Warrior of the World
Chronicles of Dasnaria #3
by Jeffe Kennedy
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pub Date: 1/8/19
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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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.
Exile of the Seas
Chronicles of Dasnaria #2
Once she was known as Jenna, Imperial Princess of Dasnaria, schooled in graceful dance and comely submission. Until the man her parents married her off to almost killed her with his brutality.
Now, all she knows is that the ship she’s boarded is bound away from her vicious homeland. The warrior woman aboard says Jenna’s skill in dancing might translate into a more lethal ability. Danu’s fighter priestesses will take her in, disguise her as one of their own—and allow her to keep her silence.
But it’s only a matter of time until Jenna’s monster of a husband hunts her down. Her best chance to stay hidden is to hire out as bodyguard to a caravan traveling to a far-off land, home to beasts and people so unfamiliar they seem like part of a fairy tale. But her supposed prowess in combat is a fraud. And sooner or later, Jenna’s flight will end in battle—or betrayal . . .
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Perhaps this was the nature of exile: that all the thrust was in the escape, the moving away. After that, what did you have? If I am any example—and I’m the only example I had—then the answer was not much at all.
I did have my habits, though.
The Valeria was powerful in a way I wasn’t and would likely never be. Ideally suited to her environment, an extension of the waves and master of them, she possessed a singular direction and purpose. The very things I lacked. Thus, I’d become oddly grateful and attached to the ship, inanimate though she was. As long as I was aboard the Valeria, she provided purpose and direction for me. I clung to her the way an infant burrowed into her mother’s breast, murmuring fervent prayers of thankfulness that she hadn’t shrugged me off to drown in the cold, uncaring sea.
Mostly I kept to my cabin. The servant boys and girls brought my meals and fresh water, took away my waste, and otherwise left me alone. It had been easy to adjust to being waited on, as I had been my whole life, and I would’ve been at a loss to put together more than the most basic meal for myself. I wouldn’t let them come in otherwise, which was a new freedom and power I enjoyed flexing. No servants in the walls here, listening to my every movement. And I felt better with the door barred, even though it was only one thin, wooden thing against the world. A world of a sailing ship on a vast, unknowable ocean.
I slept a lot. Which was good because my body began to heal more. And I danced, to relieve the boredom and to encourage flexibility, so I’d heal strong. Dancing felt familiar, too. Something I could do alone in the dim cabin, one of the few things left that remind me of who I’d been.
No matter how much I slept, though, I always awoke early. Well before they brought my breakfast at the seventh bell. In the darkness of my cabin, I marked time by the watch’s bells, practicing the simple count from the longest toll at midnight to the dawn call. I woke. Listened for the six bells. Then unbarred my door, made sure the passage remained empty, and slipped out.
A sort of daily exercise in escape.
Moving silently down the passageway of closed doors, I allowed myself to exult in that ability, one I’d never expected to be what saved my life. All those years I practiced the traditional dances, particularly the ducerse, which required utmost skill to keep the many bells from making sound until the precisely timed moment. I’d thought I was preparing to dazzle my husband and make my emperor proud. Not teaching myself stealth.
But stealth had turned out to be far more useful. It let me keep to the shadows, unnoticed. In my brother Harlan’s too-big clothes, my hair shorn into a short fluff, I looked nothing like Her Imperial Highness Princess Jenna of Dasnaria. If anyone on this foreign ship had ever heard of that doomed girl. Nevertheless, I wrapped myself in the thick wool cloak, pulling the cowl deep around my face. It made me feel safer, for no good reason, and I needed it for the chill. After a lifetime in the cloistered warmth of the seraglio, it seemed I’d never be warm again.
On deck, the sky shone with incipient day. I hadn’t understood this before, that the sky lightens in color before the sun appears. The paintings never show it that way. They depict night or day, sometimes sunrise or sunset, but never those moments before or after. But predawn is different than night, and in its soft in-between-ness, I could see well enough.
Keeping to the edges like a cat might, I skirted the main paths the sailors traveled as they did their jobs. It meant I picked my way through the ropes, barrels, and other supplies lashed to the deck, but I viewed that as another way to improve my dexterity, especially in the clunky boots I couldn’t seem to get used to. In my cabin, I went barefoot, which felt natural and right, but going on deck, I put on shoes like I wore the cloak. The more covering, the better.
It had been nearly a week, but I harbored no illusions about my ignorance of the world outside. I had no idea how long I would have to run, or how far I’d have to travel to escape my pursuers. I’d been unforgivably stupid about this in the past, so it seemed the only wise choice would be to assume that no amount of time or distance would be enough.
At least that gave me a guideline. Never and nowhere might be places without finite boundaries, but I could understand them.
The goats mewed at me from their pen next to the chickens as I passed, making the sounds so oddly like the newborn kittens in the seraglio of the Imperial Palace, where I grew up. I stopped to scratch the little horns on their heads, their fur soft and scraggly against my fingers. We’d become friends on this journey. Goats and the Valeria—they kept me alive and kept my secrets.
Prisoner of the Crown
Chronicles of Dasnaria #1
In icy Dasnaria, rival realm to the Twelve Kingdoms, a woman’s role is to give pleasure, produce heirs, and question nothing. But a plot to overthrow the emperor depends on the fate of his eldest daughter. And the treachery at its heart will change more than one carefully limited life . . .
The Gilded Cage
Princess Jenna has been raised in supreme luxury—and ignorance. Within the sweet-scented, golden confines of the palace seraglio, she’s never seen the sun, or a man, or even learned her numbers. But she’s been schooled enough in the paths to a woman’s power. When her betrothal is announced, she’s ready to begin the machinations that her mother promises will take Jenna from ornament to queen.
But the man named as Jenna’s husband is no innocent to be cozened or prince to charm. He’s a monster in human form, and the horrors of life under his thumb are clear within moments of her wedding vows. If Jenna is to live, she must somehow break free—and for one born to a soft prison, the way to cold, hard freedom will be a dangerous path indeed…
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Tropically warm, lushly beautiful, replete with luxury, my childhood world was without flaw. My least whim was met with immediate indulgence, served instantly and with smiles of delight. I swam in crystal clear waters, then napped on silk. I chased gorgeously ornamental fish and birds, and enjoyed dozens of perfectly behaved pets of unusual coloring and pedigrees. My siblings and I spent our days in play, nothing ever asked or expected of us.
Until the day everything was demanded—and taken—from me.
Only then did I finally see our paradise for what it was, how deliberately designed to mold and shape us. A breeding ground for luxurious accessories. To create a work of art, you grow her in an environment of elegance and beauty. To make her soft and lusciously accommodating, you surround her with delicacies and everything delightful. And you don’t educate her in anything but being pleasing.
Education leads to critical thinking, not a desirable trait in a princess of Dasnaria, thus I was protected from anything that might taint the virginity of my mind, as well as my body.
Because I’d understood so little of the world outside, when my time came to be plucked from the garden, when the snip of the shears severed me from all I’d known, the injury came as a shock so devastating that I had no ability to even understand what it meant, much less summon the will to resist and overcome. Which, I’ve also come to realize over time, was also a part of the deliberate design.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me go back to the beginning.
I grew up in paradise.
And it was all you’d imagine paradise to be. A soft palace of lagoons and lush gardens, of silk bowers and laughter. With little else to do, our mothers and the other ladies played with us, games both simple and extravagantly layered. When we tired, we napped on the velvet soft grass of the banks of the pools, or on the silk pillows scattered everywhere. We’d sleep until we awoke, eat the tidbits served us by watchful servant girls, then play more.
Hestar and I had our own secret games and language. All the ladies called us the royal pair, as we were the emperor’s firstborns and we’d been born less than a month apart.
My mother, first wife, the Empress Hulda, and the most highly ranked woman in the empire, spent much of her day at court. When she was home in the seraglio, she preferred to relax without noisy children to bother her. Hestar’s mother, Jilliya, was second wife and kept getting pregnant, forever having and sometimes losing the babies. So, by unspoken agreement, we kept clear of her apartments, too. Something else I understood much later, that the miasma of misery has its own brand of contagion—and that those who fear contracting the deadly disease stay far away.
Saira, on the other hand, third wife and mother of our half-sister Inga, had a kindness and sweetness to her, so we kids often played in her apartments when we grew bored of games like climbing the palm trees to see who could pluck the most dates while a servant counted the time. Inga, along with my full brother, Kral, were the second oldest pair—the
second-borns, also arriving in the same month, to my mother and Saira. Less than a year younger than Hestar and me, they completed our set of four. Our six other brothers and sisters played with us, too, but they were babies still, needing to be watched all the time. Whenever we could, the four of us ditched the babies, exploring the far corners of our world, then making hideouts where no one could find us.
Though, of course, when the least desire took our fancy, someone always appeared instantaneously to satisfy us. Another of the many illusions of my childhood.
Hestar and I, we had a cave we’d made under a clump of ferns. He’d stocked it with a box of sweetmeats and I’d stolen one of my mother’s silk throws for a carpet. Embroidered with fabulous animals, it told tales of a world beyond our corner of paradise. We loved it best of all our purloined treasures, and made up stories about the scenes and creatures, giving them names and convoluted histories.
One day—the kind that stands out with crystalline clarity, each detail incised in my memory—we played as usual. Hestar had been mysteriously gone for a while the day before, or perhaps several days before or for several days in a row. That part fogs in with the timelessness of those days that never ended, but blended one into the next. What I remember is the elephant.
“And the miskagiggle flapped its face tail, saying nooo—”
“It’s called an elephant,” Hestar interrupted me.
“It’s not a miskagiggle. It’s an elephant, and the face tail is a trunk.”
Hestar beamed with pride at knowing something I didn’t.
“You’re making that up.”
“No, I’m not! My tutor told me.”
“A teacher. My tutor is named Ser Llornsby.”
“Is that where you went?” Hestar and Kral had been whisked off by servants, and no one would tell me or Inga where they were, just that we’d see them again soon.
Hestar’s blue eyes went wide and he looked around to see if anyone was listening. “Want to know a secret?”
Oh, did I. Even then I understood that secrets were the carefully hoarded and counted currency of the seraglio. “Yes!”
We pulled the silk throw over our heads to make a tent. It was the usual grass beneath, so we didn’t really need the carpet. Having it just made our hideaway more special—and the throw became a blanket, excellent for exchanging secrets.
“We went through the doors!” Hestar told me, whispering but much too loudly.
I hushed him. I didn’t question how I knew, but this secret held power. Most of our secrets had been silly, frivolous things, like how Inga kept candied dates under her pillow. Or ones everyone already knew, like that Jilliya was pregnant again. With the unabashed enthusiasm of children, we absorbed all the murmured gossip and repeated it with equal relish. This, though—I recognized immediately how important it was.
No wonder no one would tell us where they’d gone. Children didn’t go through the doors. Only my mother and some of the women. The rekjabrel and other servants, they went in and out all the time. But a lot of times they came back crying or hurt, so we understood the doors led to a terrible place. And yet Hestar had gone and returned, beaming.
“Was it terrible? Were you scared? Did Kral go, too?”
Hestar nodded, solemnly. “We were brave boys though. And it’s not like here. There aren’t the lagoons and it’s not as warm. They took us to a library and we met Ser Llornsby. We looked at pictures and learned animal names.”
I couldn’t bring myself to ask what a library might be. I wanted to look at pictures and learn animal names. Though I didn’t know the emotion to name it at the time, a jab of envy lanced through my heart. Hestar and I always had everything the same, only I had the better mother, because she was first wife. It wasn’t fair that Hestar got to go through the doors and learn things without me. An elephant. I whispered the exotic word to myself.
“Elephants are huge and people ride on their backs, and the elephants carry things for them in their trunks.” Hestar continued, full of smug pride. “Ser Llornsby is going to teach me everything I need to know to be emperor someday.”
“Why do you get to be emperor? My mother is first wife. Yours is only second wife. Besides, I’m older.”
Hestar wrinkled his nose at me. “Because you’re a girl. Girls can’t be emperor. Only empress.”
That was true. It was the way of things. “Well then you can be emperor and I can be empress like Mother.”
“All right!” Hestar grinned. “We’ll rule the whole empire and have lots of elephants. Kral and Inga can be our servants.”
For the rest of the day we played emperor and empress. Kral and Inga got mad and decided they would be emperor and empress, too, not listening when we said there could only be one of each and we were firstborn so they had to be our servants. They went off to play their own game, but we got Helva to be in our court, and also her little brothers, Leo and Loke. The boys were identical twins and liked any game they could play together. Baby Harlan could barely toddle, so he stayed with his nurse. Ban went off with Inga, of course, as he followed her everywhere, but her full brother, Mykal came to our side.
We didn’t care, because our court was the biggest. Besides, everyone knew the emperor gets to pick his own empress, and Hestar already promised me I’d be first wife and I could pick his other wives, just like Mother did. Which meant Inga wouldn’t get to be one. Maybe not Helva, either, though I told her she would be.
Mother didn’t much care for Saira and Jilliya, so maybe I wouldn’t have other wives at all. I didn’t need them to be empress.
Playing emperor and empress turned out to be terribly fun. Hestar made me a crown of orchids and we took over one of the small eating salons, getting the servants to clear out the table and pillows, instead setting up two big chairs to be our thrones. His Imperial Majesty Emperor Einarr Konyngrr, our father, had a throne. So we’d heard. And we badgered one of the rekjabrel who’d served in the court to tell us what it looked like.
“Huge, Your Imperial Highnesses,” she said, keeping her eyes averted.
“It towers above, all platinum and crystal, so bright you can’t look upon it. I can’t say more.”
“What about the Empress’s throne?” I persisted.
“Just the one throne, Your Imperial Highness Princess Jenna.”
“That can’t be right,” I told Hestar, when we let the rekjabrel go. “She must not have seen properly.”
“We don’t have platinum anyway,” he replied.
So we decorated the two big chairs, which ended up taking a long time. They needed to be sparkling, which meant we needed jewels. Leo and Loke were good at persuading bangles off the ladies, but then didn’t like to give them up. By the time we chased them down and got everything decorated, we had only a little time to have actual court. When my nurse, Kaia, came to get me for my bath, we made all the servants promise to leave everything as it was.
“Kaia?” I asked, splashing at the warmed milk water as she poured the jasmine rinse through my hair.
“Have you seen an elephant?”
She laughed. “No, Princess. I’ve never heard of such a thing. Is this one of your games?”
“No—they’re real. Their face-tails are called trunks.”
“If you say so, Princess.”
I fumed a little. How could I find out more about elephants when no one even believed they were real? “When do I get to go through the doors and look at pictures of animals and learn their names?”
Kaia dropped the pitcher of jasmine water, breaking it on the tiles. I would have scolded her for clumsiness, but she had such an odd look on her face that I stopped mid-word.
“Where have you heard of such a thing, Princess?” She had her head bowed, but with her scalp shorn, she couldn’t hide her face. She’d gone white, her eyes squinched up like she hurt. Just like that time Mother accused her of drinking from her special teapot, and had Kaia lashed until she confessed. Kaia had cried and cried, not wanting to play with me for days afterward. But this time she didn’t have any blood, so I didn’t understand why she went all pale like that.
“Hestar got to go. And Kral, too, and he’s younger. I want to go. I command you to take me tomorrow.”
“Your Imperial Highness, I cannot.”
“You will or I’ll tell Mother.”
“Up and out, Princess,” she replied, dumping the shards into a waste bin, then holding out a towel. “We must address this with Her Imperial Majesty. You can ask her in person.”
She dried me off, too briskly, and I almost reprimanded her, but she still looked so scared and I didn’t want her to not play with me for days again. “I already said goodnight to Mother.” Mother didn’t like to be disturbed after goodnights, and the prospect began to make me a little afraid, too.
Kaia wrapped my hair in a towel, then rubbed me all over with jasmine scented unguent. She worked as thoroughly as always, but wouldn’t answer any more questions, simply saying that I could ask my mother momentarily.
She pulled my nightgown over my head and had me put on a robe, too, which wasn’t usual. And we went with my hair still damp, not carefully combed dry before the fire while she told me stories.
I didn’t want to miss my stories and I began to be afraid I’d said something terribly wrong. I’d known this was an important secret. How could I have been so careless? It was the elephant. “Let’s not go see Mother,” I said.
Kaia shook her head, pressing her lips together. “I apologize, Princess, but I’m afraid we must.”
“I don’t want to. Tell me my stories. My hair is still wet.”
But she didn’t bend, which scared me even more. Kaia always did what I told her. Almost always. She took my hand in a grip so firm it nearly hurt and practically dragged me to Mother’s private salon. I resisted, and would have thrown a fit, but Mother wouldn’t like that. An imperial princess gives commands in a firm and gentle voice, never shrill, and
tears are unacceptable.
Still, when Kaia called out through the closed yellow silk curtains, and my mother snapped out a reply, I nearly did cry. And Kaia didn’t relent in her grip, which made me think she was angry with me and Kaia was never angry, even when I refused to eat my supper and demanded dessert instead. She parted the curtains and slipped me inside, kneeling beside me and bowing her head to the plush tapestried carpet. I lowered my eyes, too, though I didn’t have to kneel.
“Well?” the empress demanded in a cold tone. “What is the meaning of this, child?”
“My humble apologies, Your Imperial Majesty,” Kaia said, though Mother had clearly asked me. Her voice shook and her hand had gone all cold and sweaty. I yanked mine away and she let me. “Her Imperial Highness Princess Jenna has asked me questions I cannot answer. I thought it best to bring her to you immediately.”
“It’s not your responsibility to think,” Mother replied. A hissing sound as she breathed in her relaxing smoke. “You are to keep the princess well groomed, as she most certainly is not at the moment. Your hair is wet, Jenna.”
A tear slipped down my cheek, making me glad that I was to keep my eyes averted unless given permission. Maybe she wouldn’t see. “I’m sorry,
Mother,” I whispered.
“As well you should be. Interrupting my quiet time. Going about like a rekjabrel with wild hair. Are you a princess of Dasnaria?”
“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty.”
She hmphed in derision. “You don’t look like one. What question did you ask to upset your nurse so?”
Kaia had gone silent, quaking on the carpet beside me. No help at all. I considered lying, saying Kaia had made it up. But Mother wouldn’t believe that. Kaia would never so recklessly attract punishment. I happened to know she hadn’t snuck the tea—one of the rekjabrel had taken it for her sister, but Kaia had never said.
“Jenna,” Mother said, voice like ice. “Look at me.”
I did, feeling defiant, for no good reason. Mother reclined on her pillows, her embroidered silk gown a river of blues over their ruby reds. Her unbound hair flowed over it all, a pale blond almost ivory, like mine. In contrast, her eyes looked black as ebony, darker even than the artful shadows outlining them. She’d removed most of her jewelry, wearing only the wedding bracelets that never came off. She held her glass pipe in her jeweled nails. The scarlet of her lip paint left a waxy mark on the end of it, scented smoke coiling from the bowl.
“Tears?” Her voice dripped contempt and disbelief. “What could you possibly have said to have your nurse in a puddle and an imperial princess in tears, simply in anticipation?”
“I didn’t say anything!” I answered.
“Your nurse is lying then,” the empress cooed. “I shall have to punish her.”
Kaia let out this noise, like the one Inga’s kitten had made when Ban kicked it. The ladies had taken it to a better home and Inga had cried for days until they gave her five new kittens just like it.
“I only asked about the elephants,” I said, very quietly.
“Excuse me?” The arch of her darkened brows perfectly echoed her tone.
“Elephants!” I yelled at her, and burst into full-fledged sobbing. If you’d asked me then, what made me break all those rules, raising my voice, defying my mother, losing the composure expected of an imperial princess, firstborn daughter of Emperor Einarr, I likely could only have explained that I wanted to know about elephants so badly that it felt like a
physical ache. Something extraordinary for a girl who’d rarely experienced pain of any sort.
Once I’d had a pet, an emerald lizard with bright yellow eyes. Its scales felt like cool water against my skin, and it would wrap its tail tightly around my wrist. I’d only had it a day when it bit me. Astonished by the bright pain,
the blood flowing from my finger, I’d barely registered that I’d been hurt before the servants descended, wrapping the wound in bandages soaked in sweet smelling salve that took sensation away.
They also took the lizard away and wouldn’t give it back, despite my demands and pleas. When the salve wore off, my finger throbbed. And when they took the bandages off, the skin around the bite had turned a fascinating purple and gray. They tried to keep me from looking, but I caught glimpses before they made it numb again, then wrapped it up and I couldn’t see it anymore. I’d tap my finger against things, trying to feel it again. My finger and the lizard, both gone.
I felt like that, full of purple bruising and soft pain, as if I’d been bitten inside, and somehow numb on the outside. I wondered what might disappear this time.
“Elephants,” my mother pronounced the word softly, almost in wonder.
Then she laughed, not at all nicely. “Leave us,” she snapped, making Kaia scurry backwards. “It’s apparently time for me to have a conversation about life with my daughter.”
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Part of that came from wanting a foil to my assertive and powerful High Queen of the Twelve Kingdoms, and the other part came from me being aware of the political and cultural situation in our modern world. I wanted to better understand how women can be happy raised in a culture where they’re kept “under wraps” in one way or another, where men decide their lives and provide escorts everywhere. Dasnaria became that place in my fictional world.
With PRISONER, I got to write that story from the inside, through the character of Imperial Princess Jenna, born in the seraglio of the Imperial Palace of Dasnaria. She’s spent her entire life there, surrounded by women and given a carefully crafted education. So, while I knew the societal rules of Dasnaria from my people of the Twelve Kingdoms learning about them, Jenna was my first opportunity to be in the head of a woman who grew up inside that culture, who knows those rules as immutable.
This proved to be a challenge, because the cloistered world of the seraglio is all Jenna knows to begin with. It’s not until she leaves the seraglio to be married that she begins to seriously question whether she could have another life. At first, she utterly believes that men are smarter and stronger, that only through her husband and sons – and manipulating her daughters the same way she’s been groomed – can she gain any power. She takes at face value that women must learn to pleasure men, and she’ll offer her body with complete obedience and submissive grace to her husband, no matter what he demands of her. She even nurtures a romantic ideal that if she’s beautiful and perfect, then she will have a happy marriage.
We all know how that kind of thinking works out.
This story is not a romance. The beastly husband doesn’t turn out to be a wonderful man beneath. This is entirely Jenna’s story, and how she discovers that how she’s been raised and what she’s been taught is only one lens on the world.
And that there’s more out there beyond the Empire of Dasnaria.
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