She spent the night in Lumi’s cottage, after more tears and hugs and affection had been directed at her than Ayalah had ever experienced. Lumi had made enough food to feed an entire regiment, and she stuffed Ayalah full of it, insisting that Ayalah had grown too thin and might otherwise starve, despite Ayalah’s reassurances that she felt fine. They sat in front of the hearth and talked for hours, and Ayalah felt a warmth fill her that had nothing to do with the fire.
She reported to the palace after breakfast and waited patiently in an antechamber while the king finished another meeting. She was called in to find herself alone in a small throne room with King Komma.
“Commander Tarall,” he said, eyebrows raised. “I didn’t expect to see you so early. I was going to send for you this afternoon.”
“My apologies, Your Majesty. I can leave and come back later if you’d prefer.”
He stood. “No, that’s quite all right. I was just going to take a break for tea, if you’d like to join me.” He led the way out of the room, down a hallway lined with framed portraits of previous rulers, and into a small wood-paneled sitting room, where a servant was waiting unobtrusively in a corner.
“Daroll, we’ll take some tea now. And then please send for the princess to join us.”
The servant nodded and hurried out.
Komma turned to her. “Please sit, Commander.”
There were four cushioned armchairs in the room surrounding a low table, with a large oak display case filled with delicate-looking sculptures taking up an entire wall. Ayalah chose a chair at random and sat, noticing distractedly a tall vase of flowers in one corner. She wondered if Rin arranged the flowers herself in addition to planting them. Was that part of a princess’s expected talents? No wonder Rin had been so desperate to learn how to use a sword.
Komma removed his crown, sat across from her, waited for the servant to deliver and serve the tea, and then dismissed the servant.
“Commander, I’ll be blunt,” he said then, leaning back in his chair and sipping his tea. “I think we have at least one informant, if not many, somewhere within the palace walls.”
She waited while he sipped his tea.
“Your identity is no secret, and neither was the destination of your journey with my brother Roran. But in order for that Hodarian ship to have known your exact course in order to have ambushed you—well, I think it highly unlikely that they could have found you by chance. It’s a big ocean, and with the low visibility down there in the winter coupled with the extreme temperatures… they had to have known in advance exactly where you were going and when you’d be there.” He was silent for a moment, staring into his tea. “It is also my understanding that the Hodarashan, the best of the best, do not typically patrol the oceans so far from the coast. They’re meant to stay closer to home to protect their king.”
He was silent for so long, Ayalah cleared her throat. “So you think one of your servants or advisors is a spy?”
Komma met her eyes. “Possibly. I have my suspicions. And I hate to think it, but I haven’t ruled out the possibility that one or more of my brothers may be involved.”
Ayalah set her tea cup down on the table harder than she meant to. “One of the royal family? But why?”
He didn’t respond.
Ideas raced through her head: were Komma’s brothers vying for the throne? Had Mathais promised them something worth betraying their own brother for?
“I’m quite certain my sister was not involved, though. She’s far too fond of you, and she and Roran were quite close.”
Ayalah nodded. “I agree.”
“All of which begs the question: why did they attack your ship? And why didn’t they kill you and the smithy?”
“Ah,” Ayalah coughed. “Perhaps I can answer some of those questions for you.”
She’d only given the briefest of details in her letters, partly because there was too much to write and partly because of her innate paranoia. Now that she knew of the king’s suspicions about a spy or spies in the palace, she was even more paranoid, and relieved that she hadn’t put more in writing. She forgot all about her tea as she told Komma the entire story, starting from when they’d left Naraloth and including how she’d given the Hodarians a fake name. She got as far as joining the Hodarian military before he stopped her with a raised hand.
“The rest I believe I know already: you escaped, ended up in Bolladoth, and accomplished something no one else has been able to do in hundreds of years.”
Ayalah flushed. “That’s pretty much it, yes.”
He sprang from his chair and paced the small room. Ayalah suddenly remembered that he’d sent for Rinnah ages ago. She didn’t have long to dwell on this thought before he spoke.
“Why are they after you? Not that you’re not a valuable asset, of course, but you’ve already told us everything you know. Killing you accomplishes nothing.”
“Nothing, Your Majesty?”
He turned to look at her. “That’s not what I meant. I’m sorry. Not that your life isn’t important, because it is—but important enough to kill a prince over? It doesn’t make sense.”
“King Mathais and I never saw eye to eye, Your Majesty. I assumed this was just a vengeance agenda.”
Komma shook his head and resumed his pacing. “No. This is too elaborate. There’s something about you…”
Ayalah cleared her throat again. “There’s something I haven’t told you yet, Your Majesty. Aren’t you curious how I persuaded the Bolladian Court to declare war?”
He sat down across from her again and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, fingers interlaced in front of him. “Yes.”
So she told him about Greyson being taken prisoner, her knowledge of the prophecy, and the murder of the Bolladian children.
“The prophecy, then,” he said when she was done. “That must be it.”
“But,” Ayalah said, “I don’t even know whether Mathais knows about my knowledge of the prophecy. And if they kill me, they’ll never know what the prophecy is.”
Komma raised an eyebrow at her. “True. What is the prophecy?”
She shook her head. “I cannot tell you.”
“You can’t tell your king?”
“Not even you, Your Majesty. I’m sorry. It could change the course of the events to come… or something like that. I’m a little fuzzy on the details—you’ll just have to trust me.”
He began pacing the room a third time, silent, deep in thought. She watched him for a long while before growing impatient.
“Your Majesty?” He didn’t appear to hear her. She tried again. “Sire?”
He had paused in his pacing before the oak display case and seemed to be staring intently at a crystal figurine of a horse rearing on its hind legs. She stood and walked over to him. “Your Majesty?” She touched his arm to get his attention.
He turned to look at her. “Hm?”
“Are you, er—? I would tell you the prophecy if I could, Your Majesty, truly, but—”
“Just Komma is fine.”
“No need for the formalities in here, Commander. Er, Ayalah.”
She was startled into silence.
“I think you’re in danger, Ayalah. Grave danger.” His face was close to hers now, his eyes searching her face. She was surprised to see that, behind his thick eyelashes, his eyes were a startlingly bright green.
“I’m always in danger, Your Maj—Komma. It’s part of my job.”
“I’m serious. If there’s someone in the palace trying to—”
“So am I. I can take care of myself. It took an elite group of the best Hodarian warriors to take me down, remember? I think it’s you and Rinnah we need to be worried about.”
Komma shook his head. “They wouldn’t dare, not while I’m in the palace. There are eyes everywhere.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that. A well-timed knife or a poisoned wine glass—”
Ayalah wasn’t sure how it happened. One moment they were standing side by side, discussing serious matters, and the next Komma’s lips were pressed against hers. He kissed her hungrily, the force behind his kiss redoubled by the way he held her to him tightly.
She was shocked. She would never have expected a kiss from her king—or from any king, for that matter. It was wildly inappropriate and could get her into serious trouble…
…and yet Ayalah found herself returning the kiss. She didn’t lose herself in it like she had with Greyson in Olekoth, and she didn’t feel the same urgency she had felt that time, the overwhelming need. But Komma’s lips were soft, and his arms wrapped around her, strong and confident, and she found herself enjoying his touch.
His hands snaked down her back, and he let go of her lips to kiss her ear and nibble on her neck.
“We should stop,” Ayalah whispered.
“I know,” Komma breathed into her ear, but he didn’t stop and she didn’t stop him.
Thoughts fluttered through her mind as he pressed against her—spies, danger, court gossip—and she found herself wishing that these palace doors had locks on them. Her armor was too cumbersome to take off easily, though Komma struggled valiantly with the buckles. He settled for kissing her some more and running his hands up and down the leather of her vest.
He bit her lip, sending a wave of sensation through her that caused her to shudder, and he guided her hand to the front of his trousers, grunting softly as she explored.
Ayalah knew this was a bad idea, but she couldn’t stop herself. She tried to work up the willpower to stop Komma, but she could feel how badly he wanted her, and—she couldn’t help it—she loved feeling wanted, feeling needed for something other than her combat training.
Just when she was beginning to forget her worries, the door creaked. Her eyes flew open in time to see Rin gasp and pull the door closed again.
She and Komma sprang apart. He ran his hands through his hair and she straightened her uniform, both of them red-faced and out of breath.
“I’m sorry,” Komma said quietly. “I shouldn’t have.”
Ayalah shook her head and stared determinedly at the floor. He wasn’t the only guilty one here; she hadn’t exactly resisted.
They stood in silence as their breathing returned to normal. Ayalah wondered what he was thinking about; she wondered how much Rin had seen. Finally, Komma cleared his throat and she looked up. He seemed to have regained his composure.
He walked to the door and opened it, revealing Rin standing a few steps away, her eyes wide.
“Ah, there you are, Rinnah,” he said loudly, standing back so she could enter the room.
“I… I’m sorry I was late,” she said. “I came as soon as I could.”
“I was just on my way out,” he said. Ayalah felt her face burning at the obvious lie. “Commander Tarall briefed me on her experience already. I trust she’ll fill you in as well.” He nodded to them both and then swept from the room, closing the door behind himself.