The next day, Ayalah greeted her new friends with the intention of asking them more about Greyson’s past. She hadn’t quite figured out how to broach the topic without her interest in the subject being obvious, but she was determined nonetheless. However, when she arrived the ladies were already deep in a hushed conversation.
“I heard it was some fisherman’s children,” Lady Parker was saying.
“I heard it was Lord Mason’s sons,” Lady Erikson said. “The poor man—first his wife a few years ago, and now his children.”
“What happened?” Ayalah asked.
“Oh, it’s just dreadful,” Lady Parker said. “A handful of boys were found this morning on the edge of the forest. Dead, all of them.”
“Dead? How did they die?”
Lady Erikson’s eyebrows shot up. “Straight to the point.”
“My apologies,” Ayalah said, inclining her head. “As a warrior, I tend to forget that this is a delicate subject for ladies like yourselves.”
Lady Parker sniffed. “That’s quite all right, Commander, but I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you how they died. My husband only told me that it was unseemly and not fit for a lady’s ears.”
“Did he? That sounds fairly serious, then.”
Lady Parker gasped.
“Hush,” Lady Erikson hissed. Lady Parker clamped her mouth shut obediently. “The men are all up in arms, Commander. Innocent boys with no weapons, killed in cold blood.”
“It’s a tragedy,” Lady Parker said in a shaky voice. “I’ve never heard of such a thing happening before.”
“Nor I,” Lady Erikson agreed. “Not in Bolladoth, certainly.”
“Did you hear?” a woman asked, sidling up next to them. “A dozen boys, cut to pieces.”
Lady Erikson frowned. “I’m sure you’re exaggerating.”
“Certainly she is,” said another woman. A whole flock of ladies had surrounded Ayalah and her friends. “I heard it was six children, all of them beheaded.”
“Beheaded!” Lady Parker cried.
“Now, really,” Lady Erikson began.
Ayalah sighed. If she wanted any real facts, it seemed she would have to go talk to the men.
By the next day, Ayalah was contemplating the profound inanity of the nobility. Neither the lords nor the ladies appeared to have any real idea of what had happened, only a vague understanding that some children had been killed, that some kind of foul play was involved, and that the murderer or murderers must be found. As a peaceful nation, Bolladoth was unaccustomed to violence and bloodshed, but even in the other nations, Ayalah knew, the slaughter of children would have been cause for uproar.
Ayalah detached herself from the circle of noblemen she’d been listening to and headed in the direction of the queen’s gardens. Some fresh air would be welcome, but most of all she just needed some quiet time to drop her smiling façade and be herself. She navigated the maze-like hallways of the palace, nodded to the guards before the doors, and let a happy breath escape her as the heat from the sun touched her upturned face. She strolled along one of the twisting marble paths looking for an unoccupied patch of grass to stretch out on.
She headed toward what looked like a decent spot through a handful of trees, but as she came around a bend in the path, she nearly ran over a woman going the other way.
“Oh!” the lady said.
“Pardon me,” Ayalah said. “Why—Lady Westerly, was it?” A part of her disliked this woman immensely, though she couldn’t figure out what it was that she so greatly disliked. Nonetheless, she forced herself to smile and bow politely. She was surprised how short Lady Westerly was; surely that must be a disadvantage in combat.
“Yes, that’s correct. My fault, Commander, I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. Awful news, isn’t it?”
“Tragic.” Ayalah nodded. “Lady Westerly, I wonder—there are wild rumors going around. Would you tell me what actually happened?”
Lady Westerly seemed to be appraising her for a moment. Then she nodded. “Well, you’ve certainly seen more battle than I. I’d wager you don’t have a weak stomach.”
Ayalah wondered if Lady Westerly had ever been involved in a real fight in her life. The ladies said she was a warrior, but what warrior would wear a dress? And she didn’t carry herself like a warrior, Ayalah thought. “I do not.”
“Well, the forest is a popular place among our children. They enjoy exploring and camping out there, and parents here don’t mind as long as their children stay on the edge of the trees so they don’t get lost. We’ve never had any problems before: we don’t hurt the forest, and it doesn’t hurt us.” She sighed. “But it seems we may need to rethink the boundaries for our citizens; the forest may no longer be a safe place for us. Two days ago, one of our scouts found the bodies of four boys: three noble boys and one servant. One of the boys had his throat slit, and the others had been shot in the chest with arrows. Slaughtered, all of them.”
“Was there evidence of a quarrel? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“A small scuffle, yes. And the boys’ pockets were empty when they were found, though we don’t know if they were robbed before or after they’d been killed.”
“Probably after,” Ayalah said.
“Probably,” Lady Westerly said, nodding. “You can imagine the fury of the parents involved.”
Ayalah nodded soberly. “Absolutely. Could this have been some sort of local feud, by any chance?”
“We’re a peaceful nation, Commander.” Ayalah opened her mouth to protest this blanket statement, but Lady Westerly continued. “But no, we’re quite certain the attack was not from a Bolladian.”
Ayalah raised an eyebrow. Before she could ask for more details, Lady Westerly looked up at the sun with a start.
“I must be off! He’s expecting me, poor man. As it is, I’ve said quite enough. Good day, Commander.”
She hurried away, her dress swirling around her as she went.