The Bolladian king and queen installed Ayalah on the eastern side of the palace in a suite of rooms that was nicer than any home or inn she’d ever seen. The bed was roomy and soft, with a variety of pillows for Ayalah to choose from, and a door next to a chest of drawers led to a private washroom, with a sprawling tub for Ayalah’s enjoyment. She even had her own servant-summoning cord, though she had no intention of ever using it.
The servant who showed her to her room had apologetically informed her that at no time and for no reason whatsoever was she to leave her suite and venture out into the greater palace. This was strictly Bolladian policy, he informed her, and would surely be cleared up quickly, as soon as her ambassadorial status was confirmed. Until then, she was free to enjoy the comforts of her bedroom and adjoining sitting room, and meals and entertainment would be brought to her at regular intervals.
It was strange, Ayalah thought. She was a kind of prisoner, though the servants still treated her as though she was visiting royalty and the king and queen had sent a basket of fresh fruit as a welcoming gift. In point of fact, she was glad she’d been confined to her rooms, because otherwise she wouldn’t know how to act around the local nobles: Bolladian customs were strange indeed.
After seven nights of sleeping on the floor (the bed felt much too soft after the weeks Ayalah had spent sleeping on a ship and on the hard ground) and otherwise biding her time by bathing, pacing the floor, and practicing what she would say to the king and queen, Ayalah was summoned to the main audience chamber once more. The same incorrect announcement preceded her, and when she entered she was surprised to see that the king and queen were surrounded by a semicircle of cushioned seats, filled with what must have been the members of the Bolladian Court. A dozen stern-looking men and women scrutinized her as she approached the thrones.
“Welcome back, Commander Tarall,” said Queen Maera. “Your status as temporary ambassador of Naraloth has been confirmed by your king, who added that he was certain you would look out for Naraloth’s best interests.”
Ayalah had heard of the famed Bolladian hawks, of course, but even so, at this casual mention of the speed at which Bolladoth could send and receive news, Ayalah felt her jaw go slack. In one week’s time, they had already sent a letter to Naraloth and heard back? It would have taken a courier riding as hard as he could at least two to three weeks to make the same trip—in each direction. Truly, she thought, the breeding of these hawks, and the subsequent bonding each hawkmaster was said to go through with his or her hawk to discourage the theft of the hawks, may have been the smartest thing any single monarch in all of the lands had ever done.
“Thank you for seeing me again, Your Majesties,” she finally croaked out. “And so soon.”
“We were informed in no uncertain terms by Master Greyson” —Ayalah winced at his lack of a title—“that what you had to say to us was of vital importance to our country. Thus, we have also invited the Court of Lords and Ladies to sit in on our meeting.”
“And is—is Greyson—?” She wasn’t sure what to ask. Was he all right? Was he even alive? What had they done with him?
“He is awaiting his trial,” the king said.
Then he was still alive: good.
Ayalah took a deep breath. She supposed that Greyson was right about the importance of what she needed to say, but having this many people listen to her plea for help wasn’t exactly what she’d envisioned when she’d practiced the scenario in her head.
“Your Majesties,” she began formally, “and Lords and Ladies of the Court of Bolladoth: thank you for allowing me to stand before you today. I don’t know if Greyson gave you an inkling of what I was planning to discuss with you, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s related to the war currently being waged between Naraloth and Miltinoth. As you are no doubt already aware, Hodaroth has sided with Miltinoth, and reinforcements have been arriving by the shipload nearly every day for the past few months. I would estimate their strength, so far, as being at least twenty thousand men, with perhaps half of that force being trained warriors and the other half civilians. Olekoth has not yet committed to either side of the war, and Bolladoth, as always, has remained neutral.”
A few murmurs began to echo around the chamber.
“Before you begin to object, let me clarify my position. I am not asking Bolladoth to go to war, on either side, or to retract its neutrality. I respect the carefully maintained peace that has reigned in Bolladoth for centuries, and I could not ask for such a thing.” She grinned and tried to lighten the mood. “Frankly, I know a waste of time when I see one.”
The strain in the room lifted just a bit, and a few members of the Court chuckled.
“However, I stand before you not only as a Commander of Naraloth, but also as something more, something even my own king is unaware of. I am the holder of the first piece of the fabled prophecy.”
She waited a few minutes for the excited chatter to die down.
“Commander,” said King Davin, “have you come all this way to regale us with an old myth?”
“It is the truth, Your Majesty; please hear me out. I am the holder of the first piece of the prophecy, and, what’s more, the holder of the second piece of the prophecy is none other than my good friend Greyson, former Lord of your Court.”
More excited chatter, this time with disbelief and outrage layered over the surprise.
“Greyson,” she said loudly, and the Lords and Ladies quieted. “Greyson was unaware that he held a piece of the prophecy. Nonetheless, it is my belief that he had no choice in leaving his home. For if he had not begun working as a smithy in a tiny village outside of Miltinoth, I never would have crossed paths with him and discovered his part of the prophecy, which led me inexorably on to the next piece and the next. As a warrior, it is not my place to think of such high concepts, but perhaps some force of the world was pushing us together.”
She didn’t entirely believe what she was saying, but she hoped fervently that her audience did. Greyson always looked out for her wellbeing; the least she could do was try to do the same for him.
“I stand here before you today, therefore, not only the holder of the first piece of the prophecy, but in fact one of only two people currently living who know what the entire prophecy is. The other, as you may have guessed, is languishing in a dungeon somewhere below us.
“I cannot tell you what the prophecy is. Nor can Greyson. We have been sworn to secrecy, for our own safety as well as yours. However, I can tell you one thing I know to be true. The final battle of this war will take place in Bolladoth. It has been foretold, generation upon generation ago. Thus, I have come here, as I said before, not to ask you to join the war or to take sides. I have come here to warn you: whether you intend to be a part of this war or not, it appears that you will be involved in some way.”
During the silence that followed, Ayalah looked at each member of the Court individually, trying to gauge the reactions. Most looked dumbfounded; some looked skeptical. One man looked vaguely familiar, though she couldn’t place him. Something about his nose… he caught her watching him, and she averted her eyes.
A plump woman with light brown hair cleared her throat. “How do we know that what you’re saying is true? We don’t even know if the prophecy is a real thing or just an old legend.”
Ayalah groped for a solution but could find none. These people didn’t know her; they didn’t know they could trust her word. “I swear upon my life and my country,” she tried.
The woman shook her head. “Empty words, Commander. We need proof.”
“You say Master Greyson can attest to this?” the king asked quietly.
She nodded, and a servant was sent to fetch Greyson.
“Even if it is true,” said one of the men of the Court who looked nearly identical to the woman, “it’s not like everything in a prophecy absolutely has to come to pass. Isn’t that right? What if we just send you on your way, keep our gates closed, and wash our hands of the whole mess? Then there’s no way the final battle could take place here.”
Ayalah shrugged. “I have no idea what would happen, to be truthful. The prophecy was written long before any of us, or even our parents or our grandparents, were born. I don’t know,” she said slowly, trying to figure out her thoughts as she spoke, “whether that means our actions don’t mean anything in the grander scheme of things, or whether that means that we have immense power to change that vision, since maybe it didn’t take us into account. But….” She paused. But if that was true, how had Swynn known about her, all those years ago? In his vision of the future, he must have seen her, which meant the prophecy did take them into account. She shook her head. “I think it has already been set in motion. Already so many things have come to pass that the prophecy foretold, thousands of years ago—how could it be wrong now?”
“Things have already come to pass?” asked the man who looked naggingly familiar. “Like what?”
Before she had a chance to answer, Greyson was led into the room by a pair of armored guards. The guards towered over Greyson, who was already a taller man than most, and each held onto one of Greyson’s arms. The message was clear: he could not escape.
“Master Greyson,” said the king.
Greyson was forced down to his knees by the husky guards. He looked up past Ayalah to the royal thrones, and she wondered if his face was bruised, or merely dirty. “Yes, Your Majesty?”
“Commander Tarall has been telling us a very interesting story,” said the king in his quiet, measured voice. “We wondered if you would be willing to shed some light on it, seeing as how you’ve sworn an oath to me, personally, to always be truthful, no matter the circumstance. I trust you will still abide by this oath? Surely I don’t need to remind you what—or who—is at stake.”
Greyson nodded. “Of course, Your Majesty.”
“Tell me what you know about the prophecy.”
Greyson gaped at the king. “The prophecy?”
The king regarded Greyson with a level look.
“I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but I have been sworn to secrecy about the specifics of the prophecy. I fear that, if I obeyed you, some great catastrophe may come to pass.”
The king tented his fingers. “Even knowing the consequence of keeping this information from me, still you will not tell?”
Greyson shook his head. “I cannot.”
“Then you do at least know what it is?”
“Well—parts of it, yes.”
“And is there anything about Bolladoth in it?”
Greyson’s eyes flicked to Ayalah and back to the king. “I take it Commander Tarall told you about the final battle, which is to take place here?”
“So it’s true?” one of the Ladies spoke up.
“Yes, Lady Westerly. We weren’t given specifics, but it appears Bolladoth must get involved in some way with this war.”
Silence descended upon the room. Ayalah wondered if she was supposed to say something, or if that would be improper. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, trying to be patient.
“Well, Commander Tarall,” the queen said finally. “And what were you hoping for in exchange for this information? Surely you didn’t merely tell us out of goodwill.”
“As I said before, Your Majesty, I would not pressure you to join the war, and the information is freely given. However, if you would let Naraloth use your port, we could help you defend your walls. We would not fight or even sleep inside your city, merely use it as a gateway for our warriors.”
The queen didn’t even hesitate. “Absolutely not. Why would we agree to that? Letting you use our port so that you can ambush Miltinoth’s rear guard? In that case, we might as well be joining the war ourselves.”
Ayalah didn’t respond. It was true, and this queen was shrewder than she’d anticipated.
“Which we’re not going to do,” said one of the grey-haired Lords pointedly. “Whether or not an ancient prophecy thinks we will.”
Other members of the Court nodded their heads in agreement.
“Unless you have something else to discuss, Commander Tarall, I think we are done here.”
Ayalah bowed and followed the servant back to her room.
She hadn’t really expected that forthright tactic to work, but she supposed a small part of her had been hoping that Greyson would back up her request, or that the mention of the prophecy would impress them enough to take her more seriously. She sighed and paced her room. She would have to think of another tactic, and soon.