Talking to Elephants

“What are you doing?” The voice was low, and might have been sweet in other circumstances. But Ezi hadn’t expected to hear any voices at all when he’d come to his refuge in a corner of the palace gardens. Although it was only drizzling a little today, during the rainy season most people avoided the gardens, with their muddy paths and hordes of breeding mosquitoes. It was a good place to be alone, and Ezi had never minded getting a little wet.

He opened his eyes to see a thin girl, dressed in a dark green sari, bordered in gold. The heavy brocaded fabric was too heavy for her slight frame; she looked as if she might collapse under the weight. She held a simple black umbrella over her head.

“Nothing,” he said. He settled against the back of the rough stone bench, hoping that whoever she was, she would go away.

She shook her head, setting her long black braid swinging. “Not nothing. Your lips were moving. But you weren’t saying anything.”

Ezi flushed. “I was trying to write a poem.’

“But you don’t have any paper. Or a pen.”

“I know it sounds idiotic, but I can only write if I close my eyes and sound out the words. I memorize it, and write it down later. Usually I find a place where no one else will come.” He paused, then asked in a sharper tone, “Why are you here, anyway? Who are you?”

She ignored his questions. “Are you any good?”

“Not yet,” he admitted, embarrassed. The last time he’d tried to read his poetry for the court, his father the king had patted him on the head and told him that it was very nice. That wasn’t how good poetry was received, Ezi knew. “But I will be good. I work hard at it.”

She nodded. “That’s okay then. The last thing the world needs is more bad poetry.” The girl sat down beside him then, swinging her legs. She was a little too short for the bench — her bare feet didn’t reach the ground. She had hiked her sari up a little, so the bottom edge wouldn’t get muddy, but without sandals, her feet were filthy. She didn’t seem to care.

“So glad it meets your approval, princess.” Ezi was sure she was a princess; she had the look of his family, the sharp cheekbones and pointed chin. She was too skinny to be very pretty, but there was something arresting about her face. Plus, that sari she was wearing could probably buy a few small villages; only one of the royal family could afford it. But he knew all his near cousins. She had to be one of the more distant ones. “So again, who are you?”

She said, “I know who you are. There’s only one prince who sits around writing poetry when the rest of his family is fighting a war.”

Ezi said, stung, “I’d fight if I could! They won’t let me fight with a sword — they say it’s too dangerous for the heir. And my power is useless for battle.”

She looked curious. “What is your power? I hadn’t heard.”

He hesitated, then admitted, “Animal speech. In my mind. I can talk to the animals, and they understand me.”

“All of them?”

“Mostly. Birds are hard, and insects are impossible.” Ezi had tried to talk to a swarm of mosquitoes once, to ask them not to sting him. Not only had they not responded, but it seemed like they stung him even more after that than they used to. He’d stopped trying to talk to insects after the mosquitoes.

The girl frowned. “But that seems like it could be useful. You could order an elephant to charge the enemy lines.”

“I couldn’t! Elephants are too intelligent — they’d never obey me.” He had friends among the elephants; they had their own magic, primitive, but strong.

“Okay, something dumber, then. Tigers can’t be very smart.”

“No,” Ezi admitted. “If I asked a tiger to attack the Hansithi army, it would. But it would be slaughtered.”

“It’d do some damage first.”

He shook his head. “It’s not right, to ask a dumb animal to die for us. I won’t do it.” Honesty made Ezi pause, and then add, “Not unless the situation were much more desperate than it is.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You haven’t watched your friends die.” She turned away, facing the dark green hedges that boxed them into this private corner, the crimson bougainvillea vines climbing in a riot of wild color. He couldn’t see her face, but her shoulders hunched in, as if she were bracing to take a blow.

Ezi felt as if someone had lit a candle in his head — he finally realized who she had to be. “You’re Madhuri. I heard that you were coming, that the village that owed loyalty to your family was eliminated.”

Madhuri jumped to her feet, facing him, one arm raised as if she were about to strike him across the face. Ezi leaned back, startled, and she took a deep breath and let her hand drop. She said bitterly, “Eliminated. That’s a nice word for it. It’s not very poetic, though, is it? Maybe you should choose a better word when you put it into a poem. Destroyed, maybe. Smashed. Or slaughtered. Slaughtered is good.” She swallowed hard, as if she were trying not to cry. Ezi’s stomach churned. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to — “

Madhuri shook her head, holding up a hand. “No, no, it’s all right. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t take it out on you.” She was quiet a moment, then said, “It’s just — I thought if I came down here and walked in the garden, it might help. I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept in almost a week.”

Now that Ezi was looking, he could see the dark circles under her eyes. The roads to the distant villages were all under Hansithi control. The trek through the jungle must have been terrible. Maybe that was why she was so thin.

Madhuri said, “Every time I close my eyes, I see their faces. Our people came to the hall, you know. My best friends from the village, Manju and Raji; I heard the gunshots, heard them screaming outside the gates. My parents wouldn’t let me go out to try to help. My father had his guards grab my arms, hold me there. I had to stand, safe inside our barriers, and listen to them scream.”

“But what could you do?” Ezi asked, bewildered. “You’re only, what? Fourteen?”

“Fifteen!” she snapped. “I’ve been a woman for three years. I have my powers, and I know how to use them. See!” Madhuri gestured, and a tower of flame shot up beside them, scorching the bougainvillea flowers that climbed the hedge, blasting them both with its heat.

Ezi said, in a careful voice, “Please don’t. That’s my favorite flower.” He had read about family members in the past with power over fire, but had never met one. It was scarier in person than in a book.

“I’m sorry. Poet.” Her voice was sharp. Madhuri gestured again, and a waterfall of water poured down, drenching the fire, leaving the charred flowers drenched.

Ezi’s eyes widened. “You control two elemental powers.” A flash of jealousy choked his throat for a moment before he managed to say, “That’s impressive.” Most people only got one power, though a few did control two, and the history books even told stories of people with three powers. He had spent years hoping that a second, more useful power, would come to him, knowing that both his parents, all of his relatives, were hoping the same. But a second power had never come. One weak power for him — two strong powers for her. It wasn’t fair.

She shook her head hard, her braid flying now. “It’s no good if my parents won’t let me fight!” Tears glittered in her eyes.

“But you’re a princess of the blood!” Ezi said, shocked. “It wouldn’t be right to let you risk yourself in battle. And against these new guns of theirs — would you try to burn the bullets in the air?”

“I could burn their infernal weapons, melt them into base metal in their hands!”

“But you know that there are a hundred Hansithi for every one of us; you could destroy ninety-nine of their weapons, but the hundredth would take you down.”

“Gods! You sound just like them, full of sensible reasons that are just excuses in the end for your own cowardice! Would you stand by while your friends were killed? What kind of princess am I, if I can’t even protect my people?”

It was true — they all had a duty to their people. But Ezi couldn’t help saying, “Still, you should leave that to the men of the family. Let us keep you safe.”

“Oh? What would you do to save me, poet?” Madhuri asked scornfully. “Call a flock of birds to fly me away to safety? Oh, no, that’s right. You don’t do birds. You don’t do anything useful.”

Ezi bit his lip, his throat tightening. He had been hearing that for years, ever since his power manifested. Ezi, the useless eldest prince. He was supposed to be the heir, but he expected that when the time came for someone to take over the kingdom from his father, they would pass over him for one of his little brothers. But knowing he was useless didn’t make it easier to hear it from a pretty girl.

She went on, pressing her point, “You don’t think I’ll be at risk when the Hansithi finally overrun our defenses? I doubt they’ll treat me gently, prince, just because I’m a princess of the blood.”

Ezi hated to admit it, but she had a point. She had several. “That’s fair, I suppose,” Ezi said. He hadn’t thought of it that way before. “If you share the risk, it’s only fair that you be allowed to fight.”

“Besides,” Madhuri said fiercely, “if we’re going to lose this war, I want to go down fighting.”

“But you talk like the war’s already over, like we’ve already lost.” It wasn’t going well, Ezi knew. The adults looked more and more worried, and spent most of the day in family council meetings. But surely it wasn’t that bad. They would find a counter to the new weapons, some way to use magic to equalize the balance again.

Madhuri shrugged. “I don’t see any point in lying to ourselves.”

“I know we’re in a bad position,” Ezi said, frowning. “But my father says he has a plan.”

“That’s what my father said,” she said softly. “It didn’t help my friends.”

Ezi fell silent. What could he say to that?

They were quiet a long time, sitting side by side on the stone bench. Then Madhuri rose, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, prince. I’m terrible company today, I’m afraid. And look at the sky — it looks like it’s going to start raining harder. My maids always get upset when I get my sari too wet.”

Ezi rose too, holding out his hand to her. “I’m glad we had to chance to talk.”

She hesitated, then reached out for a moment, touched his hand. Then she let her hand fall away. “I’m glad too,” Madhuri said, half-smiling. It was the first smile he’d seen from her, and it took her from pretty to beautiful. Ezi smiled back. He was still smiling long after she’d disappeared inside, and he’d completely lost track of the poem he’d been writing.

Ezi sat cross-legged in the elephants’ favorite clearing, grateful that the sun had come out briefly, drying the grass. “But why won’t you fight? The Hansithi won’t treat you as well as we do, you know. They hate magic, and those who practice it, even you. They’ll kill you all, and take your tusks to make into weapons.” Ezi felt a little guilty making that last argument — in the distant past, his own people had harvested the elephants’ tusks, and one of the most beautiful rooms of the palace had walls carved from elephant ivory. But his people had at least always waited to take the tusks until after an elephant died naturally and was buried by its kin. Which made them grave robbers, which wasn’t good. But it was better than being murderers.

The elephant matriarch, the one Ezi privately thought of as Big Gray, trumpeted, shaking her head back and forth. Ezi had been having this argument with her all morning. He’d woken up still thinking about what Madhuri had said the week before, and then had come down to find the elephants, to ask them if they would want to fight. Finally, there was a way he could be useful. If the elephants joined the fight, they’d be a powerful ally. They could trample many soldiers, and with their magic, they could open crevasses in the earth.

That was how they buried their dead; they danced in a circle around the body, raising the magic, and then sending it crashing down to rip a hole in the earth. After the body fell in, they danced again, and the earth closed up, sealing it inside. Ezi had watched them once, in the middle of the night — he’d snuck out of the palace to watch the elephant funeral when he was only ten years old, and the image of the elephants ripping open the earth had been burned into his memory. Just imagine if they did that to one of the Hansithi army’s companies — they could take out a thousand men in one move! But it was useless. Big Gray adamantly refused to even consider the idea.

“War stupid. Make peace.” Her voice was sharp in his mind. Big Gray’s vocabulary was limited, but that never kept her from saying what she meant.

“We tried to make peace, a long time ago.” Ezi explained. He spoke out loud — it was easier that way, though he could speak to her only in his mind if he concentrated hard. That might be useful, if they were sneaking up on enemy troops… “They won’t stop fighting.”

“What want?” “They want everything! They want our land, our people, our gold, our palace. They want to rule the island themselves.” “Give island.” How could she not understand? “We can’t — they’d kill us. Besides, they don’t know how to rule anything. They’re barbaric peasants — they can’t even read or write!” She only stared at him, and Ezi realized that maybe that wasn’t the best argument to use with an elephant who couldn’t read or write herself. He fell back on the real problem, “They hate us. They hate everyone with magic — they think we’re demons. They’re ignorant, illiterate peasants, and all they want to do is slaughter us.” Madhuri had understood. If only she were the one to talk to the elephants, he was sure she could make Big Gray understand. “Teach them. Make peace!” Big Gray insisted. This was pointless. They’d been arguing back and forth for hours, and had made no progress at all. “We can’t!” he said, emphatically, adding a sharp snap to his mind voice that he had never used with her before. Big Gray threw back her head and trumpeted angrily, then turned and walked away into the jungle, leaving him standing there, watching her go. Useless again. Ezi sat across the chess table from his father, as he did every morning after firstmeal. His father insisted on it, claiming it would make him a great general. Ezi doubted it, given how badly he played, but he’d never been able to convince his father of that. Chess was the family game — one their great-great-many-times-great-grandparents had invented it, so they were all supposed to excel at it. His father made his move, advancing a pawn, and Ezi said, “I asked the elephants to fight with us.” The king looked up from the board, one eyebrow quirked. “What did they say?” “They said no.” Ezi had to force the words out. He would have loved to come to his father with news of a powerful new ally. The king’s expression smoothed to a mask of calm. “Ah. That’s a shame. Well, at least you tried, boy.” Ezi contemplated the chessboard. The advancing pawn threatened his rook — which was pinned by a bishop. He was in trouble, again. Ezi hesitated and then said, “The elephants said we should make peace with the Hansithi.” His father snorted. “That would be a fine thing — if we could trust them not to turn around and attack us before the ink on the treaty was dry.” Ezi protested, “Do you know that for sure? Are they so untrustworthy?” The king frowned. “Ask your cousin Madhuri. The village she lived in was supposed to be outside the battlegrounds, in a safe zone. The last time we tried to make peace, Amithnal agreed to leave those areas alone. No one wants the farmlands destroyed — no sane man, at any rate. But as soon as we relaxed our guard — he attacked!” “But why would Amithnal do that? It doesn’t make any sense.” His father turned away, looking out the window towards the border, where even at this moment, Amithnal’s soldiers — so many more numerous than their own — pressed against their defenses. If it weren’t for the royal family’s magic, their people would have lost this war long ago. The king said, not facing his son, “There was no good reason for his treacherous attack. It just shows what happens when a peasant tries to rule — he doesn’t know how to behave honorably.” “So it’s hopeless?” Ezi stared at the board, contemplating his poor trapped rook. “There’s no way to make peace between our peoples?” He tried to ask the question lightly, as if all their lives didn’t ride on the answer. His father turned back to him and said, “The only way there’ll be peace between us if we win this war. If we can eliminate Amithnal and his soldiers, then the peasants will support us again. You just have to be patient.” Eliminate. That was the word that Madhuri had mocked him for. It meant kill. Slaughter. How many men would his father’s soldiers slaughter, before they could lay down their weapons and find peace? Ezi had a feeling Big Gray wouldn’t approve. But if it was a choice between their lives and the lives of his family, what else could his father do? “I wish — I wish things were different.” Ezi felt tears pricking at his eyes and blinked them back. He couldn’t let the king see him cry. “We all do, son.” His father reached out, picked up chess pieces, and started putting them away, as if Ezi had already lost and conceded the game. Ezi wanted to protest, but didn’t. He probably would have lost anyway — he was pretty far behind. The king said, “It doesn’t do any good to dwell on what you can’t change. Why don’t you go to the garden, write us some more poetry. Something hopeful, about peace. You can read it at lastmeal tonight. One of Amithnal’s ambassadors is coming, with a peace treaty for us to look at.” Ezi was confused. “But I thought you said — ” His father shook his head. “Oh, it won’t come to anything. But even if we know Amithnal won’t actually sign it — or uphold it if he did sign — we have to at least listen to what he has to say. That’s what civilized people do.” He reached out and tousled Ezi’s hair, as if he were a little boy. “Now go on. Go to your garden. I’ll see you later.” Ezi had managed to convince his mother that he should be seated near Madhuri at family dinners, so he could keep her entertained and she wouldn’t be so lonely and sad. For the last few weeks, he’d been filling Madhuri in on all the family gossip. With over three hundred members in the family, close and distant, there was a lot going on — there was always an uncle who had stopped speaking to his wife, or an aunt caught in a secret affair with a servant. Madhuri had listened, and smiled in all the right places, but he felt as if her attention was elsewhere. “What about you?” he finally dared to ask. “Was there a romance in your life — before?” Before her home was destroyed. That might explain why she was so fixed on fighting, if she had had a lover who had been killed in the attack. Madhuri shook her head. “No. The boys at home — they were all boring. And besides, it would have been pointless. My parents made it clear that they were planning on arranging my marriage sometime soon. I didn’t want to give away my heart just to have it broken.” Ezi’s throat felt tight. “Married? Do you know to whom?” “No, not yet. I don’t think they’ve decided,” she said. Her eyes glinted as she asked, “What about you, prince? Why aren’t you married yet?” Ezi shrugged. “My father says he wants to wait until the war is over.” Madhuri shook her head. “He’ll be waiting a long time, then.” He hesitated before admitting, “Actually, I think he’s holding me in reserve, in case the war starts really going badly. Amithnal has a granddaughter; she’s ten years old.” It was one way he could be useful, at least. If his marriage brought peace to the kingdoms. “Six years younger than you. That’s not so bad.” “I don’t want to marry a child!” The idea made his stomach churn. Now it was Madhuri’s turn to shrug. “She’ll grow up eventually. Maybe she’ll even be pretty.” Ezi said sharply, “I don’t want pretty. I want interesting.” And when had he decided that was what he wanted in a wife? Madhuri was silent a long moment, before she said, “Well. Maybe you’ll be lucky, prince, and get what you want someday.” He sighed. “Madhuri, I’ve asked you a dozen times. No more prince. Call me Ezi, please.” She half-smiled again. “Maybe someday.” Then she shifted in her chair, moving it slightly. Maybe a little closer to him? Ezi wasn’t sure — he was trying to calculate just how far it had moved, when he heard a loud shout from the head table, where his parents sat with the ambassador, talking of peace. “Long live the Hansithi people, and Amithnal, the rightful king! Death to the enemy!” The ambassador clapped a hand to his chest, and then there was a loud crashing boom, a sound too large to be real. It echoed around the room — no, there were as series of crashes. One after another, and there were people screaming at every table, and blood, blood and flesh exploding in the air. Ezi grabbed Madhuri and pulled her to him, pulled them both down to the ground, behind the table. His head was pounding and she was screaming at him, beating her fists against his chest, trying to pull away. And then a sharp blur of pain blasted through him, as if white lightning were pouring into him. Power, power filling him from his head to his fingertips to his toes, far more power than he’d ever known. Where was it coming from? Ezi’s head hurt so much, he couldn’t think. A fierce wind was whipping through the room, slamming down chairs and tables, sending debris tumbling through the air — blood, gods, so much blood, and sharp shards of bamboo — where had they come from? One came flying straight at them, the jagged point diving through the wild air, and Ezi threw up his hands, wanting only to stop it somehow, to protect Madhuri, himself, protect them all, keep them safe. And the power, the power burst out of him, flaring through his veins, shooting out into the room — and Ezi blacked out completely. Ezi came to in his own bed, with the embroidered white covers pulled up to his chin. He tried to sit up, but found himself too weak to move. Madhuri stood by his bedside, her expression grave. “What — what happened?” His voice was hoarse, as if he’d been screaming. “The ambassador had some kind of mechanical device strapped to his chest. It exploded. His entourage wore the devices as well. More than eighty family members were killed.” She paused for barely a moment before saying bluntly, “Your parents are dead.” “No. No, it’s not possible.” A sharp pain pierced his gut, his stomach cramping, hard. His father had never understood Ezi, but he had tried to take care of him, the best way he knew how. And his gentle mother… It couldn’t be true, not both of them. Not like this. Madhuri bit her lip. “I made them let me tell you. I — I know what it is to lose people you love. But there’s more.” “What more?” What more could there possibly be? A quarter of the family dead — slaughtered. That was the word. “They want to crown you king.” Ezi shook his head, bewildered. “Me? No, you’re wrong. I’m useless. They want one of my brothers.” “Your brothers are too young, Ezi.” “Then one of the uncles — my father’s younger brother…” “No, Ezi.” Her voice was implacable. “They want you.” “Why?” he cried out. Why would they possibly want him? “Your power,” she said, her voice soft. He asked, confused, “What good is talking to animals going to do?” Madhuri’s eyes widened. “You don’t know, do you? Ezi — you gained two more powers during the battle. You control three powers now.” She laughed, shakily. “Well, maybe control isn’t the right word. Not yet.” “Three? No one gets three.” No family member in living memory had three powers. Madhuri shook her head. “Maybe it was the stress of the attack. I don’t know. But I know this — you channeled. You channeled all our power, grabbed it right out of us. I couldn’t breathe for a minute, you grabbed so hard. And then you used that power, and you made a shield of air. You threw it around every surviving family member, everyone who wasn’t already dead. You kept us alive and safe when the second, and third, rounds of devices went off. If you hadn’t — we’d all be dead, Ezi. Each and every one of us. You saved us all.” Ezi wanted to object — but he could see the truth in her eyes. He had really done it. He had the ability to channel power, an ability that no one in the family had, that hadn’t been seen in generations. And he had an elemental power of air. If he wanted to — he could use the winds to carry him. He could fly. Madhuri said quickly, “Don’t try to use them now — you exhausted yourself, even with all of us to tap. You almost died. But with rest, you should be better in a day. Healthy enough for your coronation.” “I’m too young, Madhuri. I don’t know how to be king — and I don’t want to lead a war.” Ezi was so confused. He wanted to go out to the jungle and find Big Gray. Ezi’s eyes were burning; his throat tight with unshed tears. He needed to talk to his father. “You can do it, Ezi. I’ll help you, I promise. With your new powers, maybe we have a chance to actually defeat Amithnal.” Madhuri’s eyes burned — he could see small flames, dancing in her eyes. She was clenching her fists in her sari skirts; in another moment, she would tear the delicate fabric. “Don’t you want to win this war? Don’t you want revenge?” “I — I want to win.” That was what his father had said. That the only way they would ever have peace would be if they won this war. Today’s events had proved him right. Ezi had to do whatever he could to save his family, his people. “Then I’ll help you, Ezi.” Madhuri said his name like a caress. Her hands loosened, and then she raised her right hand, and held it out to him. “I’ll help you however I can.” A small flame appeared in the air above her hand, steady and glowing. He paused a long moment, and then he lifted his hand from the bed and took her hand in his, interlacing their fingers. Then Ezi went deep into the center of himself, into the place where he spoke to the animals. And there, there was something new there, raw and tender now, but promising strength. Ezi breathed, just one small wisp of a breath. A rush of wind filled the room, swirling around them both, fanning the flame high. In the flames, a picture formed — a reflection of his face. On Ezi’s head, there lay a crown.