She wandered the palace aimlessly, absentmindedly nibbling on a fingernail as she walked. How was she to prepare to ride at dawn when she didn’t know where she was riding to or what she was meant to do once there?
She didn’t know what to do or who to talk to. She supposed she could ask Rin… but the princess wasn’t involved in the war negotiations and wouldn’t know what had just transpired anyway. Her instinct was to go talk to Gavin in times of crisis, but he was a world and an army away now.
She stopped in her wandering and looked around. Lumi must be around here somewhere. Maybe she could help. That was a thing family members did for each other, wasn’t it? Help each other?
Ayalah flagged down a servant at random, who led her up a flight of stairs and down a hallway and bid her wait there while he fetched her aunt. He came out a few moments later with Lumi at his heels.
Lumi smiled when she saw Ayalah. “You shouldn’t be here, you know. Most of the palace is off limits to all but the royal family and servants.”
“I can come back,” Ayalah offered.
Lumi shook her head. “When you’ve been a servant as long as I have, you learn that some of the rules are… a little flexible.” She winked. “Nobody else is around right now, anyway. Come talk to me while I finish up.”
Ayalah followed Lumi through a heavy wooden door and into a dark-paneled sitting room. The walls were trimmed with gold, and a chandelier hung from the ceiling, illuminating the room with sparkles as the light danced off the crystals within. The opulence of the room was astonishing.
Lumi caught Ayalah staring and grinned. “Nice, isn’t it? When I was younger I liked to pretend that someday I might be a queen and live in a place like this.”
Ayalah nodded. She nibbled at her thumbnail.
“Something wrong, dear?”
She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “I may have just agreed to something stupid or dangerous or foolhardy.” The story tumbled out in a rush as she watched Lumi clean and fluff the chair cushions; Lumi clucked sympathetically.
“Well,” Lumi said when Ayalah was done, “obviously you have to figure out what you’ve agreed to. You don’t have much time if you’re leaving at dawn,” she frowned, “and certainly it must be something dangerous for the High Chief to have singled you out. He doesn’t tend to be a dramatic person, so if he said it was courageous to the point of being foolish, then—”
She jumped and spun around as another door opened, one Ayalah hadn’t noticed previously. This sitting room appeared to have three entrances: one from the hallway, one presumably leading to the servants’ back staircase, and one—Ayalah couldn’t tell where it led—which was the one that opened.
“Your Majesty!” Lumi said, bowing. “My apologies; I didn’t expect you so soon. I’ll get out of your way immediately.”
Komma raised his eyebrows when he saw Ayalah. “No need to apologize, Lumi. I see you have company.”
Ayalah bowed. “My apologies as well, Your Majesty. I was just telling my aunt that I’ll be leaving tomorrow.”
The king nodded. “Of course.”
Lumi gathered her cleaning supplies in her arms and headed for the servants’ door. “I’ll send up some lunch for you, dear,” she said to the king. She turned to Ayalah. “Come, now, we’d best leave His Majesty alone.”
“Actually,” Komma said, “I wonder if you could leave the commander with me for a few minutes to discuss her latest assignment.”
Lumi shot Ayalah a panicked look before nodding. “Of course, Your Majesty. Shall I send up food for two?”
“In fact, I find that I am not hungry today.”
“As it please you, Your Majesty. I’ll leave you two alone.”
The door closed behind her with barely a whisper of air.
Komma was watching Ayalah as she stood in the center of the room, unsure what to do. Was she in trouble? Or, worse, had she gotten Lumi in trouble? Komma looked very serious, very pensive.
“Your Majesty,” Ayalah began.
“What were you thinking, Commander?”
The king looked furious, his entire body taut with controlled emotion. “Agreeing to that mission. Do you have a death wish?”
“Um,” she said.
“It’s a suicide mission, Ayalah. You won’t be with the main fighting force, you won’t have any reserve strength, and you’ll have a huge target on your back for all the Miltinian army to follow. A decoy army.” He huffed. “I can’t believe you agreed to it.”
Ayalah frowned. She was being sent on a suicide mission? “Why did you agree to it?”
“I didn’t. The council outvoted me.”
She was shocked. “They can do that? But you’re the king!”
“Yes, but the High Chief has twice the experience.” He thought for a moment. “Maybe thrice the experience, come to think on it. In any case, the people are used to him; they trust him. I’ve only been on the throne half a year now, and my subjects miss my father. He was greatly beloved by his people, you know.”
“I’m sure everyone loves you, too,” Ayalah said gently. They were standing on opposite sides of the room still, the tension in the air palpable.
He shook his head. “As a prince, yes, but as a king, a ruler? I have to prove myself to them. I have to protect them.”
“So you let the council convince you to approve a tactic you didn’t agree with?” She knew she shouldn’t speak so boldly to her king, but, she figured, if he could kiss her, then surely she could be honest with him, at least this once.
“If it helps us win the war and save our country and our people from that tyrant Mathais, then it will have been worth it.” The king, Ayalah thought wryly, looked remarkably like a stubborn child when he jutted his chin out like that.
“Komma, you don’t win your nation’s trust by becoming a figurehead and letting the High Chief make decisions for you.”
The temperature in the room definitely seemed to have cooled.
“I make my own decisions,” Komma said, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t value the input of others.”
“And how many of us are you sacrificing for this decision you made on your own?”
“You go too far.”
Ayalah was silent a moment, gritting her teeth, unsure how to proceed. She looked around at the lavish decorations in the room, reminding herself that she was speaking to the king, kiss or no kiss. She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”
Komma nodded but didn’t respond.
“So can we go over the decoy army strategy? Let’s start with the basics and pretend I wasn’t already briefed on it.”
It was a gamble, and Ayalah found herself holding her breath. But Komma nodded and gestured to a chair. “Good idea.”