She ate in Roran’s cabin each night. The food was delicious, and Roran, as it turned out, was both funny and interesting. He prided himself on being a scholar, and he told her about some fascinating things he had read, from the types of indigenous animals found in the mountains near Naraloth to the agricultures and climates of different lands. He was learned in history, foreign languages, and alchemy, although, he admitted, his favorite thing to study was art. He loved to draw and to paint; he showed Ayalah some of his still-life and portrait sketches, and she wasn’t just flattering him when she said she was impressed.
His trip to Hodaroth, he explained, was to assess the recent political leanings of the king. Rumors had reached Naraloth that the Hodarians were gearing up for war—but it was unclear whose side they were on. None of the Naralian intelligence agents had been heard from for quite some time, so Roran was going in person to meet with the king to find out what was going on. The lack of a message from any of the Naralian agents didn’t bode well, Roran said; he feared that the inevitable war with Miltinoth was not far off. On the way, he planned to stop at the Naral Isles to check in with the harvesters there and see how their defenses stood. Ayalah would serve as his personal bodyguard in both places, though he didn’t expect any serious problems—ambassadors had political immunity, he explained, and there was an age-old agreement among the kingdoms stating that no harm (save natural disaster) could befall an ambassador.
It took their ship a week to reach the Naral Isles, a series of small islands that had been colonized by Roran’s grandfather’s grandfather. The spices and minerals found on these islands, Roran explained, were unlike any found on the mainland. Some were used to flavor food, but others were used in medicines worldwide. They were therefore doubly valuable, so Naraloth guarded the Isles heavily to protect against pirate invasion or merchant thieves.
They sailed through the barricades without incident and landed on the largest of the islands. Prince Roran and Ayalah were then led by a servant to the home of the most senior warrior on the islands, Senior Commander Harper, who was in charge of one of the top regiments in Naraloth. She’d heard his name before, but the Senior Commanders didn’t interact much with the Commanders, and certainly not the rookie Commanders like her, so she didn’t know much about him beyond the rumors that he was a cold, unforgiving man.
The island appeared to consist of nothing but overgrown grassy fields and patches of forest, with a small town center by the dock. If there was any kind of organization of the plant life that they so carefully cultivated, Ayalah could not discern it. The town, too, was a bit of an anomaly to her. If the servant hadn’t been leading them, she realized, they would have had no way to know which house belonged to Senior Commander Harper; all of the houses looked identical. They were all squat buildings with grassy roofs and what appeared to be a combination of stones and mud for walls. The Senior Commander’s home was no bigger or fancier than the others around it, nor was there any marking or indication that this home belonged to someone of esteem. The inside of the Senior Commander’s home was similarly simple and unadorned. Ayalah was impressed: the man clearly hadn’t let his position go to his head.
He greeted them in a small sitting room, looking up from a stack of papers as if unaware that he was expecting visitors. “Ah, Your Highness!” he barked, standing and bowing. “Nice of you to drop by.”
Ayalah stared. It wasn’t that his manner of speaking was strange—many commanding warriors spoke in a similar, authoritative way, as if always giving orders—but such a big voice coming out of such a small man surprised her. Roran was a man of average height to begin with; he was nearly the same height as Ayalah, who was admittedly tall for a woman. But the Senior Commander was shorter than both of them, barely even meeting Ayalah’s shoulder. She felt like a giant standing awkwardly in a dwarf’s home.
She and Roran greeted the Senior Commander, and then she stood behind Roran’s chair as the men talked. They spoke about harvests, profits, seasons; she kept her hand on her sword pommel and tried to look as if she wasn’t listening. Soon Roran rose, bade the Senior Commander farewell, and led the way back to the ship. Ayalah was pleased; if the whole trip went this well, they’d be back in Naraloth in just a few weeks, without her having to use her sword even once.
They sailed for another week without incident, though the air grew colder the farther south they went, and the sailors began to whisper uneasily about icebergs in this part of the sea. Ayalah had brought a heavy woolen coat with her, and she found that she had to wear it at all times now, even under her blankets while she slept, to ward off the biting cold. The sailors in their thinner coats ran around more than usual to keep warm, and Greyson began spending his time near the ship’s ovens, feigning interest in learning to cook the slop the sailors ate.
She wondered how far they were from Hodaroth now. As before, she wasn’t sure how to go about finding the next piece of the prophecy. Would the Hodarians be willing to talk to her? Perhaps the women could help her; even if they were treated as second-class citizens, surely they would still know the same legends as the men. Although, she realized, Greyson had already guessed at her real purpose in going to Hodaroth; perhaps he would help her find the next piece. She would have to swallow her pride and speak with him about it, but only if she could find no other way.
She began to lose track of the days they’d been at sea. Had it been a week since their brief stop at the Naral Isles? Longer? The days were short now and the nights long, with little light coming through the mostly cloudy skies.
Prince Roran was perfectly comfortable through the cold nights. He had a number of animal skins and furs to choose from, and he began to spend time on deck after dinner each night, enjoying the quiet when the sailors went below for warmth. As his bodyguard, Ayalah was required to accompany him, no matter how the wind tore through her coat and left her shivering. She pretended the cold didn’t bother her, and he seemed to believe her—although on one occasion he did insist that she wear one of his furs around her neck, no matter the sly looks she received from his servants.
It was on a particularly quiet morning, after she and Roran had stayed up late the night before discussing the merits of a war council before retiring to bed, that Ayalah heard a thump from above her room that caused her to sit up in alarm. It wasn’t the kind of thump that indicated that a sailor had dropped something; it was a heavier sound—the sound of a body falling. She listened for a moment to see if someone had simply tripped, but no further sound was forthcoming.
She bolted out of bed.
Within moments she was at Prince Roran’s door, finding with relief that he was unharmed, in bed, bewildered at her intrusion. “Stay here,” she instructed. “Lock the door, and don’t open it unless I tell you to.”
She flew up the stairs to the deck, sword out, hoping she’d heard the sound of a sailor falling over drunk or freezing to death. Any alternative would do, really. But as she reached the top of the stairs, coated with a thin layer of freshly fallen snow, shouts reached her ears—and then the clangs of metal on metal.
They were under attack.