The girl of fire and tho.., p.10
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.10

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 
Page 10

  Author: Rae Carson

  He just shrugs. “The reason I came . . . ” He looks down at the floor. “I’ve been elected to invite you, er, officially, to the next Quorum meeting. ”

  Joya d’Arena’s Quorum of Five. Alejandro’s council, consisting of top-ranking nobles and officers. I must be cautious here, lest they use me to maneuver during his absence.

  “Naturally, I’d be happy to attend. I’m not sure what I could offer, though. ”

  He clears his throat. Perhaps he resents his task as errand boy, or disagrees with the Quorum’s decision to include a child in their meeting. “We are beginning preparations for the war with Invierne. ” Like my sister’s letter, he treats war as a foregone conclusion. “We’d like our next discussion to include representation from Orovalle. ”

  It makes sense. If the people of Joya don’t know about my marriage to Alejandro, then they probably don’t know my father has already committed troops. But this is exactly the kind of thing Alejandro told me to expect, so I know I must play along.

  “When is the next meeting?”

  “One week from yesterday, directly following the noon meal. ”

  I give him my most confident smile. “I’ll be there. ”

  After he leaves, Ximena looks up from her sewing. It always amazes me how invisible she is to visitors. They are foolish to ignore my nurse, for she misses nothing.

  “Be careful with the Five, my sky. By reputation, they are clever enough to give even Juana-Alodia a turn. ”

  I glare at her. Even she measures me against my sister. “I can handle them,” I snap.

  “I didn’t say you couldn’t. Just be careful. Be smarter than Alodia. ”

  I look down at my coverlet, feeling guilty for doubting her. “I’ll try. ”

  Ximena stays up late to finish my skirt. I read from the Scriptura Sancta, but even my favorite passages are lifeless on the page. I keep glancing at my nurse. Irritation wars with affection as I watch her bow over the fabric long into the night, wrestling with buttons and ruffled silk. She works so hard on my behalf, and tonight, I betray her.

  At long last, she gathers the fabric together and stands, yawning. “I’m so sorry, my sky, but I can hardly see the stitches anymore. I’ll have to finish tomorrow. ”

  I fix her face in my mind, the round cheeks, the worry lines at her temples. I wish I’d had more time with Aneaxi, wish I’d known to memorize her features. Already her laughing eyes blur and I can’t remember if she stood eye level with me or a little taller. “Thank you, Ximena. The skirt is lovely. ”

  She lumbers over to my bed and bends down to kiss my forehead. “Sleep well, my Elisa. ”

  Thankfully, the glow seeping through the atrium from her bedroom flickers out almost immediately, and I’m left wide-eyed in the cool dark.

  I wait.

  My eyes grow heavy, but nervousness keeps me awake. I dare not light a candle to read. After a while, I rise from the bed to pace silently on slippered feet.

  The sound of monastery bells, distant but pure, drifts through my open balcony and strikes midnight. Still I wait, listening at the atrium’s edge for movement from Ximena’s room. Finally I wrap myself in a long robe and creep out the door.

  The hallways are silent and glowing. Sparse torches make odd light patterns against sparkling sandstone, and I almost laugh, for Alejandro’s monstrous palace is nearly beautiful at night. I’m terrified that I’ll be seen. The shape of my body is nothing if not recognizable, and even a fleeting glance would give me away.

  I chide myself for cowardice. I’ve as much right to walk the halls late at night as anyone else. A clever excuse would not be so hard to come by. Still, my thighs burn from stepping with quiet precision, and when I finally reach the wooden monastery doors, my jaw aches from clenching my teeth.

  I hurry inside and tiptoe to the library to await Father Nicandro. Just enough moonlight filters in through the long windows for me to find my way into the archive where the oldest documents are stored. I settle on a scribing stool.

  I don’t wait long. A pool of candlelight announces his presence. I look up, startled, marveling at his stealth.

  “Your Highness,” he whispers. “You used our most sacred ceremony to summon me here. I trust you had good reason?”

  My shoulders slump. “I’m sorry, Father. I thought it best, but . . . ” I shrug, unable to look him in the face.

  He settles next to me, placing the candleholder on the table between us. In its flickering light, I see ancient scrolls on shelves, piles of parchment ready for copying, wooden cupboards that house the oldest, most light-sensitive documents, and I realize I’ve forced him to bend yet another tenet of his occupation. “I’m so sorry. ” I gesture lamely at the candle. “I wasn’t thinking. I know candles don’t belong in scribing rooms. ” Sunlight only was the rule back home, for it became too easy to knock over a lamp or candle after hours of scribing. My neck is hot with embarrassment.

  “Elisa. What is it? Why this secret meeting?”

  I look up, and his eyes are so full of compassion that I blurt, “I need help. I need to know about the Godstone. ”

  A grin splits his face. “I suspected as much. I will help in any way I can. ”

  My relief is so great, it’s hard to keep my lower lip from quivering. “Really?” It’s overwhelming, this feeling that someone will help me.

  “Really. Had you been born here, in Brisadulce, it would have been my task to instruct you in all things pertaining to the Godstone. So we shall discuss it thoroughly while keeping an eye on this candle. ” His tone is one of gentle teasing. “Now tell me, what do you know of it?” In the candlelight, his eyes are more piercing than ever, his nose beakish. I warm to his zeal, so like my old tutor’s.

  I take a deep breath. “I know all the passages in the Scriptura Sancta relating to the Godstone and the bearer by heart. So I know God chooses one child each century for an act of service. ” I realize my fingers have traveled to the stone in my navel from habit. “I know God stuck this thing in me during my naming ceremony. I can feel it living there, pulsing like a second heartbeat. It responds to things sometimes, things I don’t always understand. Mostly, it responds to my prayers. ”

  He nods along with me. “And the Godstone’s history? What do you know?”

  “Besides myself, only one bearer has been chosen from Orovalle. That was four centuries ago, soon after our valley was colonized. All the others have been from Joya. ”

  “Do you know anything about the nature of this service?”

  I shrug. “Just that it’s something big and wonderful and . . . ” I’m gesturing with my hands, trying to explain a concept that feels so huge, but remains vague in my mind. “I guess I don’t know much about it at all. I grew up hearing about my destiny. People seem to think I’m going to be some kind of . . . hero. ” I feel the blush creeping into my cheeks. It’s ludicrous, and I peer through the dimness, expecting to find those sharp eyes mocking me.

  But it’s too dark to tell. “And the first bearer from Orovalle. Do you know what act of service he performed?”

  “Of course. Hitzedar the bowman. My father is named for him. During my country’s first skirmish with Invierne, he killed thirty-four men, including the animagus leading the attack. He was . . . ” I look down at my hands. “He was sixteen years old. ”

  He is silent for a moment, thoughtful. “Have you read Homer’s Afflatus?”

  My blank look is answer enough.

  Father Nicandro sighs deeply. “It is as I feared. ”

  “Feared? What did you fear? What is Homer’s Afflatus?”

  “Homer was the first bearer. Tradition places him among the first generation born to the new world. ”

  I’ve never heard of Homer. How could I have been kept ignorant of something so important as the first bearer? “And this . . . Afflatus?” The Godstone warms to the word.

  “It was
his act of service. The spirit of God possessed him and he wrote the Afflatus, a collection of prophecies. About the Godstone, among other things. ”

  My hands are ice cold, my breathing tight and hard. The Godstone aches with such pulsing warmth that nausea coils just underneath. “Prophecies,” I whisper. “A sacred text. I never knew. I never . . . ” I rise from the stool. “The people of Orovalle. They don’t know about this. ” I pace toward the shelves and back.

  “Your Highness—”

  “They should know. Do you have it here? I can have Ximena scribe a copy for the Monastery-at-Amalur. Master Geraldo would love to see—”

  “Elisa!”

  I look up, startled by the edge in his voice.

  “Your Highness,” he says, gently now. “They already know. ”

  It takes a moment for his words to sink in. When they do, pain like fire blossoms in my chest. “Who, exactly, already knows?” I think I know the answer, but I need him to say it.

  “Everyone. ” His lips press into a thin line before he says, “I’m sorry, Highness. Everyone knows but you. ”

  Chapter 9

  I see my life in sudden clarity. The hush whenever I walked into a room. Glances exchanged between my tutor and my sister. Hand-guarded whispers. Reassuring platitudes delivered from behind worried countenances. I thought it was because the world holds me in contempt, because I am so unlike my sister. Because I am fat.

  This creeping, wormy feeling is humiliation. I’ve excelled as a student; noticing details, solving logic puzzles, memorizing information. It’s the one thing I’ve taken pride in.

  But how easily I was fooled. A stupid, stupid child.

  “Highness?” His tone is cautious, worried.

  “Why?” I whisper. “Why keep this from me?”

  “Sit down. ” He waves toward the stool. “Your pacing makes this old man dizzy. ” He glances toward the candle as I comply, then says merrily, “We might need another one of these. ”

  I don’t appreciate his good cheer. “Tell me. ”

  He leans forward onto the table. “When the Vía-Reformas left Joya to colonize Orovalle, they had one very important goal. ”

  I already know this. “To pursue God. ”

  He nods. “They believed—still believe—that man’s highest aspiration should be the study of sacred texts, that the increasingly godless world had blurred divine truths that waited to be rediscovered. Man’s second highest aspiration is—”

  “Service. ”

  He nods. “Yes, service. So they left, and several years later, when the next bearer was chosen in Orovalle, they took it as God’s mark of approval. ”

  “What does this have to do with Homer’s Afflatus?”

  “Patience. I take it the royal family remains staunchly Vía-Reforma?”

  “Of course. ” It has always been a source of pride that my ancestors were not afraid to seek truth.

  “As with all good movements, it started well. The need to return to the path of God was real. But it grew. It gained such momentum, and it became . . . something else. ”

  Though I’m angry at my sister, at Master Geraldo, especially at Ximena, for keeping things from me, I’m not sure I’m ready to hear my faith has been misplaced. “Explain. ” The warning in my voice is unmistakable.

  “They studied. Oh, they studied. It became about pride—they understood the sacred texts better than anyone, and they knew it. A cultural obsession formed, based on this investigation of scripture. They found truths that were . . . hidden from lesser eyes. ”

  I am quick to defend. “That is perfectly reasonable. It’s much easier to understand the Scriptura Sancta or the Common Man’s Guide to Service with intense study. As the Sancta says, “‘Much study leads to much understanding. ’”

  “True,” he agrees with an indulgent smile. “But it also says, ‘The mind of God is a mystery and none can understand it. ’ You see, they went too far. They shunned the obvious, natural reading of the text for the hidden, unnatural one. Their precious truth was eclipsed by snobbery and elitism. ”

  “I need an example. ”

  He rises from the table and disappears into the gloom of bookshelves. I hear him rifling through scrolls, mumbling to himself, then footsteps as he returns. A smell precedes him, the musty, animal-skin scent of deep secrets.

  “This,” he announces, spreading a scroll across the table, “is Homer’s Afflatus. ” The edges try to curl back into their scroll form; Nicandro uses his forearm to hold them down. With his free hand, he points to a passage in the middle. “Here. Read this. ”

  The candlelight is too dim, the script eddies and churns across soft vellum, and I am so weary. I rub my eyes and lean closer.

  And God raised up for himself a champion. Yea, once in every four generations He raised him up to bear His mark.

  (The champion must not fear. )

  But the world did not know him and his worth was hidden away; like the desert oasis of Barea it was concealed. Many sought the champion; from evil intent they sought him.

  (The champion must not waver. )

  He could not know what awaited at the gates of the enemy, and he was led, like a pig to the slaughter, into the realm of sorcery. But the righteous right hand of God is mighty.

  (His mercy extends to His people. )

  I sit back and consider. The passage rings true in my heart; the Godstone vibrates softly in response. But there is newness here too, and I let it seep into my mind a moment. The realm of sorcery. The gates of the enemy.

  “Why did my Vía-Reforma family hide this from me?”
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