Greyson had bathed and changed into clean, Bolladian-style robes. He shrugged apologetically when he caught Ayalah’s raised eyebrow at the outfit, but Ayalah was glad for the way the loose-fitting garment disguised how thin he’d grown over the past month. She longed to ask him what they’d done to him while he was imprisoned, but even she was perceptive enough to realize that he didn’t want to talk about it. She watched him now as he paced up and down the lavish room she’d been given a month ago, the muscles in his neck tight as he spoke, referencing military strategy and his training and how inexperienced the other Bolladians were in real combat.
“Ayalah, are you listening to me?”
She blinked and nodded. She’d been leaning against a wall as he spoke, but now she stood up straight and bowed. “Yes, Lord Greyson.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Now just a mo—” He saw her smirk and let his shoulders relax. “Oh. Very funny.”
“When you were a member of the Court, did you wear a dress like this one every day?” she teased. The tight feeling in her chest hadn’t dissipated since they’d left the throne room; she wasn’t sure how to get rid of it, but Greyson’s back-to-business approach definitely wasn’t helping. She felt strangely giddy, on the verge of bursting out in laughter or tears or both.
“Ayalah,” he frowned. “I’m trying to discuss something serious.”
“Oh, come on, Renegade Greyson, relax a little. You were just pardoned, can’t you enjoy your freedom for a few minutes before launching into tactics?”
“It suits you, don’t you think? Or how about Greyson the Noble Rogue?”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” He grinned. “I quite like that one. Gives me an air of mystery, I think.”
“Greyson the Reformed Runaway,” Ayalah suggested.
“The Lord Who Only Wanted To Be A Blacksmith,” Greyson said.
“The Blacksmith In A Dress,” Ayalah said.
“Will you just admit it’s a robe?” Greyson demanded in mock outrage.
Ayalah laughed. “There’s nothing wrong with wearing a dress. Even I’ve done it once or twice.”
“Even you—!” He laughed uproariously and moved closer to her. “Look, if you’re jealous of my robe, you can just say so.”
“Me? Jealous of a dress?”
He was standing right in front of her now, so close she could smell the soap he’d used to wash himself. Fine threads of silver had begun to line his hair, she saw, though his laughter had, at least temporarily, wiped from his face all traces of whatever horrors he’d endured the past few months, here and in Hodaroth.
“How about The Man Who Sacrificed Everything To Find What He Was Looking For?” He leaned in so close that she could feel his breath on her face. It smelled sweet, like he’d just been eating wildberries.
“And what was that?”
That tight feeling was back again; she thought she might burst.
A knock at her door startled both of them, and they jumped apart. “What is it?” Ayalah called, unable to keep her irritation out of her voice.
“Begging your pardon, Commander Tarall,” said the servant, “but a dinner invitation has just arrived for you from Lady Erikson. Her servant was quite insistent that you be notified immediately.”
She took a deep breath, reminded herself that she mustn’t take out her frustration on the servant, and went to the door.
She had a hard time focusing on the conversation at dinner. Her mind was racing, bouncing back and forth between anxious anticipation of the coming war and relief at the deal Greyson had been able to make to spare his life. She also wondered what he meant by finding what he was looking for. Had he meant his life as a smithy? After all, that was why he’d left Bolladoth in the first place. Or maybe he meant something about the prophecy, or about the war. Or maybe—she didn’t quite dare to let herself consider the possibility, in case she was wrong—maybe he meant her.
That tight feeling in her chest just wouldn’t go away. She wondered if she should see a healer. Maybe the stress of her job was finally getting to her. Gavin always said she was too tightly wound, more likely to lose a few fingers to biting her nails than to a battle wound.
The ladies’ gossip bored her, and she left early, claiming a headache. She tossed and turned all night, wondering what Greyson might have said had her servant not interrupted, and when the royal summons came for her shortly after sunrise, she was relieved to turn her mind to more professional thoughts. But, once she got to the throne room, she saw that Greyson was already there. His hair was rumpled and his robe askew, though his eyes were as alert as ever, and she longed to run her fingers through his—
“Commander Tarall,” said the queen, “and Master Greyson, we do not have much time. Commander, I trust you wrote to your king to inform him of yesterday’s events?”
She’d written to Komma in a hurry the day before while she waited for Greyson to bathe and get dressed, intending to send a longer and more detailed letter in a day or two. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
The queen nodded. “Good. We have a ship setting sail today that will take you home. An emissary of mine, along with a small contingent of royal advisers, will accompany you. I trust you’ll see that they’re treated well in your country and provided with anything they might need.”
Ayalah’s mouth hung open. They were shipping her off so soon after their decision? But didn’t they need her for continued negotiations? Tactics? Strategizing? She felt somehow as if she’d been chastised. Had she done something wrong? Was this because she’d angered the queen the day before?
“Master Greyson,” the queen continued, “you will sail to Olekoth and persuade King Tazar to join our fight. He owes me a favor, and I’m sure you’ll find him at least marginally receptive to the idea. An emissary and a small contingent of royal advisers will accompany you as well. You will be charged with their wellbeing and livelihood at each step of the journey. Should any harm befall them—”
“I assure you it will not, Your Majesty.”
“Commander,” the king said, “in addition to the emissary, I’d like you to include one of our trusted military advisers in your negotiations. After you left yesterday, we had a lengthy discussion with the Court and made our intentions and limits clear. She should be well equipped to deal with any issues that arise and to advise your military leader on how our countries can work together.”
“She, Your Majesty?”
“Lady Westerly. Didn’t I say?”
Ayalah tensed involuntarily at the mention of Lady Westerly. Something about that woman rubbed her the wrong way. “Your Majesty, wouldn’t Lord Greyson be just as qualified to accompany me as a military adviser? He has more hands-on experience, after all, and he is already familiar with the Naralian royal family.”
The king held up a hand for silence. “We considered it, Commander, but Master Greyson’s integrity has been too compromised to entrust him with such a delicate mission, even though, as you say, Lady Westerly’s knowledge of military strategy is largely theoretical. We believe that your combat experience combined with her knowledge of our fighting style and our city would complement each other perfectly.”
Ayalah nodded. She understood their reasoning, but she didn’t like it. The thought of spending weeks on end with Lady Westerly made her want to punch something—or someone.
“You will be briefed by our emissaries during your journey about any further information you may require,” the queen said. “Do you have any questions for us before you go? Your ships depart just after high tide tonight, which should give you enough time to purchase any supplies, send any letters, and say your goodbyes.”
Ayalah and Greyson met each other’s eyes and looked away quickly.
“In that case,” the queen bowed her head and closed her eyes, “may the ocean goddess watch over you and guide you safely to your destination.”
“May we be so blessed,” Greyson and the king intoned, the words echoing through the hall as the servants repeated them.
The king smiled. “Good luck, Commander, Master Greyson.”