Ayalah had never had a female friend before, so she was unsure how this type of friendship worked. Her male friends were easy to understand: so long as she watched their backs, they would watch hers; if they asked her for a favor, she would do it, but she would expect something in return, as would they. She and Rin were friends now—at least Ayalah thought they were. She’d come to respect the princess in the months they’d known each other, an intimacy born of spending nearly every waking moment together, and she liked to think the princess felt the same about her. If Rin came to her now asking for a favor, Ayalah would do it—and not only because she’d sworn her allegiance to the princess’s family. But would Rin, Ayalah wondered, do the same for her?
Since Ayalah had been given the title of Commander, her time was no longer her own. Her days were filled with training and many of her evenings with strategy meetings, and by the time she returned to Lumi’s cottage each night, she was exhausted. She and Rin had had to stop their covert lessons, but they’d arranged to meet on evenings when no strategy meetings were being held to check on Rin’s progress, and tonight was the first time such an opening had come up.
Ayalah paced back and forth in the training room. It might be a serious breach of conduct to ask such a favor from the princess, but she wasn’t sure what else to do. Without acting on orders, she would be unable to leave Naraloth in order to go anywhere—but in order to get leave to travel to Hodaroth, she might have to admit to Rin her reason for asking.
Rin hurried through the door, right on schedule. “Good evening, Ayalah,” she said with a smile. “Chilly outside, isn’t it?”
Ayalah nodded, taking Rin’s coat from her to hang it in the corner. “Especially this far south. I got here a bit early to start the fire so you wouldn’t be too cold to move around.”
Rin raised an eyebrow. “That was thoughtful of you.”
“Maybe I’m learning a thing or two about courtesy from living with a palace servant,” Ayalah said archly. In truth, she’d arrived early to have some time alone to think, to plan what to say.
Rin kept her eyebrow raised but didn’t pursue the topic. She changed into her sparring outfit, and they went over footwork and forms for a few hours. The princess was progressing quite well, Ayalah noted with a twinge of pride. It was clear that she took her training very seriously and found the time and privacy to practice each day. In fact, she was nearly as devoted as Ayalah herself had been, when she’d first started training as a child. Rin didn’t have the same ferocity, the anger that had fueled Ayalah, but she certainly enjoyed swinging a sword as much as any warrior recruit, and her movements were graceful and fluid.
When Rin’s arms were so tired that she began to struggle to lift or swing her sword, Ayalah called a halt.
“Great work today, Rin.”
Rin’s face lit up. “Thank you!”
“Who have you been practicing with?”
Rin busied herself with removing her sparring gear. “What do you mean?”
“Rin, I can tell you haven’t been practicing alone. That move you did just now—I know I didn’t teach you that.”
After a long moment of silence, Rin sighed. “Roran. He caught me practicing one night and insisted on joining. He didn’t laugh at me or anything.”
Roran, Rin’s youngest brother, the scholar of the family. “No,” Ayalah said. “He wouldn’t.” She thought for a moment. “But this is great. Now there’s someone who can help you while I’m not around.”
Rin nodded and began to change back into her gown.
“Rin… may I ask you a favor?”
The princess looked at Ayalah in surprise. “Why, of course you may.”
“I’d like you to send me to Hodaroth. For any reason, even a silly errand.”
“Hodaroth?” She frowned. “But why? They’re barbaric over there, you know. They keep slaves.”
“It’s personal. I’d rather not say.”
This was the crucial moment, Ayalah knew. Rin watched her through narrowed eyes.
“You want to go to Hodaroth on personal business, and you don’t want to tell me why. But you want me to arrange it?”
“It’s not that I won’t tell you why eventually—it’s just that I don’t want to tell you just yet. Not until my suspicions are confirmed.”
For a moment, Ayalah regretted her boldness. Now that Rin was back in her normal clothes, she looked every bit Princess Rinnah, not open to doing favors for anyone beneath her. But then Rin nodded. “Okay. I’ll see what I can do. I can’t make any promises, mind you, but I’ll look into it.”
Ayalah smiled. “Thank you, Rin.”