Swynn’s directions were impeccable. She and Greyson emerged from the forest after only a few days of walking—which Ayalah thought was surely influenced by magic, given how much ground they’d covered with so little effort—to find themselves looking across a wide, hilly plain that Greyson confirmed was one of the outlying Bolladian farms. After another day’s walk, the delicate, spiraled gates of Bolladoth rose before them in the distance; the closer they came to the city, the more astonished Ayalah was.
Bolladoth wasn’t like any of the other great cities she had visited. The other cities had sturdy, practical gates, guard towers, and armaments. Bolladoth was notorious for its neutrality, but still she was surprised at how docile the city seemed, how lovely and impractical. The gates looked to be made of simple metal, wound in intricate loops into a pattern at once pleasing and dizzying. The walls were solid, made of a shiny white stone Ayalah didn’t recognize—a mineral of some sort, she guessed. There was no guard tower, nor any guards in sight, though they were greeted at the gate by a lone man of proud bearing who led them toward the fabled palace, which rose up like a blinding white beacon in the middle of the city.
Once inside the walls, Ayalah looked around in awe. The buildings within the city walls were tall and narrow, and somehow they still seemed light and delicate, though their sturdiness was apparent in their height and in the number of people each building seemed to contain. The area they walked through to reach the palace seemed to be a wealthy one, and each of the buildings had a flourish made of the same white stone as the city walls. The houses and businesses were mostly composed of wood and brick, but one had an arch made of the white stone, another had flecks of it hidden in the roof, and still another had a door knocker and two statues out front made of the mineral. It served to unify the entire city, Ayalah realized. But no building was as impressive as the palace, which Ayalah had longed to see her whole life. It was made entirely of the same white stone, and it rose up and up, with towers and parapets and a bell tower that chimed pleasantly as they moved toward it.
Greyson was enjoying her wide-eyed fascination with the city. “It’s lovely, isn’t it?” he said.
She smiled. “It really is.”
When she was a warrior in nearby Miltinoth, King Mathais had never deigned to send her to Bolladoth—which was surely intentional, as she’d made the mistake of letting her desire be known as soon as she’d come of age, before she understood how much the king truly despised her. Civilians from any part of the world were welcomed into Bolladoth with open arms, but warriors were only allowed in on legitimate business, so Ayalah had never, in all her years of living so close, actually been able to visit. The stories she’d heard had all been true, it seemed, and she continued to observe with glee a child playing with a ball, a couple strolling down a side street together, and an old woman on the opposite side of the road coming slowly toward them.
“But where is everyone?” In all the stories Ayalah had heard, Bolladoth was always bustling with visitors, a mix of people from all different nations and skin colors and loyalties. The streets were by no means empty at the moment, but they looked peaceful, quiet, filled with more blonde-haired people than Ayalah had previously ever seen in one place before.
“In times of war, few tourists seek to do business in Bolladoth,” Greyson explained quietly. “The ones who do are often spies or emissaries trying to convince us to go to war with them.”
She contemplated this as the true lack of diversity in the people milling around the streets became apparent to her. It made sense, of course, but it saddened her that she’d never had the chance to see Bolladoth in its heyday.
She tried to picture Greyson growing up in this city, with its twisting cobblestoned streets and a palace that blazed with the reflection of the sun. She couldn’t imagine ever wanting to leave this place for Miltinoth.
“Where did you live?” she asked abruptly.
She repeated her question, gesturing widely. “What were you Lord of?”
Greyson flushed. “Oh. I lived in the northwest corner of the city, near the mountains.” He pointed. “That way.”
“Can we go there?”
“Ah…” He scratched at the back of his neck. “I don’t really think we’re here as visitors, unfortunately. Well,” he amended, “you might be. But I’m not.”
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“Remember when I said they’d probably apprehend me? I was being serious.”
“Oh, for any number of reasons.” He began to count them off on his fingers: “Abandoning my responsibilities, stealing from my family’s treasury when I ran away, forging official documents, abandoning a—”
He was interrupted by a signal from their escort.
“We’re entering the palace grounds,” Greyson murmured. “Best to keep your voice down near the queen’s gardens.”
And just like that, the cobblestone street lined with buildings that they’d been walking on suddenly became a tree-lined marble path, with grass all around them and a vast open space before the palace itself. Massive, ancient trees the color of snow bordered the palace, and a few smaller ones dotted the queen’s gardens, which were otherwise filled with flowers and benches and trickling streams.
“This is what the whole city used to look like,” Greyson whispered. “The monarchs long ago made a law prohibiting anyone from building on the land outside of the palace within a certain radius; all the land within that circle belongs to the royal family. And as you can see, despite the rest of the city building up around it, they chose to keep this land clear, to preserve a bit of the outside here on the inside of the wall. Any Bolladian may stroll through the queen’s gardens at their leisure, as a sort of public garden. A few sections are blocked off for the queen’s personal use, but otherwise you’ll notice no gates and very few guards.”
He was right: they had simply transitioned from the street to the garden, with no signs or alerts or guards stopping them from proceeding so close to the palace itself. On the grass she saw a young Bolladian girl reading a book, a couple kissing under one of the white trees, and a handful of solitary people dotting the lawn, with their eyes closed and their faces raised to the sun.
“But isn’t that dangerous?” she whispered to Greyson. “Anyone could get in here who doesn’t belong. Assassins. Spies. Vagrants.”
He shrugged. “Well, there are better defenses within the palace itself, but don’t forget that we’re a neutral country. Who would gain anything by overthrowing our monarchy? Only another member of the Court could replace them, and it requires a unanimous vote of the entire Court for our country to go to war.” He shook his head. “There are too many variables. Even a mastermind couldn’t take over Bolladoth, though there have been those who tried.”
His confidence seemed incredible, Ayalah thought, but she supposed he must know what he was talking about, since he had been a member of the very Court he spoke of. And anyway, if she was remembering correctly from her history lessons, the last monarch to be assassinated was centuries ago—nobody tried such a crude solution these days. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, and she looked around warily, wondering who was watching her. Perhaps there were more guards here than she realized, hidden within the walls. She hoped so, at least.
They reached the palace gates and waited while their identities were questioned and confirmed. They were led inside, down a number of hallways, and into a small antechamber off of the main throne room. Ayalah had no idea what to expect. What could she say to try to get Bolladoth to join the war? If Greyson was right, and it required a unanimous vote of the entire Court to go to war, her chances of succeeding were slim at best. She bit at her nails while they waited.
After what seemed like ages, Ayalah’s thoughts were interrupted by a short, plump man in what appeared to be a dress. He cleared his throat to get their attention. “Their Majesties will see you now.”
He held open the door to the main throne room, and as they walked past him, Ayalah craned her neck around to try to figure out what he was wearing. She hadn’t noticed this type of outfit out in the city, but maybe she just hadn’t been paying attention. “You wear dresses here?” she whispered incredulously to Greyson.
He managed a strained smile. “Robes,” he hissed back.
The main audience chamber was a good deal larger than the one in Miltinoth, which Ayalah supposed made sense, since they probably received far more visitors here than King Mathais did. Still, its grandiosity impressed her more than she’d thought it would. It was an airy room with high, intricately painted ceilings, and windows dotted the ceiling so that, in daylight, the room was lit up like a beacon, almost as if they were outside. Columns of the same stone that the palace and the city walls were made of formed two rows, one on either side of the room, with the royal thrones, made of the same material, in the center. Consequently, King Davin and Queen Maera, in their robes of deep, royal blue, looked like the only spots of color in a brilliantly white room.
“Ayalah Tarall, warrior of Naraloth,” announced the plump man in Common. She bowed formally, ignoring the man’s oversight of her rank. “Along with Retnik Greyson, former Lord of our Court.”
Ayalah felt a stab of pity run through her as Greyson’s name was announced. His jaw clenched, but otherwise he betrayed no emotion.
“Commander Tarall,” said the queen with a nod. She looked younger than Ayalah would have thought, given that she’d been on the throne longer than Ayalah had been alive. Ayalah could see no lines on the queen’s pale face, nor any grey in her white-blonde hair. She was, Ayalah thought, breathtakingly beautiful. “I have heard of you. The only female warrior in Miltinoth; then, mysteriously, an emigrant to Naraloth, where you found recognition for your skills and seemed to charm the royal family. You were presumed dead, along with Prince Roran of Naraloth.”
Ayalah’s entire body had gone rigid. How did the queen of Bolladoth know so much about her?
“We are a neutral nation,” the queen said, more gently, “but that does not mean we have no need for foreign intelligence.”
Still Ayalah did not know how to respond. “We—Roran—our ship,” she stammered. She took a deep breath. “Our ship was attacked, and Prince Roran was killed. Greyson and I were taken prisoner.”
“In Hodaroth?” the king asked. He was soft-spoken, stooped, and bald, a marked counterpoint to the queen. He tapped at his bearded cheek thoughtfully. “They probably used Retnik for his skill with languages, I’d hazard.”
“Your Majesty, I—” Greyson began.
“Silence, Retnik,” the queen snapped.
No one spoke for a long moment.
“Commander Tarall,” the queen said. “Are you here to attempt to immigrate to a new country once more? I think you’ll find Bolladoth perhaps a bit too… peaceful for your liking.”
Ayalah was taken aback. For a moment she wondered if the queen was making a joke. “No, Your Majesty. Your city is undoubtedly the most beautiful one I will ever see, but Naraloth is my home now, and my loyalty remains there. I hope you’ll consider me to be a kind of ambassador, although I did not arrive here by the usual official means.”
The queen nodded. “I shall send a courier to King Komma to inform him of your visit.” Ayalah started with surprise. The old king must have died, then, leaving Komma to inherit the throne. Before she could react, the queen continued: “I hope you’ll understand that we will put you up in one of the visitors’ suites, but we will not grant you audience again until we hear from him.”
“Commander,” said the king, his quiet tone cutting through her words more deftly than the queen’s brusque one, “I hope you realize what a tenuous position you’re in. We do not allow warriors into our country except on official business, and your king doesn’t even know you’re alive, much less that you’re purporting to represent his best interests.”
She didn’t know what to say. Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to her that the king and queen of Bolladoth wouldn’t simply hear her out immediately. “I see your point, Your Majesties. But if I could just appeal to you as—”
The queen held up a hand. “That will be all, Commander Tarall. A servant will show to your rooms.”
The plump man grabbed hold of Ayalah’s arm and led her out of the room gently but forcefully. As the door closed behind them, she heard the queen say, “As for you, Retnik…”
She felt a chill run down her spine. What would they do to Greyson?