Ayalah and Greyson hadn’t been able to get a moment alone since they left the palace. They’d split up, regrouped, discussed a number of logistical concerns, and finally headed to the docks to board their ships, and all the while servants and overly enthusiastic attendants had flocked around them, leaving Ayalah feeling suffocated and frustrated.
“Goodbye, Commander,” Greyson said stiffly. They stood on a long wooden dock, surrounded by a crowd of servants scurrying to and fro. He bowed. “Have a safe journey.”
“You, too,” she said. She wondered why he was being so overly formal. “Good luck in Olekoth.”
He inclined his head the tiniest bit and then turned and walked away, a group of suspiciously burly servants trailing behind him.
She faced her ship and sighed. “Ready?”
The servant carrying her packages nodded, though a bead of sweat dripped down his face. He’d insisted on carrying everything himself, though she had offered to help, seeing as most of the heavy bags contained gifts she was bringing back for Lumi, Rin, and King Komma.
The Bolladian ship was medium sized, clean, and sparse. Ayalah supposed that, had she never seen a ship before, she would have been impressed at the size and seeming functionality of the one she faced now. But having seen what the ships were like in Miltinoth, Naraloth, Hodaroth, and, most impressively, Olekoth, Bolladoth’s fleet—if one could even call it that—seemed quaint and decorative. They had minimal weapons, for one thing, and the deckhands looked like they were used to light work, not the intensive regimen demanded of warship sailors. The sails were crisp and the bow ornately carved, the kind of careful craftsmanship, Ayalah thought with a frown, that should have gone into the hull and mast.
She shook her head. This country needed Naraloth’s protection more than she’d realized.
She made her way up the gangplank and was immediately approached by a delicately featured woman wearing a dress and a swordbelt.
“Lady Westerly,” Ayalah said, bowing.
“Good evening, Commander Tarall.” In point of fact it was technically nighttime, but the sky stayed bright until nearly midnight this far north, so Ayalah let the remark pass. “It appears we’ll be bunkmates for this journey, Commander. You don’t talk in your sleep, do you?”
Ayalah raised an eyebrow. “I do not.”
“Excellent. Then we’ll get along famously.”
There were a number of other women on the ship, Ayalah noticed with a degree of surprise. Lady Westerly’s entourage, or maidservants, or whatever else ladies might have, she supposed. She gritted her teeth at the thought of sharing a cramped cabin with this woman. Why couldn’t she have been bunkmates with the other women?
She suppressed a sigh. “And I suppose you’ll debrief me at some point soon?” she asked.
“I’ve been instructed to, yes.”
Lady Westerly’s attention, Ayalah noticed, seemed to have been snagged by a figure on the other ship preparing to depart. She squinted to see who the lady was fixated on. It was hard to tell at this distance, but it looked like a figure with broad shoulders and thick arms, dark hair—it was Greyson. She’d known who it would be before she even looked, she realized. Ayalah wondered if Lady Westerly still had feelings for Greyson after all the years he’d been gone.
She spun on her heel without a word to Lady Westerly and followed her servant belowdeck.
It wasn’t that the journey to Naraloth was a particularly long one, certainly not compared to the one she’d endured between Naraloth and Hodaroth, for example. And it wasn’t that her cabin bed was uncomfortable (though it was) or that the crew was disrespectful (they weren’t, for once). It wasn’t even that she barely had room on the deck to perform her daily exercises, much less her sparring patterns, though she would admit that that did set her on edge.
No; what made her want to pluck her own teeth out, one by one, just to enjoy the relative pain that would course through her body, was Lady Westerly’s presence. It was her voice, her innocence, the way her dress twirled around her when she turned. It was the way the other women latched onto her, listening with rapt interest to every word she spoke, agreeing with her on every point, giggling at intervals. It was the way Lady Westerly walked, each step betraying her own self-confidence and daring anyone to prove her wrong about anything, each waggle of her hips a reminder that she knew she was beautiful, charming, desirable.
Ayalah had never met such a hateful woman in her life.
They had been on the ship for a mere seven days thus far, and already Ayalah was calculating the distance left, her skill at swimming, and whether she could make it far enough to meet up with any of the more desperate fishing crews, the ones that traveled far from the city in hopes of catching bigger fish. She supposed, if she had to be honest with herself, that the distance was too far. She couldn’t realistically make it back alive. She sighed.
“Is something the matter, Commander Tarall?” It was Lady Westerly. Of course it was Lady Westerly.
“Not at all, Lady,” Ayalah said coolly.
“Oh good,” said Lady Westerly. “I hope you’re not getting sick. A serious illness would certainly endanger you on the battlefield, I would think. I wouldn’t want you to have to watch from the sidelines, after all.” She smiled, her lips tight. “But of course I defer to your experience, Commander.”
“Nothing to be concerned about,” Ayalah said, in a voice as flat as she could make it. “When you’ve had as much combat experience as I have, Lady,” her voice dripped with venom, “you’ll surely learn when an injury is serious and when it merely looks impressive on the surface.”
A silence as the two smiled at each other, teeth bared.
What were they even talking about? Ayalah tried to regain her composure. “Was there something you needed from me, Lady Westerly?” In all this time, Lady Westerly hadn’t once been able to “find the time” to debrief Ayalah on her role in liaising between the Naralians and the Bolladians, on the Bolladians’ plans or strategies, or on anything the king and queen might have instructed her to pass on to Ayalah.
“Only to let you know that the king and queen have tasked me with explaining our customs and lodging requirements to you—you know, the tasks relevant to your position, Commander.”
Ayalah gritted her teeth. “Of course, Lady. I’d be happy to pass along your preferences to the palace servants.”
“Oh, that would be excellent, Commander. You have such a skill with passing along secondhand information.” Lady Westerly turned away with a swish of her skirts and a smile over her shoulder. “I look forward to discussing the matter with you further at your convenience.” She sauntered away as Ayalah fantasized about sticking her sword straight through the lady’s soft bodice.