“It’s not that I can’t defend myself; it’s just that I don’t like to, don’t want to,” Greyson said. “But when our ship was ambushed, well—honestly, all I could think about was that, without the two of us, that ship didn’t stand a chance. You couldn’t do it alone. Half of that crew was made up of young boys with families waiting for them to return, and I couldn’t stand by idly while they died. So I fought. I got there a few moments after you, and right away I could tell who those men were. They’re trained warriors, the Hodarashan, an elite team of about fifty men who do the Hodarian king’s bidding, no questions asked.
“There was no way we could have won—but we put up a damned good fight, and that made them wonder. They didn’t know I spoke Hodarian, either, and they spoke freely, so it was easy to find out that they were after you only; they had no interest in the ship or in Prince Roran. You were their target.”
Ayalah was shocked: was she really important enough for a team of elite warriors to hunt down? Was her life—or death—more important than that of a prince?
“I later found out that Miltinoth and Hodaroth had become allies, and Mathais had asked that the Hodarashan keep an eye out for a trained female warrior with a long braid. Naturally, they recognized you immediately. To them, a woman who can fight is an abomination, a corruption of the natural order of life and death. Hodarians are also a very superstitious lot, so it wasn’t difficult to convince them that you were cursed and that any man who laid so much as a finger, much less a blade, on you would be punished a thousand times over in the afterlife.
“Their orders were to kill you. Everyone else was incidental, including the prince. But they agreed to at least hear me out because they were afraid of the curse, and they took us both as prisoners. I told them that I hardly knew you, but that you were Naralian, not Miltinian. I dropped a few names I knew they’d recognize—Hodarian names, very powerful officials—and they agreed to let me live. They were unsure about you. Cursed or not, they could get a good price if they sold you to the right buyer.
“So they questioned you, and when you said your name was Crissa, they believed you. It probably helped that the Montesteed family is well known and that I told them that lots of women were warriors in Naraloth, even the princess. I don’t know. They were horrified, but they believed it—or at least, they wanted to believe it so they could make a profit, and they sold you as a slave instead of killing you. So far as they know, they still haven’t caught Ayalah Tarall of Miltinoth.”
Ayalah was shocked. He’d done all that for her?
He shivered and went on. “At least, even though I couldn’t stop them from selling you into slavery, I knew that you’d be safe, that you wouldn’t be… harmed.” He coughed. “I was turned over to the Hodarian authorities, who questioned me and then gave me a temporary-stay pass, under the condition that I work as a translator for the war, which had just begun. But they didn’t trust me yet. I had to prove my worth to the Hodarian king first, before they were willing to send me to the mainland.
“I didn’t leave the palace for two months. I slept in the servants’ quarters and received servants’ fare. It isn’t much, but it’s better than what the slaves get.”
He sighed. A bird chirped somewhere above them, and another bird answered. Ayalah remembered how thin he’d looked when she first boarded the ship in Hodaroth, and she felt a knot form in her throat. She’d had plenty to eat at Master Jagdar’s home, slave or not.
Greyson cleared his throat. “Anyway, I worried about you. We didn’t receive any reports of a slave murdering her owner”—a smile flickered across his face—“so I figured that meant you were fine and were being treated reasonably well. Eventually I was promoted to be a kind of consultant and was allowed out of the palace. I wandered the streets, but I couldn’t find you. And then, one day, two things happened.
“First, I was informed that I would be shipping out in five days’ time. I thought I could stow you belowdeck—it was insane, but I couldn’t think of a good alternative. I couldn’t leave you enslaved in a country where you didn’t even speak the language. I immediately set out to find a way to talk to you, but I was stopped in the street by a wealthy man who spoke to me in Common. It turned out he only wanted to practice his Common with me, and assumed from the color of my skin that I spoke it.
“We moved into a bar and talked for a while, and I discovered that he’d been drafted to the same ship as me—except he desperately didn’t want to go. He has an injury that makes it hard for him to walk, much less fight. But in Hodaroth, if a man is willing to endure the shame of cowardice, he can send a slave to fight in his place. So I told him about you. How could I not? It was like the gods had dropped him in front of me on purpose, so I could find a way to get you out. It solved his problem and mine—and yours, too. And because he was wealthy, he could use his influence to find out where you were and to buy you—something I wouldn’t have been able to do myself.
“All I had to do was pretend I didn’t know you. But when I saw you—” Here he paused and looked up at her with a pained expression. He swallowed. “Well, I decided at that point that the best idea was to just avoid you altogether. Just to be safe. I didn’t have a plan to escape, but I had faith that we would, and—and here we are.”
Ayalah’s eyes hadn’t left his face the entire time he’d been talking. She watched him in silence as he shivered and rubbed his hands together.
She was stunned. It had never occurred to her that, all this time, Greyson might have been trying to help her. Only now that she knew all this did she allow herself to inspect him closely, to notice how thin he really was, how overgrown his hair had become, how miserable he looked, with his shoulders slumped and his clothes spattered with blood.
“I’ve been a fool,” she whispered. The entire time, she’d been selfishly watching out for her own skin, not once thinking that maybe Greyson needed her help. He’d been a true friend all along; she was ashamed. “Greyson,” she said, and he looked up at her. “I—” she swallowed. “I’m so sorry.” The words sounded thick and strange in her mouth. “I should never have doubted you. Thank you.”
He shook his head. “It’s not like I did that much. I just mentioned your name to Punjick, and he—”
“No,” she interrupted, “not just for that. For everything: for being my friend, and not giving up on me. For saving my life time and again.”
He smiled. “Of course. That’s what friends do.”
But he shivered again, and the smile faded.
She scooted closer to him and pressed her left side against his right for warmth. “Too bad we didn’t think to defect with some blankets,” she said with a grin.
He looked down at her in surprise. “Commander, I hardly—”
“Ayalah,” she said firmly.
The creases in his brow smoothed out as he broke into a wide grin. He put his arm around her waist, and she leaned her head against his shoulder.
They sat in silence, enjoying each other’s warmth, as the light slowly faded from the sky.