Ava had spent a week being mentally poked and prodded by Orsala and physically beat up by Mala. Sure, Mala might have called it “training,” but Ava was fairly certain she was just working out some deep-seated resentment at Ava’s expense. The fact that Brooke, the twelve-year-old who looked like a fairy princess, was her training partner was just another blow to the ego.
“She wants us to do it again,” panted Brooke, tossing the short staff to Ava, who had collapsed on one of the benches that lined the barn where they practiced.
Mala was teaching them how to use the Irina short staff. It was hardly glamorous-looking, but according to Astrid, it was the traditional weapon for all Irina because it was so practical. Ava did see her point. The staff Mala had chosen for her was about the length and width of a broomstick, though it was much stronger because of spells that had been laid over it. She’d doubted how much damage the innocent-looking piece of wood could do until Mala had demonstrated by taking off the head of the training dummy.
“Yes.” Brooke didn’t look any more pleased than Ava. The days of training were even taking a toll on the child’s natural optimism.
Ava pushed to her feet and grabbed her staff, then walked with her partner to the center of the ring. Mala stared at them from the edge of the barn, making a clicking noise with her tongue to get Brooke’s attention. Once she had it, her hands formed a flurry of signs that Brooke took in, nodding while Mala spoke.
“Okay.” Brooke turned to her. “Mala says you need to practice your approaches. Focus on keeping your shoulders more…” She looked back toward Mala, who repeated herself with a sigh. “Oh. You’re kind of… showing me what you’re doing before you do it. Does that make sense?”
Ava glanced at Mala, who was rolling her eyes. “I think so.” She tried not to smile. “You want me to keep my shoulders looser?” she asked her trainer, and Mala nodded. “So I don’t let Brooke know what my attack is going to be?”
Mala gave her a thumbs-up and sat back down to watch them, clapping for them to start.
She tried to do what Mala had asked, but it was difficult. Her instinct was to lean into an attack, not keep her shoulders loose and fluid. Brooke seemed to take to the practice more easily, getting in more than one good strike to Ava’s side or knee. More than once, Ava was convinced that Brooke was going easy on her.[email protected]@@@[email protected]@@@@=======
“Sorry,” the girl said with wince after she’d struck another blow, this time to the back of Ava’s thigh.
“No, don’t apologize.” She grunted, straightening up. “But seriously? How did you get so good?”
Brooke smiled. “When I was young, I played with sticks as often as dolls. I remember watching my mom and dad spar with staffs when I was little. Mom always had one around. Humans don’t even notice them. They think it’s a broom handle or a walking stick. Mom says it’s the best weapon in the world.”
There was a whistle and they turned their heads toward Mala, who shot off a few signs.
Brooke smiled again. “Mala agrees. She said that throughout history, Irina have used the short staff as a primary weapon because we could take one everywhere. They’re very easy to overlook.”
“And very effective.”
“Yep.” Brooke went back to her ready stance. “Don’t worry! You’ll get the hang of it.”
Ava took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders, trying to remember to keep them loose. Ready. She was an Irina, after all. She’d get this. It was probably genetic or something. She lifted her staff in both hands and angled forward at her right shoulder like Mala had shown her. Brooke stood across from her in the same stance. Her face showed nothing. Ava shifted to the right, and Brooke leaned forward, just a little. Ava leaned with her right shoulder, deliberately hinting that she would strike from the right, only to have Brooke shift with lightning reflexes to the left, and then her staff circled down, hitting just below Ava’s left knee.
“Shit!” Ava hopped back, her previous plan of attack forgotten as the pain radiated down to her ankle and up her thigh. “Damn—oww! How did you—”
“Sorry, sorry! Your shoulders looked great, but then you did this thing with your leg and you shifted back, so I knew you were going to attack from the left, so I—”
“Yeah. Okay. Got it,” Ava groused, ignoring Mala, who was smiling wide and clutching her stomach. If the woman had been able to laugh, it would have filled the barn. “I know, all right? I’m completely transparent.”
“But your shoulders looked better!”
Great. A twelve-year-old was kicking her ass and trying to make her feel better about it.
“It’s fine, Brooke.” Ava glared at Mala. “Can we take a break now? I think I need to ice this leg.”
An unfamiliar voice sang from the door. “You’re never going to get better if you keep taking breaks.”
Ava turned to stare. The woman was tall and dark with olive skin and black hair that streamed down her back. Everything about her—from the black clothes to the wary expression—screamed “Danger!” Ava stepped in front of Brooke, but the girl shot out from behind her and rushed forward.
“Ciao, bella mia,” the woman named Renata murmured, holding out her arms to the girl and enclosing her in an embrace. She looked up at Mala. “Who’s the new girl?”
Mala signed quickly, and Renata lifted one hand, signing back while still holding Brooke with her other arm.
“No,” Brooke said, clearly understanding the silent conversation. “She’s from Los Angeles. She was only visiting in Istanbul when Damien met her. She’s not Turkish.”
Renata said, “I was thinking Persian, actually. Welcome to Sarih?fn, Ava.”
“Thanks.” She lowered her staff and stepped forward. “Your name is Renata?”