Once Ivariel thought elephants were fairy tales to amuse children. But her ice-encased childhood in Dasnaria's imperial seraglio was lacking in freedom and justice. With a new name and an assumed identity as a warrior priestess of Danu, the woman once called Princess Jenna is now a fraud and a fugitive. But as she learns the ways of the beasts and hones new uses for her dancer's strength, she moves one day further from the memory of her brutal husband. Safe in hot, healing Nyambura, Ivariel holds a good man at arm's length and trains for the day she'll be hunted again.
She knows it's coming. She's not truly safe, not when her mind clouds with killing rage at unpredictable moments. Not when patient Ochieng's dreams of a family frighten her to her bones. But it still comes as a shock to Ivariel when long-peaceful Nyambura comes under attack. Until her new people look to their warrior priestess and her elephants to lead them . . .
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Despite the rain, I went to see the elephants. Especially Efe.
In the endless downpour, it hardly mattered what I put on. Whatever it was became soaked within moments. I'd finally adopted the habit of the Nyamburans, wearing light fabrics that at least didn't hang on me like iron manacles with the weight of all that water. When I returned to the house, I'd then hang them next to one of the fired clay stoves, switching them out for another set.
It gave me an excuse to sit quietly and try to recover my strength — and wind — while hanging onto my pride. Perhaps I fooled no one with my attentiveness to drying my clothes.
Especially as nothing ever seemed to dry completely. Even Ochieng's elaborate descriptions hadn't done the rainy season justice. It poured nonstop, day and night. Below the granite butte the D'tiembo house perched upon, the river swelled until it seemed to fill the entire valley. No longer shining bright like a polished sword, it lay gray and sullen, deceptively still — until debris sweeping downstream revealed the lethal currents that tumbled them past, a great beast masticating its treasures as it carried them away.
Though I felt naked without my leathers, I'd given them up as too impractical in the pervasive damp. I'd even stopped wearing the vambraces, which had always been more to cover up the scars on my wrists from my wedding bracelets. I wouldn't say I no longer cared who saw them, but they were certainly no longer secret. All the D'tiembos knew what I came from and what had happened to me. Another reason not to bother with pride, though I couldn't seem to help myself.
There seemed to be very little I could control about myself. I hadn't picked up my knives and sword since I'd returned either.
I didn't trust myself with a sharp weapon.
Slipping out of my little room, I left the sodden curtains hanging in place instead of tying them back, so it wouldn't be obvious I wasn't within. Though I'd given up my vow of silence — and of chastity, though I'd yet to do anything there beyond giving up the silver disk of the promise — I didn't often feel like talking to people. You'd think I'd have a lot of words dammed up inside me, like the debris in the river fighting to race to the sea, but once I'd told Ochieng my story, I didn't seem to have much left to say.
Or, more precisely, nothing I felt comfortable articulating. Back to that pride. The legacy of my mother, a curse I perversely treasured for its cool familiarity.
I'd killed Rodolf, my now late husband, in a blur of blood and violence I barely remembered. But that hadn't killed the hatred he'd planted in me. As my body healed from that brutal battle, all of my fear and pain gained life again, too. Sometimes it overcame me, the rage-terror, the many-faced emotion that flashed like a fire no amount of rain could quench. Sometimes I thought another person lived inside me. Perhaps Imperial Princess Jenna, daughter of Empress Hulda, the most ruthless bitch in the Dasnarian Empire, hadn't become Ivariel. I might have created Ivariel, Warrior Priestess of Danu, but she only provided a calm shell over the dark face of Jenna.
Jenna, who couldn't seem to stop hating, and whom I couldn't seem to control.
The antechamber was empty, as usual, since my room sat on a less- frequented edge of the many-tiered house, and I moved silently through it and down the woven grass steps few people besides me used, suppressing a groan at the aching protest of my body. Amazing how simple movements like going down steps made my abdomen protest and my always-strong legs tremble with weakness. I thought I'd endured pain before and understood it. Had conquered it.
But those had been mostly surface pains — from flogging and my late husband's rough attentions. Mostly skin deep, except in my woman's passage, which was meant to open to the outside anyway. These wounds had penetrated through layers of tissue and muscle and organs, deep inside me, hindering my smallest movements. Pointed reminders that I should be dead.
With determination, ignoring the pain, I descended the slow steps to the terrace. When I'd arrived, in the dry season, the large D'tiembo clan had spent most of their time on the big, low-walled terrace that overlooked the river. These days it mostly held puddles of rainwater. One of my young students, Ayela, and her brother, Femi, used long- handled tools to push water that collected in the corners and deeper indentations over the edge of the terrace. It seemed like an exercise in futility to me, but all the kids took turns doing it. Maybe to keep them occupied as much as anything.
Ayela spotted me and waved, a cautious gesture, her normal ebullience carefully muted. They were all careful with me. I could hardly blame them. She and my other students were anxious, I knew, to resume lessons with me. I also knew their parents had spoken firmly with them that they should not ask me, that I needed time to get strong again. The first eighteen years of my life had been spent in the seraglio of the Imperial Palace where the ladies all honed eavesdropping to a fine art. The D'tiembos with their curtain walls and privacy that existed only via courtesy could hardly keep secrets from me.
I smiled at Ayela, but quickly turned away so she wouldn't get the wrong idea. If only I could go down the cliff steps. However — exactly as Ochieng had predicted — the lower levels had been swept away, even before I managed to escape my sickbed for the first time. So, I went around, skirting the edge of the terrace rather than going through the house, making my way to the back side, where the covered steps descended to the storehouses.
"Ivariel." Ochieng stepped out from a room I passed, his lean face smooth, his dark eyes full of concern. "Going to visit the elephants?" he asked.
I nodded, then remembered I should give him words, since he seemed to crave them from me. "Yes. Is that all right?"
A slight line formed between his brows. "Of course. This is your home. You may do anything you wish. I simply thought to offer to go with you."
"You don't have to," I replied, my gaze going to the opening leading to the steps. I'd been so close. "I'm sure you have other things to do."
He laughed, though not in a genuine way. "It's the rainy season. Nobody has anything to do that they haven't done dozens of times already. I'll go with you."
Because it felt churlish and ungenerous of me to refuse, I nodded and continued walking, Ochieng falling in beside me. "How are you feeling today?" he asked me.
I never knew how to answer this question. "Better," I said, as I usually did. Not an untruth — I certainly felt better than I had when I first awoke in the D'tiembo home, swathed in bandages, with no idea why I was there instead of dead. One day I wanted to feel again as I had before my eighteenth birthday, before any of this occurred. I missed feeling limber, vital, and beautiful. I hadn't appreciated what a blessing those things were when I had them. Now that I would value them as precious gifts, I suspected I'd lost those, too, forever.
"You're moving less stiffly," Ochieng observed. We reached the steps going down the rock face, and I clung to the hand rail. At least here the grass roof kept most of the rain off. The steps, also woven of dried and cured grasses, acted like a sieve, so water didn't collect on them. They gave slightly under our weight, though, which made my internal muscles clench painfully as they worked to keep me balanced. Keenly aware that Ochieng watched me, I tried my best not to show it.
He, his mother, Zalaika, and all the D'tiembo clan — but mostly those two — had taken great care of me, nursing me back to health. I had nothing but gratitude for their diligence and yet ... Perhaps I was not a person who did gratitude well.
"I was thinking," Ochieng continued, moving far slower than his usual athletic speed, pacing himself to match my measured progress, "that it might be good for you to practice your martial forms again. Easy movements, to build up your strength." And confidence, he didn't say, but my mind supplied the words.
"They're really just dances," I replied, aware of the flat resistance in my voice. "I told you that. I'm a dancer, nothing more. Kaja —" My voice broke on her name. I'd found out about Kaja's death only moments before the warning arrived, on the same caravan, as if they carried all the terrible news in one of their wagons, that my late husband's men had followed me all the way to Nyambura. I hadn't had time to properly mourn her, wasn't even sure what form that might take. Losing her felt like yet another deep-dwelling wound, one that ached, swamping me with misery at odd times.
Ochieng set a hand on the small of my back, a brief touch, and I realized I'd stopped. "We could visit the elephants later," he said softly.
"No." I resumed walking, ignoring his almost inaudible sigh for my stubbornness. I might've lied when I said "better." Yesterday's descent had been easier than today's so far. It made no sense, why some days my body hurt more than others. But ever since I first made it down the steps to see Efe, Violet, and the other elephants, I'd made sure to go every day. Even if it ended up being the only thing I did all day. Which it often was, particularly after the long ascent. "Anyway, I know I told you — they're not really martial forms. Kaja taught me to hold a weapon while I did the dances I already knew, because she didn't have time to teach me the real stuff. I'm not really a Warrior Priestess of Danu at all. Nothing like she was."
He let that go, as he had every time I brought it up. "Dances, then. Maybe it's time to try those."
"It's too rainy."
"We can make a space inside."
We finally reached the storehouse level, where the rain sheeted off the grass sheaves at the top of the immense three-story structure. People waved to us and called greetings. They tended the small fires distributed throughout to keep the damp from setting into the stored goods. Hart, who'd traveled on the Robin with us from Ehas, called a hello to me as we passed. He was using a long pick to sift the big piles of hay, airing the stuff so it didn't mold. Earning his keep, as I was not.
I stopped at the bins of fruit, selecting some favorites for my girls.
"Ochieng," I said, as soon as we were alone again. "I don't want to dance."
"Why not?" He sounded genuinely curious. "Can you explain to me?"
I couldn't. The thought of even trying made me feel weary. More than the physical exhaustion of just getting to ground level. The red soil had become thick mud, carved into channels of fast-flowing streams. Barefoot, I stepped off the platform into it, sinking up to my ankles, feeling as if it would suck me down entirely. And I still had to go back up again.
Efe had spotted me though. She'd been waiting for me to appear, and came galloping through the rain, waving her trunk in the air in elephantine celebration. She slowed as she reached me, wrapping her trunk gently around my head in her version of an embrace. Efe and I had started a friendship before the battle where I killed my late husband, but since then we seemed to have developed a special bond.
Ochieng had told me that Efe had insisted on coming with them when the D'tiembo fighters mounted up to rescue me, though she wasn't trained for battle. Rescued only a year before, and a difficult case, Efe resisted training. Even Ochieng, the master trainer, hadn't been able to cling to her back for more than a few moments. When they'd rallied and equipped the fighting elephants, they'd tried to make her stay back, but short of restraining her — which they'd never do, particularly to Efe — they couldn't persuade her. She came with the others and she'd found me, then curled around my back while I thought I lay dying, dreaming of elephants thundering around me.
I knew in my head that Ochieng, the D'tiembos, and the battle elephants had saved me, but in my heart, it had been Efe.
She started dragging at me, pulling me toward the elephant shelter and out of the rain. Efe didn't much like the constant downpour, hunching in it miserably as if it attacked her. I went along, largely because when an elephant decides she'd like you to go somewhere, you went, but also because I liked it in the elephant shelter, out of the rain and pressed in with the big beasts. Ochieng naturally came along, greeted with enthusiasm by Violet and the others.
Efe snaked her trunk over me, whuffling and sniffing until she found the fruit I'd stuck in my pockets. I rescued a melon for Violet, who plucked it from my hand with all the grave dignity befitting the matriarch, then let Efe root out the rest. With a happy sigh, I felt myself relax. Ochieng glanced at me, raising his brows, inviting me to speak.
"I feel good here," I told him. "That's part of why I want to come visit the elephants, even though it's difficult for me."
He nodded. "And the dancing?"
The thought of even trying to dance — or picking up a blade — had my stomach clenching. So I lifted a shoulder and let it fall in a Dasnarian shrug of dismissal.
"You know." Ochieng had picked up a brush, circling it over Violet's broad forehead, and she closed her eyes in ecstasy. "I used to think that if you could only speak, I'd understand you better."
"And now?" I made myself ask.
He glanced at me over his shoulder. "Now I wonder if I'll ever understand you at all."CHAPTER 2
I turned back to Efe, who expected nothing from me. "I never asked you to understand me."
He didn't answer immediately. Then he came over and stood behind me, arms braced on Efe's big flank on either side of me where I leaned into her comforting bulk. He didn't touch me, but his warmth crossed the small space between us, his breath whispering against my temple.
"Fair enough," he said quietly. Oh so quietly, as if we might be overheard and he wanted the words to be only for me. "Understanding you is something I want. You fascinate me, Ivariel. From the first moment I saw you aboard the Robin, I was drawn to you — not just for your extraordinary beauty, but by something deeper. You were unlike any woman I'd seen before, and I wanted to know you. Perhaps I imagined more into your silence than there was, but I thought we'd become friends."
I leaned into Efe, listening, almost holding my breath, uncertain if delight or dread had me agonizing over what the next moments would bring. Ochieng had never declared himself to me, not in so many words, though he had kissed me. Twice. Here I had no fathers or brothers for him to approach and negotiate with, to seal my wedding vows with. In truth, I had no idea how the Nyamburans handled such things at all.
"That morning you woke up," he continued, after I said nothing, "you gave me the disk with your vow of chastity. Do you want it back?"
Of course he would've saved it, probably keeping it with the other disk for my forsaken vow of silence. I didn't have Kaja — or anyone of Danu — to ask, but I felt sure those vows given to Danu, once broken, couldn't be easily taken up again. Certainly I had no temple to visit, no altar to swear upon. My vows had never been meant to last forever, regardless. Silence had kept my accent and poor fluency disguised. Chastity had been a protection of another kind.
"You must prepare to be courted," Kaja had said. And then, "I think that you do not wish to engage in such activities. Not yet. Maybe not ever."
Maybe not ever.
The memory of those words dug into my heart now as much as they had then.
"Ivariel?" Ochieng made a question of my name. "Do you want it back?"
I shook my head.
"Can you use words to talk to me about this then?" He asked, his voice a little rough. "I know silence is a safe place for you, but I need to know what you're thinking, what you need from me."
I'd been cowardly, avoiding him, taking refuge in not speaking and staying alone in my room. He'd respected that — and likely would forever — but it wasn't fair. He was wrong about that. Screwing up my courage, I turned, tucking my hands behind my back and carefully not touching him, Efe solid against my back, but facing him. I couldn't quite make myself look into his eyes — old habits die hard and that one seemed to be one that fought to remain — so I focused on his mouth, his full lips.
But that made me think of when he'd kissed me, and I couldn't be thinking of that, and all the crazy ways it had made me feel, for this conversation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Warrior of the World"
Copyright © 2019 Jeffe Kennedy.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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