at the inn with me.”
“He can come too, of course. Not much room for two extra people…” She stared off into the distance for a moment. “Well, no matter. We’ll figure it out. The more, the merrier!”