She and Greyson didn’t have a chance to talk again that night or the following day. By the time the war council finished, the Olekian ships were docking and the men were preparing to march. Ayalah was feeling stronger—not at full strength but certainly well enough to get back in the saddle—and she intended to depart at dawn with the rest of the main force. She largely kept to herself in the room she’d been given in the palace, preferring not to pretend interest in any court gossip or be the recipient of pitying looks and prying questions. Lady Erikson invited her to tea, but she declined; Lady Parker sent a friendly note, but she didn’t respond. Instead she sat at her window and watched men and women come and go through the gardens, the white tree still and motionless in the summer heat.
Already thousands of men had died in this war, and for what? Because the king of Miltinoth was hungry for power and filled with hubris? She sighed. Komma was expected to fully recover from his wounds. She hoped he would be a better king than Mathais, but one could never tell with these things. Power could corrupt even the best of men. Whichever side she chose, the wizard Swynn had prophesied, would be the side destined to win, for better or for worse. That ominous phrase nagged at her. She hoped she had made the right decision; she didn’t see how it could be wrong.
The sun began to set, and with the darkness came a sweet-smelling cool breeze that drifted through her open window, lingering on her cheeks long after it passed.
The ultimate sacrifice. That’s what Swynn had said she must do to ensure Naraloth’s victory. She knew what she must do, and she wasn’t afraid of dying. She didn’t believe in an afterlife like the Hodarians did, and she didn’t believe that a goddess would speed her on her way, like the Bolladians did. She believed in only what she saw, and what she saw was that everything Swynn had said had so far come to pass; she must trust him, and believe that he had seen her fate thousands of years ago for a good reason—that her sacrifice was important, that it would be worth it.
She had to. What else did she have?
A servant interrupted her thoughts to bring her a scribbled note in a hand she had memorized long ago: Come to the west garden to say goodbye.
A lump formed in her throat. Greyson, the only other person who knew the prophecy. Greyson, who had protected her time and time again. Greyson, who knew what she must do as well as she did. To say goodbye.
She hurried to the west garden in the feeble light of the waxing moon and was surprised to discover a massive shrubbery, carved smooth and flat until it fairly resembled a wall, standing in the center of the pathway. She went around it and found another wall of shrubbery, and then another to her right, and soon she was weaving through the walls of hedges carefully, mindful of the turns she made so that she might find her way back.
Greyson smiled when she found him in a secluded back corner of the maze.
“I wanted to be sure we were alone,” he said by way of greeting.
“Nobody followed me,” she assured him.
They stared into each other’s eyes for a long moment in silence, the chirping of the crickets the only sound around them.
“I need to tell you something,” Ayalah blurted. She wasn’t even sure what she would say: Now that I’m about to die, I want you to know that I love you?
“I need to tell you something, too.”
She hesitated. “You first.”
“I’m going to be leading the Bolladian troops tomorrow.”
“What?” She must have misheard. Had he just said he was going to be leading the Bolladian troops? She stared at him. “But—you don’t even like to fight, you said so yourself. What about Lord what’s-his-name, the High Chief of the Bolladian military?”
“Lord Mason led the first wave, along with most of our top warriors. They need someone… expendable… to lead the reinforcements. And as the man who recruited Olekoth to our cause, it’s fitting that I should be the one to lead the attack.”
Ayalah’s thoughts raced, but she didn’t know how to convince him not to go. She had already committed herself to riding with Princess Rinnah, and she couldn’t offer to go in his place. “But isn’t the Bolladian division…?”
“Leading the attack, yes.”
“But—but you can’t,” she said. She was having trouble meeting his eyes.
“What if something happens to you?” The first man out is the first man to die, Gavin used to say. It was the same position she’d been in when leading the decoy army, but this was different. This was Greyson.
Greyson shrugged. “Like I said, expendable.”
“You’re not expendable to me,” she whispered.
And then she understood: she’d been wrong all this time. The ultimate sacrifice wasn’t her own life, it was that of someone she loved—someone she was in love with.
Greyson was the sacrifice; in order for them to win this war, he had to die.
“You can’t,” she breathed. You can’t die. All the warmth seemed to have left her body; she felt chilled and empty, her legs weak, her breath coming in short gasps. She should be the one to die, not Greyson.
“I won’t go if you tell me not to,” he said softly, placing a warm hand on her cheek.
She looked up, and for a moment, as their eyes met, she considered telling him not to go. They could run away together, live in the enchanted forest. What did it matter to them who ruled the world? She battled with herself, a silent warring of emotions, the part of her that knew what she should do fighting with the part of her that didn’t care, that just wanted to be happy and have Greyson by her side always. She’d grown used to his company, to the way he always smelled of steel and sweat, to the way she caught him looking at her when he thought she didn’t notice.
But she had to let him go, and she knew it. This was more important than her, than them. Being a warrior was about sacrifice and fighting for what you believed in, even if it meant laying down your life—or the life of someone you loved. She had always known it, but she hadn’t really understood the gravity of the word sacrifice until now. She wondered if Greyson did; she wondered if he understood what the prophecy really meant.
“You have to go,” she said, feeling her bottom lip tremble with the threat of her sadness spilling out.
She didn’t know how to say what she felt, so instead she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his, and the jolt of electricity that shot through her body was just as intense as it had been on that night long ago, when they’d both been emboldened by mead and music and dancing and laughter. This kiss was sadder, softer, and she poured all of her longing and affection and heartache into it, her lips touching his again and again, each one a goodbye. His hand traveled from her cheek to her hair, and when she pulled back at last, letting her tears fall, he kissed them from her cheeks tenderly until she stopped him.
“Ayalah,” he murmured.
She grabbed his hand and brought it to her lips, kissing each of his calloused fingers one by one, then his other hand, each hand capable of making such beauty, even the hardest metals turning soft in his hands, the hardest people. She buried her face in the palms of his hands, savoring his warmth, his scent. Then she dropped his hands and fled, and by the time she looked back the night had swallowed him up, enveloping him in its darkness.