Rin stared at Ayalah and then burst out laughing. “It seems you did need me as a chaperone after all!”
Ayalah smiled despite her embarrassment. “I suppose so.”
“What in the world were you thinking, Ayalah?” Rin walked over to her and tucked a few strands of Ayalah’s hair back into her braid, a gesture so intimate Ayalah felt frozen in place until the princess stepped away. “The king and one of his warriors…”
“Rin, you won’t tell anyone, will you? Please don’t tell anyone.”
Rin raised her eyebrows. “Of course not.” She smirked. “It would be quite the scandal, though.”
Ayalah sat down heavily in the chair Komma had vacated.
“How did it happen?” Rin was smiling wickedly at her, leaning against a wall.
“He kissed me. Just… all of a sudden.”
Rin giggled. “Are you surprised? I’ve seen the way he looks at you.” She paused, seeing the look on Ayalah’s face. “Oh,” she said, “you are surprised.” Then she burst into peals of laughter. “Oh, Ayalah.”
Ayalah felt her face burning once more. “He’s been looking at me a certain way?” She crossed her arms and waited for Rin to stop laughing.
Rin paused mid-laugh and grew serious. “But what about Greyson? I thought…”
Ayalah shrugged. The princess noticed much more than she let on. “I don’t know. I didn’t mean to. Greyson and I are… just friends.”
Rin frowned. “You didn’t kiss my brother just because he’s the king, did you?”
“No, it was nothing like that.”
“Good. This isn’t like him, you know. My other brothers… well, Komma isn’t really like that. He doesn’t seem to have much interest in most women.”
Ayalah swallowed. “But—doesn’t a king…?”
“Oh, he has needs like anyone else, I’m sure, but—”
“What?” Ayalah stared at her. “What do you mean?”
Rin faltered. “Er. What did you mean?”
“I was referring to, you know, kings not really being able to choose their own partners. Politics and all that.” Ayalah felt suddenly unsure that she had any idea what she was talking about. Where had she even heard such a thing? Tavern gossip?
“Oh.” Now Ayalah wasn’t the only one red in the face. “Well yes, he’ll need to marry someone with rank or status of some kind. Someone who can bear him lots of royal babies.” Rin’s eyes opened wide. “But you are a warrior, and if you keep getting promoted, say to the level of Chief or Senior Chief…”
“No,” Ayalah said quickly. “No, no. This wasn’t anything like that. It was nothing. It was just—just kissing. It didn’t mean anything and it won’t happen again.”
Rin raised an eyebrow but didn’t pursue the topic. “Did I tell you I’ve been practicing my sword forms?” she said instead.
Negotiations with the Bolladian representatives were slow going. They’d been at it for two weeks now, and Ayalah wondered if the war chiefs had forgotten about the army already trying to breach the city walls. The outer wall surrounding Naraloth was sturdy and impregnable; Miltinoth’s army would never get in, not without some kind of trickery or magic, but they tried anyway, throwing spears and cannon fire at it night and day. The noise was hard to ignore, even from inside the palace walls.
Komma’s attention was completely focused on the negotiations, which was just as well. Ayalah had no idea how to act around him now. Should she pretend it never happened? Apologize? Let him apologize? What if she tried to be nonchalant about it but he pretended it never happened? What would that mean—that he regretted it?
She wondered if he regretted it.
She wondered if she regretted it.
She decided she’d rather not think about it at all.
She’d been invited to sit in on the negotiations, a rare honor only afforded to someone of her rank because she’d been the one to gain the Bolladians as an ally. The other Commanders and Senior Commanders clearly resented her special privileges; even the ones she’d begun to form friendships with before she left barely acknowledged her presence in passing now.
The Naralian war council consisted of King Komma; his High Chief, a grizzled old man who looked old enough to be the king’s father or grandfather; and the Senior Chiefs from the Naralian military, ten hardened, muscled men who looked like they’d forgotten how to smile. Two or three Chiefs were brought in periodically to consult on the strength of their divisions, but certainly none of the Commanders or Senior Commanders were asked to participate, save for Ayalah.
On the Bolladian side, Lady Westerly seemed to have taken a liking to the High Chief, despite being at least half his age. She directed most of her questions to him, seeming unimpressed by the king’s presence, and even went so far as to pour the High Chief’s tea for him one morning, like a wife or servant might do. Ayalah wondered what she was playing at. Lady Westerly ignored Ayalah completely, of course, and bristled any time a question was directed at Ayalah. Unless King Davin and Queen Maera had meant “don’t murder each other” when they’d instructed them to work together, Ayalah was fairly certain this wasn’t turning out as they would have hoped.
For her part, Ayalah found herself wistfully thinking of the uncomplicated life of a rankless warrior, her days filled with training exercises or military assignments, her nights with watered-down ale, the cheap stuff the higher-ranking warriors wouldn’t deign to drink. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate her added responsibilities nowadays, or the honor she was being awarded; it was that she couldn’t stand sitting around for so many hours. She wanted to be on the wall, fighting off the attackers, or part of the raiding parties that snuck out from the city in the dark of night, striking soundlessly, killing unsuspecting warriors aiming to relieve their bladders or stealing supply carts so the attackers would find themselves growing hungrier as the days passed.
She wondered how Greyson was faring. Had he been able to convince the Olekian king to join the war? And if not, would the Bolladian king and queen revoke his pardon, considering him no use to the throne after all, and sentence him to death?
She snapped to attention and saw that everyone in the war council was looking at her. She cleared her throat. What had they just asked her?
The High Chief frowned and scratched at the white whiskers that covered his cheeks. “Yes or no, Commander?”
She frantically tried to remember what they’d been discussing while she was lost in her own thoughts. Something about an ambush, perhaps? “Yes, Chief,” she tried, “absolutely.”
The High Chief sat back in his chair and nodded. “You have courage, Commander. Perhaps overmuch, to the point of unnecessarily endangering yourself, but courage nonetheless.”
Ayalah felt a growing trepidation as the High Chief spoke. Unnecessarily endangering herself? What had she just agreed to?
She cast her eyes about the room. The ten Senior Chiefs in attendance betrayed no emotion whatsoever, but Lady Westerly had a smirk on her face and looked entirely too pleased with herself for Ayalah’s liking. Komma’s eyebrows were furrowed, but he said nothing.
Well, she thought, there was no turning back now. “Thank you, Chief. I hope my actions can speak louder than my words.”
“As do I, Commander.” The High Chief watched her for a few moments in silence. “Very well. Prepare to ride at dawn. You are dismissed, Commander; may fortune favor you.”
Ayalah saluted and left the room. What had she gotten herself into?