The girl of fire and tho.., p.11
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.11

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 
Page 11

  Author: Rae Carson

  Father Nicandro leans forward and smiles. Like all good teachers, he loves the moment of revelation, when the light of knowledge passes to his pupil. “It’s all about this word right here. ” He points to the passage that reads, He could not know what awaited at the gates of the enemy . . . “‘Could. ’ One tiny word. The natural reading of the text indicates that the champion is ignorant, for whatever reason, of the danger that awaits him. ”

  I nod. That is exactly how I interpreted it.

  “But!” He waggles a finger at me. “There is another passage. ‘He who serves must not lose purity of intent. ’”

  I’m familiar with those words. They’re from the Common Man’s Guide to Service. A favorite quote of Ximena’s.

  “Two different meanings,” he continues. “‘Could not’ and ‘must not. ’ In the original language, however, it’s the same word: ‘Né puder. ’ Our forefathers, for whatever reason, translated them differently. The Vía-Reformas believe the first instance is in error. Where it says ‘He could not know what awaited,’ it should read, ‘He must not know what awaited. ’”

  “So they believe it means that the bearer should not be told about the danger. It became a mandate rather than an observation. ”

  “Precisely. ”

  “So I have been kept in ignorance. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “Because of one word. ”

  He shrugs. “There are other similar passages they use to bolster their claim, but this is the main one. ”

  “The other bearers, the ones from Joya. Were they kept ignorant?”

  “No. Just you and Hitzedar the bowman. ”

  I put my face in my hands, trying to understand it all. Father Nicandro hasn’t answered all my questions, but I’m too tired to remember them right now. I worry what Ximena will do when she finds out I know about Homer’s Afflatus. Maybe it would be best not to tell her. And what if the Vía-Reformas are correct? What if I’m not supposed to know any of this?

  “Father. ” I despise the quaver in my voice, but I’m helpless to stop it. “What awaits me at the gates of the enemy?”

  “My dear girl, that I cannot tell you. No one knows. We only know that great danger awaits the bearer. ”

  “But I will win through in the end, right? I mean, it says, ‘The righteous right hand of God is mighty. ’”

  “Again, I don’t know. I don’t wish to alarm you, but I’m more concerned with what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say the champion prevails. ” He reaches across the table and flips the scroll over. “Look at this. ”

  It’s a list of names with corresponding dates. One name every hundred years, with a few astonishing gaps in between. Toward the bottom, I see my own name. Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza. It’s been newly added, for the ink is darker and the letters do not bleed into the page. I stare at them in wonder. Homer leads the list. Hitzedar the bowman is only a few slots above me.

  The bearers before me. Real names, real people.

  “There are gaps. ” I give Nicandro a questioning look.

  “Yes. Our record is incomplete. Either we’ve lost the history, or some of the bearers were never recognized. ”

  A startling thought. “How can that be?”

  He shrugs. “Maybe they lived far from a monastery, raised in superstition, ignorant of their destiny. Maybe they died—or were killed—before they could complete their service. Who really knows?”

  “So it is possible. ” My greatest fear realized. Destiny is too fluid a thing to ensure with a mere stone. “It’s possible to die before completing the service. ”

  “Oh, yes. Of these names”—he waves an arm above the list—“fewer than half performed recognizable acts of service. And most of them died young. And brutally. Like Hitzeder the bowman, who died with an arrow in his heart. ”

  Not very good odds.

  A sharp ache is forming behind my eyes, the ache of worry and unshed tears. I pinch the bridge of my nose and say, “Why are you telling me this? My nurse . . . she is, that is—”

  “She’s your guardian. The lady Ximena would give her life for you. ”

  “She’s my nurse. ” She’s more than that, of course, but I’m tired and surly.

  “A guardian is selected by the nearest monastery to watch over the bearer. In Orovalle, I’m sure her job included seeing to your ignorance on certain prophetic matters. Actually—” He looks away, into the dark. “I’d prefer she not know about this conversation. As head priest of the Monastery-at-Brisadulce, it’s my duty to instruct you, to prepare you in any way I can. But a Vía-Reforma would see things very differently. ”

  She’s done more than watch over me. “She killed a man once. Because he learned I bear the stone. ” I watch him closely for a response, but his sharp face is stolid. “With a hairpin,” I add, and am satisfied with a telltale twitch.

  “Lady Ximena is a formidable woman. ” His voice holds both respect and fear.

  It was very kind of him to meet me at this horrid hour and instruct me at risk to himself. I reach forward and take his hand. “My nurse will not know of this meeting. ”

  He squeezes back, needing assurance as much as giving it. In spite of the night’s revelations, I am filled with the warmth of knowing I have a friend.

  “God always chooses well, my child. I will help you any way I can. ”

  I take a deep breath to still the fear that vibrates in my chest. “If he chooses so well, why have so many bearers failed? Why does he sometimes ignore my prayers?”

  “I don’t know, Elisa. There are many things about the Godstone and its bearers that we do not understand. But God knows. He knows more than we can imagine. ”

  Aneaxi’s words, before God let her die. Though I have enough control to keep from rolling my eyes at him, I can’t force the proper platitudes to my lips. Would he still believe me a worthy bearer if he knew of the doubts always sneaking into my thoughts?

  The stool creaks as I rise. “Thank you, Father. I have more questions, but I’m tired, and I . . . well, I need to think about all this for a bit. ”

  He stands and grabs my upper arm. “I have something for you, before you go. ”

  As he disappears again into the dark, I stretch and yawn. I hope it’s a copy of Homer’s Afflatus. I’d dearly love to study it myself. Ximena could not know I possessed it, of course, and different hiding places compete in my mind for viability while I wait.

  He’s gone a long time. I hear ruffled parchment, the click of a key and lock, a grating sound. When he reenters our meager pool of candlelight, he holds a fist-size leather pouch with long drawstrings that dangle between his fingers.

  Not the Afflatus. I try not to seem disappointed. “What is it?”

  He upends the pouch. Three small, sparkling items clatter onto the table. I lean closer. They are faceted jewels the size of my thumbnail, mostly dull in the dark but with hints of fire where the candlelight catches them just right. Deep blue. Familiar. I pick one up; it’s cold and hard in my palm.

  “Godstones,” Father Nicandro says.

  I catch my breath. It’s so different outside of the body, heavy and lifeless.

  “This monastery had the privilege of overseeing three bearers. When they died, their Godstones detached. That one”—he points to one on the table—“is twelve hundred years old. ”

  It’s a strange feeling to hold my history in my hand. And as the stone in my navel pulses a warm greeting in contrast to the cold thing in my palm, I realize it’s my future too. My death.

  I drop it next to the others and wipe my hand on my robe.

  Nicandro gathers them into the leather pouch and pulls the drawstrings tight. “No one but a bearer can harness the power of a Godstone. I don’t know if any power remains in the old ones, but you might find them useful. ” He hands it over with a shrug.

  I’m not ready to take it from him just yet. “And if I die?
Before doing some kind of service?”

  “Then I’ll take them back. Along with your own stone. ”

  It’s his candor that convinces me to grab the little bag. He has frightened me with his forthrightness, but it makes me feel as though I can trust him. I shove it in the pocket of my dressing robe.

  “Anything else I can do for you tonight, Highness?”

  My stomach growls just then, and I flinch, embarrassed.

  He chuckles. “We priests keep odd hours, and our kitchen is never closed. ”

  So it is laden with two pomegranate scones—one in my pocket, one in hand—that I creep back to my suite. I’m buzzing with new knowledge as I walk the quiet, torchlit corridors, nibbling on a scone: Homer’s Afflatus, the failed bearers before me, the guardian in the guise of a nurse.

  The gates of the enemy.

  I went to the priest seeking an advantage, something that would help me play the game of power here in Joya d’Arena and make me significant to Alejandro. Instead, my path is more shadowy than ever.

  Like a pig to the slaughter.

  Now, it would be enough simply to survive.

  I round the corner that leads to my suite and stop short, just quick enough to keep crumbs from getting on the rough cotton robe that looms before me.

  “Elisa!” Ximena wraps me in an embrace, and I mash crumbs all over her robe anyway. She grabs my shoulders and thrusts me backward. “Where were you?” Her voice is harsh with anger and fear.

  I hold up the half-eaten scone. “I was hungry. ”

  “Oh, Elisa. My sky. I woke up and thought I’d try and finish your skirt and I went to the atrium to get everything and I couldn’t hear you breathing and . . . ” She takes a ragged breath. “You should have awakened me. I’d have gone with you. ”

  My guardian.

  I know that watching over me is her duty, that her passion is fueled by centuries of a religious fervor I’m only beginning to understand. But the way her eyes caress my face and the way her hands rub up and down my arms with desperate relief are testament to something deeper.

  My nurse.

  “I’m sorry. ” I reach into my pocket for the second scone, and my fingertips brush the leather pouch. It feels so huge and bulky there, and I worry that Ximena will see its shape through the fabric. “I . . . um . . . brought you a scone. ”

  She takes it from me, a soft smile curving thin lips. “Thank you. ” She turns and links a companionable arm in mine to escort me back.

  Ximena is tall and sturdy and strong. As we walk together, arm in arm, I lean my head against her shoulder, taking comfort in her solid familiarity.

  Later that night, when I am certain Ximena again sleeps, I creep out to the balcony and bury my dead Godstones at the root of my potted palm tree.

  Chapter 10

  DAYS later, Ximena and I are in the kitchens—avoiding the dining hall yet again—lunching on soft venison with piquant currant sauce. The kitchen master is more ragged than usual, hardly acknowledging me in his rush to get a huge batch of pollo pibil just right. I chew contentedly and watch him spice the chicken breast with garlic and cumin, then drizzle it with soured orange juice and wrap it in packets of banana leaves.

  “Are we expecting guests?” I ask through a mouthful of meat.

  He jumps. “It’s the king’s favorite. He requested it especially for tonight. ”

  I swallow half-chewed food and wince at the lump in my chest. “You mean he’s back?”

  He carries packets of meat to the coals for burying. “Got back last night. ”

  The venison weighs in my gut like a rock. Alejandro returned. And he didn’t even tell me.

  I drag my nurse back to our suite so I can freshen up and don my new skirt. Ximena crafted it to flow around my legs rather than stick to them like a wet blanket. I want to brush my hair, rub a little carmine onto my lips, maybe.

  Cosmé is out on the balcony when we arrive. She’s hanging my sheepskin rug over the edge and beating it with a wooden club. She doesn’t look up as we enter, but calls out, “His Majesty came by while you were out. ”

  “Oh?” I don’t want to gratify her with too much interest.

  “He wants you to attend the prince’s reception tonight. ”

  I don’t know of any reception.

  It’s odd. I’ve never been one to enjoy a feast or ball or even the yearly Deliverance gala. Still, it rankles to know a celebration is being planned that I knew nothing about. I feel so disjointed and out of place. My undefined status here is partly my fault, I know. Perhaps if I dined with the rest of Alejandro’s household, or showed a tiny interest in palace affairs, things would be different.

  Cosmé pushes the potted palm aside to give herself more room to flip the rug. I wince, thinking of the Godstones now buried in the soft soil.

  “Where will the reception be held?” I ask to distract her from the palm.

  “The king said there will be an official grand entrance in the receiving hall. You’re to stand on the dais with the Quorum of Five. I’ll show you where to go. ”

  Standing on a dais sounds frightfully conspicuous. “Thank you, Cosmé. ”

  “Hmph. ” She curtsies, her face expressionless.

  Alejandro’s receiving hall shines with gaudiness. It’s long and rectangular, with a high arched ceiling painted in curling roses and exaggerated thorn spikes. Chandeliers drip an even line of crystal from dais to double doors. The thrones are especially excessive with their gilded lines and plump velvet and backs that reach twice the height of a man.

  The king does not rise to greet me, but he smiles and kisses my hand, and my face flames. I take my place on the dais along with the members of the Quorum, slightly behind Alejandro’s throne, looking over his dark head at the milling nobility. A favored position, I assume, until I see Condesa Ariña reach out and rest a casual hand against the empty throne beside him. Her claim looks real and right somehow. Maybe because she is the only thing of true beauty in this repellent place, with her corsetless gown of simple ivory that hangs like gossamer from a gather beneath her breasts. She gazes down at the king, her eyes soft and luminous. It’s the look of someone pleasantly drowsy after eating an enormous piece of mango pie.
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