The next day passed in a blur of sword lessons and farewells to the twenty-first division and to Rin. At sundown Ayalah presented her gift of thanks to Prince Komma, a beautiful, intricately carved dagger with the Naralian royal family’s coat of arms on the hilt. He thanked her somberly, assuring her that it was a gift he would treasure for years to come. Greyson presented the princess with her finished suit of armor, decorated and engraved with the same royal coat of arms, and she beamed at him and thanked him so profusely, he actually blushed.
Lumi had spent much of the day cooking, and when Ayalah arrived late in the evening with Greyson in tow, they were hit with mouth-watering aromas of bread and fish wafting out of the tiny cottage. Lumi had folded pieces of tender cod and fresh vegetables into bread dough to make what she called fish pies, topped with a thick white sauce that ran down Ayalah’s chin as she ate. The meal was delicious, and the three of them traded stories and jokes between bites. Ayalah wondered if this was what it felt like to have a family, a home. It was with a heavy heart that she went to sleep that night, her cheeks aching from so much laughter, wondering if she would ever feel that happy again.
She said goodbye to Lumi the following morning. Other than the elaborate sendoff meal she’d prepared, Lumi acted nonchalant about Ayalah’s trip, but she pressed a sealed envelope into Ayalah’s hand before hugging her goodbye. “Don’t open it until you’re on your way,” she said with a shaky smile. Ayalah tucked it into a pocket and forgot about it immediately. She looked around the cottage once more, gave a reassuring smile to her aunt, and set off for the docks.
She arrived at the shipyard as the first rays of light began to tint the sky. Greyson was already there, waiting for her, punctual to a fault.
“Ah, Commander Tarall,” a royal servant said. “Right this way.”
She and Greyson followed the servant to the end of the pier, where a ship of moderate size was getting ready to set sail. The ship itself wasn’t much to look at, but its array of royal Naralian banners, as well as the (surprisingly) crisp uniforms of the sailors, indicated that someone important was on board.
“Commander Tarall,” said a voice behind her. “I’m so glad you agreed to accompany me.”
She turned and was surprised to see Prince Roran standing on the deck of the ship. “Why, Prince Roran,” she said with a bow. “I was expecting the Naralian ambassador to Hodaroth.”
He smiled. “And so I am.”
“A prince? Being sent as an ambassador?” She had never heard of such a thing—although, then again, Naraloth did seem to have a surplus of royal children. But didn’t they have servants or advisors or something to send? She realized, belatedly, that she’d spoken out of turn. “I’m sorry, Your Highness, I didn’t mean—”
“That’s quite all right, Commander. You’re confusion is understandable. The situation in Hodaroth has become”—he hesitated—“complicated, so I’m going in personally to speak to their king about it. I’ll explain more when we’re, er,” he looked around pointedly, “alone.”
She nodded. “Of course. I’m honored to serve you, Your Highness.”
She looked around for Greyson, but he was gone.
She spent the majority of their first day at sea looking over the railing, as she had done on her trip to Olekoth many months before. The crisp breeze felt cleansing, the deep blue of the water serene and almost dizzying. When the sun began to set, she received an invitation to dine in the prince’s cabin. She accepted and, without delay, followed Roran’s servant to his cabin door.
“Enter,” said a muffled voice.
The servant opened the door for her and stepped out of the way. He opened his mouth, presumably to introduce her, but Roran spoke first.
“Commander, come in, come in! I’m delighted you accepted my invitation.”
“Of course, Your Highness. Though I do not believe I deserve this honor.” She sat in the chair the servant pulled out for her.
He smiled. “Nonsense.” He nodded a dismissal to his servant. “And while we’re alone, just Roran is fine. None of that royal groveling, if you please.”
She and the prince sat close to one another in the cramped cabin, which was nonetheless twice the size of the one she’d been given. A small table had been set with a clean, white tablecloth and a pair of candles in golden candleholders; the plates before them were silver plate with a gold trim around the edges. The crew, she thought, must be disgusted at the prince’s excess; just one of the solid gold forks before them could feed any of these men for a lifetime. She found herself thinking reluctantly about how different her own life could be, too, with that kind of wealth. But her stomach was growling and the chicken before her smelled delectable, making it hard to focus on any resentment for long.
“Dig in,” Roran said. He picked up his fork and speared a piece of chicken on it.
She obeyed gladly, relishing the feel of a solid piece of meat in her mouth. It wasn’t that she had anything against the stew at the inn, or Lumi’s standard biscuits and potatoes. But a meal that consisted of solid meat, whether beef or chicken or pork, was a rarity that only nobility and royalty could afford, and so it was a real treat for Ayalah. She savored each bite in silence.
“So,” Roran said finally. “Shall we discuss what we have in common? Our mutual dislike of parties, for instance?”
She smiled. “Well, they’re dreadfully boring.”
“All that socializing is exhausting.”
“And the dancing.”
“Don’t even get me started on dancing,” Roran said with a chuckle. “We’re required to take lessons, you know, all of the royal children. The instructor discovered embarrassingly quickly that I have two left feet. I never saw the point in tripping over my own feet in public.”
Ayalah laughed. “Or tripping over someone else’s feet.”
“And trying to remember the name of every person in attendance….” Roran shook his head.
“And the social niceties!”
He groaned. “The social niceties, indeed. How do you do, and how are the children, and oh, is that a new coat? I’d love it if you would bore me for twenty minutes telling me about the pelts that went into it.”
She giggled. “And all the petty gossip. Who is courting whom, what scandalous affairs are going on this week, and did you hear what so-and-so said about such-and-such?”
The two of them were laughing like old friends.