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The morning dawns with strong light on a ravaged hilltop. No plants within three arms’ lengths remain in the ground. Their roots lay atop the dirt, churned so that rocks lie on the surface and stems poke face-down into the soil.
The path of destruction follows the route we took from the beach. Nhardah was wise to bring us here, away from the houses. Otherwise, there would probably have been casualties. I wonder how the Iranines will explain last night’s events.
“I don’t understand,” I say, looking at the remains of the storm. Some of the helpless feeling from the night before returns. I am impossibly small, compared to the vastness of Orrock and further reach of ierah. I’m just one girl. How could I possibly warrant such extreme fury from the aivenkaites?
“What don’t you understand?” Nhardah asks. He helps me sit up and pats my back.
“Why…” I sweep an arm around. “Why were they so focused on me?”
Nhardah chuckles. “Think. Why would the aivenkaites want to harm you?”
I frown. “But I haven’t done anything yet. I haven’t even left Ira.”
“They are happy with the people Aia chose being enslaved and killed by those who reject the Creator. The aivenkaites know as well as you and I, as well as the kaites, what was prophesied about you in your youth. They know this is Aia’s will. Of course they are trying to stop you before you can do anything.”
That is a sobering thought. Not only am I about to antagonize Izyphor, I’ve also made myself a target to the aivenkaites.
Aia, I’m going to need so much help.
“Well,” Nhardah says, “now that that’s settled, it’s time to get you back for the wedding.”
I groan and cover my eyes. My enemies aren’t enough to deal with right now. Saviayr’s marrying Maylani. Everyone expects me to be elated for my cousin, not fighting off tears and affection that won’t die. Of course, I have to face their wedding exhausted from the aivenkaite attack. My whole body is sore, and dried blood is caked over my knuckles and arms. I just want to bathe and sleep.
“Let’s leave a day early,” I beg Nhardah. “You can get my bag, and we’ll go to the ferry. There’s no reason I have to go to their wedding.”
Nhardah-Lev’s expression rivals Tatanda’s most disapproving glare. I guess he’s had all of history to perfect the look. “Young lady, you will go to that wedding. Running from your pain and fear is unworthy of the champion Aia-Thaies has chosen.”
Cowed by his rebuke, I stand and wince. Needles poke into my ankle. I must have twisted it last night. Tears spark in my eyes. I blink them back, but frustration, dread, physical pain, fatigue–it’s all too much.
But I am the Leader of a Revolt. Worse may await me in Izyphor. This is a test of my endurance.
I swallow, take a deep breath, and start limping down the hill.
Nhardah-Lev hums, then sweeps me up. “I’m glad you changed your mind,” he says, “but you don’t have to do it on your own. That has never been Aia’s way for His creation.”
Nhardah carries me home, cradled like a young child against his chest. Already, Ira is awake and preparing for the ceremony and celebration. An elderly couple pause to look at last night’s scars on the island. “The spirits were angry last night,” the man frets. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Perhaps they don’t want this wedding to happen,” the woman guesses.
I tuck my face against Nhardah and mutter, “They wouldn’t be the only ones.”
“Raiballeon,” Nhardah says, gentle. Despite his tone, guilt pokes me. “You may be surprised by today’s events.”
If any human can be justified in predicting the future, it’s the Firstborn, so I swallow any responses and try to hope that he’s right.
We somehow make it to the villa without being stopped. It’s too much to hope that no one saw my disheveled state, but at least I don’t have to deal with that right now. With blessing, I’ll be gone before their wagging tongues reach Tatanda’s ears and can clean up before I meet anyone in the house.
Nhardah sets me down at the foot of the porch. “Have hope, Raiballeon,” he says. “Aia gives good things to humans.” Then he disappears down the hill, and I sneak into my room.
The water in my room turns red before I’ve even finished cleaning my hands. When the hurried steps of a servant passes down the hall, I peek out the curtain and beckon him. He gasps at my appearance, and I raise a finger to my lips. A couple more gestures communicate my wish for more water, and he scurries off.
Unlike the day Saviayr and his family arrived, the kaites didn’t heal my injuries when they left. I shudder at what that could mean. Somewhere on Orrock, they probably fight on. In the meantime, I’m left with more bruises than I know how to handle and plenty of scrapes that could become infected.
The servant returns, and I finish cleaning up as best I can. With great effort, I don a maroon dress with a deep yellow vest. My chanavea is the only adornment I choose. Appropriately attired, I wrap supporting cloth around my ankle and hobble to my spot on the porch to hide. Hopefully no one will come looking for me until the ceremony starts.
Behind a curtain of pots, I watch the activity in the yard. Already, Iranines congregate nearby, showing off their finest clothing.
The ceremony will start like every other. Most people will join hands in a large outer circle. Maylani and Saviayr’s family and good friends will form a middle circle. At the center, the bride, groom, and master of ceremonies will hold hands. After the master of ceremonies talks briefly about the purpose of marriage, he’ll join the bride and groom’s hands and they’ll be married.
A couple servants move around the platform for the center circle. I frown. There should be more servants. Tatanda even hired some of the Iranines to help. Where is everyone?
Just as I wonder that, voices trail through the window nearest my place on the porch. Maylani wishes someone good morning. Saviayr asks, “What are you doing in my room?”
I straighten up. I haven’t thought about which guest rooms Saviayr and his parents were staying in.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Maylani says. She was probably too excited. Nadina’s mother always says she didn’t sleep at all the night before her wedding. My stomach clenches, and I try to dredge up happiness for my cousin.
“I’m sorry,” Saviayr answers. He does sound sincerely sorry. Whatever they’re going to talk about must be private. I shouldn’t eavesdrop. “But why are you here?”
I stand and sidestep my desk. Maylani answers, “I was thinking.”
I hold my breath and try avoid squeaky boards in my retreat.
“So you really love Raiba, huh?”
I freeze. Did I hear right?
I should go.
But I can’t move.
Especially when Savi says, “I really do.”
Despite my best intentions, I can’t move away. Maylani asks, “Does she still love you?”
“I don’t know.” Savi sighs. “Probably not, not with how I’ve treated her this past week. She might have even forgotten about me when we were apart.”
Part of me wants to jump over to the window and assure him that I do still love him. Whatever logic is still working in my brain keeps me stuck in place.
“Are you okay with that?” Mayli asks.
“She can feel however she wants about me,” Savi answers. “I have no right to demand her affection. But I do plan to try to earn her love again.”
In the quiet that follows, my ears burn. What happened last night? I’m clearly missing important information. Savi loves me? Maylani knows about us? I–I don’t understand.
Maylani’s voice is so quiet, I find myself sneaking closer. “…is that I don’t want to be a zealot’s wife.”
“Okay,” Saviayr says.
“I think you’re right that we shouldn’t get married.”
There are muted footsteps, then Savi gently says, “Maylani, I’m glad you agree. I really am sorry⎼”
“No, let me speak,” Maylani interrupts. “I’m trying to be a better sister, okay? To Pitka, but also Raiba’s been like a big sister to me. That’s the only reason I’m saying what I’m about to say. If she still loves you, and if you can convince her before everything was supposed to start, I’ll try to convince Tatanda to let you two get married this morning instead of you and me.”
“Maylani, I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t. I’m not doing this for you. It stinks, the way you treated me. You should have told me as soon as we got here. I’m really, really angry that you waited till the night before our wedding.” Her voice shakes at the end.
“I know.” Savi sounds subdued. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well, sorry doesn’t change things. Just go try to make things right with one of us,” Maylani orders.
“Okay,” Savi says. His steps fade, then pause. “I truly am sorry, Maylani. I hope you can forgive me someday.”
She sniffs. “Maybe someday. Only if you don’t break Raiba’s heart, too.”
Then the room goes silent.
I drop onto the bench and realize my hands are covering my mouth. It doesn’t make sense.
It doesn’t make sense.
What just happened?
Footsteps thud on the porch. My head jerks up, and my wide eyes instantly meet Saviayr’s.
He pulls up short. “Rai.”
“Hi.” A hysterical laugh forces itself out of the hands still covering my mouth.
Then he’s kneeling in front of me before I can blink, fingers brushing the scrapes on my forehead. “Rai, who did this?” Savi’s voice is low and hard, like it used to be when we had to convince him not to react after the slavemaster beat someone.
He touches a bruise on my cheek, and I flinch. “I’m fine. I was just caught in the storm last night.”
The muscles in Saviayr’s jaw stand out. “I’m not the expert in kaites that you are,” he says, “but even I have no doubt last night was a battle.”
I bite my lip. This is the least important thing we could be talking about, but how do I tactfully confess that I overheard his and Maylani’s conversation? “Well, yes. But I survived. Um, tell me about you.”
“I’m fine,” Savi answers, frowning at my diversion. “I was inside when the battle started. Rai, you’re clearly not okay.”
I run my fingertips over my scalp and grimace. “Really, I’ll heal. It’s just…”
He takes my hands in his and squeezes. “Rai, please tell me what’s wrong.”
I laugh, though, my face contorts like it does when I cry. “Oh, it’s just that, you know.” I pull a hand free and wave at his bedroom window. “I overheard you and Maylani.”
Savi’s eyebrows shoot up. He rocks back on his heels. His lips form a circle.
“I didn’t mean to,” I babble. “I just came out here to hide until the ceremony. I mean, you freaked out when you saw me, and I’m sure my cousins will, too. It’s easier not to upset them this way. But then you started talking, and⎼”
Saviayr’s hand slides up to squeeze my upper arm. “I’m…not upset,” he assures me. He lets go and rises to sink onto the swing beside me. “So, how much did you hear?”
I bounce my leg, which makes the swing wiggle. “I think…everything?”
Savi laughs pulls down his chin. “Wow.” He looks over at me, eyes full of hope and fear.
I bounce my leg harder and squeeze my hands together in my lap. “But I don’t really understand what I heard?”
“Yeah?” He takes a deep breath and looks away. “Yeah, okay,” he nods. “I guess I have a lot to explain. Um, I did what you said, last night. I went to talk with Maylani. She…I’d realized earlier yesterday that I had to stop lying to myself and to her. So I told her what I should have said when I first found out you were alive: I told her how we loved each other back in Izyphor, and promised to marry each other, and how I thought you were dead.”
So she knows that I lied to her the whole time we’ve known each other. I bite my lip again. “How did she respond?”
“She was sad that you hadn’t told her, but pretty understanding. Um, then I told her…” He glances up, green eyes flecked with amber latching onto mine. We’ve been conversing in the Common Tongue, but now he switches to Maraian. “I told her I still love you, Rai.”
Savi presses his lips together. He waits, probably for a reaction, but I can’t give him one. Overhearing what sounded like him confessing this to Maylani shocked me. Now, hearing Savi say he still loves me in person, I feel like Tari out of the histories, turned to a stone statue. I’m frozen.
Savi straightens. “I should have said something that first moment I saw you, or any moment since then. I was wrong to be angry at you–but it was only because of how much I missed you.” He speaks with directness and confidence now. “I grieved for you every day. I carried your chanavea next to my heart from the moment the slave master gave it to me until I gave it back to you, like a widower does. I would never have given Maylani a second thought if not for the kaite’s prophecy–and, well, you know how I misinterpreted that.”
My lips quiver. My heart is too full, with regret for the past packed in with wonder at Savi’s words and overwhelming love for him. “Savi–”
He holds up a hand. “Let me finish. I know you’re planning to go against Izyphor, like we used to talk about. I’m coming with you. I’ll do whatever it takes, whatever you need. I’ll be your servant, I’ll carry your things, I’ll stand between you and a dozen spears, if that’s what it takes.”
That drives me to my feet. “I would never let you do those things. Savi, how could you think⎼”
He stands and wraps my hands in his again, gentle. “Sh, Rai, I just meant that I have no expectations. I’ll go with you and not expect anything from you. But I also have to tell you, I love you more than ever before. Before you left, I was a child. Now, I’m an adult, and I’ve tasted grief. I know what it’s like to lose you. If you still love me, I will do everything in my power to never lose you again.”
My eyes fill. I hold his hands tighter. “Savi.” I search for the right thing to say. Aia, give me the words. Give me wisdom to choose right. “I never stopped loving you, either.”
Savi’s face morphs from desperation to joy. His lips split in a grin that shows all his teeth and bunches up his cheeks. His eyes crinkle at the corners. He squeezes my hands.
I squeeze back.
Savi reaches up and runs his fingers along the side of my face. “Then, Rai, marry me?”
A laugh bubbles out of my mouth. I think of what Maylani said, before Savi found me. He might mean right now. Will I marry him today? Could I do something so sudden? While I try to figure out the answer, I pretend I think he just means someday. “Probably. I’m fairly certain I’ll never find anyone I can love more than you.” I feel light, like I could bounce and start floating in the air, like I’m turning into a kaitairie.
Savi tugs my hand, pulling me closer. “No. I mean, will you marry me today? I know it’s sudden, but we’ve lost so much time already. Why not now?”
Why not now?
I love him. I’ve fought it all week and have ended up loving him as deeply as ever.
Why not now?
I’m trying to be more like I was when I was young, bold, and free. Being spontaneous about this is scary, but it feels free. It feels daring.
Why not now? It was Maylani’s idea. With Nhardah waiting to take me to Izyphor tomorrow and the future uncertain, I can’t think of any good reason to delay.
“Rai?” Savi asks.
I beam at him. “Yes. I’ll marry you now.”