Ayalah had been on the verge of leaving. Her weight was on the toes of her feet, ready to spring away, to run before it was too late. She looked at Lumi and didn’t speak.
“Where’s your friend?”
“He—he couldn’t make it,” Ayalah lied. In truth, she simply hadn’t told Greyson yet where she was going. She didn’t want him to change the dynamic. If this woman really was her aunt, she wanted a chance to get to know her first—alone. She hoped he would understand.
“Pity. Perhaps we can invite him another time?” Lumi smiled and took Ayalah by the hand. “Come, dear. You look chilled to the bone. Let me make you some hot tea and sit you by the fire with a soft blanket.”
Ayalah followed numbly as Lumi led her behind the palace to a small cottage. It was a tiny place, with just one main sitting room and a cramped bedroom off to the side. The sitting room was cozy, with a fireplace and a wall of cabinets and shelves along one wall and a couple of chairs nearby, positioned optimally to enjoy the heat from the fire in the winter. A clothesline was strung in front of the fireplace, and a cot had been set up in the corner of the room.
Ayalah walked over to the cot and set her small bag of belongings on it. “Thank you.”
“Oh,” Lumi said with a nervous laugh, “your things don’t belong out here.” She pointed to the bedroom. “They’ll go in there, where you’ll be sleeping.”
Ayalah took a few steps to the doorway of the bedroom. It was a modest room, with only enough space for a bed and a stool in it. “But Lumi, there’s only one bed in here.”
“You mean for me to sleep in your bed?”
“But where will you sleep?”
“In the cot, of course. No, no, dear, don’t worry about me. I could never live with myself if my niece—a decorated warrior!—didn’t sleep on the best bed in my home.”
Ayalah felt silly for not having anticipated this earlier. Of course Lumi would insist on such sleeping arrangements: she was a palace servant. Her livelihood depended on her sacrificing her own comforts for those of her social betters. “Lumi, I don’t want to—”
“Nonsense, dear, you just make yourself at home here. Can I get you some tea? I’m afraid I don’t have anything else to drink, but you let me know if there’s something you want, and I can get it from the market tomorrow.” She bustled around, putting Ayalah’s bag on the stool in the bedroom, smoothing the sheets on the bed, and looking for something else to do.
Ayalah smiled. Lumi was like a little mother hen, trying to take care of her. She wasn’t at all a mean old witch, taking advantage of Ayalah’s loneliness. Ayalah felt foolish for letting her doubts overwhelm her. She rested a hand on Lumi’s arm. “Lumi, what would you normally do right now, if I wasn’t here?”
“Probably sit by the fire and start preparing some food. But that wouldn’t be very exciting for you, Commander.”
Ayalah started. “Ayalah. My name is Ayalah.”
A warm smile spread across Lumi’s face. “Ayalah. What a lovely name. Do you know, my grandmother’s name was Ayalah. That must be where Crissa got it from. Grandmother lived to be a very old, very sweet woman.” She sighed, whether with happiness or sadness, Ayalah could not tell. “Would you like to hear more about your parents?” She beckoned Ayalah over to the fire. “Pick whichever chair you’d like, dear.”
The chairs, so far as Ayalah could tell, were identical: solid oak, with cushions on the seats to add some comfort. Ayalah chose one and sat; Lumi walked back and forth across the room, grabbing a pot here, a couple of knives there, some vegetables she had left on a shelf for herself, and what looked like a freshly caught hare.
“It’s been such a long time, such a very long time,” Lumi said. She perched on the edge of her seat, her eyes unfocused. “We were both working at the palace then, your mother and I. I had been there a few years already, but she was new, and she thought everything was so glamorous. The people, the clothing, the decorations—it never seemed to get boring to her.” She sat back in her chair, put the pot in her lap, and began chopping up carrots as she spoke. “The king and queen were quite young back then. Komma was just a child, a baby really, and the most adorable thing you ever saw. I… I guess I was enamored with him, and the queen was very busy, and children require quite a lot of attention…. Anyway, I didn’t keep a very close eye on your mother.”
Ayalah was entranced. She remembered her manners and set to work on skinning the hare while she listened.
“There must have been a ball—the royals are always throwing balls—and I suppose your mother was helping out, as we’re all normally required to do during large events. Except I had a much more important responsibility, so I was in the nursery, playing with Komma and reading to him. I suppose that must be how they met, your mother and Sethan. In any case, I never heard a word about it. Criss was always off in her own world, very quiet, daydreaming a lot, and she never mentioned it to me—not once.
“Crissa and Sethan, I found out later, had been meeting frequently in little back hallways and private parlors for some time. It was quite the scandal, really. Sethan, a visiting warrior from Miltinoth, and Crissa, a palace servant! Criss said it was love; she said she couldn’t stand to be away from him and couldn’t stop smiling when she was with him. Well, Sethan was immediately dismissed from his post here and ordered back to Miltinoth. But he asked Crissa to go with him, and she said yes.”
Lumi leaned back and sighed. “I didn’t get to know Sethan all that well. He was a very quiet man, didn’t smile much unless it was at Criss. She brought out the best in him, I’m sure.” Lumi blinked a few times, focusing on Ayalah. “Why, you’ve skinned the hare for me!”
Ayalah looked down at her lap. “So I have.”
Lumi clucked her tongue. “You should let me wait on you, dear. It’s only proper.”
Ayalah ignored the remark. “But what happened after that?”
“Well, Criss left a note for the queen appealing to her romantic tendencies, and we had a final meal together. Then they were gone. No letters. Criss was always very private, but still I had expected her to write to me. And then…”
“One day I was summoned to the queen’s chamber. A messenger had brought word of Sethan’s death, and we all knew the Miltinian rule: if he’d died and Crissa had still been alive, she would have been forced to move back home, since she wasn’t a citizen of Miltinoth. But she never showed up. I don’t know why the message didn’t mention that Sethan left behind a child. I waited and waited… and finally I accepted the fact that my sister was dead. I thought, when we talked yesterday, that maybe… but there’s no sense wishing for what’s gone, is there? Come now, you sit back and relax and I’ll have some food ready for you in no time.”