Ayalah felt nearly giddy with hope. In even considering her proposal, the Bolladians were closer to declaring war than they had been in centuries. But she was not called back to the audience chamber for a week, and then another week, and rumor had it that the members of the Court were holed up in their private sitting room, debating the decision and calling in members of the military and of various levels of social standing to hear differing opinions and arguments. They were sworn to secrecy, but naturally word still got around, and Lady Parker and Lady Erikson relayed the news to Ayalah in breathy whispers. There were even rumors of an attempt to get an official apology from the rulers of Miltinoth and Hodaroth, though the details varied wildly, some saying the Bolladian messengers had been shot on sight, others saying King Mathais had brazenly tried to convince Bolladoth to join his side of the war.
Just when Ayalah was beginning to lose patience, she was called back in. After the usual fanfare, she stood before a very solemn looking king, queen, and Court—and, to her surprise, a small audience of noblemen and -women.
“Commander Tarall,” the queen said, “you have represented your country well: you have been professional and patient, and persuasive without being manipulative, which we appreciate and respect.”
Ayalah felt her spirits soaring, her hope rekindling at the praise.
“However,” the queen said, and Ayalah’s hopes sank back down. “This is a very sensitive subject in our country, and what you’ve suggested is both unorthodox and unlikely to be popular among the people, present crisis or no.”
She paused, and the king continued where she’d left off. “With that in mind, we’ve spent quite a lot of time deliberating and considering the options open to us at this time. We could have debated over the topic for generations, but we’re aware that the present situation is a time-sensitive one that needs to be addressed immediately. Thus, we have come to a decision.”
Lord Mason, looking much more composed than he had the last time Ayalah had seen him, got to his feet slowly. He spoke in a neutral voice, but his face was rigid and cold, betraying the steel behind his words. “We have reached a unanimous vote. I hereby declare, by the power invested in me as High Chief of the Bolladian military, that the country of Bolladoth is henceforth at war with the countries of Miltinoth and Hodaroth. Our allies in Naraloth are sworn to protect us, and in return we shall allow them passage through our city. May the nations foolhardy enough to incur the wrath of a country once peaceful fear for their lives.” He lowered himself back into his chair, and the room was silent.
Ayalah was both shocked and relieved—and unsure what to do. Should she bow? Speak? Was this meant to be a kind of ceremony with a moment of silence? She shifted her weight from foot to foot while she looked around the room.
Finally, she decided to act. She bowed. “Thank you, Your Majesties, Lords and Ladies. It is an honor to ally ourselves with such a noble country. I am sure that my people will be pleased as well. I’ll write at once to King Komma to inform him of the news.” She paused. Should she smile? No, war was a solemn event to these people, she reminded herself. The silence stretched, and she sensed that she was on the verge of being dismissed. “If—if you wouldn’t mind, Majesties, Lords, Ladies, may I ask before I go: what will happen to my friend, Lord Greyson?” She used the honorific intentionally, ignoring the raised eyebrows around the room.
The queen frowned. “We’ve decided about that, too.” She pulled a rope Ayalah hadn’t previously noticed, and a servant appeared. “Bring prisoner Greyson before us, please.”
Greyson was led in by a handful of armed, frightened-looking servants. Ayalah’s stomach turned over; she thought she might vomit. His hands were shackled together, his feet bare, his clothing filthy and wrinkled, hanging off of him as if they’d been made to fit a much larger man. Had he been tortured? Starved? He kept his face impassive, but the shame and anger in his eyes was visible to Ayalah from across the room. She could neither comfort him nor flee the room, so she wrenched her eyes downward and stared determinedly at the floor.
“Retnik Greyson,” said the queen, reading from a piece of parchment one of the Court members handed her. “You are accused first and foremost of abandoning your position in the Bolladian Court with no notice and without permission. Second, you are accused of forging official documents in the name of the king and queen of Bolladoth for your own nefarious purposes. Third, you are accused of stealing from your family’s treasury, stables, and arms stores.” Ayalah found that she couldn’t swallow: a lump had formed in her throat, and it only seemed to grow with each grievance the queen listed. “Fourth, you are accused of deliberately evading prosecution and taking on a false identity. Fifth, you are accused of negligence toward the throne for failing to report certain sensitive intelligence you were made privy to in your absence. Sixth, you are accused of negligence toward your people and your land, whom you abandoned in your hasty retreat.”
At last, the queen paused and looked up at Greyson. She brushed a strand of her golden hair out of her eyes. “How do you plead to these charges?”
Greyson spoke softly, but his words still managed to reach across the room. “Guilty, Your Majesty.” His voice was gravelly and hoarse.
“As you well know, Master Greyson, the punishment for your offenses is death. Bolladian custom dictates that you be read your final rites and hanged at dawn.”
Greyson bowed his head and nodded.
Ayalah gasped. “But you can’t! You mustn’t!” Why was she the only person in the room, besides Greyson, who looked at all upset by the news? Some of the nobles watching from the other end of the room even seemed to be smirking.
The queen whipped her head around to look at Ayalah. “You forget your place, Commander.” Her voice was icy.
“But won’t you allow me to plead for his life, Your Majesty? Perhaps he could do some sort of penance to prove his good will toward you—perhaps he could—”
“Commander!” the queen snapped.
“But surely you could use his fighting skills when the country goes to—”
“Commander, I insist you stop this—”
“But you’re not even—”
“Commander, you will hold your tongue at once!”
It was the king who spoke, and his voice boomed so tremendously through the room, in such stark contrast to its usual gentle nature, Ayalah choked down her words in shock.
There was a moment of ringing silence in the room. Finally, the king nodded and turned to the queen, resuming his normal tone. “You were saying, my dear?”
An angry pink flush had risen in the queen’s cheeks. “Commander, will you allow me to finish this time, or do you truly think that everything you say is more important than the word of the Queen of Bolladoth?”
If her words hadn’t been enough, her scathing tone certainly got the message across. Were those titters she heard from the noblewomen? Ayalah bowed, suppressing the sharp retort she was inclined to give. “My apologies, Your Majesty.”
The queen continued to give Ayalah a flinty look, stewing in her anger. Ayalah wondered, suddenly panicked, if her insolence would be considered enough to retract the declaration of war. It couldn’t be—could it? She really should have paid more attention to those Royal Manners and Protocol lessons Gavin had forced her to sit through as a child.
“It’s all right,” a gravelly voice said from behind her. Ayalah whirled around to look at Greyson, who was, as always, looking her directly in the eye. “I’ve known for many years what my fate would be should I ever return here. I must face the consequences of my own actions, young and foolish as I was back then.” He swallowed and raised his chin proudly. “I only hope that I have helped you in your quest by what I have said in my testimonies to my king and queen and to the Court. If I have succeeded in this, then the sacrifice of my life will have been worth it.”
Ayalah didn’t know what to say. Had the decision to go to war been influenced by whatever Greyson had told the Bolladian rulers while she was listening to palace gossip? She felt her face contorted in rage and grief and was glad her back was to most of the rest of the room. She’d seen men hanged before, and it wasn’t a dignified way to die. The neck snapping, the feet twitching, an audience witnessing the whole thing, snickering amongst themselves as if what they watched was no more than a show.
She felt tears welling up in her eyes.
Regardless of what he said, she wouldn’t let them kill him. He’d saved her life more than once, and she intended to do the same for him. If they wouldn’t let her defend him with her words, then she’d use a different weapon. And if she failed, she would turn her sword on him. Better to die by her sword than to face the disgrace they had in mind for him.
She tensed her body, readying herself to make her stand. She didn’t have her sword with her now—visitors were not allowed weapons in the throne room—but she could easily grab one of the weapons from the men guarding Greyson. Her fingers twitched in anticipation.
“Master Greyson,” said a voice Ayalah recognized as Lord Mason’s. “Your words are noble, but such a sacrifice will not be necessary. In light of recent events, we have chosen to punish you in a different way.”
Greyson’s face went from clouded over to confused to hopeful as Ayalah watched. Still she didn’t turn around to face the thrones or the Court. There was a tightness in her chest that she didn’t understand; her breath came in shallow bursts.
“Your skills as a warrior and as a translator cannot be so lightly dismissed, even had the Court not already been inclined to overlook a few things, owing to your age at the time of the transgressions and your continued good behavior and recent testimonies. Thus, pending your agreement, we propose the following as an alternative punishment.”
The queen cleared her throat. “In exchange for the reduction of his sentence and the pardoning of his life, Retnik Greyson must agree to the following: to swear to forevermore be loyal and forthright to his rulers and his country; to forfeit any right he had to land or title in Bolladoth; to remain obedient to the wishes of this Court regarding his subsequent duties to the throne; and, finally, to fight as part of Bolladoth’s army in the coming war.”
Greyson met Ayalah’s eyes for an instant—just long enough for her to see the surprise and triumph in them at the mention of Bolladoth joining the war—before he bowed deeply. “I, Retnik Greyson, humbly agree to all that has been said. I thank Your Majesties and the members of the Court for this pardon and for the opportunity to prove myself to you once more.”
“Let it be known,” said Lord Mason, “that on this day we have pardoned Retnik Greyson’s life in exchange for his performing certain confidential actions on behalf of the throne.”
The men guarding Greyson dropped their hands, and he rushed forward with a smile and a laugh to lift Ayalah off her feet in a tight hug that left her flushed and gasping.
“It has been a trying day for all of us,” the king said, trying unsuccessfully to hide a grin. “Commander, Greyson, you are dismissed. We will reconvene tomorrow to discuss the particulars of Master Greyson’s assignment.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Greyson said with a bow. He grabbed Ayalah’s hand, and she followed him from the throne room in a daze.