It was early one morning while Ayalah served tea to Jagdar and two of his sons in his study that the opportunity she’d been hoping for knocked on the door. It was a tall, slightly stooped, scrawny man in an ornate robe; he inclined his head when she opened the door and proceeded to inspect her closely without invitation.
“Can I help you?” It didn’t matter that he wouldn’t understand her words: her tone would be clear either way.
But to her surprise, the man smiled. “I’d like to speak to Master Jagdar, please. Is he available?” He spoke her language flawlessly, with only a hint of an accent; upon closer inspection she realized that, although he seemed frail, he was a young man, probably around her age.
She gaped for a moment before collecting herself. “I, er, I’ll see if—is he expecting you, Master…?”
“Punjick. And no, he is not.”
She bowed and led the man into the sitting room. She brought him tea to sip while he waited, and then she returned to the study and haltingly let Jagdar know he had a visitor. He growled something—she thought, from her slowly developing Hodarian vocabulary, that it had something to do with Punjick’s lack of an appointment, though it could have simply been a complaint at being interrupted—and then shook his head firmly. It was what she had expected: he loathed unexpected visitors. But one of his sons began speaking rapidly—too fast for Ayalah to discern what he said—and the old man’s eyes opened wide. He nodded and rose, indicating that Ayalah should lead the way.
Jagdar greeted Punjick formally and took a seat beside him. The fabric of Jagdar’s clothing, Ayalah noticed, was every bit as expensive-looking as Punjick’s; yet something about the way Punjick carried himself told Ayalah that he had been born wealthy, unlike Jagdar, who seemed to have made his fortune by virtue of his own hard work. She supposed that explained why Jagdar had deigned to meet with the young man, despite the early hour and Punjick’s lack of an appointment.
Punjick wasn’t good looking by any stretch of the imagination: he had a large nose, eyes too far apart, and a bit of a hunch in his soldiers. But something about him struck Ayalah as being very sweet, almost in a childlike way. He smiled often and was so disarmingly cheerful that at first Ayalah wondered if he was telling a joke. Certainly her opinion of him was no worse for the fact that, when she refilled his tea cup, he smiled at her and thanked her in her own language.
She was returning to the kitchen to refill the teapot when she overheard her assumed name being spoken. She stopped to listen and peeked around a wall to watch.
“Crissa?” Jagdar had asked in surprise.
Punjick nodded and said something in return that Ayalah couldn’t fully discern—but she did recognize the word for “buy”; it was one Jagdar used frequently when telling her which teas to get at the market.
Jagdar looked confused. He responded, and then Punjick countered with a quick retort, throwing in her name and gesturing as if trying to convince the old man. They went back and forth a half a dozen times, their voices getting increasingly louder. Finally, Punjick lifted his coin purse from his belt and set it on the table with a heavy chink. Jagdar’s eyes opened wide.
“Wait a moment,” Ayalah interjected, stepping out from behind the wall. The old man’s greed was palpable, so transparent it appalled her.
The men looked up at her.
“Are you selling me?” she asked Jagdar, outraged. She turned to Punjick. “Are you trying to buy me?” Being sold as a slave once was bad enough; but she’d since been treated as a servant and had a fairly easy routine. She had no idea what kinds of things Punjick would want her to do or how he’d treat her, and unless she was getting off this island, she was in no hurry to change households.
“Wait, Crissa,” Punjick said, “let me explain.”
She crossed her arms and waited.
“In Hodaroth, we have a law that says that in times of war, all men of a certain age must serve our country, in sickness or in health. I am, you may have guessed, of that age.”
Jagdar was tapping his foot impatiently, a vein in his forehead straining with his effort to control his temper.
“But there is a way to avoid fighting, though very few men have ever deemed the shame to be worth the sacrifice. If he so chooses, a man may send his slave to fight for him.” He waited while she digested this information, the situation becoming immediately clear to her. “I am not a fighter, Crissa, and I am wealthy enough that the disdain of my peers does not bother me. More importantly, I cannot physically fight, and I would prefer to continue studying my grandfather’s library anyway. This war is not my war. But I didn’t want to send my slaves, either; they have children, families.
“Happily, the gods have helped me: I met a man recently—a very pale-skinned man—who told me about you and said you could fight for me, even though you are a woman.” She was barely able to hold her tongue, but Punjick continued without appearing to notice her raised eyebrows. “He said that, despite the shame I would bring upon my family, if you fought for me you would regain our honor tenfold. You have no children, nor any other attachments to this island. Yet still I would not wish to force you against your will. A reluctant fighter is a weak fighter. Will you consent to fight for me?”
Her mouth felt sucked dry of all moisture. “Whose side are you on?”
“The war. Who would I be fighting?”
He sighed. “Hodaroth has allied itself with Miltinoth. You will be fighting your own people, the Naralians. I am truly sorry.”
She considered the situation: she would be fighting against her new home, but she would be fighting alongside her old friends. She didn’t want to help King Mathais, but fighting on his side of the war would give her a chance to attack him from within, to get her revenge personally, properly. She could serve as a spy for Naraloth—unsanctioned and unbeknownst to the Naralian rulers, but useful nonetheless should she be able to get to their camp and pass on any privileged information. And perhaps she could even recruit some of her Miltinian friends to desert to the Naralian side; Mathais hadn’t exactly inspired loyalty with the detached and often cruel way he treated his subjects.
Most importantly, serving as Punjick’s proxy would get her off this cursed island.
She looked at Punjick and nodded. “I will serve in your place, Master Punjick.”