Having a princess as a personal friend really did have its benefits, Ayalah thought. It had been only four days since she’d met with Rin, and already a royal summons had arrived, telling her that she would accompany the Naralian ambassador to Hodaroth via the Naral Isles. The ambassador, it seemed, had personally requested that Commander Tarall accompany him as an official bodyguard; the ship would leave in two days, and she was expected to be aboard and ready to leave at that time.
Lumi would handle the news well, Ayalah thought. She would probably be sad to see her only family go, but they would be reunited soon enough: winter was setting in, and the Naralian ambassador would surely want to return home before icebergs made it impossible. It should be a fairly safe journey. No—the reaction Ayalah was concerned about was Greyson’s.
She headed down to see him as the sun was setting, casting slanting rays of pale orange light on rooftops and merchant stands. She took the main road past the nobles’ estates, the city center, and the smaller houses and shacks of the lower class, enjoying the looks of deference afforded to her by her Commander uniform everywhere she went. As in Miltinoth, citizens now moved aside to let her pass, dropping their eyes to the ground. But it felt different here: here they seemed to defer to her out of respect, whereas in Miltinoth it had felt more like fear.
By the time she reached the area of the city where Greyson was still living, the sun had fully set, the early sundown another sure sign of a miserable winter to come. She found Greyson still working at the forges, so enthralled in what he was working on that he didn’t even notice her entrance. She peered closer to see what he was molding so carefully. It looked like a gauntlet of some sort, but she couldn’t tell in the flickering candlelight.
She cleared her throat.
“Aya—!” Greyson began with a smile. “Erm, I mean, Commander Tarall. How nice of you to drop by. To what do I owe this honor?” He spoke in a humble manner, but he met her eyes, as usual.
She shrugged. “I need to talk to you, if you have a few moments.”
“Let me just finish up here. Almost done.” He went back to work on the metal he was holding—Ayalah saw now that it was steel, thick and white-hot. She enjoyed watching Greyson work. His hands, though wide and calloused, had a careful, delicate way about them, and he handled his craft with the utmost concentration, moving from oven to cooling barrel, table to table, grabbing one hammer here, a shape-molder there, with such precision it was like watching a performance.
“There,” he said finally. He held the gauntlet up to a lantern hanging nearby for her inspection. “It’s the final piece in the suit of armor I’m making.”
“Oh!” Ayalah said. “For the princess?”
He nodded. “Just a few decorative details to add and it will be done.”
“That’s wonderful, Greyson.” She wondered what he told his assistants about his late-night work, and whether they believed him.
He bustled around a bit, tidying a few things, retiring his heavy apron for the night, and putting out the fire in the forge. “Okay,” he said. “Are you hungry?”
They walked together back to the inn, and for those few moments it felt as if Ayalah hadn’t discovered her aunt and moved up near the palace a few weeks before. They sat at a table by the fire and waited for the innkeeper’s wife to bring them each a mug of ale.
“So what did you want to talk about?”
She stretched her hands out to the fire before her and felt the warmth spread over her fingers. “I’m leaving in two days.”
“What do you mean, leaving?”
The innkeeper’s wife made a scrumptious pork stew, and she brought a bowl out to each of them along with their ale. Her stew was popular with the locals—so popular that it hardly ever lasted longer than a night. Greyson noticed her look of surprise and spoke up just before slurping some into his mouth. “Third night in a row she’s served it. Looks like now all the meat’s gone, we’ve got the place to ourselves.”
Ayalah wasn’t about to complain. It was nice, for a change, to have the room to themselves. “I’m going to Hodaroth. I’ll be serving as the ambassador’s personal bodyguard.”
Greyson sputtered and began coughing. He took a swig of ale and wiped his mouth. “You’re going where?”
She’d been in the process of lifting a spoonful of stew to her mouth. She set it back down. “What?”
“Do you know what Hodaroth is like? They treat women like property. They keep slaves. Are you planning to stay on the ship the whole time?”
She stared at him. “Of course not. How do you know all that about Hodaroth, anyway?”
“I—I’ve heard rumors. From trustworthy sources, of course.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ll be fine. I’m a Commander, remember?”
He shook his head. “They don’t care what you are. They’ll attack you just for being a woman and having the audacity to wear armor and call yourself a warrior.”
“Well, that’s how they’ll see it.”
She ate a few mouthfuls of stew in silence, watching Greyson’s discomfort. He was drumming his fingers on the table, staring into the fire and shaking his head.
“You shouldn’t go. What about your Commander duties? You’ve only been training your division for a couple of months now. It’ll reflect poorly on your… your dedication to your country.” He took a smug drink of ale.
He was right, and she knew it. She’d thought about the repercussions of leaving so suddenly, so soon after she’d been given her rank of Commander, but she had no choice. The prophecy was too important—more important than her own dreams and ambitions, which she tried not to think about. “Greyson. I’m going. I didn’t come here to ask your permission.”
He looked up angrily. “Of course not. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t go. No good can come of it.”
She didn’t answer.
“I’m going with you.”
“Why would you want to go with me if you don’t even think I should go?”
“You’ll need protection. I’ll go with you.”
She gaped at him. She had planned to ask him to accompany her, but with the assumption that she would protect him—that he, as a holder of part of the prophecy, still needed protection. The idea of him protecting her was preposterous. “How do you plan to protect me? With what weapons?”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I just wish you’d given me more notice about this trip. There are still so many fishing poles to repair, axes to put back together…”
“I just found out today. It was rather sudden.”
He sighed. “Well, I’ll have to make do. How long will we be gone?”
“I’m not sure. A month, I’d guess, maybe longer.”
He squinted at her. “You want to go, don’t you?”
“Why would you—?”
He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Is this about the cursed prophecy again?”
She flinched involuntarily. “No—what—”
“It is!” He glared at her. “Ayalah, your obsession with the—”
“It has nothing to do with that!” she hissed.
“Why do you care so much about it, anyway?”
She crossed her arms. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He continued drumming his fingers on the table, slurping his stew in silence.