Ayalah mulled over the news as she sat on the grass in the queen’s gardens. If it had been only commoners killed, she thought, nothing would come of it; but since there were noble children involved, surely some action would be taken to soothe the righteous anger of the parents. And, she thought, since this event affected both noble and commoner alike, the case would be all the stronger for the Bolladian Court to act—and act quickly, before the classes united and took it upon themselves to do something rash. With any luck, this tragedy would overshadow Greyson’s desertion, throwing it in such a light as to spare him the death sentence, at least. It was a selfish thought, but surely there had to be some good to come out of such a sad occasion.
She was not so naïve as to think children were helpless and guileless, even in such a cut-and-dry-seeming scenario; after all, she’d been quite capable of killing a man from a young age—as long as she could remember, in fact, even before Gavin had enrolled her in warrior training. But still, young boys with arrows sticking out of their chests… that bespoke a more serious situation than children quarreling amongst themselves or than a misunderstanding amongst travelers.
She wondered idly who it was Lady Westerly had hurried off to meet. She’d said “he’s expecting me, poor man”—could she have meant Greyson? Perhaps she was going to meet him, to hear his testimony or discuss past grievances. Ayalah tried to be rational: there must be a reason why Greyson had never mentioned being engaged to this woman. She supposed Lady Westerly was pretty, with her pale skin and honey-colored hair, and she was well-spoken and of noble birth. And yet… and yet Greyson had run away from Bolladoth, from his engagement, from his noble birth. And he’d only returned because of the prophecy, and because Swynn had told him Ayalah would need his help.
She relaxed into the grass. Lady Westerly was probably going to meet with someone else, anyway.
After another few days of languishing in the palace and trying to come up with a new argument to convince the king, queen, and Court to assist Naraloth in the war, Ayalah was summoned to the main audience chamber once more. The faces of the members of the Bolladian Court were somber and lined, and the king stifled a yawn as she entered.
“Commander Tarall, Naralian ambassador,” announced the portly servant.
“You may approach, Commander,” Queen Maera said.
Ayalah approached the thrones and bowed her head respectfully. “You sent for me, Your Majesties?”
“Commander, we would appreciate your assistance. Last week, as you no doubt have heard, four Bolladian children were found dead on the edge of the forest. Upon closer inspection, we believe the person or persons responsible for this heinous crime were members of the Miltinian-Hodarian army.” The queen shifted in her seat before continuing. “I’ll be brief with you: we want you to find out who committed this murder and bring them to justice.”
Ayalah gaped at the queen. “Your Majesty, are you trying to hire me as an assassin?” The sad story of the Bolladian princes was well known throughout the lands: the queen had given birth to a number of healthy sons, but the first and third had succumbed to an illness in infancy, the second died in a tragic horse riding accident at the age of nine, and the fourth was nearly an adult when he sustained a wound that festered and grew infected, eventually killing him. That the queen would have a special place in her heart for young boys killed in their youth therefore came as no surprise to Ayalah; it was the fury in the queen’s voice that she found unsettling.
The queen inclined her head. “Justice must be done. Our people are calling for revenge, and you’re in the best position to discover the perpetrators without any—unnecessary—bloodshed.”
“Commander, we are not asking you to assassinate anyone,” King Davin chimed in, ignoring the sour look on the queen’s face. “Only to bring them to us, so that we may try them at our Court as we see fit.”
Ayalah thought for a moment. “Before I respond to your request, Your Majesties, may I see your evidence? How can you be so sure it was a member of the Miltinian-Hodarian army? What if you’re wrong?”
One of the Lords of the Court spoke up, a balding man with a deep, gravelly voice. “We have three pieces of evidence, Commander. The first is a boot print of Hodarian making in the dirt. It was far too large and jagged to have belonged to any other country. The second is the wood from the arrows, carved from the dark bark of the flowering trees that only grow south of Miltinoth.” Ayalah was skeptical: boot prints could be ambiguous, and arrows could be bought and sold. But the man continued: “And the third, which was clenched in the hand of one of the victims, is this piece of cloth, unmistakably of Hodarian uniform.” He held up a scrap of fabric that was indeed the deep red of the Hodarians’ clothing, a color Ayalah had never seen worn by any people save Hodarians.
She nodded her agreement. “There is no mistaking that fabric.” She turned back to the queen. “But Your Majesty, why seek revenge in this way? Hasn’t this proven that there can be no neutrality in this war? If you don’t make an example of this incident—if the other countries think there are no consequences for such despicable actions—what’s to stop it from happening again?” She could see that her words were having an effect on everyone present, so she pressed her advantage. “Certainly the Miltinian-Hodarian army has shown a lack of respect for Bolladoth’s neutrality—not to mention a heartlessness that cannot go unpunished.”
“What you say is true,” the king said, “but we do not know that the sentiment is shared by the entire army—it may be only that a handful of men made a grave mistake. We would not seek to attack entire nations based on this incident alone.”
The king had a point, Ayalah knew. It was frustrating, but his logic was sound. She groped for a way of convincing them to help her. “Your Majesties,” she said finally, “and Lords and Ladies of the Court. I stood before you a week ago requesting your assistance in this war, speaking of a prophecy that foretold that your fair city would be involved in this war in some way, whether you desired it or not. You doubted me, yet it seems that already an event has come to pass—a tragic, horrible event—to force you to rethink your position.” She paused, trying to formulate her thoughts. A question nagged at the back of her mind: did the wizard Swynn have a hand in this? Could it really be a coincidence that an event had occurred to help her plea mere days after her arrival? She pushed the thought from her mind and forced herself to focus on the matter at hand. “I do not question your previous decision to not go to war: it would put civilians in danger and it was not, at that point in time, your battle to fight. But I believe that now it has become your fight—that to defend your land and your right to neutrality, to show the other countries that you do not take their actions lightly and will not be trampled upon, you must take a stand. Already innocent lives have been lost; how many more will it take before you stand and fight?”
For a moment, the room was so silent her ears hurt. Then a low buzzing started as the Lords and Ladies leaned to either side to murmur amongst themselves.
“If I may,” said one of the men loudly, standing. His greying hair was disheveled and greasy-looking, and his eyes were rimmed with red and weighed down by dark shadows underneath.
“Lord Mason,” said Lady Westerly quietly. “I hardly think you’re in the right state of mind—”
“Don’t patronize me, Kara,” he growled.
Some eyebrows around the room shot up, but nobody spoke. Lady Westerly lowered her eyes to the ground and pressed her lips together.
“Now look,” Lord Mason said, appealing not to Ayalah but to the other Lords and Ladies assembled. “We’re a peace-loving country. Always have been, and hopefully always will be. We’re more civilized than those—those barbarians,” he spat the word, his voice shaking, then took a deep breath. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t think our peace is worth fighting for—and damned if we’re not good fighters, the lot of us. Our people won’t go to war for just any reason, but they’re calling for blood now, for the first time in generations. I will not see my children slain with no repercussions—and I would say the same for your children, too.”
Sympathetic nods rippled around the room.
Lord Mason curled his hands into fists. “We must fight. For our children: to ensure they have a peaceful future to look forward to, one where their neutrality is respected, the ancient borders honored. We must fight.”
He sank back down into his seat, and the Lords and Ladies began to whisper amongst themselves again.
The king fixed Ayalah with a shrewd look. “Commander.” Though his voice was soft and his manner gentle, still the room grew silent instantly as every head turned to hear him. “Can you guarantee that, should we join this fight, your country will ally with us and help us to protect our borders?”
Ayalah bowed respectfully. “I can, Your Majesty. We would not let Bolladoth’s famed city fall, and our armies would reinforce yours.” She’d heard back from Princess Rinnah just that morning; the letter was filled with words of encouragement and praise so effusive, it had to have been written by Rin herself.
The king nodded thoughtfully.
“Thank you, Commander,” the queen said. “We will discuss this amongst ourselves and call you back when we have come to a consensus. You have given us much to think about.”