The girl of fire and tho.., p.2
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.2

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
Page 2

  Author: Rae Carson

  I feel his eyes on me. He has just watched me stuff a crisp-fried anchovy into my mouth. I am embarrassed, but I can’t resist turning to meet his gaze.

  He still wears that friendly smile. “Do you like fish?”

  My mouth is full. “Ungh,” I say.

  The smile widens. He has beautiful teeth. “Me too. ” He reaches for an anchovy and tosses it into his mouth. His eyes crinkle at the edges while he chews, watching me. His mouth is still full, his voice muffled when he says, “We have much to discuss, you and I. ”

  I swallow and nod. Hearing that ought to frighten me. Instead, a sweetness sparks in my stomach because the king of Joya d’Arena thinks I am a person one discusses things with.

  Our banquet passes too quickly. We do talk, a little, but I am mostly a fool because all I can do is watch his lips as they move and listen to his voice.

  He asks about my studies. I blurt to him about my hundred-year-old copy of the Belleza Guerra. His eyes flash with interest when he says, “Yes, your sister told me you are well versed in the art of war. ” I’m not sure what to say to this. I don’t want to talk about Juana-Alodia, and I realize how ridiculous I must appear, a sausage child bride who never sits a horse and who wields a dagger only to cut meat. Yet I am fascinated by war and have studied every skirmish in my country’s history.

  A hush settles over the milling nobility. I follow their collective gaze toward the small wooden stage. The musicians have departed—I don’t remember hearing the vihuelas cease—and in their place stand my father and sister. She raises a goblet, her arm bare and golden from the sun, and says in a loud, clear voice, “Today we are witness to the new union between Joya d’Arena and Orovalle. May God bless this union with peace and understanding, with prosperity and beauty, and”—she grins hugely—“with many, many children!” And the banquet hall fills with laughter, like it’s the cleverest blessing in the world. My face burns, and I hate my sister more in this moment than ever in my life.

  “Now, it’s time to bid the happy couple good-night,” she continues. I’ve attended hundreds of marriage feasts. Still, I jump when Lady Aneaxi’s hand grabs my shoulder. A bevy of servants, dressed in white with garlands of paper flowers, has come with her to escort us to our nuptial chamber.

  We rise, the king and I, though I’m not sure how, since my legs buzz with threatening numbness. My armpits feel sticky, my heart pounds. Oh, God. I don’t know what to do. I blink rapidly, determined not to cry.

  The servants, grinning and giggling, surround us and herd us from the banquet hall as the golden horde shouts blessings and encouragement. I steal a glance at my husband. For the first time since he lifted the veil from my face, he avoids my gaze.

  Chapter 2

  OUR chamber is warm with the golden light and honeyed scent of beeswax candles. They flicker from all sides of the room, on the windowsill, on the stone hearth, on the mahogany tables that frame the curtained bed.

  The bed . . .

  On my right, my new husband is as much a statue as I, a dark pillar of shadow I dare not look at, so I stare at the bed’s canopy, a breezy red-dyed cotton. Servants scurry forward to fold back the curtains and tie them to the bedposts. An enormous de Riqueza sunburst smiles at me from the quilt. I glare at the minimalist features, at the tongues of yellow fire that flare from its points, but Lady Aneaxi tosses a bucket of rose petals onto the quilt and spreads them around with her fingertips, and I find I am glaring at nothing.

  The rose petals, blushed pink, offer their delicate floral scent to the air—a heady mix with the honeyed beeswax—which makes me think of our rose-tinged wedding ceremony and the way his lips brushed mine too quickly.

  I want him to kiss me again.

  His was not my first kiss. A tall, gangly boy had that dubious distinction, at a wedding feast when I was fourteen years old. I was hiding in an alcove, too shy to dance with everyone else, when he found me and confessed his love. His eyes flashed an intensity that made my face pulse with warmth. His lips pressed against mine, and I tasted the basil on his tongue, but he kissed me the way I would recite a passage from the Common Man’s Guide to Service. By rote. Dispassionately.

  I left the banquet flustered, and the next morning, while Juana-Alodia and I shared a breakfast of poached eggs with leeks, she spoke of a conde’s son who had pulled her into an alcove the night before, a lanky boy who’d declared his love and tried to kiss her. She had pinched his nose and walked away laughing. She said he’d been trying to get into bed with a princess.

  Now Aneaxi presses her lips to my forehead. “My Elisa,” she whispers. Then she and the servants exit our chamber. Just before they close the door, I catch a glimpse of enormous sun-bronzed soldiers with steel chest plates. They wear the red silk banners of King Alejandro’s personal guard, and I wonder if His Majesty feels unsafe. But when I look at him, at the black hair curling at his neck, the strength of his sun-darkened hands, I forget the guards.

  I want more than a little kiss. But the thought is terrifying.

  My husband says nothing, just stares unblinking at the petal-strewn quilt. I would love to know what he is thinking, but I can’t bring myself to ask. Instead, I gaze at his profile and think of the passionless kiss of the conde’s son. Blood throbs in my ears as finally I whisper, “I do not care to become intimate tonight. ”

  His shoulders relax, and his lips betray a hint of a smile. He nods. “As you wish. ”

  I turn and plop onto the bed, displacing pink petals that flutter to the clay floor. I am hugely relieved. But I’m also disappointed at his ready acceptance, because it would have been nice to feel a little bit wanted.

  With his arms crossed, King Alejandro leans against a thick bedpost. He regards me easily now; I suspect he is as relieved as I am. In the candlelight, his hair has deep red tints, like the Sierra Sangre in the evening sun. “Well then,” he says cheerfully. “I suppose we could talk. ”

  He has such a nice voice. Dark and warm. “Talk?” I say cleverly.

  The quirk of his lips widens into a huge smile, and it is like the moon has just risen on a summer night. “Unless you would prefer to be married to a stranger, of course. ”

  Married . . .

  Suddenly it all seems so preposterous, and I can’t stop the giggles that bubble from my chest. I cover my mouth with a fist and laugh into my knuckles.

  “I admit to feeling a certain awkwardness,” he says, “but it hadn’t occurred to me to laugh. ”

  His words sober me. I look up, worried that I’ve angered him, but the smile remains, and his eyes hold a genuine crinkle.

  I smile back. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty—”

  “Alejandro. ”

  I swallow. “Alejandro. ” The sympathy in his face breaks something inside me, and words tumble from my mouth. “Papá and Alodia always said I’d marry for the good of Orovalle. I accepted it years ago. Still, I’m only fif—sixteen. I’d hoped to have some time. . . . And I didn’t expect . . . I mean, you’re very . . . ” I assure myself that his expression remains unmocking. “You’re very kind,” I finish lamely.

  He moves to the window seat. “Hand me a pillow?”

  I pull one from the bed, a round thing with a long red fringe, and I shake the petals off before tossing it at him. He catches it easily, then lifts long legs onto the seat and clutches the pillow at his abdomen. With his bent knees, his open gaze, he doesn’t seem so much older.

  “So,” he says, looking at the ceiling. I’m glad he is willing to start the conversation. “Is there anything about me or about Joya d’Arena you would like to know?”

  I think about this. I already know that his first wife died in childbirth, that his son is six years old, and that Invierne harries his borders more doggedly than our own with its need to acquire a seaport. Joya is mostly desert, but rich in silver and jewels, in cattle along the coastline. There isn’t much I don’t kn
ow. Except . . .

  “What is it?” he prompts.

  “Alejandro . . . what do you want? From me?”

  His smile disappears. Briefly, I worry that I’ve irritated him, the way my questions always irritate Alodia, but then he moves his head and his jaw catches the light; it curves so perfectly into his hairline.

  He sighs. “Our marriage is part of a treaty I made with your father. And there are things you can help me with. But mostly . . . ” He runs his hand through thick black hair. “Mostly, I could use a friend. ” Alejandro looks me in the eye and waits for my response.

  Friend. My tutor, Master Geraldo, is a friend, I suppose. Nurse Ximena and Lady Aneaxi, though they are more like mothers. I realize I could use one too. “Friend” is a comforting word, and a painful one, but it doesn’t sound nearly so frightening as “wife. ”

  I find it exhilarating that I can help him in some way, yet odd too. “It seems to me,” I point out, feeling a little braver, “that the king of the richest country in the world would have no trouble making friends. ”

  He looks up, startled. “Your sister says you have a way of getting to the soul of a matter. ”

  I almost scowl, but I realize that Alodia’s words may not have been criticism.

  “Tell me, Lucero-Elisa. ” His lips curve into that gentle smile that already feels familiar. “Do you find it easy to make friends? As a princess? As the bearer of the only Godstone in a hundred years?”

  I know exactly what he means. Remembering the conde’s son who tried to kiss both my sister and I those years ago, I say, “You don’t trust anyone, do you?”

  He shakes his head. “Very few. ”

  I nod. “I trust my nurse, Ximena, and my lady-in-waiting, Aneaxi. And Juana-Alodia too, in a way. ”

  “What do you mean, in a way?”

  I have to consider this before answering. “She’s my sister. She wants what is best for Orovalle, but . . . ” Something closes my mouth. Maybe it’s the intensity of his eyes that darken from warm cinnamon to near black. I never hesitate to grumble about Juana-Alodia with my nurse. But with Alejandro . . .

  “But?” he prompts.

  His face is so intent on mine, so interested in what I have to say, that I blurt, “She hates me. ”

  King Alejandro says nothing at first. I feel I have disappointed him, and I want to suck the words back into my mouth.

  Then: “Why do you think that?”

  I don’t answer. Several candles have sputtered out, and I’m glad because it is easier to avoid his eyes in the flickering shadows.


  Tell him about the Godstone, I say to myself. Tell him that Alodia is envious. That she is angry because I am already sixteen but show no inclination to fulfill my destiny as God’s chosen. But his open gaze commands my honesty, and I say to him what I have told no one.

  “I killed our mother. ”

  His eyes narrow. “What do you mean?”

  My lips tremble, but I inhale through my nose and distance myself from the words. “Alodia says Mamá miscarried twice. So when she became pregnant with me, she took to bed. She prayed to God for a son, a prince. ” I have to grit my teeth for a moment before I can continue. “It was a difficult pregnancy, and she was weak, and after I was born there was a lot of blood. Alodia says that when they placed me in her arms, Mamá saw that I was a girl. And dark skinned and fat. ” I feel the cold edges and aching hardness of my jaw. “And grief overcame her, and she breathed her last. ”

  “Your sister said this? When? How long ago?” Though his questions are pressing, his voice remains kind, like he really cares.

  But I can’t quite remember.

  He raises one eyebrow. “A year ago?” he prods. “A few years ago? Maybe when you were both very young?”

  I frown, trying to place the moment. It was when Alodia and I still studied together. Our heads had nearly touched as we poured over a musty copy of the Common Man’s Guide to Service. When Master Geraldo asked her to explain the history of the Godstone, I interrupted by reciting the passage word for word. It was after that tutoring session, while Alodia pursued me down the steps to the kitchens, that she told me the story of Mamá’s death.

  I don’t want him to know how long I’ve harbored this memory, so I say nothing.

  He just stares, and I want to slither beneath the sunburst quilt. “You think she still blames you for your mother’s death?”

  “She hasn’t indicated otherwise. ” My voice is too sharp and hard, like a petulant child’s, but I refuse to lower my gaze.

  “I think you’d be surprised,” he says.

  “At what?”

  “At a lot of things, Elisa. ”

  Lots of things would surprise me, it’s true. It’s easy to be surprised when no one tells you anything. And with a start, I realize I still don’t know what he wants from me. He could have found a “friend” in Alodia, or any number of young noblewomen. The king brushed off my questions as if I were a child, just like Papá and Alodia always do, and like a twitterpated fool, I let him.

  Before I can muster the courage to press the matter, he says, “I suppose we should sleep sometime tonight, since we’re traveling tomorrow. ” He stands and begins flicking rose petals from the quilt.

  I tell him, “You can have the bed; I’ll take the window seat. ”

  “The bed is large enough for us both. I’ll sleep atop the quilt,” he says.

  I freeze. Then: “Fine. ” I sweep the remaining petals from the bed and pull the covers back. Sleep will be long in coming, I am sure. Not even the pulsing jewel in my belly can convince me to take off my wedding terno to get comfortable, and I don’t imagine that sensing Alejandro beside me all night will help. I blow out the candles on my nightstand and slide between the sheets, my back toward my husband.
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